Jello Biafra is ever the activist: that much is evident on reaching his voicemail, a two-minute-long dissertation on things the American government is doing wrong, from 9/11 cover-ups to the terrorist watch list to sending aid to Israel. The former Dead Kennedys frontman has mainly focused on spoken word since that band's breakup in the mid-'80s, as well as musical collaborations, running for office and managing his Alternative Tentacles label. After seeing the Stooges reunite for Iggy Pop's 60th birthday, Biafra thought about his own upcoming 50th and decided it was time to form a new band. Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine initially included Billy Gould of Faith No More, Ralph Spight, Jon Weiss and Kimo Ball; Gould appears on the recordings, but has since returned to Faith No More and been replaced by Weiss's brother Andrew (Butthole Surfers, Ween).
Released last fall, The Audacity of Hype looks at the political climate of a post-September 11 America, the title a jab at Barack Obama's book The Audacity of Hope and the cover art designed by Shepard Fairey, the same artist who made the iconic "HOPE" poster. The album looks at the country's fears of terrorism and Iraq in the last years, and touches on everything from political corruption, oil wars, religious fundamentalists and immigrant labour. Biafra continually compares the US to horror movies and video games.
Biafra is on his way to the studio in San Francisco, mixing a new EP of songs that didn't make it onto Audacity. Sharp and to the point, Biafra rattles off a list of songs on the new EP and their subjects. "'Invasion of the Mind Snatchers' is comparing when someone you're close to becomes a born-again religious fanatic to Invasion of the Body Snatchers," he says, adding that it refers to born-again radicals of any religious sect, though Christianity is the most pervasive in his personal experience.
Other themes include "biotech gone drastically wrong" and "what's happened to San Francisco with the yuppie dot-com holocaust." One song, wonderfully titled "Miracle Penis Highway," looks at one of Biafra's favourite pieces of political trivia: After senator Bob Dole lost the 1996 presidential candidacy, he "returns to TV as a spokesperson for Viagra," Biafra says. "You can't make this stuff up." Biafra describes that song as Krautrock or space rock, reflecting the interests his band members bring to the table; there's also hints of metal.
Biafra interrupts the call because a member of Tool, who the band plays with the following night, is calling. "I gotta take this, they want to do a Dead Kennedys song with me, but I don't know which one," he says. Coming back on the line, Biafra just has another moment to talk about what's currently driving his songwriting. Despite the decades of spoken word albums and punk collaborations, "I wanted to get back to rock after all these years," he says.
Though he admits his expectations were low, "I'm waiting to see how the dust settles with Obama," Biafra says, noting his disappointment with the president's handling of the economic collapse, failure to get troops out of Iraq and to close Guantanamo Bay. "And if there ain't a Nuremberg Trial for the Bush administration, to hold the people who were making the decisions responsible..."