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Cover Story: Ministry • “My House is My Art”

| August 31, 2021


Al Jourgensen 2021, (Photo Derick Smith)

Any other modern bandleader would be a tad nervous, if not downright filled with floor pacing anxiety. But not calm, cool, and collected Svengali Al Jourgensen. Sure, his notorious, pioneering industrial outfit Ministry is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year by — gulp! — heading out on post-lockdown, but mid-Delta-variant tour, which hits Chicago on October 10, the day after his 63rd birthday. And yes, he’s still pushing musical parameters with his edgy recent single “Good Trouble,” whose Unity remix blends his original “Terminator” march with the reading of a scathing John Lewis political screed by NWA’s Arabian Prince — just one of many sonic surprises on the band’s new Moral Hygiene album; others include the singer’s old Lard comrade Jello Biafra in a sneering cameo on the punk-powered squealer “Sabotage is Sex,” a lugubrious cover of Iggy and the Stooges old chestnut “Search and Destroy,” and virulent, wake-up-you-idiots social commentaries practically designed to inflame the entire fact-denying Republican Party (“Death Toll,” “Broken System,” “We Shall Resist,” and the blunt, anti-conspiracy-theory “Disinformation” and “Alert Level”). This pugnacious provocateur isn’t just outlining an Apocalyptic civics lesson on the chalkboard —backed by current Billy Idol guitarist Billy Morrison; he’s scraping his metallic fingernails down it with every bludgeoning riff.

If Moral Hygiene sounds like a rather sober reckoning, it might have something to do with the fact that its formerly hard-partying composer is sober himself. Or at least relatively so, in comparison. Long gone are the hard drugs that nearly killed him, he says reassuringly. “But I still enjoy a good wine or a sake with a nice Italian meal or some sushi,” he confesses. And — lifelong aesthete that he is, probably one of his most obvious saving graces — he studiously goes into detail on the labyrinthine levels of sake that a true connoisseur can explore, everything from chilled plum and fuji apple flavored (he sniffs disdainfully at its lowbrow mass-pleasing concept) to the more high-end unfiltered brands he prefers. Its appreciation feels like a whole new art form, he swears. “Sake is this new Michelin-system, wine-rating thing because it really is so diverse,” he says, admitting that he savors his over crushed ice, as well — a sacrilege to some purists. “And I like it when they take on their own flavorsome of them have a strange vanilla taste that comes from natural processing, and it’s multi-layered and really good. But it’s a different taste than Westerners haven’t gotten used to yet.” So you might think you’re savoring an exotic potent potable when you order that hot rice-wine carafe with your Japanese meal, he adds. “But it’s formaldehyde, most of it, like most of the cheap wines like Thunderbird that you drank as a teenager — you’ll get really sick on it because it’s crap. But when you start getting into the complexities of how they make this stuff and the different varieties you can discover?” He sighs with the confidence of a learned but self-taught Midwesterner who believes twice as hard in every morsel of wisdom they acquire. “They even have sake vineyards, if you will, even though there are no grapes, with hotels, sake tastings, the whole experience.” And a sake destination vacation, he says, “Is just really, really cool.” And it’s perhaps the perfect introductory metaphor for this candid chat with Jourgensen. He’s learned a hell of a lot since he was a ripple-glugging Chicago teen, hanging out at Tut’s and Wax Trax. Let him share such knowledge with you, the audience, if he may…

IE: How did you cope with the pandemic? Did you take up any new hobbies? Paint or draw?

AL JOURGENSEN: Yeah, actually — both! Basically, my house is my art. So I worked on my house and did this record. And that includes purchasing weird old shit online or at limited flea markets that you can transform and redo yourself or paint. So I just worked around the house and did this record and waited for this thing to end. And like at the end of the “TV Song,” when it says, “It! Is! Over!” Well, not quite, which is what I allude to as well as we keep going. Just because the politicians say it’s over, I know that this society as we’ve constructed it currently is the closest thing to pre-secession society in America that I can read in my history books, which are probably full of shit, too. But what I’m saying is, comparison-wise, No. It is NOT over.

