We’ve Got A File On You: Ministry’s Al Jourgensen

We’ve Got A File On You: Ministry’s Al Jourgensen

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

When Al Jourgensen formed Ministry in Chicago in 1981, they were an electro-disco synth-pop band that quickly carved out a space for themselves on the city’s burgeoning New Wave scene. Their first single, “I’m Falling/Cold Life” helped establish the Wax Trax label, but also got Ministry signed to Arista Records, where they released several other club tracks (“Work For Love,” “I Wanted To Tell Her,” “Revenge”) and an album, With Sympathy. Their Wang Chung/Thompson Twins-ish sound was successful enough to get them gigs opening for Culture Club, Depeche Mode, and The Police, but Jourgensen was chafing, and walked away from Arista.

After two more singles on Wax Trax, he signed with Sire. Ministry’s second full-length album, 1986’s Twitch, was their aesthetic and commercial breakthrough. Co-produced with postpunk dub madman Adrian Sherwood, its crashing drums and harsh synth riffs were, along with contemporaneous work by Skinny Puppy and others, crucial to establishing industrial dance as a compelling new genre. But Jourgensen, along with bassist Paul Barker, was interested in going harder. Ministry’s 1988 album The Land Of Rape And Honey featured thrash guitars on several tracks and machine-gun drum programming, effectively creating industrial metal. The follow-up, 1989’s The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, was more stylistically varied, incorporating everything from postpunk to dub to hip-hop. The subsequent tour and live document, 1990’s In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up, set the stage for their true breakthrough, 1991’s extremely unlikely hit single “Jesus Built My Hotrod” (featuring vocals from The Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes) and its ultra-heavy companion album Psalm 69, which found them headlining the Lollapalooza tour and even playing arenas on their own, with Sepultura and Helmet.

Throughout Ministry’s rise, Jourgensen was also busy with a seemingly never-ending stream of side projects, including the Revolting Cocks, Pailhead (a collaboration with Ian MacKaye recorded before The Land Of Rape And Honey or the formation of Fugazi), the Jello Biafra-fronted Lard, and 1000 Homo DJs, whose cover of Black Sabbath’s “Supernaut” with vocals from Trent Reznor was blocked from release by TVT Records. He also produced Skinny Puppy’s album Rabies and The Reverend Horton Heat’s Liquor In The Front, and even remixed a track for Red Hot Chili Peppers.

In the mid ’90s, Ministry’s profile began to slip — Filth Pig and Dark Side Of The Spoon weren’t well received by critics or fans, and he left Sire Records for smaller labels. In the last two decades, Jourgensen has put Ministry on hiatus a few times, but he’s always come back, with new collaborators — the number of musicians who’ve passed through his sessions is astonishing — and he’s continued to push the boundaries of sonic extremity, going full-on thrash on the mid-2000s anti-George W. Bush trilogy Houses Of The Molé, Rio Grande Blood, and The Last Sucker and never looking back.

Ministry’s sixteenth studio album, HOPIUMFORTHEMASSES, is out this month. It’s a roaring, metallic assault on misogynists, Proud Boys, January 6 rioters, and right-wing America in general, and features guest appearances from Jello Biafra, Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz, and others. It’s also part of Jourgensen’s plan to wind Ministry down and bring it full circle. In May, he’ll be playing the Cruel World Festival in Pasadena, CA, at which he’ll be performing With Sympathy songs for the first time in almost 40 years, and he’s currently preparing an album of reworkings of that material, as well as one more full-on Ministry record, which will feature a reunion with Paul Barker. And he’s recently completed the score to the forthcoming documentary Long Knife: The Osage Nation, Koch Oil And The New Trail Of Tears, which tells the story of the continuing theft of Osage oil, long after the events depicted in the Martin Scorsese movie Killers Of The Flower Moon.

We got Jourgensen on the phone recently to talk about a wide range of topics, including the new album, the documentary, reclaiming Ministry’s early synth-pop material, his time as legendary drag performer Divine’s touring guitarist, his friendships with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, appearing in the Steven Spielberg movie A.I., and much more.


The new album is very outspoken against Proud Boys, white nationalists, incel culture, stuff like that. What made you decide that was where you were going to go with this record? And what do you hope people will take away from it?

AL JOURGENSEN: Well, I think it’s pretty par for the course for Ministry. We’ve always pretty much worn our political views on our sleeve. So it wasn’t, like, a break from tradition or anything for us. It’s just — yeah, we kind of fine-tuned it instead of just, ranting about individuals like, say, Donald Trump or George Bush or, you know, you can go on down the whole right-wing fucking roster of crazies. We decided to tackle broader issues.

Do you ever run into the Rage Against the Machine problem, where you’ve got fans who completely misunderstand or disagree with everything that you are expressing politically?

