Interview with Al Jourgensen of Ministry - January 31st, 2012
Interview by Mike Bax
It might come as a surprise to a lot of Ministry fans to find out that frontman Al Jourgensen has very little affinity for the genre of music he has dabbled in over the past two and half decades. He doesn’t play EBM / industrial music in his spare time. If pressed, he probably would admit to enjoying the classics: The Beatles, Zeppelin, old blues and jazz music, which is ironic considering that, over the years, Jourgensen has delivered some of the fastest and heaviest industrial strength music known to man.
In 2006, Jourgensen put Ministry to bed. He publicly said The Last Sucker was going to be the last commercial Ministry album, and the subsequent live tour around this album (called the C-U-LaTour) would be the band’s farewell. His intentions were to do some cover versions and record a country album with his co-conspirator and good friend Mike Scaccia (Rigor Mortis). The covers’ album, released under the name of Cover Up, came together shortly after The Last Sucker made its debut, and not long afterwards Jougensen wound up in the hospital, being shocked back to life by a defibrillator after some long-time ulcers he’d suffered from began aggressively bleeding.
Jougensen has battled heroin addiction for years. While he has now been free of the narcotic for the past decade, he’s never really shied away from his past indiscretions and talks openly about them in the press and in public at various southern US college and university speaking engagements. We are lucky to still count Jourgensen among the living, as this recent hospitalization and defibrillation was his third near death experience – the first two being drug related.
After leaving the hospital after his third brush with death, Jourgensen and Mike Scaccia put together their promised country album under the moniker of Buck Satan and the 666 Shooters. It was during the recording of this album that some practice session riffs came together and Scaccia urged Jourgensen to pursue them. They definitely were NOT country riffs by any stretch of the imagination. By the time the Buck Satan album was completed, there were five or six songs from those recording sessions that forged their way towards the final Ministry album, Relapse, to be released on March 27th of this year. Relapse was recorded in Dallas, Texas and California along with Mike Scaccia (Rigor Mortis), Tony Campos (Static X), Tommy Victor (Prong) and Casey Orr (Rigor Mortis/Gwar). The album is as tough as nails, yielding some of the most inspired Ministry music of the band’s catalogue. Jourgensen intends to take the album on the road for one FINAL round of Ministry dates with the majority of this year centered on European festival dates with a short run of US warm-up dates in May/June.
Al was good enough to take a half hour of his time last week, to chat with me from his home in El Paso, Texas. His vocal inflection reminded me a bit of Dennis Hopper, with a crackly laugh that is both menacing and very contagious at the same time. Fans thinking he’s dragging the Ministry machine out of the closet for some sort of a last-nail-in-coffin tour are in for a genuine surprise. Relapse is a relentless and wonderful album of new material that is going to knock listener’s socks off when it finally gets a commercial release. Seeing this new stuff live is going to be equally amazing.
Mike: I find it interesting a Ministry album has come out of a jam session centered on making a country album, Al.
Al: I know, right? It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? But that’s kind of the way it happened. Mike Scaccia (Ministry’s lead guitarist) just kept pestering me and pestering me like, “Dude, these riffs are really cool. We’ve got to do this; you’ve got to write some lyrics”. So I was like, “Okay!” and my health has gotten better since a couple years ago and I said, “Alright, I’ll try it”. It came out really well; the album is really good I think.
Mike: I love Relapse. I’ve played it through a few times, and I like the sound of all of it. I genuinely feel like that you’re going out on a high point.
Al: Yeah, I’m not doing another after this. Ministry is a lot different than all the other side projects I do. Ministry is very labor intensive (laughs), there’s a lot of thinking going on, whereas the other projects, we just get drunk and jam and figure it out later. It’s like the Buck Satan record is completely mayhem. That’s what’s great about that; it kind of replaces RevCo for me in the sense of having a party atmosphere for music. Whereas Ministry is, like I said, labor intensive and a lot of thinking going and a lot of production, it’s just too much, man. I can’t sustain that for that long, but the other projects are just a gas.
Mike: Good, that’s cool. You’ve mentioned in other interviews that this is definitely the last nail in the coffin for Ministry as a band, so I feel pretty fortunate that you’re coming back and you made another album. I’ve been a fan for a while.
