You can’t keep a mean dog down. Maybe that’s why, after several announcements of retirement, Ministry are still alive and kicking against the pricks. Making a name for themselves in the then-fertile underground of the US industrial scene in the late ‘80s, they’ve rebuilt and reinvented themselves so many times that they’ve never seemed anything but relevant, and though the tragic passing of guitarist Mike Scaccia in 2012 seemed set to put an end to the party, Al Jourgensen has deemed it fit and right to deliver yet another series of scathing blows in 2018, just when we need it the most. We pinned down Uncle Al to talk about the state of the world and its part in the shaping of Amerikkkant in his own inimitable and perversely hilarious fashion.
You had said that From Beer To Eternity would be the last album. Was there ever any real thought of not making an album given everything that’s been happening?
Of course. When I made that statement that there really can’t be another Ministry album, I’d just lost my best friend of 30 years and my right-hand guitar player, and I didn’t really need to continue doing Ministry without Mikey. So I decided to do an album called Surgical Meth Machine, which I did alone along with an engineer but then, as I was making it I got a call from a fucking manager that said, “Oh yeah, you already signed a contract to play Europe as Ministry next year, and if you don’t do it you’re going to get fucking sued and it’ll ruin the rest of your life.” So, okay! I put together a new Ministry band. I wasn’t happy about it but we went over to Europe and we toured for a while and at the end of it the shows were sounding pretty good, and it was actually like a band again for the first time in a long, long, long time. So, we decided after the European tour to go to a studio in Los Angeles for a few days and say “Okay, let’s see what we can do on our own instead of playing the stuff we did with Mikey” and within one week, we came up with 70-80% of this record just from us jamming. That pretty much affirmed my point that, “Hey, this is cool. This is like a band again.” It’s been so long. The last time we ever recorded as a band in the studio was in 1993-1994 for Filth Pig. It was really re-energising to do this record and I think it came out cool.
Definitely. How did that recording experience compare to going back to Filth Pig? I know that some of the old recordings are a bit of a blur for you.
Well, the main thing is – if you want to go back to Filth Pig – the main difference is that this album was more fuelled by people on psychedelics than it was by people fuelled by heroin and cocaine. [laughs] That’s the best way I can describe it, man!
So how does that work with the writing and recording process?
I think it melds perfectly with the way society is going now. It’s probably best to get off the heroin and cocaine and just start eating mushrooms as we are living in the Twilight Zone.
Given everything happening at the moment, and everything you’ve experienced, how do you stay sane?
It’s going on six decades now that I’ve been on this shithole of a planet and it’s starting to get more surreal the older I get, which is great because I’m more prepared to deal with it. I’ve seen some crazy shit over the first 59 years and now it’s going into overdrive. It’s the Twilight Zone on steroids and as you get older and inundated with so much bullshit, it almost comes naturally to start saying, “Okay, what’s next?” Waking up in November after the election and 70% of the populace have jaws hitting the floor, freaking out, and you’re just, “Okay, roll up the shirt sleeves – it’s time to get to work.” That was the spark of this record, the initiative, but it evolved into so much more because there were so many people collaborating and it was a whole different approach from the past couple of Ministry records or Surgical Meth Machine. It’s just an inspiration. It’s really cool but it took a really big pile of pus to get us going.
How did you find heading back into the studio and doing Ministry without Mikey? It seems like it’d be a big shift.
It actually wasn’t as we’ve done it before, but it’s been so long. And it wasn’t planned to be like that, it was more “Well, we sounded pretty good in Europe. What can we do on a dare, or chance? Where can we go?” Within one week, we’d found the answer and it was called Amerikkkant. It kind of fell into place seamlessly and a lot of the other different people came floating in and out of the studio after we recorded the basic tracks, like DJ Swamp from Beck; Arabian Prince, the DJ from NWA; Burton Bell from Fear Factory. We all live within a mile or two of each other and people would just hang out and it became a really organic, collaborative process. After sitting in a room with an engineer for the last 10 years and programming albums, calculating them out, this played really organically and I think you can tell. People have noticed the similarities in feel between this and the early to mid-90s period of Ministry. It really felt like coming home again.
