Jello Biafra (born Eric Reed Boucher; June 17, 1958) is the former lead singer and songwriter for the San Francisco punk rock band Dead Kennedys. He is currently both a musician and spoken word artist. After he left the Dead Kennedys, he took over the influential independent record label Alternative Tentacles, which he had co-founded in 1979 with Dead Kennedys bandmate East Bay Ray. Although now focused primarily on spoken word, he has continued as a musician in numerous collaborations.
Politically, Biafra is a member of the Green Party of the United States and actively supports various political causes. He ran for the party's Presidential nomination in the 2000 United States Presidential Election, finishing a distant second to Ralph Nader. He is a staunch believer in a free society, and utilizes shock value and advocates direct action and pranksterism in the name of political causes. Biafra is known to use absurdist media tactics, in the leftist tradition of the Yippies, to highlight issues of civil rights and social justice.
Eric Boucher was born in Boulder, Colorado, the son of Virginia (née Parker), a librarian, and Stanley Wayne Boucher, a psychiatric social worker and poet. He also had a sister, Julie J. Boucher, the Associate Director of the Library Research Service at the Colorado State Library (who died in a mountain-climbing accident on October 12, 1996).
As a child, Eric Boucher developed an interest in international politics that was encouraged by his parents. An avid news watcher, one of his earliest memories was of the John F. Kennedy assassination. Biafra says he has been a fan of rock music since first hearing it in 1965, when his parents accidentally tuned in to a rock radio station. Boucher was informed by his high school guidance counselor that he should be spending his high school years preparing to become a dental hygienist.
He began his career in music in January 1977 as a roadie for the punk rock band The Ravers (who later changed their name to The Nails), soon joining his friend John Greenway in a band called The Healers. The Healers became infamous locally for their mainly improvised lyrics and avant garde music. In the autumn of that year, he began attending the University of California, Santa Cruz.
In June 1978, he responded to an advertisement placed in a store by guitarist East Bay Ray, stating "Guitarist wants to form punk band", and together they formed the Dead Kennedys. He began performing with the band under the stage name Occupant, but soon began to use his current stage name, a combination of the brand name Jell-O and the short-lived African state Biafra. The band's lyrics were written by Biafra. The lyrics were mostly political in nature and displayed a sardonic, sometimes absurdist, sense of humor despite their serious subject matter. In the tradition of UK anarcho-punk bands like Crass, the Dead Kennedys were one of the first US punk bands to write politically themed songs. The lyrics Biafra wrote helped popularize the use of humorous lyrics in hardcore. Biafra cites Joey Ramone as the inspiration for his use of humor in his songs (as well as being the musician who made him interested in punk rock), noting in particular songs by The Ramones such as "Beat on the Brat" and "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue".
Biafra initially attempted to compose music on guitar, but his lack of experience on the instrument and his own admission of being "a fumbler with my hands" led Dead Kennedys bassist Klaus Flouride to suggest that Biafra simply sing the parts he envisioned to the band. Biafra sang his riffs and melodies into a tape recorder, which he brought to the band's rehearsal and/or recording sessions. This later became a problem when the other members of the Dead Kennedys sued Biafra over royalties and publishing rights. By all accounts, including his own, Biafra is not a conventionally skilled musician, though he and his collaborators (Joey Shithead of D.O.A. in particular) attest that he is a skilled composer and his work, particularly with the Dead Kennedys, is highly respected by punk-oriented critics and fans.
Holiday in Cambodia
"Holiday in Cambodia" by the Dead Kennedys from Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
Biafra's first popular song was the first single by the Dead Kennedys, "California Über Alles". The song, which spoofed California governor Jerry Brown, was the first of many political songs by the group and Biafra. The song's popularity resulted in its being covered by other musicians, such as The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (who rewrote the lyrics to parody Pete Wilson), John Linnell of They Might Be Giants and Six Feet Under on their Graveyard Classics album of cover versions. Not long after, the Dead Kennedys had a second and bigger hit with "Holiday in Cambodia" from their debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. AllMusic cites this song as "possibly the most successful single of the American hardcore scene" and Biafra counts it as his personal favorite Dead Kennedy's song. Minor hits from the album included "Kill the Poor" (about potential abuse of the then-new neutron bomb) and a satirical cover of Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas".
