Al Jourgensen just turned 60 years young, and he remains unapologetic and eternally eccentric, even while becoming more of an activist than ever musically, expressing political frustration on more recent material including his 14th studio album, AmeriKKKant. The Ministry singer also is celebrating the 30th anniversary of his industrial milestone Land of Rape and Honey. And he just paid tribute to glam icon T-Rex on a cover of “Twentieth Century Boy” with L.A.'s Beauty in Chaos. He'll play selections both new and old during his two-night stint at the Henry Fonda Theatre on Thursday and Friday, shows that promise to end the year with the kind of bang a lot of us need.
There are very few artists capable of evolving the way Uncle Al (as he's called) has. Growing up in the ’90s, I discovered Ministry as many did, from late-night MTV shows such as 120 Minutes. Blending metal, punk and industrial and presumably a ton of drugs, his output was a tempestuous trip, and videos for “Jesus Built My Hotrod” and “Just One Fix” reinforced the raucous rhythms and lyrics perfectly. I couldn't help but be intrigued. Soon I discovered his other projects, such as LARD with Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys and Pailhead with Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, and I delved deeper into his back catalog. Following his seamless transition from synth-pop into industrial and metal led to my lifelong admiration for his talent and perverse persona. Al Jourgensen is a national treasure, and his influence on music and culture cannot be overstated.
I met him through our mutual friend Biafra, at a time when my gallery Lethal Amounts had access to a collection of photographs from Wax Trax's Brian Shanley, who shot Jourgensen from the beginning of his career. Shanley also did graphic design for Ministry, Pailhead and Jourgensen's other band, Revolting Cocks. It was quite an extensive collection of never-before-seen photographs, original art and layout, flyers and other ephemera. Cleopatra Records was about to rerelease a lot of early demos and mixes, and I felt like it would be a good accompaniment to the release. To my surprise, Jourgensen was willing to sign all the prints, even the With Sympathy synth-pop era material, which he has notoriously shunned. He shared tons of amazing stories about hanging with El Duce of The Mentors, kicking GG Allin’s ass at a show in Chicago, and being introduced to Madonna and saying she smelled like dog feces.
In April 2015 we held the opening of the exhibit, titled “Without Sympathy.” Jello DJed and it was a major success. Jourgensen was his usual charming self, signing a child’s forehead and urinating somewhere in the gallery. I maintained contact with him and Jello, both geniuses in my book who each think the other is the crazy one.
I think what keeps Jourgensen fascinating is his honesty and unfiltered personality. He is a true artist who never stops creating, and he probably won’t till his last breath. I recently hung out with the legendary performer — who really does live every day like it's Halloween — at his L.A. home as he prepped for his latest tour. We spoke about his new album and his relationships with the likes of Trent Reznor, William Burroughs and Timothy Leary. He also opened up about his influences, philosophy and even the one album he will never, ever show sympathy for.
DANNY FUENTES: I'm glad Ministry still tours — 30-plus years into your career, you guys are going strong. On this tour you will be performing The Land of Rape and Honey album in its entirety right?
AL JOURGENSEN: We are playing half of the album. I think that's about right, because then we can also squeeze in some tracks off of The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste and also Psalm 69. I think it's a nice combination. We are playing our new album Amerikkkant in full and then coming out to play songs off those earlier three records. Playing The Land of Rape and Honey stuff is like “Wow, who knew?” I haven't played that stuff in about 25 years and people are wigging out that we are playing it. So it's cool! I'm seeing the crowds on this tour especially since we just had Death Grips opening for us.
We are so tired of being labeled “industrial,” which means we all wear black makeup and we sample tractors or something, or that we're a “metal band” so that means our concerts are a white-person sausage fest circling around, and you know I'm kind of tired of it. So I'm really in amazement at the wonderful diversity that we're having at our shows each day. That's pretty heartening.
Living in Chicago, were you interested in the Chicago house music scene at all?
Absolutely!. Me and Frankie Knuckles [Chicago-based DJ and producer] go way back! At Chicago Trax Studio the A room was, well, they just called us the crazy freak guys, and the B room was all the house people. So there's two studios at Trax and we coexisted for probably 10 years of just straight recording while we were doing The Land of Rape and Honey, The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste and Psalm 69. They were doing all of their stuff right out of that same studio. So yeah, it was a really peaceful existence.
Did any of their stuff sort of cross-contaminate with the music you were making?