What was the fuel for the tone of this album, both sonically and lyrically? Was it anger or was it just the strangeness of things these days?
I wouldn’t call it anger, I’d call it a combination of frustration and wonderment. This is not an anti-Trump record, this is far deeper than that. This is more like if you look at a TV series like Electric Dreams – any Philip K Dick, really – or Black Mirror. I felt more like a photographer on this album than a musician. I just took a snapshot of what the fuck happened in 2016 and took the picture, held it up to society for society to see and said, “Look at it.” Then they looked at it and my question is, “This is where we’re at; is this where we want to be at or do you want to go somewhere?” It’s bullshit and this is far deeper than Trump. There’s a Trump in almost every country these days – Turkey, Egypt, Russia, Poland, Romania, you name it. There’s this rise of right-wing fascism that people seem to be okay with, but it’s not the majority of the global populace. That’s why I wanted to take a snapshot and remind everyone that this is not what we wanted as a global species. I have to live in America so of course that hits home when we have this angry, toxic orange thing spewing misogyny and racism on a daily basis, but it’s more about what’s wrong with us that we thought it was a good idea to put this person in power and that’s basically the driving force of this album.
Well, when you have that you get reactive forces too, one of which that you mention on the album is Antifa. What do you make of these grassroots reactions?
Once again, it’s a far more complex topic than just a soundbite. Say “Antifa” and people immediately think of people in black hoods beating up right-wingers. Right-wingers are free to say what they want to say. I don’t endorse the violence of Antifa but people in America have been ruled for centuries now by fascists, but not by overt fascists. This is the first time we’ve had an overtly fascist president that has mainstreamed the KKK, and the John Birch Society, and these other right-wing lunatics, so now that has become the mainstream vernacular and accepted. To me, that was really interesting because in 1930s Europe, fascism was on the rise and there was this movement called Antifa that stood up against it. This is what we’re facing in America now but Americans don’t know it because our fascist rulers have been hidden under a cloak; this one is overtly fascist so it’s time to bring the word Antifa into the vernacular. Now, do I agree with Antifa’s policies of violence? No, but I do agree that if fascism comes to your door, you open your door and stand firm, and you fucking deal with it in any way you can. I don’t mind violence if it’s for your own self-preservation and right now we’re in a battle for self-preservation against right-wing ideology that is being accepted as mainstream, whether it’s in the UK, USA, France, Turkey, Egypt, Philippines, Russia, et cetera…
“I do agree that if fascism comes to your door, you open your door and stand firm, and you fucking deal with it in any way you can. I don’t mind violence if it’s for your own self-preservation and right now we’re in a battle for self-preservation against right-wing ideology that is being accepted as mainstream”
Well coming back to Amerikkkant, that artwork is quite striking. It’s simple but poignant. How much involvement did you have with the commissioning of that?
Well, Sam Shearon and I are old buddies. We sat down and of course we’re all very ashamed but hats off to France for at least not letting Marine Le Pen get into power, and boo to the UK for letting Brexit happen, but yeah, we were embarrassed. Sam came up with that concept, we talked about the parameters and then he did all the legwork on it. He’s a genius illustrator and also a good friend so I’m quite happy with the artwork. It’s succinct, it’s nothing too sophisticated, it’s to the point and it evokes a certain sentiment.
You spoke earlier about the organic nature of this record. Given the increasing technological presence in the album-making process now, does it become more difficult to keep human elements at the fore?
I’ve gone back and forth on this. When I first started, I was a musician – not a singer, not a songwriter – and as a guitar player, and later a keyboard player, as new technology came out I started to steer Ministry towards more keyboard-oriented stuff because it was the new thing to do and I neglected the guitar side of things. Then, with Land Of Rape And Honey, we started to incorporate guitar more again and pretty soon we’d ditched a lot of the technological stuff and gone back to the organic stuff. Then we went through a period with a combination of both. With this one, I’ve been up and down on it. Basically, an album is just a means to express your point. Whatever weapon you choose, whether it’s a computer or it’s a guitar, doesn’t matter as long as you get the same point across. This one, to me, is shifting back to a much more organic feel and that’s fine too.