The Dead Kennedys received some controversy in the spring of 1981 over the single "Too Drunk to Fuck". The song became a hit in Britain, and the BBC feared that it would manage to be a big enough hit to appear among the top 30 songs on the national charts, requiring a mention on Top of the Pops. However, the single peaked at number 31 in the charts.
Later albums also contained memorable songs, but with less popularity than the earlier ones. The EP In God We Trust, Inc. contained the song "Nazi Punks Fuck Off!" as well as "We've Got A Bigger Problem Now", a rewritten version of "California Über Alles" about Ronald Reagan. Punk musician and scholar Vic Bondi considers the latter song to be the song that "defined the lyrical agenda of much of hardcore music, and represented its break with punk". The band's most controversial album, Frankenchrist, brought with it the song "MTV Get Off the Air", which accused MTV of promoting poor quality music and sedating the public. The album also contained a controversial poster by Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger entitled Penis Landscape.
The Dead Kennedys toured widely during their career, starting in the late 1970s. They began playing at San Francisco's Mabuhay Gardens (their home base) and other Bay Area venues, later branching out to shows in southern Californian clubs (most notably the Whisky a Go Go), but eventually they moved to major clubs across the country, including CBGB in New York. Later, they played to larger audiences such as at the 1980 Bay Area Music Awards (where they played the notorious "Pull My Strings" for the only time), and headlined the 1983 Rock Against Reagan festival.
On May 7, 1994, punk rock fans who believed Biafra was a "sell out" attacked him at the 924 Gilman Street club in Berkeley, California. Biafra claims that he was attacked by a man nicknamed Cretin, who crashed into him while moshing. The crash injured Biafra's leg, causing an argument between the two men. During the argument, Cretin pushed Biafra to the floor and five or six friends of Cretin assaulted Biafra while he was down, yelling "Sellout rock star, kick him", and attempting to pull out his hair. Biafra was later hospitalized with serious injuries.[nb 1] The attack derailed Biafra's plans for both a Canadian spoken-word tour and an accompanying album, and the production of Pure Chewing Satisfaction was halted. However, Biafra returned to the Gilman club a few months after the incident to perform a spoken-word performance as an act of reconciliation with the club.
Biafra has been a prominent figure of the Californian punk scene and was one of the third generation members of the San Francisco punk community. Many later hardcore bands have cited the Dead Kennedys as a major influence.[nb 2] Hardcore punk author Steven Blush describes Biafra as hardcore's "biggest star" who was a "powerful presence whose political insurgence and rabid fandom made him the father figure of a burgeoning subculture [and an] inspirational force [who] could also be a real prick... Biafra was a visionary, incendiary [performer]."
After the Dead Kennedys disbanded, Biafra's new songs were recorded with other bands, and he released only spoken word albums as solo projects. These collaborations had less popularity than Biafra's earlier work. However, his song "That's Progress", originally recorded with D.O.A. for the album Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors, received considerable exposure when it appeared on the album Rock Against Bush, Vol. 1.
In April 1986, police officers raided his house in response to complaints by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). In June 1986, L.A. deputy city attorney Michael Guarino, working under City Attorney James Hahn, brought Biafra to trial in Los Angeles for distributing "harmful material to minors" in the Dead Kennedys album Frankenchrist.[nb 3] However, the dispute was about neither the music nor the lyrics from the album, but rather the print of the H. R. Giger poster Landscape XX (Penis Landscape) included with the album. Biafra believes the trial was politically motivated; it was often reported that the PMRC took Biafra to court as a cost-effective way of sending a message out to other musicians with content considered offensive in their music.
Music author Reebee Garofalo argued that Biafra and Alternative Tentacles may have been targeted because the label was a "small, self-managed and self-supported company that could ill afford a protracted legal battle." Facing the possible sentence of a year in jail and a $2,000 fine, Biafra, Dirk Dirksen, and Suzanne Stefanac founded the No More Censorship Defense Fund, a benefit featuring several punk rock bands, to help pay for his legal fees, which neither he nor his record label could afford. The jury deadlocked 5 to 7 in favor of acquittal, prompting a mistrial; despite a motion to re-try the case, the judge ordered all charges dropped. The Dead Kennedys disbanded during the trial, in December 1986, due to the mounting legal costs; in the wake of their disbandment, Biafra made a career of his spoken word performances.