Al: Well, thank you, and like I said I was roped into this; I didn’t want to do it, but you can blame Mike Scaccia for this album (laughs). He was all over my case, just cracking the whip, getting me to sing vocals and stuff. He really believed in the album and then when I hear the whole thing put together I’m like, “Wow, this is pretty good”. But no more man, I’m serious. I know you’ve heard this from me before but that was for health reasons, this one I’m healthy, I can’t do these kinds of intense albums anymore. I’d rather just jam and get drunk with a bunch of hillbillies.
Mike: (Laughing) I don’t think I’m going to blame Mike (Scaccia), I think I’m going to thank him though.
Al: There you go, that’s one way to look at it.
Mike: Lots of bands that have been in the music industry for thirty years have very little to say musically. They’ve been there and they’ve done that, but there are some bands in their triple decades that are pulling together some of their best material. Killing Joke, Anthrax and certainly Ministry's Relapse is now on that list as well.
Al: Yeah well, I think that to be honest with you, I think you get better with age; you just get less desire to record with age. It’s like you just want this long national nightmare to be over, especially if your health is bad. In that sense, I think that you fine-tune, you auto-tune, you know what you’re doing. For instance, Relapse is the fastest album I’ve ever done of any side project or Ministry or anything. We did it in three months, man. It was really great because you just know what to do. If you’ve been around the studio like I have, let’s see, I think I have a total of thirty-nine albums out including live and greatest hits. You get used to the studio and you get really proficient at what you’re doing. Of course, some of these bands release really great stuff later in their careers because they’re used to the process. Some people may take it as, “Well, you may be used to the process so it might be the same as the old stuff”, but this album certainly isn’t. I’ve spent three albums bashing Bush (former American president George W. Bush) and Relapse is like half personal experience and half social commentary. It’s more of a different beast, but still a lot of labor intensive work required to do Ministry albums as opposed to the other ones.
Mike: For fans that haven’t experienced Ministry live before, you’ve got half a dozen US dates and then you’re going to Europe. I understand there may be talk of touring Ministry next year as well.
Al: Yeah, next summer we’ll do an American festival tour and we’ll also do South America and maybe Australia; we’ll see. We’re planning that for next year. The year after that if my health is good we’ll do a Buck Satan tour, which should be crazy!
Mike: Do you think you’ll have your blues album together at that point?
Al: Well, by then we’ll have the blues album out, that’s the year after. We might do a blues tour, just me and Mike Scaccia. We’re doing really traditional stuff - Robert Johnson, Albert King; big time influences. It took me twenty-eight years to get the Buck Satan album out so I honestly don’t know how long it’s going to take to get my blues album out. I’ll do it eventually, trust me. It’ll be good.
Mike: I think a lot of your fans might be surprised that you’re going into country, you’re going to blues, with the level of intensity you’ve been going at Ministry for over twenty-five years.
Al: You just get bored with this industrial metal stuff. You want to branch out, and after dying three times now on the defibrillator table I want to wrap things up with a bow. I’ve got to wrap the package up with a bow so then I have a legacy, and until then I’m not going to rest.
Mike: Relapse opens nicely with 'Ghouldiggers', a rather venomous seven minutes on the music industry profiting off of dead musicians. It’s a rather interesting way to start off an album.
Al: I thought about that. A seven-and-a-half-minute-long song to start a record out, it reminds me of The Who with Tommy; kind of like a concept album. In that way it works and I’m glad I did it. Mike Scaccia’s lead is just blistering on that song. It’s all good; it’s just a different way of working. I’ve been so used to four minute long Bush-bashing songs on the last three albums I had to figure out a way to make this different. It’s definitely different, but it’s still Ministry.
Mike: Very much so. The overall feel of the song is that record labels have not served Ministry well over the years, is that correct?
Al: Earlier on, yes. Thirteenth Planet did serve us well over the last three albums and remix albums, but that’s my label. I really can’t complain about me. (Laughs) It kind of gets really weird if I start dissing me with me on the label. We’re all good; we just have distributors and we run the label as we see fit and that’s the way it goes.
Mike: If you were thirty years younger and just entering a career in music right now, how do you think you’d approach it?
Al: Well, I would get out and get a real job and tell everyone to go screw themselves! (Laughs) This job sucks, man; this job is not good. For all the bands that want to get in and want advice, I would just say get a real job because this industry is going down. Bands are just going down, everyone panders to everyone. It’s just a mess and I see no hope for it. Thirteenth Planet (Jourgensen’s record label) retains integrity but nobody else does. It’s just like this pabulum that comes out. It’s horrible. We just try to retain our integrity and do what we do.
Mike: You know you’re not really one to pull any punches, are you?
