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Interview: Jello Biafra

The former Dead Kennedys frontman comes to Siberia March 2



Jello Biafra has never been to Mardi Gras. Not that he wasn't invited — Dash Rip Rock extended an invitation to Biafra and the entire staff at his Alternative Tentacles record label several years ago, but Biafra had to decline. Biafra — founder of The Dead Kennedys, frontman for his current Guantanamo School of Medicine, Alternative Tentacles honcho, spoken word artist, political antagonist and self-described "severe music junkie" — will enter his rookie Carnival on Sunday, March 2 with the second-ever performance of his Raunch & Soul All-Stars, which dusts off classic New Orleans hits and gives them a punk rock spit shine. Biafra also will march with Quintron's 9th Ward Marching Band with the Krewe of Proteus, during which he may wield an actual instrument.

"That's a risk they have to decide if they want to take," he tells Gambit. "I'm pretty useless with instruments, but you never know. I'm sure Mr. Quintron has a vision."

The All-Stars' unlikely membership includes Dash Rip Rock's Bill Davis on guitar, Cowboy Mouth's Fred LeBlanc on drums, Mojo Nixon's Pete "Wetdawg" Gordon on piano, Brian "Bruiser" Broussard on bass, and Guantanamo guitarist Kimo Ball. It even has a horn section with Glenn Barbarot, Eric Belleto, Paul Grass, Derek Houston, Chris Klein and Mike Joseph. (One of the band's "founding" members, Down's Pepper Keenan, is absent while Down tours Australia.)

The All-Stars' first show was in May 2011, the result of a dare imagined by Davis and LeBlanc to get Biafra to perform a set of New Orleans R&B after they saw him singing along to covers the bands performed at a Denver show. Biafra accepted — not just because he loves the New Orleans music in his eclectic and growing record collection, but it's "an honor to even be asked, and then, 'Oh, this is an interesting challenge, why not?'" he says.

"I am a severe vinyl junkie, a music junkie, really. I've been that way since my parents let me have a record player in eighth grade, and then there was no stopping me," Biafra says. "I started out with heavy rock — this was before punk — and this would widen into other things. I'd accidentally bring home something that sounded a little different, then I'd start to like it. Then when punk happened I realized I'd have to start buying 7-inch 45s after all, so I started buying older ones, too, initially looking for '60s punk — which they call 'garage' now so they can widen the umbrella — and accidentally started buying surf instrumentals. I liked those a lot. Those were a secret weapon for stuff I was writing for Dead Kennedys. ... The more I looked for those the more I'd blunder into rockabilly records, and the more I looked for those the more I'd blunder into country and R&B records. I'm a big believer in magic accidents."

The band's set list covers the J&M Studios and Allen Toussaint canon, including Lee Dorsey's "Ride Your Pony" ("If the pony throws us off I guess we won't play it," Biafra says) and, at Biafra's request, a few other garage rock classics.

"We agreed early on we didn't want to do the same old songs that even people in New Orleans were tired of, like 'Blueberry Hill,' which we could do, but instead the Fats Domino selections are much more obscure," he says. "I was combing through my records proposing other songs — 'Nope, Amos Milburn isn't from New Orleans. We can't do him.' The last time it was strictly New Orleans songs or songs about New Orleans, like the Gary U.S. Bonds hit 'New Orleans,' and 'Bangkok' by Alex Chilton, who we just lost, who is considered a New Orleans person. So I had to do something for him."

Pending his band's approval, Biafra also will resurrect "Treat Her Right" by Texas TNT Roy Head, a track Biafra wanted to cover with Dead Kennedys, and The Cramps' "New Kind of Kick."

Last year, Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine released White People and the Damage Done and in 2012 released the Occupy-inspired "Shock-U-Py" single. Biafra hopes a recently restored recording of the May 2011 All-Stars show will surface this year. ("A great time was had by all, but the recording was a total f—ing train wreck," he says.) Audio engineer Ben Mumphrey from Bogalusa's A Studio in the Country took a stab at repairing the admittedly awful recordings, and "now there's an almost-LP worth of material we can actually put out," Biafra says.

"It's still a train wreck, but that wild, trashy, sweaty Southern roadhouse atmosphere is part of what this is about."

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