In more discreet times, Ministry's Al Jourgensen would be described as a hard living kind of guy. Always pictured with an unsmiling visage, wild hair, and eyes concealed by sunglasses, Jourgensen's electronically distorted voice on record sounds menacing too. His tough guy image is enhanced by indiscreet stories in rock mags alluding to drugs, groupies, and guns.
Like the story in the Brit rock rag NME. Its lack of discretion was partly responsible for some Texas lawmen, with the article in their pocket, breaking into Ministry's Texas compound earlier this year. "I was in the middle of having sex. It was just like a movie; they busted in quite rudely," Jourgensen says matter-of-factly. Their search located nothing of interest, but Jourgensen was charged anyway. "They haven't a leg to stand on. It's just harassment." Why? "It's this nice little persona that the media has created for me."
Trudging down to meet Jourgensen and his partner-in-crime Paul Barker at a North Michigan Avenue hotel, the temperature was a mere nine degrees, which diverted my anxiety away from Ministry's scary image to the slippery streets. More frightening than images or ice was remembering the first time I'd seen Jourgensen, some 13 years ago. My friend and I, two confirmed metalheads, unwittingly found ourselves in a club listening to the early incarnation of Ministry - some synthesizers and a drum machine playing horrid disco. That was scary!
Media stories have suggested that the title cut of Ministry's new album Filth Pig was about a cop. Barker and Jourgensen want fans to interpret songs for themselves and have a policy of not explaining them. Yet they state, in no uncertain terms, that that reading of "Filth Pig" was way off base - it is not about the police.
Jourgensen is less pissed off with cops than he is with the press. "Cops are like any other group - there's a bunch of fuckin' assholes and there's a bunch of fuckin' cool people. I refuse to condemn, even with what I've been through, an entire workforce of people just on a few bad apples," he says charitably.
"My problem is that I've always been very honest with the media," Jourgensen insists. "I'm not like one of these fucking Stoned Pimpled Pilot things where you go, 'Anti-drug this and that.' And when you get busted for drugs and then go 'I'm so sorry I let everyone down.' I didn't let anyone down. I do what's right for me and if people don't like it, well, they don't have to live my life, do they?"
Jourgensen may be honest, but he seems to hide himself - behind sunglasses in pictures and behind vocal distortion on recordings. "No. I wear sunglasses because of a cornea problem. When I was eight years old, I got hit in the head by a bat. So flash [cameras] bother me." As for distorted vocals, he states that "we just came across a sound that we liked and now every fuckin' chump and their dog seems to want to use distortion. We are getting away from that. We've pretty much experienced the entire parameter of what you can do with distortion."
"With [Filth Pig], we've played with tape distortion a lot," Barker adds. "We have distorted drums - acoustic drums that are completely distorted. That was something we've never approached before."
Another long-time Ministry practice, sampling, has also changed. "There are very few samples on this whole record," Jourgensen explains. "It's about 99.9% live. It's the livest record we've ever done."
Ministry's cover of Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" on the new album is a tour-de-force. When the groupie-magnet sings "Stay, lady, stay," it sounds as if the lady must be a tramp of a Golden Retriever with a dish labeled Lady. That song was drummer Ray Washum's debut in Ministry, and it is hard to imagine that this quiet, somewhat jittery guy could sound like such an uzi-wielding punk thug.
"It's a funny story how that song came to be," Jourgensen recounts. "Me and Paul both happened to be at the Viper in Los Angeles and saw Urge Overkill play 'Wichita Lineman.' I was pretty upset; I'd really wanted to do that song. On the way home that night, 'Lay Lady Lay' came on the radio. Somebody pointed out that it's almost the same chord progression. I started singing the way I was going to sing 'Wichita Lineman' and it turned out to fit.
"Neil Young really liked the version that we did," Jourgensen continues. "In '94 we did the Bridge benefit for kids with Downs Syndrome. We did an acoustic version of 'Lay Lady Lay' with Eddie [Vedder] singing backups - and it sounded pretty good. I put a lot of work into that song, more work than I've ever put into a song before in my life, to make it sound decent. I fuckin' worked my ass off!"