Al: No, I’ve been known to have a mouth on me and I’ve been known to have a fist in my face a bunch of times. (Laughs) I’ve got my ass beat so many times I can’t even tell you. I can’t even remember the last time I won a fight, you know? People get angry at what we do; our independence. I go out to a bar and generally I’ll get my ass beat. I don’t care, it’s all worth it.
Mike: 'Free Fall' is a very autobiographical song about drug addiction. Is it hard for you to look at your life subjectively and write about your past vices?
Al: I’ve gotten used to it. This MTV guy came down to El Paso and spent a week down here; we’re doing a book of memories, memoirs and stuff like that. The “Fix” movie that’s coming out, I had to look at my life in a real hard perspective. I’m over it now. I just look at it like, “What a long, strange trip it’s been”.
Mike: Fans that have followed you over the past thirty years have heard numerous musical styles from you and your collaborators. Did you ever feel any trepidation about making such diverse albums like Twitch, Land of Rape and Honey and then Pslam 69? Each of these albums asking a little bit more faith from your existing audience.
Al: No trepidation; it’s just like we just go in and jam and let the record company or whoever deal with it. We just go in and we record. We basically get wasted and we record. What comes out, comes out. If it doesn’t come out it doesn’t bother me. I’m not doing it for fans or record companies or anything. I’m doing it with my friends in the recording studio. Fortunately, I own the recording studio so it’s not hard to get in and record this stuff. I’ve got some friends - Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top), Rick Nielsen (of Cheap Trick) and Mike Scaccia. We just go in, get drunk and record. It’s no big deal. It’s a great gig if you can get it.
Mike: I’ve enjoyed your cover versions over the years, the latest being 'United Forces' (originally recorded in 1985 by Stormtroopers of Death) on Relapse. It’s extremely well done.
Al: Thank you. We take pride in blowing away the originals (Laughs). We do, we really do. The originals that we do we really like, otherwise we wouldn’t do them, and then we have to better them. If we don’t better them, we haven’t done our job. Everyone’s on the same page on that, we have to do a better cover of the original.
Mike: 'United Forces' is likely the heaviest source material that you’ve ever covered and you’ve managed to somehow make that song heavier and more menacing.
Al: That’s the heaviest song ever, so to make it heavier… that was insane. But that’s a task we decided to take on and I’ve known Billy Milano (lead vocalist for Stormtroopers of Death) for many, many years, and the song’s got a great message. A lot of his stuff is really Right Wing, you know? But this song has a timeless message and I just figured, “Let’s tackle this one”.
Mike: You’ve done so many great cover versions over the years. Do you have a personal favourite?
Al: I think it would probably be 'United Forces' because that was the toughest one to do and the best one to start with. The second one would probably be 'Iron Man' from Sabbath. That was a tough one, but I think we persevered and got through it. Listen, I don’t listen to this stuff, I don’t sit around and think about what we’ve done. I just tackle the project on hand that day and try and make it better, then after that I don’t really listen to the stuff.
Mike: There are decade’s worth of political stand points in Ministry’s material. You’ve never really had a dry point for inspiration in that regard.
Al: Well yeah, even this record I don’t have Bush to bash around anymore. But there’s a lot of political commentary as well as social stuff thrown on this record, so I think it’s a good blend. It’s kind of different because it was so singular focused on Bush for the last three records so it’s nice to break out of that and do so some social commentary and some life stories.
Mike: 'Double Tap' feels like a nice bookend to 'Khyber Pass' (from 2006’s Rio Grande Blood).
Al: It’s like a super fast 'Khyber Pass' is what it is. The whole raid that went down freaked me out (referencing the take-down of Bin Laden and how the news was broadcast to the world). So I started writing about it while I was watching MSNBC; watching the events go down and just started writing about it. I have books of stuff that’s written that’ll never be on a record. I just write stuff, my observations on things that are going on in the world.
Mike: The last song on Relapse, 'Bloodlust', has a chorus that features some harmonizing, which is something that’s been kind of foreign to Ministry material for quite some time now.
Al: Yeah, I haven’t done that in a while and I figured it’s about time. I’ve got this bodyguard that weighs three hundred and fifty pounds who can sing in falsetto. He basically did the background vocals on that and it sounded really good. I haven’t done the harmonizing stuff in a while. The song is so bluesy and basically predicates the blues album we talked about earlier. ‘Bloodlust’ is a blues song so just get over it everyone, it’s not industrial.
Mike: So much of Ministry’s material is rooted in negativity and anger, which must take its toll over the years. I would imagine this is a large part of why you’re going to pack that band in and move on to the fun stuff.