Biafra has a cameo role in the 1988 film Tapeheads. He plays an FBI agent who arrests the two protagonists (played by Tim Robbins and John Cusack). While arresting them his character asks "Remember what we did to Jello Biafra?" lampooning the obscenity prosecution.
On March 25, 2005, Biafra appeared on the U.S. radio program This American Life, "Episode 285: Know Your Enemy", which featured a phone call between Jello Biafra and Michael Guarino, the prosecutor in the Frankenchrist trial.
In October 1998, former members of the Dead Kennedys sued Biafra for nonpayment of royalties. According to Biafra, the suit resulted from his refusal to allow one of the band's most well known singles, "Holiday in Cambodia", to be used in a commercial for Levi's Dockers; Biafra opposes Levi's because of his claim that they use unfair business practices and sweatshop labor. The three former members claimed that their motive had nothing to do with advertising, and that they had filed suit because Biafra had denied them royalties and failed to promote their albums. Biafra maintained that he had never denied them royalties, and that he himself had not even received royalties for rereleases of their albums or "posthumous" live albums which had been licensed to other labels by the Decay Music partnership. Decay Music denied this charge and have posted what they say are his cashed royalty checks. Biafra also complained about the songwriting credits in new reissues and archival live albums of songs that Biafra claims he composed himself to the entire band. In May 2000, a jury found Biafra liable for fraud and malice and ordered him to pay $200,000, including $20,000 in punitive damages, to the band members. After an appeal by Biafra's lawyers, in June 2003, the California Court of Appeal unanimously upheld all the conditions of the 2000 verdict against Biafra and Alternative Tentacles.
In the early 1980s, Biafra collaborated with musicians Christian Lunch and Adrian Borland (of The Sound) for the electropunk musical project The Witch Trials, releasing one self-titled EP in its lifetime.
In 1988, Biafra, with Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker of the band Ministry, and Jeff Ward, formed Lard. The band became yet another side project for Ministry, with Biafra providing vocals and lyrics. According to a March 2009 interview with Jourgensen, he and Biafra are working on a new Lard album, which is being recorded in Jourgensen's El Paso studio. While working on the film Terminal City Ricochet in 1989, Biafra did a song for the film's soundtrack with D.O.A.. As a result, Biafra worked with D.O.A. on the album Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors. Biafra also worked with Nomeansno on the soundtrack, which led to their collaboration on the album The Sky Is Falling and I Want My Mommy the following year. Biafra also provided lyrics for the song "Biotech is Godzilla" for Sepultura's 1993 album Chaos A.D..
In 1999, Biafra and other members of the anti-globalization movement protested the WTO Meeting of 1999 in Seattle. Along with other prominent West Coast musicians, he formed the short-lived band the No WTO Combo to help promote the movement's cause. The band was originally scheduled to play during the protest, but the performance was canceled due to riots. The band performed a short set the following night at the Showbox in downtown Seattle (outside the designated area), along with the hiphop group Spearhead. No WTO Combo later released a CD of recordings from the concert, entitled Live from the Battle in Seattle.
As of late 2005, Biafra was performing with the band The Melvins under the name "Jello Biafra and the Melvins", though fans sometimes refer to them as "The Jelvins." Together they have released two albums, and have been working on material for a third collaborative release, much of which was premiered live at two concerts at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco during an event called Biafra Five-O, commemorating Biafra's 50th birthday, the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Dead Kennedys, and the beginning of legalized same-sex marriage in California. Biafra is also working with a new band known as Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine, which includes Ralph Spight of Victims Family on guitar and Billy Gould of Faith No More on bass. This group debuted during Biafra Five-O.
In 2011, Biafra appeared in a singular concert event with an all-star cast of Southern musicians including members from Cowboy Mouth, Dash Rip Rock, Mojo Nixon and Down entitled, "Jello Biafra and the New Orleans Raunch & Soul All Stars" who performed an array of classic Soul covers to a packed house at the 12-Bar in New Orleans, Louisiana. He would later reunite with many of the same musicians during the Carnival season 2014 to revisit many of these classics at Siberia, New Orleans. A live album from the 2011 performance, Walk on Jindal's Splinters, and a companion single, Fannie May/Just a Little Bit, were released in 2015.