IE: We’ll come back to that. But, jumping into the album, how do you tackle something so iconic as The Stooges’ “Search and Destroy”? I think you did a great version.

AJ: Well, Iggy thinks so, too. You’ve got to remember that the band I was in opened for Iggy in the Metro’s first year, back in 1979. So I’ve actually known Iggy since we opened for him then. And he’s a good guy, with great stories. And we’ve all changed, right? Like me back in 1979 and him back in 1979, [we] are much different people than we are today — today, he’s a really great guy, and today, I would consider myself a good soul. But back then, I think we were probably just a couple of assholes, trying to find our way around, ya know? But the point is that, yes, I’ve kept in touch with him over the years, and of course, he’s the first person that I sent that to after we were done doing it. And he said something like, “This is awesome! How did you make that into this?” But I’ve had practice with that before because I did this cover album a few years ago where I did a cover of The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” that, to this day, still haunts me in my dreams. It’s some sick shit — it’s like Laibach on psilocybin.

IE: What was the toughest cover you attempted? Where you just couldn’t find your way into it?

AJ: I’ve done two cover albums — one where I picked the songs, and another one that I did for Cleopatra Records where they picked the songs. So obviously, those were harder. But you know what was funny? It’s that the really simple songs were the hardest. Like the cover I did of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” was difficult because I was out of my element, and so was my cover of “Sharp Dressed Man” by Z Z Top, even though I knew Billy (Gibbons, band guitarist) pretty well, and we’ve worked together. But with stuff like that, there’s kind of this cloud hanging over you while you’re doing it, like, “Don’t stray too far.” You know what I’m saying? So that’s what’s difficult about it. But the thing with Iggy is, the last time I worked with him was over 30 years ago — I worked with him on a song called “Fire Engine” with Ric Ocasek producing, so I’ve known him for ages, and I got past the cloud and just said, “Okay — let’s just make this fun.”

And there’s another whole story behind why that song’s on the record. It wasn’t like I sought to do an Iggy cover. There’s this benefit for Above Ground, which was sponsored by Dave Navarro and concerning teen suicide prevention. And they had all these stars lined up, celebrities to do various covers that the house band had done, and they picked me to sing two Iggy songs because they knew that I had worked with him before, and this and that. So I go to soundcheck, and I nail these two songs — I mean, they sounded awesome. And then we get to the show, and Billy Idol had his own backstage dressing room because he was singing some Bowie stuff, so we all couldn’t have individual rooms, and we all crowded into one room, and people were passing around joints and things like that. And I generally don’t partake of strange joints — it’s just not my thing. I know my vape, and I know my brand, and as a matter of fact, my brand is coming out soon…I’m not allowed to say more, but my brand is coming out, and I’m not Snoop Dogg, but I do know what I like. I like more of the slow-motion stuff; I don’t like the hyper, work-during-the-day-on-it stuff. At any rate, I took a joint from somebody and went onstage and did these songs that I nailed at soundcheck, and by the time we got to “Search and Destroy,” for some reason, everything I was doing was in halftime to the band. To the crowd. To the world. I was basically underwater — I was nailing, but I was nailing it in half time. So they’d be playing the regular song, and then I’d come in and do the vocals really slow, and then they’d have to catch up to me. But fortunately, the band that was there — Dave Navarro and Billy Morrison and Dan Cleary — they were all like, “Okay, we see what’s happening.” And so they adjusted along with me. And I thought it was just a disaster. I came off that stage literally in tears, going, “Oh, my God — I just fucked up everything!” And then the next day, I get a call from Dan Cleary and Dave Navarro, going, “Dude — that was amazing! We should record it in the way that you sang it.” And so we went into my studio and did it, and that’s what came out of that. And then I immediately sent it to Iggy to get the pope’s approval, and there you go. And now there’s a video coming out that we just did for it. So it’s cool, and it’s just funny how things work out. So that version is my redemption for how I freaked everyone out with my version that night — Dan Cleary and my girlfriend have actually been calling it The Redemption Mix, so there it is!

