Ministry: Track RecordAl Jourgensen gives us the inside scoop on his band's best albums courtesy of 13th Planet text Brad Angle December 1, 2007
"Everything I've done in my career, I've done bass-ackwards," says Ministry mastermind Al Jourgensen with a laugh. "Now that I finally found the right Ministry lineup, I'm calling it quits!"
Yes, it's true. After surviving 10 albums, 24 years, several lineup changes, a prodigious drug habit, countless misadventures, and even a SWAT team raid, the multi-instrumentalist behind one of the most successful and influential industrial-metal bands ever has issued the final Ministry studio album, The Last Sucker (13th Planet/Megaforce).
In truth, the timing couldn't be better. The Last Sucker is also the concluding chapter in Ministry's anti–George W. Bush trilogy—which began in 2004 with Houses of the Molé and was followed by last year's Rio Grande Blood—and features Jourgensen's ideal lineup of guitarist Tommy Victor, bassist Paul Raven, guitarist Sin Quirin, and keyboardist John Bechdel.
"No matter what happens after this, I don't think we could ever make a better record than The Last Sucker," says Jourgensen. "Bush is leaving, too, so basically all things converged to make it the perfect time to end Ministry."
From his 13th Planet Studios in El Paso, Texas, where he's working on a collection of covers, set for release in spring 2008 and appropriately titled Cover Up, Uncle Al took a few minutes to chat with Revolver about the good, the bad, and the downright ugly details surrounding nine classic Ministry albums.
Twelve Inch Singles 1981–1984
(Wax Trax!, 1985)
The Cuban-born Jourgensen bounced from Miami to Colorado before eventually settling in Chicago in the late '70s. Thanks to his art-school girlfriend, the longhaired, Skynyrd-loving former truck driver and guitarist was introduced to punk rock. After a brief stint in new-wave band Special Affect—with My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult's Groovie Mann—the now fashionably shorn Jourgensen went to work at Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher's record store, Wax Trax! Records. When Wax Trax! expanded into a label and released a single by none other than drag performer Divine, Jourgensen was tapped as the touring guitarist. It wasn't long after that he formed Ministry and began releasing moody synth-pop singles like "Every Day Is Halloween" and "Cold Life" on the new label. Those early cuts were later anthologized on 1985's Twelve Inch Singles.
"Back then I was influenced by a lot of English stuff. You won't hear it in 'Every Day Is Halloween,' but I was really influenced by punk bands like Crass, U.K. Subs, and Wire. Then there were all those good bands like Throbbing Gristle, the Pop Group, A Certain Ratio, and Joy Division. It was great for me to work at the record store, because every day we'd get all of these amazing new imports. All of a sudden I went from being a Skynyrd fan and hating all this crappy punk to being like, 'Wait…this stuff actually makes sense.'"
(Sire/Warner Bros., 1986)
Because the making of Ministry's 1983 debut, With Sympathy, became a debacle in which Arista denied Jourgensen creative control and brought in a team of their own producers and writers, he jumped labels to Sire. While Ministry wouldn't perfect their trademark wall-of-guitar-and-sample style until later albums, Twitch's hard-edged yet danceable electronica was a turning point for the band. Jourgensen's work with acclaimed dub producer Adrian Sherwood at Southern Studios in London taught him the studio skills—and digital sampling tricks—he would eventually use to craft Ministry's distinct aesthetic.
"What happened with With Sympathy was ridiculous. They appointed producers, musicians, and singers. They rejected all the songs we were playing live at the time and fucking wrote new ones. Fortunately there was an out in my contract, and I used it. Then I started working full-time at the Wax Trax! label. Wax Trax! had all these bands we wanted to sign, like Front 242, Laibach, KMFDM, and others, but we had no money. So I decided to pimp out Ministry to Sire and Warner Bros. so we could get money to fund Wax Trax! But I made sure we had full creative control. We even signed for much less to ensure it.
Twitch was recorded in London with Adrian Sherwood. It's still a very different album than subsequent Ministry releases, but I learned all my production chops from Adrian. I was pretty clueless when we started. Twitch was really a learn-on-the-job record for me. But I can say now that if it wasn't for Adrian I wouldn't be able to produce for myself, which is what has shaped the Ministry sound."
The Land of Rape and Honey
Growing increasingly restless with Ministry's repertoire of electronic and synth sounds, Jourgensen decided to add heavy guitars to the mix. Bassist Paul Barker also entered the fold, and the pair began an inspired partnership that would bear fruit throughout the next decade. Recorded largely at Chicago Trax Studios, The Land of Rape and Honey featured powerful cuts like "Stigmata," "Flashback," and the title track, which helped make this album a keystone in the then-emerging industrial-metal subgenre.
