Al Jourgensen – the industrial Godfather, charismatic kingpin, world champion mischief-maker and badass black cat with 900 lives behind Ministry – leans back into his purple velour couch. His eyes are hidden behind sunglasses and there’s a huge grin curling around his face as he happily observes the slow congregation of Ministry circa 2006 in his living room.
Bassist Paul Raven (Killing Joke) arrived at Chez Al in El Paso, Texas a few hours ago, immediately receiving a skinned-badger hat and promises of giant fried pork chops for his troubles. Guitarists Tommy Victor and Mike Scaccia wandered in a little while later and now the youthful enthusiasm of Slipknot’s Joey Jordison has arrived, suitcase in hand, to be greeted by Mrs Angie Jay Jourgensen, the rest of Ministry 2006, dogs Ozzy and Lemmy, cats Kitty and Ziggy, engineer Bixby, soundman Max, assistants Freddie and Vanessa and Classic Rock. (Keyboardist John Bechdel flies in later.) Chaos is brewing like a Texan tornado and our sponsor is bristling with delight.
“This,” whispers the wily old rogue, “is a fucking band! And it will raise the standard of ‘Fuck off’, which has sadly been allowed to slip in the last few years… [bellows] Hey Joey? Ready for your nightmare now?”
He lets loose a dirty cackle, sips yet more of his beloved cabernet and bounces on to his biker-booted feet to gorge himself on the abundant energy and enthusiasm. All of this, it should be mentioned, takes place after six members of Jourgensen’s Revolting Cocks left El Paso in the wee hours, following a relaxed yet razor-sharp rehearsal. Your narrator nearly found himself in the company of Al and said Cocks watching a skinny young man being suffocated by 300lb strippers in the sort of establishment where you wake up missing an organ. A relatively dull evening by Jourgensen’s usual standards, I might add…
Here is a fact you can live by: in a world full of fakes and poseurs, Al Jourgensen may stride the earth (literally) a big toe shy of the full set but his is the stomp of a man who not only knows what side his bread is buttered on but made the loaf and owns the bakery. Since forming Ministry in the early 80s, Jourgensen has been the forerunner for industrial rock music, seen fame attack with its fat bat, disappeared behind a veil of drug addiction for the larger part of a decade, kicked said drug habits (three years previously) and finally formed his own 13th Planet label and management company to maintain control of his affairs.
And, with the release of Ministry’s 13th studio album – the scorching, head-crunching, big business-bashing, relentlessly aggressive Rio Grande Blood – he’s nearly come full circle. Back to those enthusiastic early days in London, when Maggie Thatcher fuelled his anger. Back to the waves of inspiration that saw him take Ministry from the new-wave electro pop of With Sympathy and Twitch to the industrial punk-metal apocalypse of The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste and Psalm 69. And back to the aggressive-yet-humorous territory Ministry proudly stalked in the early 90s, platinum coated and deliciously indignant. In fact, the only thing he hasn’t managed to retrieve is that toe (amputated after a splinter became infected).
“Bastards!” he laughs. “I asked them to keep it in a jar and give it to me when I was leaving but then they ‘lost’ it. Yeah, right! They’re probably running tests on it still…”
Before today’s human storm hit his home, Jourgensen started his day much like he has started almost every other day over the past three years: an early riser, up just before 6am, he has already downed a full carafe of coffee, smoked a packet of cigarettes, taken in a huge chunk of CNN and BBC on TV, read conspiracy books or underground subversive political literature and passed it through his feverish anti-establishment brain 10 times over. This is the Rio Grande Blood diet.
“I don’t think this could’ve worked 10 or 15 years ago,” he explains, with Raven sitting in to offer insights. “As people get grumpier they see through pretence more easily. Raven and I have been talking about doing stuff for a long while and finally our schedules lined up. When you consider that me, Raven and Tommy are three very grumpy old men, I’m not surprised how the record turned out. We’ve been around the block a few too many times and, with the current world conditions added to that, it was a powder keg.”
“I was eager to work with Al and I had a great relationship with Tommy in Prong,” Raven adds, “so it seemed like the perfect no-bullshit music-and-message project.”
