With decades of chaos behind him, Ministry's Al Jourgensen is making progress

Al Jourgensen
(Image credit: Derick Smith)

Al Jourgensen clearly enjoys his outlier status. “Ministry is this floating kind of quirky metal band,” he says of the industrial rock avatars he founded 40 years ago. “We’re not accepted by the church burners, we’re not accepted by the pop-metallers, we’re not accepted by the dance club crowd any more. We’ve betrayed all of our fucking fans and I still love it!” 

Such devotion to the cause is admirable. Jourgensen has negotiated more than his share of crests and valleys over the decades. At their early 90s peak, Ministry were shifting enough product to rival American labelmates Prince, Madonna and Depeche Mode. But commercial success was tainted by drug and alcohol abuse on an appalling scale. 

Jourgensen was a heroin addict for nearly 20 years, unable to function without it. It nearly killed him too, as he tore through life with the same kind of apocalyptic abandon as a grade-A Ministry song, man and music united in their refusal to compromise. Reluctantly adopting the role of Ministry frontman was just about the only concession he was willing to make. 

“It’s the worst fucking job on Earth,” he maintains. “I always wanted to be Jimmy Page, not Robert Plant. I just wanted to be in the studio, writing stuff, like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard Of Oz. It’s just a ridiculous paradigm to be considered a lead singer. I’m in complete inner turmoil every time you put a microphone next to me. 

“But I do think that’s partly where the rage comes from. I was so angry at having to be the fucking singer that I just started yelling. People like [Cheap Trick’s] Robin Zander can actually sing, but I just get up there and rant and rave over a guitar part I wrote. And hopefully, somebody somewhere picks it up and thinks it’s cool.” 

Indeed, however tortuous the process, countless bands have been stirred by his music. Slipknot, Korn, Sevendust, Linkin Park and Red Hot Chili Peppers are just a few of those indebted to Ministry’s formidable racket. Trent Reznor calls Ministry “the single most important influence in the sound and concept of Nine Inch Nails.” 

It’s a sound forged by samples, sequencers, monstrous dance beats and punishing riffs. At their best, sharpened by Jourgensen’s fiercely socio-political lyrics, Ministry are immense.

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Covered in tattoos and studded with face piercings, dreadlocks frothing out from a black bandana, Jourgensen cuts an imposing figure. Down the line from his Los Angeles home, his voice is no-nonsense gnarly, a low growl warmed by self-deprecating humour and a ready laugh. 

He’s a changed man these days. Well, kind of. He kicked his heroin habit in 2002, during sessions for Ministry’s eighth album, Animositisomina, but remains partial to the odd stimulant. He smokes pot and does psilocybin almost daily; a productive aid. And while he’s healthier, it’s reassuring to note that he’s lost none of his creative lust or fury. 

The latest expression of this is Moral Hygiene. Ablaze with righteous fire, it’s a scathing indictment of the political age we live in, with Jourgensen attempting to steer a light through the chaos of a post-Trump world in desperate need of empathy and compassion. The message is pretty clear: let’s start giving a shit about each other and the planet we share. Jourgensen describes Moral Hygiene as “less rage, more reflection” this time around. 

“It’s been going that way for the last few records,” he says. “My real rage ones were against the Bush regime [2004’s Houses Of The Molé, 2006’s Rio Grande Blood and 2007’s The Last Sucker]. Then when Trump got in, it was more shock than anger on the last album [2018’s AmeriKKKant]. He’s still there on the new one, because he’s been such a large part of American and global life with his policies and corruption and everything else. 

"As a songwriter, it’s low-hanging fruit to write about something loathsome. You have to be careful and pick your spots. So Moral Hygiene is more like a ‘what the fuck’ moment – how did we get here, how do we fix it, how do we go forward?”

Recorded at his own Scheisse Dog Studio in LA, Moral Hygiene was created with the aid of several non-Ministry members. NWA co-founder Arabian Prince appears, as does Dead Kennedys legend Jello Biafra, who steams headlong into Sabotage Is Sex. Jourgensen and Biafra go back years, first hooking up in 1988 when they began recording in industrial hardcore outfit Lard. 