Still, when rating the songs on the new album, "[Crumbs'] is my favorite one," declares Jourgensen. The song contains lines like "I've never had a life, I don't even know what life is, do you?"
"Are we going to tell you why that's in the song?" Barker asks rhetorically, and then he reluctantly violates Ministry's policy. "Irony and sarcasm are at times very subtle, and misinterpreted very easily," he explains.....sarcastically.
Jourgensen recites more of "Crumbs" lyrics, with unmistakable traces of lip- smacking pleasure: "You've probably licked more ass than anyone/I guess you like the taste of shit on your tongue/No matter what you order, the same thing will come/A plate of refried shit all covered in crumbs." Perhaps distorted vocals are merely an attempt at politeness.
Asked about their relationship, Barker and Jourgensen realize that they have been together for 10 years as of January '96. It was a happy excuse to open one of the bottles of champaign on the table. "I take all the credit; he does all the work," is Jourgensen's jokey summation of their partnership.
"We both know we work our asses off. Once we're on a fuckin' roll, nobody works longer or harder than we do," he elaborates. "That's why people ask us to produce their shit. We get so involved in it that we blot out the rest of the fuckin' world and lose perspective a lot of times. I'm like 'I don't know if this sounds good anymore.' I can't tell because I'm focusing on a kick drum sound for 25 hours straight, straight, straight, boom, boom. People go mad! We go through engineers like water because [they're like] 'I can't stand it anymore! It's like Chinese water torture - I have to get out!' And I'm still going, going, going.
"When we start getting into a lull, the other one has a knack of walking in and perking the other one up to let him finish whatever he's doing. I'd say Paul handles more of the technology side of it and I handle more of the playing of the instruments." Then, seriously understating the obvious, Jourgensen adds: "We're about as far away as you get as far as personalities."
As producers of their and others' material, the duo uses the name LuxaPan. Barker's nom-de-production is Pan Hermes, a music messenger. But what does hi partner's name, Hypo Luxa, mean?
"Once again, my honesty will get me in trouble," Jourgensen remarks with a touch of delight. "I passed out in the back of a car on the way to a show in Florida. I woke up just in time to see this sign [that said] Hypo Luxa, FL, so I've kind of adopted it."
Barker and Jourgensen have always been in the vanguard of the now common practice of side-projects (REVCO and Lard being two of the more well-known). "We realize that Ministry is a very narrow focus of our musical desires," Barker explains. "We want to express ourselves in many ways. The different band monikers allow us to make different kinds of music."
As a kid, Jourgensen was into country&western and hasn't lost his youthful delight in that musical genre. Describing a future project that will dip into that style, he mentions that, "We're doing Buck Satan And The 666 Shooters. We'll have an album out within the year."
As a live act, the band continually expands its membership. Metallica's Kirk Hammett did a few shows when Barker's wife was having a baby. Scott Ian from Anthrax has also played with them. "Ministry has a very open door stage policy. We've had fuckin' roadies to fuckin' relatives come out there," Jourgensen says proudly.
These guys obviously work and play well with others. "Yeah. Why not?" Jourgensen asks. "We're not the Satanic baby killers people make us out to be."
Ministry moved back to Chicago about the time of Jim Nash's death. Nash was the co-founder of the Wax Trax! record label that gave Ministry its start and put out many of the band's other projects. "He was a close friend that will be terribly missed," Jourgensen says gravely. Barker adds: "He was a very dearest friend of ours and it's really sad."
"You want to hear about something really amazing?" Jourgensen asks, erasing the somber mood. "At the Ramones' show at Ebbets Field in Denver, 1977 or '76, out of the 14 or 15 people there that night, seven or eight of them wound up working together for the rest of their lives. Talk about the planets all aligning. Jello Biafra, Jim Nash, and myself were all at that show and we didn't speak to each other - none of us knew each other. That show changed my life! That show changed Jello's life.
"I had my cowboy hat, I had my long hair - me and my friend Eddie drove down 65, 70 miles from a town called Breckenridge, CO, more to heckle the fuckin' punks than anything. By the end of the show, I was in with the weirdo camp. That show was like - wow! I was tingling just watching that '1,2,3,4!' I'd never seen anything like that in my life."
