An interview with
of Jello Biafra &
the Guantanamo School of Medicine
by James G. Carlson
As a follow-up to Jello Biafra & the Guantanamo School of Medicine’s 2009 full-length debut, Audacity of Hype, the band has released a new EP titled Enhanced Methods of Questioning on the Alternative Tentacles label. Comprised of five new mind-blowing originals and an interesting eighteen-minute rendition of The Deviants’ “Metamorphosis Exploration,” Enhanced Methods of Questioning does not disappoint in any way.

It is hard to believe that it has actually been twenty-five years since San Francisco punk legends The Dead Kennedys officially called it quits. Having since contributed and participated in several unrelated musical endeavors, vocalist Jello Biafra hasn’t by any means been inactive in the scene over the years. Lard, the industrial punk and metal-esque band he formed together with Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen, was Jello’s first project after The Dead Kennedys disbanded in 1986. Since then Jello has done some collaborative work with singer/songwriter Mojo Nixon, with whom he released a roots rock and country effort titled Prairie Home Invasion, as well as albums with the grungy post-punk band The Melvins, Never Breathe What You Can’t See and Seig Howdy, and with others. He has also been well known for his socio-political commentary and spoken word satire, of which he has released a slew of recordings, and with which he has toured extensively.

Now with the Guantanamo School of Medicine, Jello Biafra is doing what is arguably his best work since The Dead Kennedys. What’s more, the Guantanamo School of Medicine is Jello’s first full-time band since The Dead Kennedys. Inspired by Iggy Pop’s 60th birthday gig at the Warfield, Jello began entertaining plans of putting together a new lineup of musicians to accompany him on stage at his approaching 50th birthday celebration. Besides, he had an overflow of songs he had written but never used, and it was high time to put them to good use. So the band was formed, initially under the name Jello Biafra & the Axis of Merry Evildoers, and played two sold-out shows at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. From there it progressed into a full-time project. It undoubtedly helps matters that Jello has some very talented and experienced bandmates backing him up: Ralph Spight on guitar (Victims Family, Freak Accident, Hellworms), Jon Weiss on drums (Sharkbait, Horsey), Billy Gould on bass (Faith No More), and Kimo Ball on guitar (Freak Accident, Carneyball Johnson, Mol Triffid, Griddle). Altogether the Guantanamo School of Medicine members are an impressive group of musicians, not to mention respected figures in underground music.

Enhanced Methods of Questioning is first and foremost a punk record, though with tight pummeling drums, ferocious guitar work, skillful low-end accompaniment, a few metallic hardcore riffs thrown in here and there, and of course Biafra’s ultra-distinct vocal delivery and socially and politically conscious lyrical content. With the five original songs, Jello Biafra & the Guantanamo School of Medicine show that they are far more concerned with quality than quantity. I mean, what band other than this one can successfully write, record and perform such solid compositions utilizing musical elements ranging from spaced-out psychedelic rock, industrial bits, and hardcore to experimental noir jazz undertones, progressive trans-rock’n’roll soundscapes, and old school punk? Not many, if any at all. As such, all five original songs on Enhanced Methods of Questioning are standouts: “Dot Com Monte Carlo,” “The Cells that Will Not Die,” “Victory Stinks,” “Invasion of the Mind Snatchers,” and “Miracle Penis Highway.”