In June 1979, Biafra co-founded the record label Alternative Tentacles, with which the Dead Kennedys released their first single, "California Über Alles".[nb 4] The label was created to allow the band to release albums without having to deal with pressure from major labels to change their music, although the major labels were not willing to sign the band due to their songs being deemed too controversial. After dealing with Cherry Red in the UK and IRS Records in the US for their first album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, the band released all later albums, and later pressings of Fresh Fruit on Alternative Tentacles. The exception being live albums released after the band's break-up, which the other band members compiled from recordings in the band partnership's vaults without Biafra's input or endorsement.. Biafra has been the owner of the company since its founding, though he does not receive a salary for his position; Biafra has referred to his position in the company as "absentee thoughtlord".
Biafra is an ardent collector of unusual vinyl records of all kinds, from 1950s and 1960s ethno-pop recordings by the likes of Les Baxter and Esquivel to vanity pressings that have circulated regionally, to German crooner Heino (for whom he would later participate in the documentary Heino: Made In Germany); he cites his always growing collection as one of his biggest musical influences. In 1993 he gave an interview to RE/Search Publications for their second Incredibly Strange Music book focusing primarily on these records, and later participated in a two-part episode of Fuse TV's program Crate Diggers on the same subject. His interest in such recordings, often categorized as outsider music, led to his discovery of the prolific (and schizophrenic) singer/songwriter/artist Wesley Willis, whom he signed to Alternative Tentacles in 1994, preceding Willis' major label deal with American Recordings. His collection grew so large that on October 1, 2005, Biafra donated a portion of his collection to an annual yard sale co-promoted by Alternative Tentacles and held at their warehouse in Emeryville, California.
In 2006, along with Alternative Tentacles employee and The Frisk lead singer Jesse Luscious, Biafra began co-hosting The Alternative Tentacles Batcast, a downloadable podcast hosted by alternativetentacles.com. The show primarily focuses on interviews with artists and bands that are currently signed to the Alternative Tentacles label, although there are also occasional episodes where Biafra devoted the show to answering fan questions.
Biafra became a spoken word artist in January 1986 with a performance at University of California, Los Angeles. In his performance he combined humor with his political beliefs, much in the same way that he did with the lyrics to his songs. Despite his continued spoken word performances, he did not begin recording spoken word albums until after the disbanding of the Dead Kennedys.
His ninth spoken word album, In the Grip of Official Treason, was released in October 2006.
Biafra was an anarchist in the 1980s, but has shifted away from his former anti-government views. In a 2012 interview, Biafra said "I'm very pro-tax as long as it goes for the right things. I don't mind paying more money as long as it's going to provide shelter for people sleeping in the street or getting the schools fixed back up, getting the infrastructure up to the standards of other countries, including a high speed rail system. I'm totally down with that."
In the autumn of 1979, Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco, using the Jell-O ad campaign catchphrase, "There's always room for Jello", as his campaign slogan. Having entered the race before creating a campaign platform, Biafra later wrote his platform on a napkin while attending a Pere Ubu concert where Dead Kennedys drummer Ted told Biafra, "Biafra, you have such a big mouth that you should run for Mayor." As he campaigned, Biafra wore campaign T-shirts from his opponent Quentin Kopp's previous campaign and at one point vacuumed leaves off the front lawn of another opponent, current U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, to mock her publicity stunt of sweeping streets in downtown San Francisco for a few hours. He also made a whistlestop campaign tour along the BART line. Supporters committed equally odd actions; two well known signs held by supporters said "If he doesn't win I'll kill myself" and "What if he does win?"
In San Francisco any individual could legally run for mayor if a petition was signed by 1500 people or if $1500 was paid. Biafra paid $900 and got signatures over time and eventually became a legal candidate, meaning he received statements put in voters' pamphlets and equal news coverage.