I take it you don’t miss the days of splicing together tape by hand then?
Well, no. I’ll tell you what, though, I’m most proud of those days. If you ever see some survey of me with what my all-time favourite album of Ministry was, it would always have to be… Rape And Honey because that was the days of literally splicing tape by hand and hours and hours of doing it, yet it didn’t seem to be drudgery at all. It was like this whole new vast horizon that we were exploring and you felt invigorated, that you were doing something no-one else was doing. That was really cool, but I’m sure being a coal miner in the early 1900s and powering up the first electrical grids in America felt great, but it doesn’t at the end of your life when you’re spitting up black lung coal dust! That’s my feeling on it. When you look back, you feel like a coal miner but at the time, you felt like Dalí.
You’ve mentioned The Matrix and Philip K. Dick now – have you always been into sci-fi or is it a recent development?
It’s never really been my thing but I’ve always kept tabs on it. Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, I kept tabs on it as I was growing up. Dick, Ballard, Clarke, it’s a bit of sci-fi but it’s more of a psychological thing. When 2001 came out, I was seven years old. I went to the theatre and saw it, and I was blown away, but it’s not so much the genre as it is the possibilities of “what if.” Could this really happen? When I was about three years old, back in the 60s, I remember hearing that pretty soon we’d have flying cars. We still don’t have them but the possibility exists. That’s the intriguing part of science fiction that every sentient being on this planet cannot ignore. Of course it’s a factor but it’s not the foremost in what I do, as there’s also societal topics of poverty and gender inequality, of race divisions. There’s so much to talk about but science fiction is an important part of anyone’s intellectual diet.
There is that real idea of hope there. Do you want Ministry to be a vessel of hope?
I don’t necessarily consider ourselves a hopeful band, or necessarily anything, but literally a mirror that is held up that you should look at, because all I’m writing about it is you. You tell me where the fuck we should go from here. The only hope here is coming from the people that have been made aware of the situation. I’m not a messenger; I’m not a harbinger of doom or hope.
What was your learning curve like with working with technology? Can you remember your first experiences with things like ProTools?
I remember ProTools quite well because I’d just spent some ridiculous amount of money, like $60,000, on a Fairlight to get the new technology of the time. I think that was during the Twitch record, and by The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, it was completely obsolete – fleeced out of $60,000 that I could’ve spent on decent drugs at the time. So my relationship with technology is one of complete distrust and disdain. Then ProTools comes out, and for $20,000 I can get twice or three times the capability as I could have had the year before for three times the price. I view it with major distrust, and I remember saying in ’88 that I don’t even want to use technology again until it comes completely voice- activated and interfaced to your brain. The shit like The Matrix literally a mirror that is held up that you should look at, because all I’m writing about it is you. You tell me where the fuck we should go from here. The only hope here is coming from the people that have been made aware of the situation. I’m not a messenger; I’m not a harbinger of doom or hope.
There’s a much greater scope now for feedback between artists and fans. How much difference does that make to you?
Here we go again with the ultimate paradox of our generation – the internet. Very similar to the lessons that are trying to be told on shows like Black Mirror, I feel very akin to that in terms of the nature of what we have. We have the greatest tool in generations, probably in recorded human history, and what grandiose possibility is this going to create? This is the information age which, within 20 years, has turned into the disinformation age, divided and conquered society through mistrust and fake news, and now we have a problem on our hands. What started out as sex became syphilis. As far as instant response from people, is that instant response or is that robo-trolls who spew hate in order to divide and conquer? The ruling class has found a way to fight back against something that is perfectly cool in nature but just like everything else, it’s the practical application that decides its fate, and right now the fate that’s being perpetrated by the multi-nationals is to take the internet, something that could have been fantastic for the human race, and turned it against us to make us squabble and squander the opportunity of having this much knowledge. Instead, we care more about how many likes we get on sharing a post from YouTube about a cat playing piano than we do about our government taking away our healthcare or slashing pensions or making your life miserable on a day-to-day basis because hey, it’s a cat playing fucking piano! This is what the internet has devolved into when the possibilities of it in the beginning were so enormous, and we have allowed it to get to this point. Don’t get me wrong, I like cats; I like piano; I like both, but this is not my raison d’etre for being on this planet.