Al: Well, I’ve got other stuff to do, man. Like I told you, Ministry is so labour intensive it’s almost not worth it. This one was only because of Mike Scaccia, after that I’m done; seriously done. It’s not a joke, I’m not going to make a comeback later. I don’t need the money, I’m done. I want to explore other things; I want to do a jazz soundtrack for the William Burroughs movie that’s coming out (The author of “Naked Lunch”, who Jourgensen has collaborated with lyrically). I’m doing a country record and then I’m doing a blues record and then I’m calling it a day. I’m done with industrial. Seriously, my iPod collection at home has NO industrial music on it; it’s strictly jazz, blues and country. That’s kind of what I’m branching into.
Mike: When you did the interviews for that upcoming autobiographical book, did you open up your photography archives from over the years? Is it going to be a book of prose and photos?
Al: Yeah, there’ll be some crappy pictures in there (Laughs). They’re interviewing my parents, my ex-wife, my engineer, Mike Scaccia; getting all the dirt on me. They spent a week with me here. It was kind of creepy because it kind of finalizes your life, you know? Either way I did it, it’s done. He’s working on it now. I think he’s interviewing my parents today, but I guess some people want to buy it.
Mike: When you toured the The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste back in ’89, I can clearly remember the advertising for that as something that was a showcase of talent. The ads for that tour said: “Members of UK Subs, Killing Joke, Skinny Puppy” and so on. That’s something you’ve carried on with over the years; touring with cool musicians.
Al: I’ve always worked with different people because it keeps you fresh. You don’t get absorbed in your own world, and whether you get outside perspectives from ZZ Top, Killing Joke, Cheap Trick, or whatever. or Fear Factory, it just keeps you fresh. It keeps you wanting to do music when you work with talented people. I tend to want to do that a lot over my career. That’s the only reason I’ve been around for thirty years or whatever, but either way it’s because of the freshness from the input from different people that are really skilled. You can’t be insulated in your own world. For me it doesn’t work, I like working with other people.
Mike: I’ve always felt that whenever I’ve seen a Ministry show over the years, it’s always a showcase because there are always these interesting musicians onstage with you. That’s just been awesome to behold over the last few decades.
Al: I’m kind of plugged into this musician community and they all know where to find me and I know where to find them. At the end of the day I don’t want to do it myself because I’m afraid Ministry would be pigeon-holed. These people are really skilled, they’re really great and they bring a lot to the project, whatever that project may be, which is really important to me.
Mike: What do you think is the most successful use of your music in a feature film over the years, Al?
Al: Well, 'Khyber Pass' (which was featured in the 2008 film The Hurt Locker) because that movie won an Academy Award. The only three songs on there were Ministry songs ('Fear is Big Business' and 'Palestina') which seems to fit that movie quite well. I’m going to do other soundtracks; that’s not a problem. As a matter of fact I’ve got a script on my desk right now as we speak, I can’t say the name, but I’m not digging it. I get scripts all the time. It all boils down to production, whether it’s Ministry, RevCo, Buck Satan, movie soundtracks, whatever, it all boils down to production. That’s what I do best. I’m not really a singer, I’m not really a guitar player although I can do both; production is my gig. That’s why I hate playing live, to me that’s recreation and in the studio that’s creation. The creation part is much more absorbing than the recreation part. To me, that’s like being a paid monkey on a street corner - playing live. I’ll do it, I understand why and all that stuff, but the studio is my whole life. It’s like a shark having to swim to live. He needs to get air through his gills and I have to be in the studio to live. When I got sick a couple years ago I couldn’t go out to the studio for about a year, and I was miserable and I realized that, man. This is what I need to do, this what I do well. It’s like being a freemason or a craftsman; this is what I do well, this is where I belong.
Mike: What is the longest production on a Ministry album? Which took the longest to finish off?
Al: Definitely Pslam 69. That took a year and a half, almost two years. That was insane. I was shooting up so much dope and coke that we couldn’t get anything done because I was completely oblivious. And Gibby Haines from The Butthole Surfers came in and sang on 'Jesus Built My Hotrod' and that kind of kickstarted the whole project. But that project took about a year and a half straight of studio time. That was by far the longest.
Mike: Do you consider yourself an innovator, Al? From the outside looking in, you always come across as doing exactly what you want musically.
Al: No, I don’t consider myself an innovator. I consider myself someone who gets drunk and jams with friends. That’s it, that’s my life, that’s every stoner’s dream, man! (Laughs).
