TOFU AND WHISKEY Jello Biafra could be your theatrical political science professor. The still-charismatic frontperson and song-composer has long spewed knowledge deep from the underbelly of political theater, from his influential early 1980s Bay Area punk band Dead Kennedys, and projects like the band Lard, through his nine dense spoken word albums, and up to his newest musical endeavor, louder than ever in his 50s, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine.
That band, which also includes Victims Family guitarist Ralph Spight, plays the Uptown this weekend with D.I., the Divvys, and Gir-illa Biscuits — an excellent local Gorilla Biscuits tribute act (Fri/26, 9pm, $15. Uptown, 1928 Telegraph, Oakl. www.uptownnightclub.com.)
Given Biafra’s affinity for weaving news-worthy (though oft-overlooked) scandals into contextual lyrics, I have often wondered from where he gathered his news. “Why, the Bay Guardian, of course! Where would a local voter be without your fine rag?” Biafra tells me from his San Francisco home, while finishing up making a juice of apples and greens. Is he mocking me? “I just hope the new ownership and staff goes pedal to the metal to keep up the standard of muckraking and ethics. There’s so much corruption to dig up in this area.” No, his tone is just often sarcastic.
“Locally, we have you folks, among others. And then you know, the Nation, Progressive, Mother Jones, interesting things people send me in the mail, digitally or otherwise, putting two and two together — trying to write songs about stuff that no one else has. Or at least, not in the same way.”
He continues: “It’s just filling in the gaps with what’s interesting. I’m proud that no two of my music albums sound alike. Not even the Lard albums sound alike. From Dead Kennedys onward my mission as the main lyricist and composer of the damn tunes, I kind of stick to my punk core — whether I intend to or not, it’s just who and what I am —but widen the base of the pyramid to what you can do with that energy.”
Guantanamo School of Medicine’s White People and the Damage Done (Alternative Tentacles, 2013) is the group’s most recent album. A semi-concept album, Biafra says it’s about “grand theft austerity, and how unnecessary it is.”
He explains, “People have asked me…what I think is the biggest problem in the world today and they expect me to say something like ‘climate change’… or inequality, or war, or whatever. I say you know, there’s a worse one, it’s corruption. Because that is what’s blocking anything constructive from being done about all those other problems.”
The title track of White People and the Damage Done, a pounding, guitar-heavy, Dead Kennedys-esque song, explicitly points a finger toward attitudes of the higher-ups in the US and EU regarding countries run by people of color, and the need to step in and take control.
Anthemic single “Shock-U-Py!” has a chantable chorus, and moment-in-time impact. In it, Biafra howls “Wake up and smell the noise/We can’t take it any more/Corporate coup must go/We will Occupy/We will Shock-U-py.” The Occupy movement may have left the mainstream radar for now, but Biafra’s song commemorated the moment, much like he did in early career chants calling out yuppies and atrocities in places like Cambodia, in the early ’80s. His lyrics are typically both rooted in the present, and packed with historical references.
A fast-paced earlier released track (still with that Biafra-esque carnivalian breakdown), “Dot Com Holocaust,” recorded at the time of the The Audacity of Hype EP (AT, 2009), touched on problems more local to Biafra and this rag, of gentrification and a new class of tasteless techies coming in to the Bay. Dripping with satire, the song seemed to have touched a nerve when first released, and garnered scores of angry, faceless Internet comments.
“I had this funny feeling we weren’t done with the Dot Com Holocaust. Sure enough, now it’s more aggressive and obnoxious than ever. Dot Com Monte Carlo — that’s kind of what Willie Brown’s puppets are trying to turn this city into, yet again,” he says. “It has been really sad for me to see so many cool people and artists and service-workers and people of color just bulldozed out of this town to make room for more mini little yuppies who treat San Francisco as a suburb of Silly-clone Valley.” Yes, Biafra talks like he sings.
When we discuss newer bands, he notes many acts are fleeing SF for the East Bay, something bands across genre styles and influences have brought up with me during casual conversations and interviews.
“Now you don’t see people like me when I was 19, just moving out to San Francisco [from Boulder, Colo.], chasing a dream. There was a time when the vitality of the underground was maintained by entire bands moving here as a unit. Everybody from MDC and the Dicks to DRI and later, Zen Guerilla.”
But as an underground label owner (Alternative Tentacles) he knows times are tough for both bands and music fans, with a poisonous combination of the crashed economy and rampant file-sharing affecting all involved. “I wonder how many people save up money from their shitty jobs for years in order to make some really cool piece of music only to find that nobody actually gives anything back,” he says. “Maybe the solution for people who want to get their friends into really cool music, don’t just send them the whole album, pick some favorites and send them a little teaser package, a little file to inspire them to check out them more.”
For the complete Jello Biafra Q&A, see SFBG.com/Noise.
Counterpoint, there are still some bands and artist types heading way out west to San Francisco in these turbulent, high-priced times: Yassou Benedict. This band is not in the slightest akin to Biafra’s people, though it is a group of hopeful young dreamers.
The shoegazing dreampop four-piece formed at a small high school in Upstate New York. While most bands from the area would migrate south to New York City, Yassou Benedict made the “fairly random” decision to head to SF. “We all got into a Subaru Forrester with a Great Dane in the back and all our stuff in a trailer and drove across country,” says guitarist James Jackson, who traveled with singer-bassist Lilie Bytheway-Hoy, guitarist-keyboardist A.J. Krumholz, and drummer Patrick Aguirre.
Now in the Bay, they work as servers at Outerlands, a cook at Beauty Bagels and Wise Sons, a bartender at the Boxing Room, and a pizza-dealer at Lanesplitter Pizza and Pub.
But more importantly, the group of 20-somethings recently released its debut EP, In Fits in Dreams, a moody, complex, emotionally fraught record that leaves the listener itching for a full-length, and touches on themes of “anxiety, and wanting to be weightless, the desire to run through wide open spaces.” The album release party was actually a few weeks back, but you can catch the band this week at Milk Bar with Beautiful Machines, Hotel Eden, and NVO (Fri/26, 8:30pm, $10. Milk Bar, 1840 Haight, SF. www.milksf.com).
Led by Bytheway-Hoy’s dramatic, high-ranging vocals, and unconventional song structures (like shifting time signatures) In Fits in Dreams also features guest vocals by Hole’s Melissa Auf Der Maur on track “Cloisters.”
The subtle beats and rolling vocals of “Cloisters” feels like a doomed march toward the unknown, while closer “Last Cicada” ventures more into Radiohead In Rainbows territory (the band has been known to cover “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”). There’s also the church-like pop hymn of “Back Roads that Dead End,” which begins as an anxious vocal solo with faraway chimes, the beats and guitars slowing filtering in.
It’s surely been noted elsewhere on the blogosphere, but there’s something strangely seductive within Yassou Benedict, which I mention to Jackson. “I am not sure why that is. If we are making people feel, whether it is the desire to make love, or children or anything else, than we are succeeding. It is kind of strange though. Our music is fairly depressing. Now I’m just imaging people holding each other and crying while they listen. Lilie’s voice probably has a lot to do with that.” Bytheway-Hoy’s voice is indeed both haunting and captivating.
There’s also a cinematic quality to In Fits in Dreams, likely driven by that high emotional tug. Given the soundtrack capabilities, I asked Jackson what type of film would best be suited to Yassou Benedict and he picked a future Wes Anderson film, also noting that a dream opening slot would be an imaginary Radiohead show in an intimate venue (no arenas!).
While the record was recorded and produced back in Hudson, NY (with Steve Durand at Dioramaland Studios), the band is touring on it from its new homebase in the Bay.