“Jello is basically a social misfit,” chuckles Jourgensen. “I’m the same way too, which is why I anaesthetise, so I can deal with social interactions. But he doesn’t anaesthetise, he’s just naturally weird. He’s literally my closest friend on this planet, so when I say things like that, trust me, it’s from the heart.” 

Also aboard is guitarist Billy Morrison, best known for working with Billy Idol and Royal Machines. Morrison lends his considerable weight to various tracks, including a striking cover of The StoogesSearch And Destroy

“A couple of years ago I got asked to play Above Ground, a benefit for suicide prevention [at the Fonda Theatre in LA], with Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction and various guests,” Jourgensen explains. “They asked me to do two Iggy songs, which I nailed perfectly at sound-check. Then when I came back for the show that evening, everyone was cramped in one large room, with a bunch of hangers-on. 

"And the one mistake I’ll never make again is to hit on a joint from a source I don’t know. I’m thinking it’s some kind of PCP derivative, because when I got up to sing Search And Destroy, all of a sudden everything was in slow motion. Fortunately the band picked up on it and were able to compensate. But I just got off that stage and thought I’d let everybody down, fucked up out of my mind. 

“The next day I called up everyone to apologise,” he continues. “Billy said, ‘No, man. That’s how we’re going to do that song in the future. It sounded awesome!’ So we recorded it that way. The first person I sent it to was Iggy. He was like, ‘That’s fuckin’ badass! How’d you come up with that?’ I didn’t have the heart to tell him the whole story, but here it is in print.”

This friendship predates his association with Biafra. In 1983, Jourgensen played guitar on Iggy Pop’s Fire Engine, which he also co-wrote. Four years earlier, his first band, Special Affect, opened for Iggy in Chicago. 

Jourgensen was new wave back then. When it came to forming Ministry in 1981, he continued in a similar synth-pop direction. A deal with Arista led to their 1983 debut, With Sympathy, though Jourgensen was unconvinced by the label’s assertion that Ministry were the next Joy Division. Being a lead singer felt even less comfortable. It was a role he took on through sheer necessity, having auditioned a dozen vocalists who failed to impress. 

“They made me sing on With Sympathy and I hated it,” he recalls. “They appointed the producer and musicians and the songs, so I had very little to do with that record. It took me years to get over that stigma and anger of not being more of a participant in it. I was just told what to do. So it was very Milli Vanilli to me.” 

Ministry began in earnest with 1986’s Twitch, as Jourgensen scrapped the pop elements for a far more corrosive noise, incorporating samples, loops and savage distortion. Some of these sounds were the result of what Jourgensen calls “beautiful accidents”. One of the microphone preamps blew during vocal sessions at London’s Southern Studios, with co-producer Adrian Sherwood. 

“It came out pretty distorted and we just went with it,” he explains. “After that, I would buy pre-mics, immediately overload them and blow them up. It sounded like shit, which was another added layer of protection against the insecurity of having to be the lead singer. So it was a crush of ambition and good fortune."

Jourgensen had fully perfected the technique by the time of Ministry’s first masterpiece, 1988’s The Land Of Rape And Honey (named after the slogan of an agricultural firm in Saskatchewan). A cacophonous set that alchemised Led Zeppelin, The 13th Floor Elevators, Cabaret Voltaire and Einstürzende Neubauten into a vast industrial slam dance, it was driven by Jourgensen’s painstaking method of splicing tape to create something otherworldly. 

“It seemed like we’d come up with something new,” he says, “because my main influence at that point in time was William Burroughs’ cut-up style and things like Buñuel. Rather than emulating other bands, I was trying to emulate artists from different mediums. Then from there we had a template. But The Land Of Rape And Honey was really like no-man’s land. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were throwing bits of quarter-inch tape on the floor and putting them back together, very much like The Naked Lunch or something. That seemed to work and set us apart.”