“I’m used to making a record every three or four years and we did this whole fuckin’ thing in less than a month!” Jourgensen exclaims. “That’s because these riffs come from three men at the same point in their careers who didn’t wanna do something mediocre.”
Raven, no stranger to a bit of riffery himself, continues: “Being in the front of people’s minds when it comes to politics, especially in this country, was particularly important to me. Killing Joke has tended to become more about personal perspective where it used to be like a news bulletin and I think it’s vitally important that someone is directly addressing shit now and shoving it in your fucking face.”
The fact that Ministry are now a visceral barrage of agit-punk rock is as much down to Jourgensen’s health as anything. Free from his heroin addiction for years now, there is no doubt that getting (and keeping) the monkey off his back has freed up those creative juices.
“Well, sure!” he roars. “First of all, you’re not living on Dealer Standard Time. DST is when you can’t do anything until the dealer shows up and, when he does, you shoot up and pass out for another four hours and then when you wake up you’re already worrying about the next dealer run. So everything is completely out of balance. I couldn’t have given a fuck about politics. My politics were: can I get an extra crack rock if I buy $100-worth? I’ve gone through exorcising my personal demons lyrically and musically – Filth Pig, The Dark Side Of The Spoon, even half of Animositisomina were from a personal perspective. And now I don’t live on DST and this shit around us affects us all the time, it’s pretty difficult to ignore and not get fucking angry about.”
“In that sense,” says Raven, “Rio Grande Blood is pretty blue collar as a record. There are no particularly grandiose ideas or moralistic standpoints. And the fact that the album sleeve is in plain black and white, I fucking love that – there’s no candy coating,”
“I don’t know the fucking answers and I never claimed to,” adds Al, “but I am stirring the pot and asking questions.”
This isn’t the first time Jourgensen has found himself in the middle of some ugly political times. Back in 1984-5, fresh from signing a deal with Sire, Jourgensen came to London to learn from renowned dub producer Adrian Sherwood. Thatcherism was in full flow and Jourgensen spent many a day at Southern Studios with Sherwood, learning the production ropes and mingling with the anarcho-punks from the recently disbanded Crass.
“I see this historical, cyclical repeat of events I went through when I was living in London – the same thing from the same people who were behind the Reagan-Thatcher movement: Bush, Berlusconi, Merkel… even Blair, who’s just a lapdog. I find it funny that, 25 years later, I’m discussing Bush the son. I know about Bush the father and I also know about his father, Prescott Bush, who made the entire Bush family fortune off banking with the Nazis! [Prescott Bush was a partner at Browns Brothers Harriman on Wall Street, who had dealings with Nazi financier Fritz Thyssen.] It’s the same fucking bullshit as the late 70s and early 80s, when at least there was a good reaction in the form of punk. That’s what spawned from those times and I hope this album can help to spawn something very similar.”
Rio Grande Blood bludgeons the current US administration like a gaggle of 10-year-olds bashing a birthday piñata. Yellow Cake, Lies Lies Lies and Ass Clown (featuring long-time Jourgensen pal Jello Biafra) are gleefully abrasive and decidedly non-ambiguous.
“Mediocrity has become the accepted norm,” Jourgensen spits. “In tough times, human nature is to bury your head in the sand, in denial. You can’t possibly think a government would have a hand in bombing the World Trade Centre, you couldn’t want to think that, so you just bury your head in the sand. It’s the same thing with Hitler – you couldn’t possibly think, after Goebbels geared up his PR machine, that he was really that bad. ‘They can’t be that evil,’ ‘He can’t be such a bad guy,’ ‘Maybe he really doesn’t know what’s going on in Auschwitz…’ – it’s the denial phase. So there’s this complacency period where they run amok, until you take your head out of the sand and something doesn’t smell right. And that’s what this record is. It just doesn’t smell right and we won’t deny it.”
“It’s hard for people to gain their own perspective when you’re so encapsulated in the fear-ridden media bullshit,” adds Raven. “It’s hard to see any truth or reality…”
“…And this is how governments have governed since Roman times,” continues Al. “‘We must be afraid,’ ‘We must regroup,’ ‘Only the government can help you,’ ‘There’s a terrorist on your couch, there’s a terrorist in your bathtub – you must listen to us because we’re the only ones who can protect you’… [roars] and they don’t exist!”
