"I’ve died three times through my own self-abuse." From helping shape industrial metal to hanging up on Stanley Kubrick and being Timothy Leary's drug guinea pig, Ministry's Al Jourgensen reflects on 40 years of madness and music

Al Jourgensen 2024
(Image credit: Derick Smith)

Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen’s life has been one long, wild ride. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1958, he fled the island as a toddler with his family following a revolution that saw communist insurgent Fidel Castro seize power. Things have barely calmed down for him since. 

Ministry started out in 1981 as a besuited synth-pop outfit – albeit against Al’s wishes - before changing lanes and laying down the blueprint for industrial metal with such landmark albums as The Land Of Rape And Honey (1988), The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste (1989), and their big breakthrough, 1992’s Psalm 69: The Way To Succeed And The Way To Suck Eggs

At the band’s height, Al was just as famous for his Olympic-standard pharmaceutical habits - he was a walking chemical dustbin who clinically died three times by his own count. That sort of thing is in the past now - he’s been clean for more than 20 years.

“I figured it’s time for me to finally grow up,” he says as he sits down with Hammer via Zoom. He looks different. “I took out all my dreads and piercings,” he says. His long, dark hair partially obscures his facial tattoos, though his piercing dark eyes and the sharp, shiny fangs that show every time he laughs raucously at some crazed memory or other suggest he’s still the enfant terrible of industrial metal, even at the age of 65. 

Ministry have just released their 16th album, the politically charged Hopiumforthemasses. He says it’s their penultimate record, though the idea of Al Jourgensen swapping life on music’s frontline for a quieter existence is hard to imagine. 

“I’m actually starting to appreciate some of the things in this world now,” he says with a grin, as he prepares to look back on a truly fascinating life. 

Metal Hammer line break

What was your childhood like? 

“I was born in 1958, three and a half months premature with liver damage. So, I came out yellow and deaf in one ear. A blown liver and a blown ear to start. And here I am, 65 years later, still going, ‘Fuck you!’” 

Do you have any memories of growing up in Cuba? 

“Not really. My first memory of life is that the rest of my family had come over to the US. It was just me and my grandmother left, we were some of the last ones out, and the flight was overpacked. I just remember everyone screaming and being nervous about if the plane was even going to get off the ground, because it was so overloaded with migrants. So that was my first memory: sheer terror. I just took it from there.” 

Ministry’s debut album, With Sympathy, came out in 1983. You’re unrecognisable on that record as the Al Jourgensen of today. 

“Yeah, [Ministry’s original label Arista] made me cut my hair, made me wear suits. I was all down with it because, at the time, I was living in a squat running two blocks of extension cords just to get heat in an abandoned building. I think I’m the only person that could probably say that they sold out before they started. I’ve hated that record for years, just on the simple principle that it’s not my record and that’s not what I signed up for.” 

You sued to get out of your contract with Arista, and signed to pioneering Chicago industrial label Wax Trax! in 1984. That seemed like the start of establishing the Ministry sound everyone knows today. 

“Oh yeah. Wax Trax! was dominant at one point. We had Front 242, Front Line Assembly, Foetus, Ministry and then my side-projects: Pailhead with [Fugazi singer] Ian MacKaye, and Lard with [ex-Dead Kennedys frontman] Jello Biafra. All the planets aligned. Chicago in the midto late-80s was the place to be. It became kind of a Mecca. How could you not be inspired? 

I sat in my attic, playing guitar and playing with synths, spurred on and becoming more and more confident to be braver and more creative with my music. When I went back to a major label [Ministry signed to Sire in late 1985] there was no looking back, no thought of ever compromising.” 

The Land Of Rape And Honey and The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste were pivotal industrial albums. Were you aware of how important they were at the time? 

“We were aware we were different to music that had come before us, for sure. It was this new animal, and it was an unpredictable animal. But I never thought what we were doing was ‘important’ or any of that bullshit. We were just so full of creativity back then. Musically we were wild, intense, we wouldn’t compromise. That’s why people took to it.” 

