If ever a protest deserved a soundtrack, it was the tumultuous anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle. On Dec. 1, after shutting down the city center and disrupting the trade summit, 400 weary protesters took a break from the fiery all-day demonstrations to brave the dusk-to-dawn curfew. The tired troops crammed into a popular downtown club called the Showbox to witness an unlikely USO band: singer/spoken-word performer Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys) playing the Bob Hope role, backed by guitarist Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), bassist Krist Novoselic (Nirvana) and drummer Gina Mainwal (Sweet 75).
Calling themselves the No WTO Combo, the one-off group ripped through a blistering set of Dead Kennedys-style hardcore. "Jello just exploded," says Novoselic, remembering the show. "Kim was bombin' those riffs out, just shredding. Gina was rockin'."
San Francisco indie label Alternative Tentacles released a live recording of the set this week.
Neither Novoselic nor Thayil had ever performed onstage with Biafra, one of the most enduring, notorious and politically active figures to come out of the late 1970s and early 1980s California punk scene. The idea of the No WTO Combo came about when Biafra and Novoselic, president and founder of the Joint Artists and Music Promotions Political Action Committee, were touring together as speakers on the activist-oriented Spitfire Tour. The two talked backstage and agreed that the forthcoming WTO protests needed "a music show in the middle of everything."
The No WTO Combo used a few hours over Thanksgiving weekend to practice politically charged songs like "New Feudalism," "Electronic Plantation" and "Full Metal Jackoff." Then, as the week of protests unfolded, Novoselic spent each day walking around the downtown area, keeping a daily diary of events that ended up in the form of liner notes for the album.
"The thing that made the biggest impression on me was when I walked up to this one police line and they were starting to [fire] tear gas. Our eyes were burning and our throats were burning," says Novoselic. "People were getting mad. Some people were yelling 'fuck you' at the cops. But there was something in particular that other people were [yelling at the] police that made an impact on me. They [were shouting], 'This is what democracy looks like!'"
"It inspired me to the power of direct action and nonviolent protest," Novoselic says. "To see so many people mobilized and utilizing the mechanism of democracy was inspiring. I got a real charge out of that."
Thayil, for his part, supported the protesters, but explained that he had certain reservations about Western campaigns to improve environmental and labor standards in developing countries. "I suppose it's only natural that we turn around and say, 'Let's [bring opportunities] for health and a cleaner environment to our brothers and sisters elsewhere.' It's a good thing to do But it should also be kept in mind that we shouldn't use this kind of legislation and sentiment to bully other countries and to maintain the U.S. position in its imperial dominance over the world."
Thayil, who earned a degree in philosophy from the University of Washington around the time his group was beginning to make major waves in the Seattle grunge scene, hadn't played a live show since Soundgarden disbanded in 1997. The amount of time he had spent away from live performance, as well as the heavy police and military presence around the Showbox, gave Thayil a generous case of pre-concert nerves. But once on stage, he says, everything fell into place."
Novoselic echoes the sentiment. "I've had the feeling a few times in my life where there's something going on that's so exhilarating and magical. I know the whole world was watching Seattle there for a few days," he adds. "I remember coming off that stage high as a kite. Natural adrenaline. I was high, man."