What is your reason for existing? Is that a question that keeps you awake at night?
[Laughs] It would probably have to be psilocybin mushrooms that keeps me awake. Other than that, I’ve quit all the other bullshit man-made pharmaceuticals, like heroin and coke and OxyContin, that I haven’t done in years, but mushrooms keep me awake at night in a much more serene way. I feel much more stable and tranquil now. I actually have lucid thoughts and when my head hits the pillow, it does so in the most serene way.
When did you start using psilocybin?
My god, I lived with Timothy Leary for two years in the mid-90s so that was a trip. They were just isolating the chemicals in MDA and MDMA to figure out the difference, and then there was the LSD-25 molecule. Tim would have me shoot this shit intravenously in a liquid form, these new drugs that were coming out of laboratories, and I was his guinea pig. He took copious notes on it that are now owned by Winona Ryder’s father, strangely enough. That’s a long story but either way, Tim had copious notes on the effects of psychedelics on the mind and that came from two years of me living with him in Beverly Hills and shooting up drugs. I took a two-year hiatus from Ministry for that. Some people go to the Andes, live with shamans and eat mushrooms; I just went to Timothy Leary’s house and shot up chemical compounds. That’s probably the most singular propellant in my life to effect change within myself. There’s more than meets the eye. Don’t just require the eye, require the mind.
Given the people you’ve encountered in your life – Leary, Burroughs, Spielberg – is there anyone from throughout history that you’d kill to meet?
I think there’s only one person on this planet that I find particularly interesting, and what’s funny is that I actually met him one day at 2:30 in the morning on a street and he came up and asked to borrow a cigarette from him, and it was only later I realised that was Tom Waits. I never had the chance to talk to him and that’s the only person. All my heroes are dead, so Tom Waits is probably my last hero alive.
You said in the past that you wanted to be a teacher. Do you still have that urge or have you fulfilled it through what you’ve achieved with Ministry?
I think I’ve amalgamated the two careers into one. It’s certainly not a classroom but I release records, I have points of view and personal insights that might or might not help other people that are out there, and to me that’s kind of like a floating classroom. I’ve reconciled my desire to be a teacher with convincing myself that what I’m doing is the same as being a teacher, only I’m paid a little better than most of them. I think education is the most important thing to our species on this planet but I’ve reconciled it to the point where I try to make my records at least a little bit educational or informative in the sense of one person’s viewpoint or of a snapshot showing society. A lot of my records have been like that, so in other words I’m trying to give myself the excuse for not being motivated enough to drag my ass to class and finish my degree.
What did you want to teach?
I was a history major and political science minor. I was one of those agitated little kids that probably should have been on some state-sponsored Ritalin drug because I was bouncing off the walls with theories and propositions, and people couldn’t stand me. Nowadays, they put those kids on drugs to sedate them but then I was able to ping-pong around until I found music, and there I ended up losing my degree and my hopes and dreams of being a teacher, and now I’m stuck with this shithole job!
What other art are you working on, as you’ve dabbled in a lot over the years?
We’re about halfway done with a new Revolting Cocks record, which is the perfect antidote to this record and all its sombreness and self-reflection. I think we need good old-fashioned fraternity, a romp in the hay – Revolting Cocks rides again. Do something spectacularly stupid and make people realise that irony, and paradox and humour still actually exist, and it doesn’t have to be politically correct, because it’s also a mirror. We, as a collective society, are also this – a misogynistic tribe of dolts that are going around, doing loud and proud partying. I think it’s time to resurrect the Cocks just for comic relief. We need to take a breath of air, after all these impeachment proceedings and the world starts getting a gauge on where it wants to go after nuclear threat and nuclear threat, everyone going back to the bomb shelter days of ”‘duck and cover” in the ‘50s. I think people might need 15 minutes of humour. It’s already halfway done, it’s already ridiculous and over-the-top, so I’m looking forward to doing that next.