1992’s Psalm 69… album was Ministry’s big breakthrough. How did you handle success? 

“It wasn’t what everyone makes it out to be. Glory and fame also has its price, and the price was we didn’t know how to handle that kind of success. So we turned to drugs. We were all just complete junkies. It took a toll on your health and your mental stability. We didn’t really have time to enjoy our success, we were just waiting on our dealer to show up at the studio. We ‘made it’ but we were completely falling apart as a band.”

There’s a story about a Ministry gig in the mid-90s, when you wouldn’t go onstage until you scored some heroin. You ended up going on at 2am… 

“Yeah, the show in Sheffield. There was a riot because I wouldn’t go onstage ’til my dealer showed up! Back then my entire life ran on DST: Dealer Standard Time. I spent almost two decades waiting for my fucking dealer to show up. I didn’t watch MTV and go, ‘Wow, we’re really big!’ I just felt really, I don’t know… vulnerable, in the sense that my entire life was run on DST.” 

You also lived with LSD guru Timothy Leary for a while in the mid-90s. What was that like? 

“Yeah. I lived with him for about a year and a half, then it got to be too much because he was dying of prostate cancer. He took me, [Butthole Surfers frontman] Gibby Haynes and [late Ministry guitarist] Mike Scaccia into his house. Some of it was fun. He would have these Sunday dinners where we would have, like, multinational corporation billionaires and astronauts and congressmen at his house. I got to meet a lot of really cool people.” 

Is it true he basically did drug tests on you all? 

“Yeah, he would get these experimental drugs and then he was supposed to take notes on what our reaction was. We wouldn’t do a pill and wait a couple of hours – we would inject it in his house and he’d take notes. Within a week, Gibby got thrown out because he flipped out and decided to pee all over Tim Leary’s desk. Mikey stuck it out for about another two-and-a-half months and just said, ‘Dude, I can’t do this.’ I think I handled it a little bit better.” 

Why would you subject yourself to something like that?! 

“There were things that I needed to see about myself, because they really got you to dive deep on things that are the root of your problems. So, it was almost like therapy for me and so that was good. I stuck it out longer, but basically it got to be more and more like torture.” 

You got clean in the early 2000s. How hard was it to shake the image of Al Jourgensen as a drug fiend? 

“I was really afraid after I kicked it in 2001 of not being able to perform, write music. Then you find your comfort zone and you realise, ‘No, the drugs had nothing to do with making you creative.’ Over the last 15 years we’ve restructured our band and crew. Everyone’s straight. No one does that shit. 

I literally take this as a job. I go from my hotel room to the stage, stage right back to the hotel room with the car waiting. I don’t get into the after-party things, I don’t go out anymore and I’m quite content. I don’t need these sycophantic vultures just roaming around you, waiting to pick your carcass clean. I avoid that at all costs.” 

Some of the Ministry albums you’ve released since have had very specific political targets: the trio of 2000s albums about George W. Bush, 2018’s AmeriKKKant inspired by Donald Trump… 

“Yeah, how could I not be angry when I saw what Bush pulled off?! He wasn’t elected, it was stolen. I was so pissed. I had a three-record set on Bush because he was re-elected, I had three records to play with this fucking guy. When Trump came in he only got one. Now I kind of feel sorry for Bush, because he’s also a pawn of who really is running things. It’s all dark money and lobbyists, politics are owned, presidents are owned, prime ministers are owned. It’s the dark money behind these individuals that really rule everything, whether it’s Bush, Trump, whatever.” 

Is it true that you were invited by the director Stanley Kubrick to be in the movie A.I.? 

“Yeah, I hung up on Stanley Kubrick three times! I thought it was a prank. His secretary called and said, ‘Stanley Kubrick wants to talk to you.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah. Fuck off!’ Click. The third time he gets on himself. Apparently, he was a fan of some of the stuff we were doing from [Ministry’s second album] Twitch, …Rape and Honey, and really wanted us to be this band in his soundtrack. After talking to him, I was pretty convinced that was actually Stanley Kubrick. Then he died.” 

