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Interview with Jello Biafra, Part One

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

Yup. Jello Biafra. I know, I know. It's pretty crazy, right? Right.

We had a chat back in November of last year, and then life really got in the way and majorly delayed this thing. Seriously, though, life was a real shitbutt for a minute, but things are seemingly back on track, which is why this is finally happening... now.

Oh, and it's probably a little bit weirder than you'd expect. Or maybe not. I don't know. Whatever.

So, here goes.

Also, thanks again, Jello.


Hüsker Foöd Zine: Hello, yes, Jello?

Jello Biafra: That’s me.

HFZ: Yessir. How're you?

JB: Okay, sorry about this. Uhm. [talking to cat] What are you doing? This cat has learned how to open doors. Now she's gonna open the sliding closet door, then she's gonna climb up the middle of it and get on something above the door, and then figure out what to do and hopefully not knock a million things over jumping off. Not every cat has been such a climber, but this one really is. I just hope she never masters doorknobs -- she can open everything else now.

HFZ: Oh, wow.

JB: Yeah.

HFZ: That's equal parts impressive and scary, I think.

JB: And puts records in danger. Nothing like pulling your body across the tops of 45s in a tight space and putting your claw in the groove of a record to get yourself there and breaking one every once in a while.

HFZ: Yeah. That would be bad.

JB: Alright. Are we recording?

HFZ: Yes. Yes, I was going to ask if that was okay for transcribing...

JB: Well, obviously, I wouldn't do it otherwise.


HFZ: Yeah...

JB: So, uh, are you sure it's recording?

HFZ: Yes, it's definitely recording.

JB: I mean, we can always play it back to find out if you want, because I'm only going to do this once, but uh, if you really think we're good, then on we go.

HFZ: Yes, we are good. First off, thank you for doing this. I have like 17 readers, so it's not like you're really reaching a wide audience here.

JB: Oh my god...


HFZ: No. I'm jo... It's a few more than that, thankfully.

JB: I would hope so. I can only do so many interviews.

HFZ: [laughing]

JB: So I do try not to do everything, like high school term papers and all that.

HFZ: [laughing]

JB: No!

HFZ: [laughing]

JB: Be it another book about anarchy, or a doc about a band, I'm the last person you interview.

HFZ: [laughing]

JB: Because some of those people never get 'em done anyway and that weeds them out.

HFZ: Yeah, no, uhm, I'm here to actually ask about -- how did you ever find out about Heino and "Komm in meinen Wigwam?"

JB: [laughing]

HFZ: The part I love about that song, specifically, is his pronunciation of "Sioux City Sue," which is "SEE-UHks" City Sue.

JB: Oh, I hadn't caught that one, you can only listen to Heino so much in any given millennium.


HFZ: Thanks to you, I went down a rabbit hole on YouTube and somehow found that somewhere, and then a buddy of mine actually had a copy of his greatest hits. And I was like, "Wow! This is now one of my prized possessions!"

JB: [laughs]

HFZ: Yeah, it sounds like you read about him in my Incredibly Strange Music book interview too, or not?

HFZ: I had not actually, I didn't know. I'm sorry.

JB: Yeah, yeah, well somehow you knew that I knew about Heino. Well, basically, uhm, I'd wondered who on earth he was ever since I saw one of those albums with this uber Aryan blonde dude with those shades on on the cover.


JB: You know, mixed in in the import bin with all the European prog and Kraut Rock albums, and I wondered what on earth could this be? -- it certainly isn't what I'm looking for, but then years later, I can't remember... my long-gone ex-wife or somehow I brought his Super Hits album into the house around, I don't know, '82, maybe... '83, and I was like, "Oh, this guy, let's see what on earth he actually is." And, immediately it was some of the schmaltziest...

HFZ: Yes! [laughing]

JB: ... music I had ever heard, but I noticed that the production was full-blown.

HFZ: Yes!

JB: The dance around like you get on an ABBA record and everything but the kitchen sink was used.

HFZ: Exactly.


JB: And naturally, there's choirs, saw noises, hula guitar, about his song about Hawaii.

HFZ: Yes.

JB: And maybe the one about what he called the "Nah-vuh-YO" that I heard later, I don't know, but I realized my God, this is just about the most quintessentially hideous artist I've ever heard, and I was fascinated by his world. [chuckle]

HFZ: [chuckle] Yeah.

JB: So his albums got regular play in the house, especially after we discovered that this icky girlfriend who'd moved in with another roommate and this icky druggie girlfriend who moved in with another roommate fled the house, fled the house whenever he came on and didn't come back for the rest of the day.

HFZ: Oh wow.

JB: The only other thing we could play to drive her out was Venom.

HFZ: That's amazing.

JB: And so I accumulated more and more Heino albums, got versed in Germany about that more, and more of the phenomenon itself.

HFZ: Yeah.

JB: And I also realized that in a way, even back then with the smaller but really intense hardcore audiences, that if you played certain cards, punk could be its own version of classic rock or even middle of the road for the people in the room, such as always play Ramones, Pistols, Clash, or maybe Generation X, in the venue before the next band comes on over and over and over again. So I thought, wouldn't it be more in the spirit of punk and provoking people if we forced them to listen to Heino for at least 30 minutes before every single one of our shows. And I think that went on for as long as four or five years until we broke up. Before and after they got subjected to Heino, not everyone was happy about that. Randy Ellis, the legendary promoter of a place called City Gardens in...

HFZ: New Jersey, yeah!

JB: New Jersey, right in the middle of State and Trenton, more Trans-Ams

in the parking lot than I'd ever seen anywhere in my life. And we put Heino on in there and he got so mad, he yanked the cassette out of the tape player without even pressing stop, and threw it on the ground, threw it on the floor in disgust and then popped in the Cockney Rejects.