"It's Alive changed my life," Barker adds.
Jourgensen met Biafra in 1983 at Metro when the Dead Kennedys came through town, and the two one-time Coloradans realized that they'd both been at that life-changing Ramones concert. They decided to collaborate, calling the project Lard. Biafra had also had law enforcement officials break into his home. "We did a song called 'Drug Raid At 4:00 A.M'" Jourgensen remembers. But that was before Jourgensen had first hand experience, right? Again demonstrating his indiscreet honesty, he admits, "I had first-hand experience before, actually."
The candid Jourgensen is then asked, for the record, if he is still doing heroin. "Absolutely not," he shoots back. Will that affect your creativity? "No. I mean look at this record." You did it clean? Jourgensen, lacking the skills for duplicity, even to rock scribes, remarks: "Not entirely. But certainly enough. I talked to [Fugazi's] Ian Mackaye about this when we did the Pailhead records." St. Ian does heroin? "No. Of course not! We came to the conclusion that we both have the same type needs and visions of things. However, if we're going to a destination of Point B from Point A, Ian drives himself there; I just take a cab.
"I've used drugs in the past and I probably will in the future, but right now I'm not in a position where I want to, not because of anything legal. That's not going to stop me. What's going to stop me is when I stop gaining any benefit out of using drugs. I'm a drug user, not a used drugger. I've used drugs and when I stopped is when drugs used me."
The return to Chicago may have something to do with the Texas drug arrest, although Barker sardonically states, "I came back because of the lovely weather," alluding to Chicago's icy chill. On the day after this interview, Jourgensen flew down to Texas where he pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine and heroin. His punishment was a year's probation and a $5,000 fine.
Apparently, Ministry couldn't technologically tame the one-time Texas brothel the band built their studio in. Barker: "We had no idea how much work it was going to be."
"It's like everyone's dream is to have your own house and all that shit. But then you start having the hot water heater break and the lawn's got to keep getting mowed. It starts being a big pain in the ass," Jourgensen adds. He concludes: "I'd fuckin' rather write a chorus than fuckin' fix a fuse problem."
Ministry left Chicago in the first place because "it was just time to move on," Jourgensen says unconvincingly. He then admits that the media, via an article in a Chicago weekly by an art-community gadabout, was also behind this move. "I lost a really close friend [artist Lorri Jackson] and then on top of that people said that I had something to do with her death. That really upset me. Three people who [the writer] quoted as sources never met me. I've since gotten apologies from all three of them." Jourgensen was especially vexed because his eight year old daughter had also heard the slanderous rumors.
Beyond the impact on his daughter, the story made just being in public difficult. "I couldn't go out," Jourgensen says without whining. "I was just starting to get used to the fame - the uneasy feeling of going out and having people all think they know you when you don't know anything about them. I'm not a Kurt Cobain or anything like that, or even Eddie Vedder. They had three years, real fast - all of a sudden they're famous. It took 10 to 12 years for me to be a public figure."
With image-deflating candor, Jourgensen relates a story that utterly lays to waste any shred of his tough guy persona. "We were on the six o'clock news in Australia while I was peeing in my Depends," he recounts with some pride. "The announcer says: 'Today we have the headliners of the Big Day Out here in Sydney, Australia. So what do you chaps think of Australia?' And I said, 'You know what I'm doing right now?' He goes, 'What?' I said, 'I'm peeing.'"
Aren't rock guys supposed to have cucumbers in their pants? Why diapers? "Because I had to go and because I'm a very busy guy. I don't have time to wait in lines for port-o-potties at these big festivals."
Mentioning that they got the other Big Day Out bands and their crew to follow suit, Barker adds, "It's a lot prettier and easier to just wear your fuckin' depends."
Can we see a tour sponsorship here?
As our interview draws to a close, let Jourgensen have the last word on his media image. "If I really did all of the things that I'm given credit for, I would need a 48 hour day. There's no way I could have gotten all that shit done and still chased skirts and been the biggest junkie in the world since fuckin' Lou Reed and William Burroughs times 10. That's giving me credit as if I'm some superguy, and I'm none of the above, man. I'm just slugging along."