IE: In interviews over the years, Iggy would always have one totally surreal story wherein his faith in humanity was redeemed. My motto is, Everybody has an agenda, and it rarely includes you — get used to it. So I’m not so sure about humanity anymore. How about you?

AJ: This may sound a little bit self-centered, but recently, looking at the “Good Trouble” video with me and Arabian Prince, that just came out to me? That was redemption, because when I had Arabian Prince do some scratching on “AmeriKKKant,” it was like…basically, I told him, “I don’t know who in the fuck you are,” and he told me, “I don’t know who the fuck YOU are.”

IE: And hilarity ensued?

AJ: Yeah! And hilarity ensued! There we go! But it was really poignant to me the other day when I saw that it had come out on YouTube, and he read that (John Lewis speech) powerfully, man. He read it like, “Whoa!” powerfully. And it makes you wonder if that kind of power and that kind of introspection is in every black person for the abuse that they’ve had to suffer for the last 200 to 300 years. Because, inside, they know they have to play this part and that part to feed their family and put a roof over their head, but inside there must be some seething rage. You know what I’m saying? I know that I would have that. I mean, the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Croats and the Serbs. You can go on and on with people in conflict for millennia and have an inner conflict of, “Do I really need to do this? Do I really need to act this way? Can’t I just be myself?” And his reading of those words I just thought were so powerful, representative of the inner anger that’s always held in check. Always held in check. So that was just a powerful moment for me, and I hate to be self-centered and talk about blah, blah, blah, my own shit. But I just saw this recently, the final product, so I’m just blown away by his performance in it. That’s all I’m trying to say.

IE: Another cool thing about growing up in the Midwest — we didn’t understand, when punk rock came along in 1976, ’77, why you had to give up on the heavy metal you loved the day before. AC/DC was just as cool as The Stranglers, as was ABBA, Laurie Anderson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, or even Donna Summer. Why restrict yourself to just one genre?

AJ: Yeah! And remember? Demolition Night resulted from that!  Disco Demolition Night (at Comiskey Park in 1979). It was the same kind of Trumpian shit that we’ve got going now. Cancel culture. But here’s the funny thing that cracks me up about the right-wing — they call us the snowflakes. Uh, excuse me? You call us everything in the book, and we take it and just keep chugging along for progress. But we call you ONE little thing or hint that anything’s wrong with you, and it’s like, “Waaah! Mommy didn’t give me my cookie!” Fuck! I am so over the right-wing, with its anti-fact, anti-cancel-culture when all they wanna do is cancel people! I mean, Tipper Gore had them put stickers on my records in the ‘90s! I know she was supposedly a Democrat, but she straddled the line, and I’m sure the Republicans were pleased. They are the Kings of Cancel Culture, and now that they’re getting called ‘Bullshit’ on, they’re the first ones squealing like a pig, “Wee, wee, wee,” all the way home. And it’s a simple projection. That’s all they do. Whatever they’re accusing You of doing? You pretty much know that’s exactly what they’re doing. And Roy Cohn — that’s where it all starts. The most duplicitous motherfucker in the history of mankind.

IE: During the pandemic, I always had NPR on, even in the background, for a steady flow of information. And I tried to read three newspapers a day — a local daily, plus The New York Times and even USA Today for bullet-point news updates. What were — and are — your sources of information?

AJ: Well, we’re not gonna have a fistfight over the phone or anything, right? I’m more of a Washington Post guy than a New York Times guy. And my daily reading list in the morning, over cups of tea — every day, seven days a week — is The Nation, Crooks and Liars, PoliticusUSA. That’s a really good one; it’s really short, it has headlines and blurbs, and it can really keep you posted on shit. And I will also go up into the hills just to see what the squares are writing about. But Raw Story is a good one to read in the morning — that always gets me going — and of course the Huffington Post. I’m a pinko! I’m a liberal! What do ya want from me? That’s what I read! I like checking in on the right a little bit, but generally, thoughts are only reaffirmed by reading left-wing publications. So that’s pretty much where I’m at.