"The title came to me when we were touring Canada. We stopped in a truck stop and there was this coffee cup that had a little smiling bee and a big bale of wheat that said, 'Saskatchewan, the Land of Rape and Honey.' I thought that sounded really cool. [Laughs]
We recorded at Chicago Trax Studios and they pretty much let us have the run of the place. We were doing all kinds of fun shit inspired by [William] Burroughs' cutup routines. We'd cut up tape, throw it on the floor, and rearrange it at random. We did a lot of that real art-house kinda shit.
Plus we brought back in the guitars, and we had new band members. Barker and I had just met and hadn't started hating each other yet. [Laughs] Not to mention we used a lot of psychedelics to make that record. The recording of The Land of Rape and Honey was very much like, in the immortal words of Jerry Garcia, 'What a long, strange trip it's been.'" [Laughs]
The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste
(Sire/Warner Bros., 1989)
By 1989 Ministry had hit their stride. Jourgensen's songs were more guitar-driven and aggressive, and his lyrics were becoming increasingly political. Songs like "Thieves," "So What," and "Breathe" dealt with corruption, cultural desensitization to violence, and addiction, respectively, and were sung with distorted an acidic fervor that complemented the fluid cutup-style production.
"When I was living in London during the Thatcher and Reagan era, you couldn't help but notice that things were going pretty sour, especially in the early years. We were afraid that all of the Western democracies were becoming fascist. It affected our day-to-day life. You'd actually have to worry about what you'd say. On paper, it's supposed to be freedom of speech, when in actuality, as we see again today, it's a little more complex than that. The basis of 'Thieves' was created in that atmosphere, but we finished it back at Chicago Trax Studios. With The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste we stumbled onto something really good by including all the guitars, cutups, and tape-machine effects. I think that album worked out really well."
Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs
(Sire/Warner Bros., 1992)
As "alternative" music burst into the mainstream, Jourgensen's band was in an prime position to capitalize on it. Psalm 69's speed-laced, gearhead single, "Jesus Built My Hotrod," co-authored by the Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes, was released in advance of the album, and its accompanying video was a runaway hit on MTV. By the time the album dropped in '92, Ministry had secured a main-stage spot at that summer's Lollapalooza. This exposure, as well as what they received from incendiary singles such as the anti–George H.W. Bush rant "N.W.O" and the brilliant junkie homage (and collaboration with William Burroughs) "Just One Fix," helped Psalm 69 break into Billboard's Top 30 and become Ministry's biggest-selling hit to date. Which proved to be a windfall of success so extreme it nearly killed Jourgensen.
"Warner Bros. gave us a $700,000 recording budget and the only thing we turned in was this stupid little hillbilly song with a guy named Gibby Haynes singing on it. [Laughs] We thought it turned out OK, but Warner Bros. sure didn't like it. They were like, 'Oh my god…This doesn't even have Al on it!' So we were like, 'Well, give us another $700,000 and we'll finish it!' [Laughs] Basically we spent all of that cash on drugs. It was ridiculous. I'm not proud of it; I'm just stating facts. That was the start of Ministry's decade of excess.
At the time, a lot of bands that were considered garage punk or underground were going gold and platinum certified. But the success of Psalm 69 really blew me away. It actually made me go legally insane for a couple of years and drown my sorrows in the needle, if you know what I mean. [Laughs]
We started visiting Texas after that record came out, too, because Chicago was getting crazy for me. After five years of being at that studio doing psychedelics and meeting every riffraff character in Chicago, it started to get a bit like the end of the Doors. I was all bloated and unshaven. I felt like Morrison. [Laughs] The paradigm I was living in started to get pretty creepy."
(Warner Bros., 1996)
The follow-up to Psalm 69 took four years for Ministry to make, the process dogged by Jourgensen's growing heroin habit and its physical and legal repercussions. Despite Filth Pig's delayed release and down-tempo vibes, the album topped out at No. 17 on the Billboard charts, making it Ministry's highest-ranking album so far.
"I had a $500-a-day addiction. I was going through a divorce, and I had just had a child. I didn't really get along with Barker or the rest of my bandmates. It was a pretty crazy period and a pretty crazy record. It's obvious when you listen…it's definitely not Psalm 70. [Laughs] It's really the sound of a depressed guy on his deathbed. I was a crazy heroin addict at the time, so the riffs I was doing weren't exactly up-tempo. To me, Filth Pig is a pretty true mirror of what was going on in my life at that time.
