Guantanamo School Of Medicine

Friday, 09 April 2010

Some sounds are just instantly recognizable. Particularly in pop music, bands rely on those sorts of recognizable, signature sounds to mark or establish themselves; for instance, as soon as a listener hears the monster drums and solid working-class guitars that characterize the licks of “Rock n' Roll,” they know it's Led Zeppelin – know it's Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones playing – and so know what they're getting into. This same phenomenon holds up with Jimi Hendrix' guitar, the lush but unusual compositions and arrangements of Frank Zappa and a multitude of of others. In punk rock, often the signature stamp is held by the singer and, without question, the most obvious vocal signature in punk rock is held by former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra; the singer's nasal and regularly unhinged-sounding rants helped to define and lay the groundwork for hardcore in Southern California, and the DKs presented many of both the images and sounds that a larger portion of the public (read: not just punks, but those well outside the scene) would come to associate with that time (it began around 1981), place (SoCal) and movement (the proliferation both of punk rock and DIY principles). Needless to say, Biafra made a mark on music that remains unforgotten, but there are two sides to that sword: on one side, Jello Biafra's voice and persona will never be forgotten and is perfectly visible from every angle in the history of punk but, on the other, it's also inextricably linked to a time and place – and that limits the amount of artistic growth he can orchestrate beyond the sounds he helped establish. Biafra is aware of this as are the members of Guantanamo School Of Medicine, his current band; but they are working to find ways around the perceived stigma of history and, yes, they are a full-time band. “I think one of the things that people seem to have the most difficulty grasping about Guantanamo School Of Medicine is that – it's a band,” laughs guitarist Ralph Spight. “When we go to new places, we get asked if this is just something that Jello threw together on a whim or something, but it is a band; it is everyone's first project right now, and we're really excited about it.

“The truth is that  Guantanamo School Of Medicine almost came together ten years ago when [Ween bassist] Andrew Weiss and Jon Weiss [former Sharkbait drummer] and I did a little jamming with Biafra,” continues Spight, recalling the beginnings of GitSOM. “He showed us the two songs “Electronic Plantation” and “Youth Feudalism” and we recorded some practice demos of those. We got together when Andrew happened to be in town, but I was really busy with Hellworms – that band was just starting up – and we got sidetracked. Ten years later, Biafra went and saw Iggy Pop's sixtieth birthday show – The Stooges played at the Warfield in San Francisco – and he said to himself, 'If Iggy can still be doing this at sixty, then I can certainly do it at fifty' so he did want to start a band and throw a celebration for his fiftieth birthday, and that spawned the need for another band. Biafra called me and we started working on songs together; he had them all mapped out in his head and on little scraps of paper all over his house, so I started translating those ideas into guitar parts and we started auditioning people. We got the band together and started recording, and all of us are pretty proud of the results; The Audacity Of Hype has a lot of elements of The Stooges or MC5 – that sort of proto-punk thing – and mid-tempo psychedelic hypnotic color that the songs as well as a trippy, psychedelic side to it too; that's what we're trying to get across rather than just balls-to-the-wall speed.”

In that statement alone, Spight reveals that there is more to Guantanamo School Of Medicine than most people could have imagined. First, there's the psychedelic aspect to the songs; in addition to the punk angle that everyone would expect from anything bearing Biafra's name, The Audacity Of Hype (the band's debut) bears elements of psychedelic rock and droning accoutrements that are totally unprecedented in Jello Biafra's prior songbook. Songs like “Clean As A Thistle,” “Youth Feudalism,” “I Won't Give Up” and “Electronic Plantation” all find Biafra and the band banking into a decidedly more expanded songwriting design that holds true to the punk roots from which the singer sprang, but also include hints of more textural and adventurous guitar figures, eery vocal effects (check out the spiraling and manic delivery on “New Feudalism”) and more distinctly 'rock' than 'punk' structures and signatures. It's still punk in many ways, but it's also certainly a far cry from anything fans of the Dead Kennedys might recall of Biafra and, according to Spight much of those changes and out-growths were imposed by the singer himself. “It's funny and always sort of amazing to me, but Jello doesn't play anything and yet he's really a compositional genius,” marvels Spight as he recalls the songwriting process that yielded The Audacity Of Hype. “He's one of the more interesting composers of anyone I know musically, because he doesn't play an instrument. How we've been working is a matter of him literally mouthing it out to me and then I play it [chuckling]. It's all in his head and he has notes, or he'll work with a Dictaphone or something. When we started working on it, how the creative process broke down was, we had talked about doing some collaboration initially, but Biafra has a pile of songs; literally a pile. He had thought out pretty much every aspect of them and the entire record basically came from him singing me the parts and then me translating that into the instrumental parts.”

With the first steps now taken and the first document issued, now the more complicated moves begin. For a performer with a name as revered as that of Jello Biafra, there is a certain portion of the obvious listener-base that will recoil at the thought of anything changing that threaten to alter their perception of him. It has always been in Biafra's nature to shake things up though so, while none of the finer points have been worked out according to Spight, the guitarist is perfectly willing to play this game out anywhere it leads.  “While we do have a few things to get done on the road before we're ready to walk back into the studio, we're beginning to have another look at that creative process,” says Spight, hinting that listeners may not have to wait too long for their next dose of vitriol from Guantanamo School Of Medicine. “There are several songs in the can from the Audacity Of Hype sessions that are in various states of completion so we're trying to figure out if that's going to form the basis of the next record or whether it might be an EP, and then we're trying to schedule time so we can start making record number two.

“When we think about that, we don't really consider the possibility that we might have any expectations to live up to,” continues the guitarist. “I think the bottom line with this band is that, musically, there should be no limits. It's a heavy rock band, but I think one of the ways we want to challenge people other than topically, is musically. When you think about it, there are a lot of perceptions to battle, but that's fine and we have free reign to play with or against all of them. Because you have Jello's voice in there, to me, it lends the music the ability and authority to be punk once you have that. The conversations that we've been having about it have been less whether we want to be a punk band or a psyche band and more about simply blowing the lid off of what the expectations are. Again, that voice is very iconic in punk rock so you can kind of work with that and whatever you're doing gets a more authoritative voice; so if you've got Biafra speaking over some psychedelic rock, it's going to be some very warped psychedelia.

“As far as the band really bringing in songs, so far that hasn't really happened and it remains to be seen if that ever does happen – but I'm fine with it. I love writing with Jello and I'm really excited to see what the second and maybe the third album will hold in terms of collaborations.”



Jello Biafra/No W.T.O combo – "New Feudalism" – recorded prior to the release of The Audacity Of Hype

Guantanamo School Of Medicine – "The Terror Of Tinytown" – The Audacity Of Hype

Further Reading:
Guantanamo School Of Medicine Audacity Of Hype review on Ground Control.


The Audacity Of Hype
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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