Yeah! If you listen to the song “Test” off The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste, we had one of the guest rappers from New York, K-Lite, who was working with Frankie in studio B, pop over into studio A and sing on the track with us. This was way before Anthrax, Run-DMC and Aerosmith and all that stuff, so yeah, we were acutely aware of each other.
Arabian Prince of N.W.A is featured on the new album, Amerikkant. How has hip-hop or early electro influenced your work in general?
It's funny, my first conversation [with Arabian Prince], he was telling me that my work influenced all the hip-hop DJs. It's kind of turned around where he was saying, “We couldn't afford fancy synthesizers, so we just started taking stuff and doing the same thing you were doing through editing and just doing it through turntables and vinyl.” Art feeds on itself. Art will find itself and eat itself eventually. I was amazed to hear that.
Regarding your first Ministry album, With Sympathy, you've stated in the past that you absolutely despise it. You’ve said the experience felt a lot like rape to you. In all fairness, it is one of the greatest synth-pop albums of all time. Can you expand on why you don't like that album?
Yeah, that’s easy — because it's not me. I don't hate the record so much for the style of music. It's just that I hate the fact that it has nothing to do with me except that my name's on it, which, you know, is really kind of disconcerting. I was young and naive and we got signed to a major label. I got what everybody in a band wants — to be taken seriously. I was told we were gonna be the next big thing and I had no choice but to believe what they were telling me was true. I wanted to do my very best, as this was an opportunity not everyone gets. But they took advantage of my inexperience and started dictating what was gonna happen. I felt uncomfortable but it was all happening so fast. We had literally played maybe five shows before we got signed.
We get on their label and then they appoint a producer, they appoint the band, they appoint management. Next they tell me what to wear. They made me cut my hair and they didn't know shit about what I was about. I mean, I would just go in there and they were just using me as a figurehead and I wasn't doing what I wanted to do. I contractually did the best I could. They signed me because we were doing a lot of innovative shit, that’s the reality … and some of the songs I submitted to Arista later wound up not only on Twitch but also on The Land of Rape and Honey, too. That's the type of stuff that we were doing even back before With Sympathy. When I say I felt like I was raped, it's because my trust was violated. I didn't know any better and they fully took advantage of that. So when someone pays me a compliment for that album, it’s hard to accept. Because I wanted to distance myself from that record, my music became heavier and more angry. So there's something to be said about that.
In the late 1980s, you went in a more metal direction. What were your main metal influences?
Before Ministry I was playing in a metal cover band in 1978 in Colorado called Slayer, well, before Slayer! I was kind of brought up as a metal guitar player. Then you know, synths hit the scene and I started experimenting with that. And after a couple albums I kinda got really sick of it — I needed to take a break. So I went back to what I did from way back in the ’70s and I seemed to be able to mix both what I learned from the early synth days and my metal, and that's pretty much been our sound since.
Ministry have been releasing music since the early years of Ronald Reagan. That was followed by Bush, Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama and now Trump. Do you feel it's still the same whoever the president may be, or do you feel Trump is the worst president ever?
Well listen, it's the same old song and dance! To answer the second part of that question, though, no, he's not the worst president we've ever had — Trump's the worst human being we've ever had as president! There's a difference. I guess it's pretty self-evident in the fact that when we do an album that's 30 years old and I'm singing about the same things — you know, like anti-fascism and beware of Big Brother — it's the same stuff! It's seamless between this [new] album and The Land of Rape and Honey, so when we do those back-to-back during the show, that gets a little bit disheartening.
How does politics play a role in your message?
I feel very comfortable singing about that. I mean, I always hear people say artists shouldn't get involved in politics, but you know what, I'm also a citizen of this country. And what's been going on concerns me, so I feel comfortable in that realm, singing about the stuff that I do and tailoring my songs toward that kind of agenda. You know, on the other hand, I don't expect other people to do that and people that write other music about, you know, personal relationships or just just basic trivial thoughts on their minds or whatever, that's fine too. Whatever you feel comfortable doing, you should do.
Do you see your influence in other musicians like Trent Reznor? How do you feel about them?