IE: You sound like something out of a Charlie Daniels song! A “Long-haired, hippie-type pinko fag”! I can’t believe they actually got away with that on his “Uneasy Rider” single back then.

AJ: No, I can! I CAN believe they did! Charlie Daniels is the Kraftwerk; he’s the innovator of what we’re going through today! Without Charlie Daniels, there’s no Kid Rock. Without Charlie Daniels, there’s no fucking Fox News, as far as I’m concerned, as it’s constructed. I really think someday he’ll get his due, but I dunno if that’s a good thing. His due as far as how his songs influenced Southern culture, because, Wow! Charlie Daniels suppressed the Civil Rights Act of 1975. It was gaining steam, still tough, but those Southern rock bands gave it credence to be like, “It’s cool to be a racist against, only without SAYING we’re racist against.” I was just talking to my girlfriend this morning, saying how this is so weird with the anti-Vaxxers and shit like that. I mean, it’s for your own benefit! First of all, if we’re all supposedly being microchipped by the government? Good! Then let’s all go down together. If the government is that fucking evil and wants to wipe out the human race, then let’s go. What are you gonna do? Be the lone survivor in a post-Apocalyptic world? There’s gonna be nobody to make a movie about you, okay? So get your fucking shots. There’s no microchip. So I have an October tour, but because of the right-wing, won’t-be-vaccinated, we’re gonna have to have a vaccine mandate. Just like you had to have a seat belt mandate, or an insurance mandate for cars, just like you have to have a license to drive. You’re going to have to have a vaccine license to get in anywhere, and you know what? Me, Mr. Anti-Government? I’m all for it. It’s not about politics at this point — it’s about, Do you want this species to still be on this planet? And I know Covid is not gonna kill everyone, and people get immunity. But I’m just saying; it’s that kind of attitude that’s gonna sink this entire species. Fuck politics! We’ve fucked shit up, and now we have to figure out how to un-fuck this shit. And this is why my main word is….”SCIENCE!”

IE: Science! Thomas Dolby was right!

AJ: Yes, just like Thomas Dolby thought. Science got us into a lot of this, and science is the only thing that’s gonna get us out of it because human nature is NOT. Unless we substantially raise our education levels from pre-K on to include absorbing how to survive on this planet. And the right-wing is, of course, against that, too. They want to make sure we don’t get vaccinated, but they weren’t around in the ‘60s for polio. But they’re around now, thanks to social media, and they don’t want us to live on this planet — they want us all to die, survival of the fittest. Let’s all be mountain men. Let’s all have cabins. Let’s all be WHITE. Ya know? Let’s all be Jeremiah Johnson — that’s what these fuckers want. It looks good on film. But it doesn’t look good in reality. I think what we’re in right now is more like 13 Monkeys meets Blade Runner. We’re not quite there yet, but there’s an extra monkey. And that monkey is basically, to me, what they didn’t count on — the greed of Wall Street. That’s the 13th monkey because that’s what rules our planet. If the Dow goes down 800 points yesterday, all of a sudden social media is lampooning people who are anti-Vaxxers, and there’s this whole new push to get vaccinated. Why did that happen? Because people are realizing that this new Delta variant is actually going to slow down commerce again. Biden? Great. Merkel? I’m happy for ya. But THOSE are the people that run everything (Wall Street)- the people that drive fucking policies because all governments are corrupt. Because actually, believe it or not, I’m pro-America. And I would say that our government is less corrupt than about 60% of the governments on this planet.

IE: So it’s not, as your song suggests, a “Broken System”?