His platform included unconventional points such as forcing businessmen to wear clown suits within city limits, erecting statues of Dan White, who assassinated Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978, around the city and allowing the parks department to sell eggs and tomatoes with which people could pelt the statues, hiring workers who'd lost their jobs due to a tax initiative to panhandle in wealthy neighborhoods (including Dianne Feinstein's), and a citywide ban on cars. Biafra has expressed irritation that these parts of his platform attained such notoriety, preferring instead to be remembered for serious proposals such as legalizing squatting in vacant, tax-delinquent buildings and requiring police officers to run for election by the people of the neighborhoods they patrol.
In 2000, the New York State Green Party drafted Biafra as a candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination, and a few supporters were elected to the party's nominating convention in Denver, Colorado. Biafra chose death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal as his running mate. The party overwhelmingly chose Ralph Nader as the presidential candidate with 295 of the 319 delegate votes. Biafra received 10 votes.
Biafra, along with a camera crew (dubbed by Biafra as "The Camcorder Truth Jihad"), later reported for the Independent Media Center at the Republican and Democratic conventions.
After losing the 2000 nomination, Jello became highly active in Ralph Nader's presidential campaign, as well as in 2004 and 2008. During the 2008 campaign Jello played at rallies and answered questions for journalists in support of Ralph Nader. When gay rights activists accused Nader of costing Al Gore the 2000 election, Biafra reminded them that Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center wanted warning stickers on albums with homosexual content.
After Barack Obama won the general election, Jello wrote an open letter making suggestions on how to run his term as president. Biafra criticized Obama during his term, stating that "Obama even won the award for best advertising campaign of 2008." Biafra dubbed Obama "Barackstar O'Bummer". Biafra refused to support Obama in 2012. Biafra has stated that he feels that Obama continued many of George W. Bush's policies, summarizing Obama's policies as containing "worse and worse laws against human rights and more and more illegal unconstitutional spying."
On September 18, 2015, it was announced that Jello would be supporting Bernie Sanders in his campaign for the 2016 presidential election. He has strongly criticised the political position of Donald Trump, saying "how can people be so fucking stupid" on hearing the election result, and later adding "The last person we want with their finger on the nuclear button is somebody connected to this extreme Christianist doomsday cult."
In the summer of 2011 Jello Biafra and his band were scheduled to play at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv. They came under heavy pressure by the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and finally decided to cancel the gig – after a debate which according to Biafra "deeply tore at the fabric of our band [. . .] This whole controversy has been one of the most intense situations of my life – and I thrive on intense situations". Biafra then decided to travel to Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories, at his own expense, and talk with Israeli and Palestinian activists as well as with fans disappointed at his cancellation. In the article stating his conclusions he wrote: "I will not perform in Israel unless it is a pro-human rights, anti-occupation event, that does not violate the spirit of the boycott. Each musician, artist, etc. must decide this for themselves. I am staying away for now, but am also really creeped out by the attitudes of some of the hardliners and hope some day to find a way to contribute something positive here. I will not march or sign on with anyone who runs around calling people Zionazis and is more interested in making threats than making friends."
Biafra married Theresa Soder, a.k.a. Ninotchka, lead singer of San Francisco-area punk band The Situations on October 31, 1981.[nb 5] The wedding was conducted by Flipper vocalist/bassist Bruce Loose, who became a Universal Life Church minister just to conduct the ceremony, which took place in a graveyard. The wedding reception, which members of Flipper, Black Flag, and D.O.A. attended, was held at director Joe Rees' Target Video studios. The marriage ended in 1986.
For a more complete list, see the Jello Biafra discography.
|1980||The Witch Trials||Jello Biafra with East Bay Ray, Adrian Borland, Morgan Fisher, Christian Lunch|
|1989||Last Scream of the Missing Neighbors||Jello Biafra with D.O.A.|
|1991||The Sky is Falling and I Want My Mommy||Jello Biafra with Nomeansno|
|Tumor Circus||Tumor Circus|
|1994||Prairie Home Invasion||Jello Biafra & Mojo Nixon|
|2000||Live from the Battle in Seattle||The No WTO Combo|
|2004||Never Breathe What You Can't See||Jello Biafra with The Melvins|
|2015||Walk on Jindal's Splinters||Jello Biafra and the New Orleans Raunch & Soul Allstars|
With 295 votes, Nader received 92% of the convention total, followed by ten votes each for Jello Biafra and Stephen Gaskin