Recently I had the opportunity and pleasure of interviewing Guantanamo School of Medicine guitarist Ralph Spight. What follows is the content from that interview in its entirety.
Punk Globe: Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine’s Enhanced Methods of Questioning is the second release from the band since 2009, and a very impressive one at that. Did you five know that it would turn into this involved a project when you got together to write, record and perform the songs for Audacity of Hype?
Ralph: I knew it was going to be a band ultimately, just based on all of the conversations I'd had with Biafra leading up to his 50th birthday party shows. He had really wanted to get a band together for ages. Andrew, Jon and I had demo'ed "New Feudalism" and "Electronic Plantation" with Jello before he took them to the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, and I had played with everyone in this band at one time or another before this band was together. Really, it has just followed a pretty slow arc relative to how long it had been in the works in one form or another. I still find it strange that people don't seem to think of it as a band.
Punk Globe: All of you guys have extensive and impressive musical histories, having played in bands like Victims Family, Freak Accident, Hellworms, Faith No More, Carneyball Johnson, Mol Triffid, and Griddle. But what is like to work with the legendary Jello Biafra?
Ralph: Biafra knows exactly what he wants to hear when he is translating a song to us. Not being an instrumentalist, he sings out parts to us and then we play them back. But I'm always surprised at how orchestrated these parts are. He has a tremendous capacity for memorization of those compositions. I think people would be surprised at how deep his musical knowledge is, and I think I attribute that to the fact that more than anything Biafra is a music fan. He is always out at shows and buying records. So I think those are the things that really impress me about working with him are his musical process and his love of music. With that, then you get the skewed worldview, which is also pretty entertaining.
Punk Globe: Obviously the songs on Enhanced Methods of Questioning have some pretty socially and politically conscious lyrical content. What are the main points of conveyance on this release other than flicking off the uppermost tip of society's hierarchal pyramid, the horrors of medical experimentation and the technology that surrounds it, how certain triumphs are in reality complete failures, etc?
Ralph: War is bad. Biotechnology gone wrong is bad. Gentrification is bad. Organized religion is bad.

The usual.

I think you pretty much got the drift with your question.

But really, when I look at the title of the EP I think it kind of says it all. We're trying to enhance the methods of questioning (authority, the media landscape, or whatever needs questioning) and make the discussion deeper than just yuppies bad, christians bad.... That's my take on the lyrical content here.
Punk Globe: Musically, the Guantanamo School of Medicine is first and foremost a punk band, clearly, though there are other elements in support of the core sound that make it rather complex and involved. What do each of the members bring to the table in order to fashion such a sound?
Ralph: I think the people that have been in this band all have such an extensive background in various types of bands that it really lends itself to Biafra's vision. My work in Victims Family combined with Bill Gould's Faith No More background or Andrew Weiss' work with Rollins, Ween, Butthole Surfers et al, to Kimo's outside improv and jazzier sensibilities combined with Jon Weiss' prog and industrial type work all go toward being able to work within different stylistic parameters. Biafra sees his music like a movie or a movie soundtrack, so just sticking to loud and fast all the time doesn't make it possible to bring out the stylistic nuances created in a "scene." Being able to drop into a psychedelic bridge or a noisier passage just makes the soundtrack more effective.
Punk Globe: Five out of six songs on Enhanced Methods of Questioning are originals, while the closer is an eighteen-minute remake of The Deviants' "Metamorphosis Exploration." Why did you choose that particular cover song for the recording? And what are your thoughts on your version in comparison to that of The Deviants?
Ralph: We were asked to cover a Deviants song for a tribute compilation but couldn't well use the eighteen-minute version, so here it is in all its glory. I'm not so familiar with the Deviants version but I think we just used it as a point of departure for more thoughts and exploration on the theme of deviance. And this band loves a big old improv freak out any chance we can get, so we were glad to oblige.
Punk Globe: Being that Enhanced Methods of Questioning is technically an EP release, is there a full-length in the works as well? And if so, when can we expect it to be available?
Ralph: Songs are being penned as I write and are being slowly demo’ed so that we can bridge the long distances involved with being a bi-coastal band. Then rehearsal will happen. I couldn't say with any certainty when it would be available, but most likely next year.
Punk Globe: If I'm not mistaken, the band will be off on a month-long tour of Europe beginning in June. Are there any U.S. dates on the agenda?
Ralph: None confirmed as of now but stay tuned. There are offers on the table which we are sorting out now.
Punk Globe: Is there anything else of note in the coming weeks or months for Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine?
Ralph: We will tour Europe twice this summer and have some other concerts in the works.