JOURGENSEN: Absolutely. I mean, that’s part of the fun. [Laughs]

Jello Biafra’s on the new record. And you’ve been working with him since the late ’80s. What’s the partnership like between the two of you? You know, Buzz Osborne from the Melvins told me once that the whole underground rock world owes Jello a huge debt of gratitude for fighting the Frankenchrist lawsuit, but nobody ever talks about it.

JOURGENSEN: Yeah. Jello’s still — yeah, he’s a fighter and he’s still going through legal hassles with that whole thing, but we don’t generally talk about that. We’re just like old buddies, man. We’ve known each other for almost 40 years. So, you know, whenever he’s in town or I’m in San Francisco or something, we hook up and we go to a studio, whether it’s mine or somewhere else, and we just have fun in the studio. Man, I really enjoy working with him. His brain is different than most brains, man. So it’s a breath of fresh air to work with him. He doesn’t really think like most humans I know. Yeah, he’s a fucking — he’s a gas.

Long Knife: The Osage Nation, Koch Oil And The New Trail Of Tears (2024)

You are also doing the soundtrack to this documentary called Long Knife. How did that project fall into your lap?

JOURGENSEN: Well, I’ve known Greg Palast for a bit, who is doing the documentary, and he just asked me to do the film score, but we had to — it was intense, man. We didn’t want to — in any way, shape or form — culturally appropriate anything from the indigenous nations. So we had literally the vice president of the American Indian Movement in the studio with us, you know, telling us what was acceptable or what was not.

And also, I’m singing in Osage language on one of the songs, for the soundtrack. So I had a vocal coach here. It was intense, man. But it came out great. I’m really happy with it. And I’m really happy with the documentary in general — you know, it’s a follow-up to Killers Of The Flower Moon, basically. It shows the trajectory from those killings at the turn of the century all the way through now, and how they’re still being ripped off by the Koch brothers and the hardships that they’ve endured. So it was a really good but emotional project.

Playing Guitar In Divine’s Backing Band (1981)

What’s your favorite Divine story — your best memory of that?

JOURGENSEN: Well, just basically every single night how [Glenn] would flip the switch and become Divine. Yeah. As soon as that wig came on backstage, it was just a light switch, and it was just a completely different character. It was the most bipolar thing I’ve ever seen. That was the weirdest gig I’ve ever done. Let me tell you, we only did a few dates, but yeah, that was pretty eye-opening. I was a young kid, man. I was like, what, 19, 20? Something like that.

Opening For The Police, Depeche Mode, & Culture Club (1980s)

When Ministry was in its earliest years, you opened for the Police a couple of times. You played shows with Depeche Mode and Culture Club. Do you ever wonder what it might have been like if that version of Ministry had had a big breakthrough hit and gotten as big as some of those bands at that time? Like, would you have been able to satisfy yourself creatively writing pop songs?

JOURGENSEN: No, no. Absolutely not. No regrets. As a matter of fact, we’re tackling those early years now. We’re doing a new album of, you know, updating all those retro songs. And that should be out next year. We’re about, what, 80% done with the album right now. So yeah, I mean, I’m going to own it. It’s like, those songs were just basically written by, you know, corporate-level people at Arista Records at the time and a lot of the stuff that was rejected for that first album wound up on Twitch and other various [projects].

They signed us because we were unique. And then as soon as they signed us, they try and turn you into everyone else or whatever the flavor of the month is. So I was really disgusted with that album for a while, but I’ve come to like it — I actually saw a Ministry cover band here in LA that did that first album, and it was the first time I’d listened to it, any of those songs, in probably over 35 years. And I actually found myself smirking, like, you know, okay, I kind of get it, but we could do it much better without corporate influence. And so we’re tackling it this year and now we’ll own it. And it’s actually pretty cathartic, man, to be honest.

I know you’ve you’ve started playing the song “Revenge” live, and I heard you’re going to be playing more of that material at the Cruel World Festival in the spring.

JOURGENSEN: It’s all early stuff. I mean, there’s stuff — we’re playing stuff that’s even pre-With Sympathy album. I mean really early stuff from like, ’80, ’81, ’82, ’83. I think we kind of stopped at ’86 on this festival that we’re doing. So all the really, really old stuff we haven’t done in, you know, 30, 35 years, something like that, live and with new versions, new band, you know, it’s just — you’ll be able to tell they’re the same songs, but you’re going to see the growth that’s been happening in Ministry for 35 years. I think it’s a good microcosm of our growth over the years. So we’re looking forward to it.

Pailhead With Ian MacKaye (1987-1988)

The Pailhead record that you did with Ian MacKaye from Minor Threat and Fugazi, that’s always been something that people kind of can’t figure out, because the two of you seem so different temperamentally. How did you get along and work together?