Around then we were living basically in this retirement community in Texas. Obviously we freaked out the locals, and they would call the police on us nightly. We lived right next to a golf course, and I used to take target practice on the golfers with my 30-ought-six. This led the police to believe that we had an armed compound, and they came at us with full force. Thirty-five people from the ATF, DEA, and FBI came in with SWAT gear and tore down walls looking for weapons and shit. It was pretty ridiculous. I had licenses for all my guns, but they found a little wrapper that had trace elements of heroin in a garbage can in one of the guest rooms. From there, the press made it out to be like, 'They raided an evil Satanic cult!' [Laughs] So I moved right back to Chicago after that!" [Laughs]
Houses of the Molé
Sinking deeper into his addiction, Jourgensen released the tepid Dark Side of the Spoon (1999) and Animositisomina (2003). After things got real bad—he almost died from a spider bite and had a gangrenous toe removed after stepping on a syringe—Jourgensen decided it was time to clean up. As the torpor created by years of heroin use lifted, the singer regained his creative vigor and began reasserting himself in the partnership with Barker, a move that pushed the latter out of the band. And as luck would have it, the fascist muse that had inspired Psalm 69 had returned…in the form of George W. Bush. With a clear mind and a clear target (every track title contains a capital W), Jourgensen delivered a furious return to form with Houses of the Molé.
"The circumstances surrounding Barker's leaving were that I quit heroin, and he wasn't used to me poking my nose into shit and being cognizant. All of a sudden I took my band back and wanted to go in a certain direction. He didn't like the fact that I was awake again. He had gotten quite comfortable with me being asleep.
When you're on heroin, you don't give a shit about politics or anything…except if your dealer's on time. All of a sudden I'm awake and realize there's this needless war being declared and the government's employing fear tactics that haven't worked since the McCarthy era. And people were buying it hook, line, and sinker. I just went through hell to get my future back, and now I had this idiot ruining all of our futures. So it was just natural that I wrote about political issues on the album."
Rio Grande Blood
(13th Planet /Megaforce, 2006)
On the second album in his anti-George W. trilogy, Jourgensen ups the biting political commentary and the not-so-subtle symbolism—the album art contains a collage with Bush's face on a crucified Christ's body planted in an oil drum. The record also contains extensive audio cutups of George W. speeches and the industrial-strength riffage of new guitarist Tommy Victor (ex-Prong) and bassist Paul Raven (ex-Killing Joke).
"My least favorite part of making this album was listening to [George W. Bush's] speeches for hundreds of hours. I swear to God it not only lowered my I.Q. but my sperm count, too. [Laughs] I'm completely flaccid after listening to that idiot.
Tommy and Paul Raven also joined up at this same time. I first met Tommy years ago when he was in Prong. Psalm 69 was selling a trillion records, I was wasted, and we felt like we were each other's competition. We didn't even really like each other. [Laughs] Later on we crossed paths and started talking and realized we'd been butt-fucked by the same industry people. That how our camaraderie started. [Laughs] And I've known Paul Raven for going on 25 years. Since Barker left I'd always thought it'd be really great to replace a Paul with a better Paul. So we upgraded Pauls. [Laughs] With those guys on board, we wrote that record so fast. It was like a world land-speed record. There was no tediousness to it. Rio Grande Blood was the most fun I've ever had making a record."
The Last Sucker
(13th Planet /Megaforce, 2007)
Recorded at Jourgensen's newly outfitted 13th Planet Studios in El Paso, Texas, the self-proclaimed final Ministry album is a fitting adios to the band. "Let's Go," "The Dick Song," and the title track put the final nails in the current administration's coffin, while "Die in a Crash" hearkens to Ministry's early years and the final track, "End of Days" breaks new ground for the band: It's a one-take live jam in which Jourgensen overlays former President Dwight Eisenhower's poignant 1961 military-industrial-complex speech.
"When Barker left I really turned things around with Houses of the Molé. Then with Rio Grande Blood, I really thought we were on to something…so much so that I figured after another record it would be the perfect time to stop. You see so many bands stick around just for the money and their records get shittier and shittier. I would rather leave when I'm on top.
The Last Sucker encompasses a lot of Ministry's different styles over my whole career. We did a song like "Die in a Crash," which doesn't sound like typical Ministry. It has Burton Bell and Tommy singing on it. I played all the instruments on it. It's a tip of my hat to when I was living in Thatcher-era London, when all the punk stuff was happening. I wouldn't have done that on other records, but since it was the last one, I was like, 'Fuck it, let's have some fun.'