Trent started out as a roadie for The Revolting Cocks! Before Nine Inch Nails, that was just his first job. So we go way, way back! It's really nice to see the success that he's had. We always knew that kid was like a world beater, super-talented, super great kid. It was nice to see him recently ’cause I hadn't seen him in about 15 years! I've got a real funny story: After he was our roadie, like two years later I hadn't heard from this kid. Next thing he's on the cover of Rolling Stone! “Dude, that looks like our roadie!” And everyone is like “Yeah, that is our roadie!”
The name of his band, Nine Inch Nails, was taken from a review of the B-side of our album Twitch. The first side of the vinyl is more kind of pop constructed type of tunes and the second side was a lot of noise stuff that we did. Trent had read a review of Twitch, which I believe was in Melody Maker or New Musical Express, and it had said that listening to the second side of that album was like having a 9-inch nail driven through your head! That's where he got the name.
Let's talk about a few others. How did you meet William Burroughs?
Basically we sampled William Burroughs for “Just One Fix.” This was back when sampling stuff was still the Wild West in legal terms. Nobody knew what was legal and what wasn't, so we just said fuck it. I've read many of his works, so we sampled it and then Warner Bros. Records' legal department had a fucking conniption fit and said, “Ya know, this can't be released and you have to change it.” We wouldn't change it. So Rolling Stone put something out like, “Ministry album delayed because William Burroughs refused to let them use sample.” So William Burroughs' manager/lover called our management and said, “We never said you couldn't use it! We'd love for you to use it and Bill would love to work with you guys!”
So because Warner Bros. Records bullshitted us and told us that Burroughs wouldn't give us permission and that they would sue us and all that shit, it led to us actually getting a call from William Burroughs himself saying, “That's not true!” So that's how we met, hooked up and worked together. We went down to see him in Lawrence, Kansas, and shot a video at his house. William introduced me to Tim Leary about two months later. The rest is history.
You lived with Timothy Leary, right? I heard you felt like you were his guinea pig, like he would experiment with new strains of drugs on you?
Yeah, for a couple years, you know. Crazy bastard! This is true, he started out with myself and Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers and Mike Scaccia, my guitar player. He basically found them to be unreliable lab rats. He kept me around because I actually enjoyed it! The other guys would like trip on whatever Tim was giving them [laughs]. They dropped out of the program and I stayed in the “focus”! Hopefully I'm brain-damaged in only the good ways!
I heard a story that you were receiving fan mail that was supposed to be sent to Morrissey. Is there any truth to that?
Oh my God. I'm almost afraid to answer that! I don't want to be responsible for people committing suicide but I was just so sick of getting sent his fan mail. Warner Bros. Records got Ministry and Morrissey fan mail mixed up. I'm sure Morrissey received Ministry's fan mail while I got all the Morrissey fan mail and it was all these depressed kids saying, “I really want to kill myself,” and this and that. And I just said, “Well fucking do it! You're miserable, ya know.” I really hope I don't get sued for that.
Is there any truth that you had a chicken guest engineer with you in the studio?
Well ,that was when I did the Red Hot Chili Peppers remix for “Give It Away.” We were really at a loss of what to do with what was sent to us on the tape. So we literally, for whatever reason — probably under the influence of copious amounts of drugs and alcohol — decided it was a good idea to rent a live chicken and just let it loose on the mixing desk and whatever channel the chicken took a shit on, well, we erased and replaced it! Our remix was basically dictated by this feral chicken shitting all over the fucking mixing desk. Yes, that is a true story! And yes, the Chili Peppers released that “Chicken Shit” track.
There’s been talk of you doing a major festival to take place in L.A. involving all the seminal bands of the industrial music scene, called the Industrial Strength Fest. Can we expect that to take place in 2019?
We're working on it. It's a lot of legalities and financing that needs to go through. But we are definitely working on it. I do think it's a possibility due to the resurgence of the times that we're living in. I mean things go in and out of flavor, you know, year in and year out. It seems like this year the industrial flavor is coming back into people's mouths. So we'll see what happens.
Our upcoming shows at the Fonda Theatre, we've got some surprises. Chris Connolly's flying out to do “So What” with us. Arabian Prince is going to be around and a couple of other guests that I think you'll be very surprised to see at that show. We're recording it and doing a 12-camera shoot and live double album for those two nights. So be there and be heard!
Goldenvoice presents Ministry (with Carpenter Brut, Alien Weaponry and special appearances by Dave Navarro and Chris Connelly) at the Fonda Theatre, Thu.-Fri., Dec. 20-21, 7:45 p.m. Tickets and info at fondatheatre.com.