JOURGENSEN: Oh, it was awesome. I mean, we actually really enjoyed our time together. Because he put it bluntly right away, back in the day — I haven’t done drugs in 22 years, all right? I’ve been clean, never relapsed, this and that, and nor do I want to.

But at the time, you know, I’d go into the bathroom and do a couple big honker lines and come out with, like, white powder around my nostrils and all that shit. And Ian — you know, I’d go, oh, I gotta take a bathroom break. And then I’d get out and Ian would be like, “Dude, man, you don’t have to, like, tell me you’re going to the bathroom. I mean, look at you. You’re a mess.” But he assured me, like, we liked each other. Our brains work the same way. So he said, it’s just like, the difference is, like, I drive my own car to somewhere where you have to take [a cab].

And other than that, once we got past that, we got along great, because we have a lot of the same political opinions and the same kind of brain waves. You know, as far as how we look at things. So that was all good. I mean, I was very nervous that, you know, we weren’t going to be able to overcome my addiction problems at the time, but he put me at ease right away. And we had a lot of fun together. It was a joy to work with Ian.

Revolting Cocks (1990s)

I never saw Ministry in those days, but I did see the 1990 Revolting Cocks tour. I was at the New York show. And there were more dancers on stage than band members, and there were like 10 people in the band, as I recall. And I remember Trent Reznor came out to sing “Supernaut” and dove into the audience and basically got mugged. I mean, it was quite a thing. Was that kind of the peak of the carnival, that tour?

JOURGENSEN: Yeah, I would say so, although we did a subsequent tour after that where Revolting Cocks opened for Ministry, which looked good on paper until I got about six shows in and I thought I was having a nervous breakdown. [Laughs] Like, having to open for myself was just like, “Whoa, okay, this is blowing my mind.”

You got in legal trouble a couple of times back then because you couldn’t release the Revolting Cocks’ cover of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” with the original lyrics and you couldn’t release “Supernaut” with Trent’s vocals. Like, what was going on? People were just coming after you, it seemed like.

JOURGENSEN: I don’t know. I mean, it all got resolved. So that’s water under the bridge. The Olivia Newton-John thing was just, like, ridiculous. I mean, it’s legal to do a cover. So I don’t understand what all the kerfuffle was about, but it all got sorted out.

Trent Reznor

A couple of years ago, a photo popped up of you and Trent backstage where you look like a demon, with dreads, piercings, face tattoos and stuff, and he looks like a youth soccer coach.

JOURGENSEN: Oops. [Laughs]

Like, two entirely different life paths. It was pretty wild to see.

JOURGENSEN: Yeah, it’s funny. You know, I still get along with Trent just fine and wish him well in all his endeavors. What does he own, like, half of Apple now or something? He’s like — he really took off. He is a smart businessman and a talented fellow. So, I’ll leave it at that. But it’s not like we’re — we don’t hang out in the same places, if you know what I mean, as I think that picture you described pretty succinctly shows.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

You and Ministry were filmed performing in the movie A.I. And I heard that you were actually part of the project before Steven Spielberg was — like, you were part of [original director] Stanley Kubrick’s vision for it?

JOURGENSEN: Yeah. I was approached by Kubrick, and he was just adamant that, you know, that — I don’t know, this crazy American guy living in the English countryside somehow got ahold of some Ministry stuff and decided, like, we were the proper band to do A.I.

Now, in the original script that Kubrick sent, that movie was far, far different, before he died and Spielberg took over. And then Spielberg put in all his little like, children’s things. He loves those children’s movies like either E.T. or The Fabelmans. He’s always got some kid, and then he put in the teddy bear and all that.

The Kubrick version was all about like, pretty much the Jude Law character being a robotic male prostitute in this seedy section of town. And next thing you know, with the script changes, we show up and there’s this animatronic bear and, you know, classical music all over the place, but Spielberg decided to at least keep Kubrick’s wish that we were the band in it.

So we were kind of inherited by Spielberg, and got off to a rocky start at first. We didn’t know… Spielberg had never worked with a rock band, he didn’t know what to expect or anything, but by the end of it, we were, pretty fast friends, man. He’d invite me to hang out on the side and watch the rushes of what we had just filmed and all this and ask me my opinion and all this stuff. So that was pretty good. I mean, the first time I met Spielberg, I said, like, “Dude, I don’t know if this band can do this movie — like, Kubrick sent me this really kinky script. I thought A.I. stood for Anal Intruder,” and he was like, what? “I thought we were doing a porno movie, man, I don’t know about this bear and shit, you know?”

So, at first he was pretty shocked, but then he started laughing about it, just thinking about how weird this whole situation is. And for the rest of the three weeks that we filmed that scene, he would come up and give me a new, like, A.I. every day. Like, “What do you think about Animal Indecency” or something? It was a running joke.

