Al Jourgensen didn't intend to start another band. He and engineer Sam D'Ambruoso went into Jourgensen's home studio simply to record odds and ends that might later be assigned to one of the musician's myriad projects.
That's how Jourgensen normally works. He spends a few months in the studio. When he's done, he'll review the output. He'll decide if the song belongs to Ministry or RevCo or Lard. For someone who juggles multiple bands, it seems like an efficient process.
But this session was different. Jourgensen and D'Ambruoso started pumping out speed-metal tracks. Then they covered Devo. They made weird electronic music. It wasn't stuff that was meant to go together, but people who heard the work liked it and said it all felt of a piece.
They got a record deal. A new band, Surgical Meth Machine, was born.
“It was really the case of songs writing a band as opposed to bands writing a song,” Jourgensen says by phone from his Burbank home.
Fans call him “Uncle Al,” a testament not just to the longevity of his career (“I'm just happy as fuck that I'm not quite yet Grandpa Al. At least I'm still clinging on to Uncle”) but also to his personality. On the phone, Jourgensen is immediately friendly, cracking jokes and relating the kind of entertaining stories that your mom probably doesn't want you to hear.
“My main goal in life is to be considered as the person that always shows up at Thanksgiving and ruins it,” he says. “If I can achieve that, I think I've actually made a statement in my life.”
Moreover, he's the kind of musician whose influence has spread far and wide, a familiar name to anyone who has identified as goth or industrial or metal or punk.
Surgical Meth Machine's self-titled debut, out April 15 via Nuclear Blast, is a strange album. It's metal and it's pop and it's experimental. It's heavy and it's heartfelt. More important, though, it's a rare, chronological peek into Jourgensen's studio life. He likens it to the journals a kid might keep at summer camp. “It's kind of like my little day camp diary,” he says. It's the kind of album that you need to hear from start to finish in a single sitting.
“We were really trying hard to do the fastest metal album that had ever been released,” Jourgensen says. Then weed kicked in. He explains, “That album slowed down for some strange reason and everything got warm and fuzzy and there were unicorns kicking butterflies.”
That's relatively speaking, of course. After all, this is the guy responsible for eardrum-puncturing ass-kickers like “Thieves” and “Just One Fix.” Then again, he's also the guy responsible for synth-pop jams like “Work for Love” and “I Wanted to Tell Her.” Maybe “warm and fuzzy” isn't all that strange for Jourgensen.
A few months after moving back to Los Angeles, where he had previously spent a couple of two-year stints as a resident, he got his California driver's license and then visited a doctor for a medical marijuana prescription.
Jourgensen says that people told him to tell the doctor he had anxiety or insomnia. “In my paranoid mind, I started thinking, well, everyone is saying that, he's going to say you're just saying that because everyone says that,” he says. “I had to come up with something different, I figured, to get my medical card.”
So he told the doctor that he was invisible. “I said, 'Well, doctor, because I'm invisible and, unless I'm high, people can't see me,'” he recalls.
Jourgensen got his weed card.
“I'm Invisible” later became the final song on Surgical Meth Machine's album. Its recently released video features Jourgensen dressed in pink with images of Las Vegas moving behind him. (They filmed the video in a downtown Los Angeles studio. “We got a lot more work done in an actual studio than actually being on the streets of Vegas,” Jourgensen says.)
On the day Jourgensen got his weed prescription, Surgical Meth Machine worked out a cover of Devo's song “Gates of Steel.”
“To me, it was a real punk anthem,” Jourgensen says of the song. “I just wanted to take that one and make it a little more teenage punk-pop and less arty, quirky, intellectual.”
“Gates of Steel” bleeds into “Spudnik,” which plays out more like an extension of the preceding song, and then the album gets stranger. It morphs into bizarre and beautiful, drum and bass–tinged sound collages. Then it closes with “I'm Invisible,” which might be the closest you'll ever hear Jourgensen sounding like Portishead.
But it's not just the weed half of the album that's so weird and compelling. Even the metal tracks are unconventional and fascinating. Jourgensen rants about Facebook comments on “I'm Sensitive.” Jello Biafra picks up the mic on “I Don't Wanna,” a collaboration that happened simply because the punk icon happened to be staying at Jourgensen's house. The two normally collaborate together as Lard.
All this is the result of not intentionally forming a band. “There was absolutely zero thought of this stuff ever being released in its present form or anything,” Jourgensen says. “It was just work ideas. It's almost like a garage demo in a way.”
Surgical Meth Machine is out April 15 on Nuclear Blast Records.