But you still appeared in the finished film when it came out in 2001… 

“Well, Steven Spielberg bought the rights, so he inherited me. The original script I got from Kubrick, it was all about male prostitutes and a sleazy section of town, like Blade Runner. Spielberg takes it over and the whole focus of this thing is this fucking kid and this teddy bear. So, we’re on set for three days and they lined us up to meet him. He gets to me and I’m just like, ‘Steve, baby, this is bullshit. Stanley told me this is going to be a porno movie and ‘A.I.’ stood for Anal Intruder!’ And he freaked out.”

You’ve done a lot of covers over the years. Have you ever had any feedback from the artists you’ve covered? 

“I actually got a call from Bob Dylan about Lay Lady Lay [covered by Ministry on 1996’s Filth Pig album], saying how great he thought it was. Neil Young told me, ‘You own that song now, just like Hendrix owns All Along The Watchtower.’ Neil Young told me that! I found out that Ozzy likes our cover of Supernaut [the Black Sabbath song, recorded by Al under the name 1000 Homo DJs]. 

We did a cover of [The Stooges’] Search And Destroy – I got a text from Iggy saying, ‘Dude, how did you come up with that one, man?’ We only tackle covers when we know that we could do it in our own style; something that they wouldn’t have thought about when they were doing it.”

Ministry press pic 2024

(Image credit: Derick Smith)

You’ve lost a lot of good friends and bandmates along the way… “I lost my best friend and my right-hand human being in my life, Mike Scaccia [who died in 2012]. I’ve lost Paul Raven [former Ministry/Killing Joke bassist, who died in 2007]. It’s difficult.” 

How do you think you managed to survive? 

“Why am I here? I don’t know, there’s no explanation for it. I’ve died three times through my own self-abuse – defibrillated and everything, been brought back from the dead. It doesn’t interest me anymore.” 

Having faced death so many times, how do you feel about your own mortality? 

“I welcome it. During the 90s and the early 2000s, I did not want to be here, I was disappointed the last two times I died. When I came back and realised, ‘Oh, fuck, I’m still here.’ But now, I have dreams. I go to other planets, I have other lives that are concurrent with mine. I’m not afraid of death.” 

Where do you think you’re going after you die? 

“I know I’m going somewhere. When I just moved into this place about a year ago, I did a bunch of ’shrooms and I floated around in my pool and I yelled up at the at the sky and just said, ‘You gotta promise me I ain’t coming back here again because I’ve been back here so many times to this planet!’ And I heard a voice that just said, ‘No, you’re moving on. Don’t worry. You’ve conquered your fears, you can move forward.’ So I feel good about it, I don’t seek death anymore, but I don’t fear it because I know that the next place I’m going to is actually better.” 

You’ve talked about doing one more album after Hopiumforthemasses and then bowing out with Ministry. Why are you calling it quits? 

“There’s only so far you can go before you bore yourself to death. Do it until you puke, you know? And I don’t want to get to that puke point. I’m going to be pre-emptive. I’m working with Paul Barker [former Ministry bassist, who left the band acrimoniously in 2003] again, and we’re doing one last album when we’re done with the touring schedule over the next year. 

We had a really good writing relationship in the 90s and we work well in the studio together. I think it’s the perfect way to go out, wrapping a bow on the entire Ministry career, doing one final world tour and we’re done.” 

What does retirement hold for you? 

“I mean… I can literally retire! There’s a certain point where you get to where the music suffers, when you’re like, ‘Well, we’ve already done that!’ I want to do film scores and activism and things that interest me. I just got done with a documentary, which is a follow-up to Killers Of The Flower Moon, with DiCaprio narrating the documentary. I have so much film score work to do right now. I want to retire, but I want to keep pushing and progressing.”

Hopiumforthemasses is out now via Nuclear Blast. 

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.