I loved working with that. I’m not real happy with how the movie came out compared to what I know the original script was like — that was going to be like Kubrick’s, like, oh my God moment, you know? Because I think he was kind of freaked out at being panned so much for Eyes Wide Shut that he just said, fuck it, I’m going to go over the top on this one. And then Spielberg put the fucking PG clamps on.

Filth Pig (1996)

I’m curious about the the Filth Pig record. Because it was quite a few years between albums and then you embraced this Chicago/Midwestern noise-rock kind of sound. It’s always been a record that puzzles me. I like it more now than I did then. But I’m really curious what your perspective on it is.

JOURGENSEN: We didn’t have a perspective, except for one thing: The more Warner Brothers pressured us to make another Psalm 69, you know, in other words, they wanted us to make Psalm 70. So, of course, you know, our little Ministry rebellious streak said fuck you, we’re just going to dirge out and do whatever the fuck we want.

And it’s one of those records that, yes, you are not the only one — at the time, people didn’t get it. And now it’s literally ranked as one of the best Ministry records by all pundits. So you know, who knows — like I said, flavor of the month. It’s all cyclical and it comes back and now for our last tour, trust me, there’ll be a heavy influence of that period with Filth Pig and Dark Side Of The Spoon in the live set, which we haven’t done in 20 years at least, most of those songs. So yeah, we were cognizant of the fact when we made it that this is probably not going to be well received because everyone wants the same shit all the time. They feel more comfortable that way.

Right after Psalm 69, you guys kind of pushed into the realm of metal. I mean, you guys did a tour with Sepultura and Helmet.

JOURGENSEN: Right? I know. It’s a long strange trip it’s been for me. That’s all I gotta say.

ZZ Top’s Eliminator (1983)

I remember reading somewhere that Billy Gibbons came to you and said that he sampled some of your beats for Eliminator, early Ministry tracks, and then you two kind of connected — like, he’s on the Revolting Cocks album Cocked And Loaded. So tell me a little bit about the relationship there.

JOURGENSEN: Yeah, he just showed up at a Revolting Cocks show in Houston at soundcheck and took me and my guitar player, Mike Scaccia, out to dinner, and I’m like, “What the fuck, man? What? Why is Billy Gibbons like — what?” You know. And so I’m in shock, right. And so he puts us in his 1934 Mercury and has his driver drive us down to this fancy Italian restaurant. He’s wearing, like, this white suit, you know, the the sharp-dressed man kind of look.

And we’re at soundcheck in T-shirts and shit, blah blah blah, and I finally just said — I think I even called him Mister Gibbons. I was that intimidated, you know? And I said, like, “Why are we here?” And he’s like, “Well, you resurrected my career.” I’m like, “How’s that?” And he says, “Well, we sampled all your drum sounds … and put them all over Eliminator.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s funny because we sampled all your early drums and then put more reverb on ’em and made them our drums.” So I just said, I think we’re even. So, you know, I got a free dinner out of it, but I didn’t get royalties or anything. But I thought that was pretty classy to just admit, like, dude, we stole all your shit. And I thought it was classy on my part to go, no, dude, we stole your shit first. You just stole it back.

And you guys have just, like, known each other since, basically?

JOURGENSEN: Yeah, yeah, he’s a good old boy. Yeah.

Friendship With Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen

The other guy that was kind of surprising to me that you guys connected with was Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick, who was on the RevCo album and was also on the Buck Satan And The 666 Shooters record Bikers Welcome Ladies Drink Free, from 2011. How did you two come together?

JOURGENSEN: The previous band I was in before Ministry was called Special Affect, and our singer was Frankie Fun [Frank Nardello], who went on to do [My Life With The] Thrill Kill Kult after we split up. And Frankie went to high school in Rockford with Robin Zander. So I met those guys back in, I don’t know, 1979, in Chicago at one of their shows and was introduced to them by Frankie and just kept up the relationship over the years.

They’re just like rock solid human beings, man. At least Rick and Robin, and I’ve gotten to know Tom over the years. Bun E. is like, he’s in his own world, or was in his own world or whatever, but the other three, yeah. Especially Rick and Robin. I’ve done a couple things with them. I played with them at the Hollywood Bowl, guest singing and playing guitar on their Beatles tribute, the 40th anniversary Sgt. Pepper thing.

So we’ve had a running relationship for a long time. I think they’re the best fucking pop band ever. And that includes The Beatles. And I’ve actually had arguments with Rick, like I told them, No, you’re the best. And he’s like, no, The Beatles were. I’m like, Fuck The Beatles, man. I was always a Stones fan. So it took Cheap Trick to get me into that kind of like metal pop.

HOPIUMFORTHEMASSES is out now via Nuclear Blast.

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