HFZ: Nice.

JB: Then there was playing Heino in Germany itself. I was aware by then that not everybody in Germany was very fond of him.

HFZ: Yeah. [chuckle]

JB: And there was all the people who'd grown up with their parents listening to him, incessantly as well as his Right Wing political leaning. I was clued in much more popular in places like Bavaria, which has also been described to me by my own sister as kind of like the German Texas in terms of rabid conservatism and all. But in a Northern place like Hamburg, he was not such a popular man. The Haus fraus were less likely to show up in droves and throw their underwear at him, Tom Jones style. Which apparently was a thing there for a while. And so first, that first night of the '82 tour in Hamburg after Slime played, on comes Heino, and for one song, all the Mohit punks and others began dancing in a line and German folk dancing, laughing away. And then when a second song came on, they scrounged up and threw every last projectile they could get their hands on, up into the balcony where the mixing board and our sound man was.

HFZ: Oh, Jesus. Wow. [laughing]

JB: In Berlin, he went off after about 30 seconds, and I walked back to the sound booth man because of the crowd, "Chris, what did you do? You took Heino off." And he just smiled, rolled his eyes and pointed to his feet and his ankles, which were no longer visible because they were that deep in beer cans in less than a minute.


HFZ: That's amazing.

JB: A very powerful irritant when employed in the right place.


JB: I didn't realize till later he had these TV, he was such a huge star, like he is to this day.

HFZ: Yeah.

JB: He had these TV shows and stuff, and his profile had kind of faded. But then in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, the Communists fell, and he quickly jumped on it and got the first German reunification song onto the charts. And suddenly he had a huge career again. He always was an uber nationalist. To the point where the Stasi in East German frowned on him like fuck, so relatives and friends in West Germany would send Heino music boxes piece-by-piece. So when the authorities realized what it was, which was then assembled over there, you could hear your favorite Prussian supremacy song in the 19th century and others.


HFZ: Oh, wow.

JB: He was a cult figure, a rebel figure, and then once the country, and once the Wall was down, and suddenly he had all these new fans back up at number one and sure enough, another TV show. That's the one I saw that had to be seen to be believed.


JB: Heino and his supposed-baroness wife, Hannelore, walk out, and she'd be in a her tyrolean, floor-length tyrolean dress, and he would be in whatever Heino duds he had on that night. And the set was a whole German beer garden made up mostly of senior citizens, but also the occasional annoyed-looking teenager who'd been forced to go by their parents or whatever.


HFZ: Yeah.


JB: And his guests, who were had to be seen to be believed, as well, including a big German language country band who called themselves Truck Stop.

HFZ: Of course, yes.

JB: We'd known about them earlier because we... I can't... We seemed to be following them or they were following us on our last German tour in '82 and there were ads for Truck Stop everywhere we went. But I think the most surreal one was Heino and Hannelore with paper headbands and feathers on, dancing around a cardboard cactus, and us thinking their song is about the Navajo. So then we talk of "Komme in meinen Wigwam." I mean, the visions that would erupt, can you imagine riding across the range in the old west, you're tired, you're cold, you're lonely, oh my God, a tepee in the distance, a little bit of smoke coming out, maybe there'll be somebody friendly there, and then you go to the tepee and discover it's Heino, and, oh, I can't.

HFZ: [laughs]

JB: There was all the Latin lover songs they had, perhaps for another audience that had fled after World War II from what was left, now well established in Brazil and Argentina.

HFZ: Yeah, exactly.

JB: "Aye, yai yai yai! Carnival in Rio! Aye, yai, yai, yai! Carnival in Rio!"

HFZ: [laughing] That's amazing.

JB: Or there's also... [sings in fake German] Right, or whatever it was, I'm making the German up.

HFZ: Well, thank you, Heino, for that.

JB: Yeah, and here's what gets even weirder, is then his profile kind of faded again, but ever the human... Ever the calculating cash register, he released what he called a heavy metal album.

HFZ: Yeah, yeah.

JB: Which, and the cover was a skull with a Heino wig on it, on the back, there he is, with his cap and it's the Canary grin with a Fender Stratocaster around his neck, and what you get on the record is covers of a gigantic German pop-punk band called The Die Toten Hosen that are publicly disavowed, and opposed it, and even Rammstein all done in the Heino style.

HFZ: Yeah.

JB: And not the other way around, currently that album was number one on the pop charts for three months or more.

HFZ: Jesus Christ.

JB: So then what happens, but suddenly, at one of the giant soccer stadium Rammstein shows, and out comes Heino as a special guest. And I even thought when I first heard Rammstein who were from the former East Germany, I might add, that that regimented marching kind of vibe to the music, and then there they are singing in a low register grunt German and I remarked to my friends from Sweden who are playing it for me in their our car as we drove to a festival, "My God... The heavy metal Heino." And then lo and behold there he really was starting to do guest spots on tour with Rammstein, and then the next thing you know, out comes another Heino heavy metal album, which I've never been able to get my hands on, only this time, there he is in a spiked black leather trench coat on the covers, with an even bigger shit-eating grin face, and this time it's Rammstein sounding riffs with the lyrics from his old hits dropped on top.

HFZ: He's genius.

JB: Then he goes on another tour, I don't know whether it was those songs or his giant potpourri of hits that and he probably sang one verse of a piece in a series of medleys like James Brown used to do, but, apparently, again, soccer stadiums, biggest venue they had in Germany completely sold out six months in advance.

HFZ: Wow.

JB: And that was only like maybe three or four years ago.

HFZ: That's insane. I don't know how I move on from Heino, that's...

JB: Yeah.

(to be continued…)

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