While making Rio Grande Blood, Jourgensen found an unlikely ally in a 75-year-old former Marine known as ‘the Sgt Major’. One of the first marines to set foot in Vietnam, the man proved inspirational to Jourgensen after a chance meeting.
“The planets aligned, for sure,” agrees Jourgensen. “Angie [Jourgensen’s wife and manager] was switching storage spaces and the Sgt Major happened to run the place. She knew I needed to meet this guy. He thought I was some tattooed hippy asshole but then I explained to him I had this Full Metal Jacket song, totally pro the average guy who’s in an unfortunate situation. When he realised we didn’t hate him, and when he heard the song and saw my lyrics, he got it. He’s a special old guy – crusty as fuck, mind – and he hates the hypocrisy, hates the loss of life. He feels he’s shot this, that and the other… and for what? And I think there’s a lot more guys like him in America than we could guess at.”
The skill set which helped Jourgensen become an engaging raconteur, someone who could connect with everyone from the Sgt Major to Johnny Depp (he played with Depp’s band P at a couple of shows in the 90s), was learnt under the tutorage of 60s acid guru Timothy Leary, with whom Jourgensen lived in 1994-5.
“He was my mentor and probably more of a father to me than my own father – and I’ve told my dad this too, so it’s cool. Tim was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. He knew everything about everything, knew everybody, facilitated it and was basically the ringmaster, the PT Barnum of the 60s, and he taught me the Barnum thing. So I now view myself as a conduit and a catalyst between a lot of different people and ideas.”
It’s a networking talent that shows no signs of waning, given Jourgensen’s recent work with both Ministry and Revolting Cocks.
“This last year has been incredible,” he nods in agreement. “Schedules open up and I get to work with Raven and Tommy on Ministry. And just before that, with the Cocks, I’m workin’ with Billy Gibbons, Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander! We grew up in high school going, ‘Oh my God!’ to these guys and there I am, trading riffs with Billy Gibbons in a session! This year’s been magical from a musical perspective, in terms of working with people I find really interesting. The last time I had this kind of thing was when [William] Burroughs and Leary opened up in the same year for me…”
It has, indeed, been a long, strange trip for Al Jourgensen – one that, thankfully, shows no signs of abating any time soon.
Al Jourgensen has helmed a host of side projects, mostly generated during his days in Chicago with industrial-rock label Wax Trax records and at Chicago Trax studios. Lard, Pailhead and the legendary Revolting Cocks have all released recordings but perhaps the best one-off project was the 1,000 Homo DJs’ Supernaut EP from 1990.
A ridiculously heavy and twisted take on the Sabbath classic, it was backed by the abrasive, hilarious Hey Asshole! and followed by industrial linchpins Apathy and Better Way in 1991.
“It was done at Chicago Trax, which was basically Sodom and Gomorrah in a recording studio, so the project was really conceived, written and executed in a complete ‘fog of war’, if you will,” giggles Jourgensen. “It was the result of some jamming, just good old-fashioned jamming. Sabbath are such a great band to jam to, so Supernaut was a jamming standard and we added a bunch of distortion. Simple, really.
“Also, during that time there this corrupt cop that roamed the beat, a foot soldier called Jerry, who would come in and shake us down for doughnuts and drugs – in that order. He’d literally say, after stuffing himself with doughnuts: ‘I won’t arrest ya if I get some of your coke or MDA or whatever.’ Now, he knew we snorted coke and heroin, all that stuff, but he didn’t know we shot it. So he came in unannounced one day, ‘cos usually the secretary would warn us he was on his way and we’d put the stuff away and just leave a pile of coke out. But this time I was right in mid-tie, and I didn’t know how he’d react to that. So as he came in I swung around, untied, pulled the tourniquet out of my hand, threw it under the mixing desk and said: ‘Jerrrrrry, man, we need you to sing.’ Now this disarmed him, because it was a cop having to do something creative. He kinda knew something was up, his cop curiosity was piqued, but once I asked him to sing… well, look, you hit fascism with art and art generally wins in the long run. So he started to forget about what he saw, or thought he saw, and started ranting ‘Hey, asshole!’ – so we had a song!”