AJ: It is ALMOST broken. It is so close to being broken. And that’s why that song is important on this album.

IE: But here’s the interesting lyrical twist with that song — your line about “No water to drink” could refer to a third-world country or Flint, Michigan.

AJ: Well, OR California! I mean, excuse me, but the drought we have going on out in the entire Western states right now? But what we didn’t do is what Dubai did, and other Middle Eastern countries that are baking in 140 degrees Fahrenheit on a daily basis are desalination plants. We have plenty of water. So here’s the funny oxymoron of the whole thing — we have all this water in the ocean, 67% of the world, yet we have no water to drink. But we have the technology to make that saltwater drinkable. But nobody —especially the Republicans, who want their donors to get the money, thereby depriving all of the people of any benefits — is willing to stop stalling all the desalination plants all along the coast. And then, as the ice caps melt and raise the water level, guess what? We’re drinking all the water from the ocean anyway. So this would bring the levels back down, it’ll ease coastal erosion and all of the housing being displaced, all the climate immigrants. It all works hand in hand. So literally, vote for Uncle Al for your local congressman. And I’ll try to get some of this shit done! I could fix the roads by just really nationalizing a legal-weed campaign and making it legal for the weed dealers to bank. Because then the banks make money, and we tax the banks. We enhance the IRS to make sure we actually can collect those taxes through loopholes, and there are our roads! There’s our education! Through weed!

IE: Are you actually running for office?

AJ: I might as well! Fuck! No, but I’m just saying there’s a common-sense solution. I’ve never read any of the stuff that you’re about to print off what I’ve said, but those are all make-sense solutions, don’t you think? I don’t wanna run, but I just wanna find somebody that will be open to my ideas that runs. Because I don’t. Want. To run. I’m a private person, I used to be on meth, and I’m not on meth anymore, and I like my privacy. But I understand bigger pictures than most people see, just by digesting mainstream media on a daily basis, and seeing some of the things that we could do to alleviate — not only today’s problems — but some of our future problems.

IE: Before I hit rehab, my poison of choice was coke, then meth — or crank, as we lovingly called it back then — before I nearly lost my mind on the stuff. Were you on a similar trajectory?

AJ: No, not similar — exact. Ha! I started with coke, too. But my physical problem was heroin. The mental problem was the cocaine, then meth, then crack, along with the heroin, so I could be what I thought was creative, and this and that. And then I got rid of all of ‘em, for…it’s now going on 17 years, outside of hallucinogens and alcohol in moderation. But that’s all I do. And since Trump’s gone away, I have no need for any kind of sleep sedative, either. I don’t even fucking do Nyquil. It’s just like, I can now just sleep at night! And know that tomorrow I’ll be awake! And I’m on a microdose of psilocybin right now as I’m talking to you — I do one every day. And I no longer need any prescriptions for anxiety or for anything. It cuts down on my drinking; it cuts down on my smoking; it cuts down on everything. And yet, I still feel alive — I don’t feel like I’m being suppressed. I feel like I’m being enhanced, back to what I originally was when I was born, before I’d been beaten down by this system. So in micro-dosing every day, you learn to accept failure, you learn people’s behavior, and you learn your comfort zone. You learn your comfort zone. And I hate to sound like a hippie, but this little micro-dose pill helps me so much in day-to-day activity — just going to the grocery store, driving, anything. And it’s not hallucinogenic — I don’t do the amount that makes you actually question reality. But it makes you actually understand reality, with just a micro-dose. Just like, “Okay, I can fix this, I can’t fix that.” Or, “I can do this, but I can’t do that.” And that’s what I do. This is basically what I do — I drink a little sake, then I do my psilocybin, and at the end of the night, I’ll smoke a hit of pot. And if that makes me a criminal? Then great — arrest me now, because this is the happiest…well, not HAPPIEST, but the most functional that I’ve ever been in my life. And at my age? Hey — go with what ya know! It’s no time for a midlife crisis!

-Tom Lanham

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