In his eye-popping 2013 memoir, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According To Al Jourgensen, he describes the album as “the perfect storm of hallucinogens, heroin, cocaine and a month of me wasted out of my mind, editing allthese reassembled bits of tape on a two-track.” 

Deep in the grip of addiction, he poured his creative energy into Ministry and various other related projects, among them Lard, Revolting Cocks, Acid Horse and the questionably-named 1000 Homo DJs. 

The nihilism of follow-up albums The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste (1989) and Psalm 69: The Way To Succeed And The Way To Suck Eggs (1992) appeared to mirror the chaos of Jourgensen’s private life, the eternal delinquent hell-bent on self-destruction. He admits that they were difficult records to make, forged in an atmosphere of substance abuse and interpersonal conflict between band members. 

Psalm 69 eventually went platinum, fired by the unexpected success of thrashy lead-off single, Jesus Built My Hotrod. Featuring drunken jabber from Butthole Surfers singer Gibby Haynes, the song was a massive hit in clubland, pushing Ministry into the same Warner Bros sales bracket as Madonna and Depeche Mode. It led to the band’s appearance at 1992’s Lollapalooza and, later that year, their first major tour of the UK.

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Keen to shake off people’s expectations, Jourgensen slowed the pace and ditched most of the electronica for 1996’s Filth Pig. The black humour was gone too, leaving instead a heavy-duty throb of anguished metal. Never mind that it was the first Ministry album to crack the US Top 20; it felt like the diary of a soul in torment. 

“The late 80s was invigorating, but by the late 90s it stopped being fun,” Jourgensen reflects. “I wanted to fuckin’ die so badly. I was going through my first divorce and I was alone in this 8,000-square-foot mansion with a recording studio in it. I was doped up out of my mind and had no friends or engineers or anything. 

"Being a heroin addict, any opioid makes it very difficult to process bowel movements. So every day, living alone in this giant house, I would think to myself, ‘I hope I’m not Elvis today, where I die on the toilet, straining to get a shit out.’ It was horrible. And by the time that Dark Side Of The Spoon [1999] came out, it was even worse.” 

Jourgensen’s health deteriorated. Constant drug use ruined his liver and left him with hepatitis C. His big toe was amputated after he stood on a discarded hypodermic needle. Having overdosed on three separate occasions – each one leaving him clinically dead for a time – he finally entered rehab at the turn of the millennium.

He revived Ministry for 2003’s Animositisomina, but says that the real watershed was follow-up album, Houses Of The Molé: “That was where I was like, ‘OK, maybe I do have something to offer. Maybe this stuff is good and I do have friends and I don’t need the drugs.’ And it was an uphill climb from there, which I think is culminating in things like Moral Hygiene. I think it’s all a natural progression of somebody who’s finally finding themselves.” 

At 62, Jourgensen struggles to account for his unlikely survival, but suspects that he has a guardian angel in the form of his late grandma, who effectively raised him. 

“I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason I’m still here,” he reckons. “For whatever reason she’s still hovering about, making sure I don’t go too over the edge.” 

Posthumous protection aside, it could well be that Jourgensen’s real saviour has been an unstinting work ethic. The luxury of having a home studio meant that he was able to write and record every day during quarantine. 

“By the time I got done, I not only had Moral Hygiene, but an entire new Ministry album as well,” he reveals. “That’s completely mixed and done, except for my vocals. I also have a new Lard album ready to go. We were going back and forth remotely, with Jello in San Francisco and me here in LA, sending songs to one another. So I basically made three albums in one year.” 

Evident from the get-go, this willingness to toil for his art has somehow endured throughout everything. 

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he offers. “I just had to find new ways of working. I couldn’t work before without a fucking needle in my arm. I just wasn’t interested unless I was high. Then it got to the point where I wasn’t interested unless I was drunk. And now it’s to the point where I’m not interested unless I’m just half-drunk. 

"We’ll leave it at that. Let’s say I’m making progress!”

Moral Hygiene is out now via Nuclear Blast (opens in new tab).

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.