A conversation with Bill Manspeaker, mainman with cartoonish shock-rockers Green Jelly (eternally pronounced “Jello,” despite a lawsuit by Kraft Foods), is quite the experience. The man talks and talks, starting to answer a question before digressing into one partially relevant subject after another.
That’s great, by the way. Journalists love a chatty interviewee. But by the end, with masses of sound file to study, it’s tough to figure out if the guy is a business genius, or a stubborn bastard who has had more than his fair share of luck. As is usually the case, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.
Green Jelly formed in 1981 in Buffalo, New York, when Manspeaker, desperate to join a band, realized that he couldn’t play any instruments and, in his words, couldn’t sing. He decided to form a punk band after hearing that Ramones and Sex Pistols songs were easy to play, but couldn’t do that either. So Manspeaker had a brainwave: Form a band that the members would self-proclaim was the worst band in the world.
He called his band Green Jelly, due to the fact that they played their first (impromptu) gig in the school canteen on the day that green Jell-O was being served, the motivation being that they could get the crowd of classmates to throw the sticky dessert at them.
“I figured out what day the school cafeteria was serving green Jell-O and I rented a PA,” Manspeaker says. “I dragged the PA in on a Wednesday and plugged it in real quick. We plugged in the instruments, I jumped on the table, pulled down my pants, and everybody started throwing green Jell-O at me. We’re playing the song, the principal comes in and shuts it down, I get suspended, and right then I knew — this is my life. I can have a career of causing a disturbance. You can survive being a spectacle.”
Manspeaker ran with that idea and took his band to California for an appearance on a revived The Gong Show, the precursor to TV shows such as America’s Got Talent. Green Jelly didn’t get far in the competition, but they caused a ruckus and entertained the TV audience, and Manspeaker knew he was onto something.
He decided to relocate to Hollywood in 1987, formed a new version of Green Jelly and became quite a hit on the underground circuit thanks to some ludicrous, hilarious big rock anthems and a series of characters brought to life onstage in the form of papier mâché costumes. By day he worked at Tower Records, which is how he would make the connection that changed his life.
“I’m playing shows, and one of my friends from Tower Records gets a job at a record company,” Manspeaker says. “He calls me up and says that he’s eating lunch with the president of the label — I should walk by like I haven’t seen him and he’ll introduce me to him. I go to the corner of Sunset and Vine, and there was a little strip court. It was next to the BMG building, across from Amoeba now. And the staff was there having lunch. My friend calls me over, and I tell them the story I just told you. He gives me a record contract right there on the spot at the lunch table in front of his entire staff. I walk away with a check for $60,000 without the record company hearing or seeing my band. Hollywood, man.”
At that time, Manspeaker was closely acquainted with Maynard James Keenan and Danny Carey, who, after hearing of Manspeaker’s $60,000 score, vowed to form a band and get $300,000. They did exactly that, and that band was, of course, Tool. It’s quite bizarre and hilarious that the careers of Tool, so seemingly serious and musically precise, and of Green Jelly run in parallel, but those are the facts.
Green Jelly's debut album, Triple Live Möther Gööse at Budokan (not actually a live album), was independently released in 1989, but it was the ’93 follow-up, Cereal Killer Soundtrack, and the accompanying “Three Little Pigs” single that caused the band to explode internationally. In England, in Japan, all over the States, people were standing in line to get Green Jelly’s autographs. Live, characters like the Cowgod and Shitman were both amusing and confusing rock critics. And Manspeaker was lapping it all up.
And then it all kind of fell away. 1994’s album 333 flopped, and it was the last Green Jelly album until 2009’s Music to Insult Your Intelligence By. Manspeaker tried running an EDM club and had some financial success, but there came a point when he wanted to be the rabble-rouser again, rather than the guy in the office. He decided to re-form Green Jelly, but this time he would be the sole constant member. Manspeaker decided to form a different version of Green Jelly in every city and town where there was a demand for the band to perform. As a result, there are currently 781 active members of Green Jelly, a Guinness record.
“I’ve sought out and found that 13-year-old kid that loved the band and is now grown up, and I have put him in the band,” Manspeaker says. “I baggage check the costumes and they come out with me. I don’t even know the names of the places or the addresses of where I’m playing. I just land at the airport, a band of locals come over and pick me up, they drive me to all three shows, and then they return me back to the airport and I’m home by noon on Sunday. I’ve been doing this for the last five years. The great part of this is, there’s no band for the band to get disgruntled. There’s no time to find out that Jimmy cheats on his wife or that Al is an alcoholic. I’m only with them for three days. Whatever drama happened in St. Louis last weekend, Minnesota don’t care.”
Further, there’s a new Green Jelly album coming out in 2018 called Garbage Band Kids, which has been entirely written by these various bands. Each song penned by a different version of Green Jelly. It’s so bizarre, it’s magnificent. Manspeaker just sits back and, as the songs roll in, he cherry-picks and then drops in the vocals. And it’s all done online.
“My record company is Facebook now,” Manspeaker says. “If I didn’t have Facebook, I’d be working at McDonald's with the bass player from Warrant.”
All of which means that, when Green Jelly play the Whisky on Dec. 23, we have no idea what version of the band will show up — we have no idea what it will all sound like — and neither does Manspeaker.
“This show will be a mega Jelly show,” he says. “It’s an open invitation to every Green Jelly member ever to come and play. There could be two or 20 or 200. I don’t even know. I won’t know how many guitar players and drummers until they all show up. Imagine this: A gigantic train-wreck coming down the middle of your street, crashing and destroying everything in its path, and every single person that lives in that town is out on the sidewalk with their jaws open, watching the train just topple the entire city down, and I am on top of the engine crunching everything. And at the end, everyone applauds because it was one hell of a show.”
Green Jelly play with Unstoppable Force and The Flood at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 23, at the Whisky a Go Go; 8901 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 652-4202; $15; all ages.