Mike: I believe you’re the only band on the planet to have worked with Steven Spielberg (during Artificial Intelligence, co-directed by Stanley Kubrick). How did that even happen?
Al: That was a crazy story, dude. I was living in Austin (Texas) and I got a call from Stanley Kubrick’s secretary, and I was like, “Yeah right, this is a prank call,” so I hung up. They called back and they put Stanley Kubrick on the phone and he was saying he was a big fan and he wanted us to be in the movie. I was like, “Oh my God! This is for real! This is so cool, Stanley Kubrick’s calling me!” and then he dies like a couple weeks later. Spielberg read the script and he wanted to do the movie so he kind of like took us on begrudgingly. He’s used to working with John Williams (known for the soundtracks for “Star Wars” trilogy) and this classical stuff. His (Spielberg’s) idea for a major rage band was U2 so he didn’t know what to do with us. So we got on set because Kubrick demanded it and it was written in the actual treatment that Ministry would do this. About three days into the shoot Spielberg lines us all up with some handler that had a clipboard and was writing notes. We all had to look down like we were meeting the Queen, like don’t speak to him unless he speaks to you kind of stuff. It was kind of creepy, and I was the last one in line. He gets to me and I look straight at him and start speaking at him against the rules and said, “Look we can’t do this movie, man. This A.I. thing, Kubrick told me it was a porno film called Anal Intruder”.
Al: Spielberg freaked out and I told him, “The band’s going to walk today; we don’t do a picture with a teddy bear! I thought this was a porno film!” He runs off with his handler and the handler’s like, “I’ll get to the bottom of this Mr. Spielberg!” Then after I told him that he was totally super nice to me, we get along great, man. He would have me do rushes with him with and watch that day’s filming on the side of the stage. Then on top of that he would come on stage and jam with us. He’d wear my cowboy hat and play an acoustic guitar. Everyday he’d come up with a new “A.I.” saying. I think one of them was Animal Indecency. I already had Anal Intruder. Everyday there was a new porno reference for “A.I.” from Spielberg; he’d come up and tell me and they were always lame. Either way, that whole movie was nothing but porn acronyms, and it was kind of fun working with that guy, man.
Mike: This question might be a bit racy, but do you find it harder to write music as a drug free artist? Do you ever compare yourself to your back catalogue?
Al: Well, it depends, if I have to do it alone I find it hard to be drug free, but if I work with a lot of interesting people, it keeps me from doing anything. Their talent and their intellect inspires me to the point where I don’t get bored enough to get wasted.
Mike: This year’s the twentieth anniversary of Pslam 69. Do you think you’re going to do anything to mark the anniversary of that album?
Al: Is it really twenty years? (Laughs) I didn’t even know that, way to go making me feel way old!
Mike: (Laughs) Sorry, man.
Al: I’m feeling like a senior’s moment here. Twenty years? Oh my God! I haven’t heard that record in about ten years. I don’t listen to that record. I’m sure it was good for what it was, but I’ve got so many projects that I don’t dwell on the past. I don’t listen to that stuff at home. I listen to country, jazz and blues. The last thing I want to put on my CD player at home is some wanker industrial band.
Mike: (Laughs) Out of the last two albums we got “Rio Grande Dub” and “The Last Dubber” (remix albums of “Rio Grande Blood” and “The Last Sucker”). Do you plan to revisit any of the material from Relapse in a similar fashion?
Al: It’s already being done. It’s called Relapse Redux, it’s about half way done right now. So far the remixes are better than the ones you just mentioned. We just got some really top notch people and gave them all the time and budget that they need. This is going to be the best remix album from us.
Mike: I thank you for candor and I appreciate your time.
Al: You guys have a good day, a good life, and take every day that’s above ground as a good day.
Mike: Thanks, man.
Al: Thanks, dude. I’ll see you later.
Before he hung up, the last thing Al and I talked about was a website called Jesus Is Savior. I stumbled over it while doing some prep for this interview. When I told Al that there was a web page dedicated to how evil he was, he burst out laughing, asserting that having inspired a website declaring him all evil was his definition of ‘making it’ in the music industry. He had me dictate the web URL (http://www.jesus-is-savior.com/Evils%20in%20America/Rock-n-Roll/ministry.htm) slowly so he could check it out after we were done talking, and he bid me good day. It was a nice way to end an interview with someone I consider a musical genius – even if Jourgensen himself would scoff at my thinking as much.