Yes, Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen was stoned during this interview, but he does some of his best work in that state. The medical marijuana takes the edge off his chronic pain, but it definitely didn't dull his stories.
Ministry is one of the great industrial/speed metal bands of our time, and one of the few in that genre with a platinum album (Psalm 69), and an appearance in a major motion picture. When Steven Spielberg took over the movie A.I. after Stanley Kubrick died, he found himself directing this very real band who were happy to break protocol and complain that his movie wasn't sleazy enough (3 days on the set with a malfunctioning teddy bear will make you a little nuts). Spielberg did what most people do when they get their first dose of Ministry: he stormed away. When he came back, he had a new respect for the band and he knew they were the real deal, perfect for his Flesh Fair scene.
Al's Spielberg story is far less shocking than his William Burroughs narrative, where we find the famous author near the end of his life, allowing admittance to his Kansas home only if the visitor brings heroin. The results are in the Ministry song and video for "Just One Fix."
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Hey Al. How are you today?
Al: Pretty good, actually. Every day above ground's a good day.
Songfacts: I have a friend who says I'm on the right side of the grass.
Al: (Laughing) I like that. I'm on the right side of the grass. That's pretty cool.
Songfacts: This interview is for Songfacts.com, and we talk about songs and songwriting. So I wanted to talk to you about some of your songs.
Al: Okay. Which ones? Let's see if I remember them.
Songfacts: You have quite a few. Relapse is the first studio album in a long, long time. So maybe you can explain to me why the big gap between albums?
Al: Well, I got really sick. I had bleeding ulcers and I didn't understand why I was puking up blood for the last 8 years and shitting out blood and peeing out blood and having nosebleeds and stuff. And it turns out they found, accordingly, 13 ulcers in my stomach and esophagus. Six of them were still active. And I was bleeding out. And I had to take at least about a year and a half off of just lying on my back because I was bleeding profusely. And that's why I quit the band. But as soon as the doctors fixed me up, it's like, hell, let's just jump back in the saddle.
Songfacts: And so how do you feel now?
Al: I feel great, man. I'm dipping my toes in the swimming pool just to see the temperature, and I'm doing a limited amount of dates this year. And if that works out, then I'll do a bunch of dates next year, and then the next year after that, I'll do a Buck Satan tour. But for right now I just want to make sure that everything's cool. My doctor gave me the go ahead on doing this tour. She's says I'm fit and able. So we'll just try it out and see what happens.
Songfacts: You mentioned the Buck Satan project, which I don't know if you would call it alternative country or...
Al: I call it heavy western.
Songfacts: I like that. Is that the Texan in you coming out or do you just love country music?
Al: No, it's long before I moved to Texas. Me and Mikey Scaccia were in the back of the Ministry bus during The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, and I'd set up a pedal steel, and I learned how to play pedal steel, Mikey'd set up a pig nose amp on an acoustic guitar, and we'd play the same song for 500 miles and drive our band mates crazy.
Songfacts: Did you have to separate yourself from Ministry to be able to do the more country stuff?
Al: Well, yeah. I definitely wear a lot of different hats. I have to separate myself from producer to player on Ministry, and it's the same thing with RevCo or Buck Satan or Lard or whatever, I have to wear a different hat. It's like De Niro doing Raging Bull where you have to gain like 50 pounds and become a boxer. It's basically method acting.
Songfacts: And is that easy for you? Putting yourself in a frame of mind like you're playing a part?
Al: Well, it's getting easier. It was a struggle at first. I just felt like I had too many hats on, you know? But now I'm kind of used to it, so for instance next week, we start the Rigor Mortis project and their first album in 15 years or something like that, so now I've got to get my thrash metal hat on. So I've got to put my game face on. I just talked to Mikey today and they're really stoked and this is going to be a really great album. I'm even singing on one of their tracks. So this should be pretty good.
Songfacts: When it comes to writing country, or heavy western as you like to call it, are there songwriters who you look up to for inspiration in writing a good country song?
Al: Well, Buck Owens, obviously, because I'm Buck Satan. I once said I was his evil twin because the Ministry bus got so sick of listening to Buck Owens after a show. I'd put on a Buck Owens CD, so they just started calling me Buck Satan. And I was like his evil twin. So that's like my biggest influence. George Jones, Hanks Williams, Patsy Cline, Ferlin Husky, Roger Miller, you name it, the list goes on and on and on and on. It's just these CDs that I collected when I was in my teen years and drove a truck for a job. I was driving an 18 wheeler. I had a Class D license. And they never had any decent music in these when you had to refuel at the truck stops. So I started buying country and I got addicted to it. That's the entire thing.
Before that I was into Skynyrd, Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, you know, your basic stoner stuff when you're a teenager. But they didn't have that stuff at these truck stops that I'd pull into to refuel, so I started buying country and I just got addicted to it.
Songfacts: It sounds like you have really good taste. You named all those artists and I love all those folks.
Al: Well, there was a bunch of crap, too, that I bought, trust me. (Laughing) As in most cases in music, 99% is crap. The one percent rises to the top.
Al: No, that's actually not an Ed Wood movie.
Songfacts: Oh, it's not?
Al: No. It predates way before that. I forget the name of the movie, but it was a 1950s release about juvenile delinquents, like the judge was taking them to task about being delinquents. Female delinquents, oddly enough. So that made it even worse in the '50s: Oh, females are rising up. It was really grotesque. And I had to sample it. But yeah, it was way before Ed Wood. This was a 1951 release, I believe.
Songfacts: I imagine you have watched your share of Ed Wood films, though.
Al: I do. But the thing is with sampling, you have to be creative. You can't just use the obvious, or something that's going to get you in legal trouble. With Ed Wood I would have to deal with a stable of lawyers, so I don't use it. When we first started sampling, there were no rules. It was like the Wild West. So I could sample off Apocalypse Now and Platoon and all this other stuff that I had, obvious stuff. But then you had to start getting a little more clever, because lawyers get involved. And lawyers suck.
We get creative with our sampling now. Like on this new record that I've got, I do most of the samples myself, like with my own voice and just changing voices and all that, instead of getting involved in the legal process of having to get the sample approved, because it's gotten that hard core. It's a different age, and it's okay. We'll get around it.
Songfacts: You mentioned sampling from movies. And you had a song in a Spielberg film, right? "What about Us"?
Al: I had like three songs on that film. But yeah, that was all initiated by Stanley Kubrick who called me up out of the blue and said he was a big fan and he had this screenplay that he sent me and he wanted us to be the band and to write the music for it. And then he died. And so it got turned over to Spielberg, and then I wound up getting stuck with this fucking electronic teddy bear that was on the set the whole time that was breaking down. So it took us like three weeks to film our part because the bear broke down every fucking day. (Laughing) We'd be sitting there on stage and you hear walkie talkies going on all over the place going, "The bear is down! The bear is down!" So then we'd hit the commissary and just drink beers and get drunk and wait for the bear to get back up. And then you'd hear walkie talkies going, "The bear is up! The bear is up! Everyone back on set!" So we'd have to run back on set in our costumes. And this fucking bear... seriously, I would like to buy it at auction just so I could put it in my firepot and burn it once and for all. This thing was a nightmare that bear. I hated that bear.
Songfacts: Go back to the point where Stanley Kubrick called you out of the blue. What was that like?
Al: Well, first of all, I hung up on him. I thought it was a crank call. His secretary was calling and I was like, "Yeah, right." Click. And then he called back personally and then talked to me, and I was just freaked out. I mean, who wouldn't be freaked out? Here's this eccentric American God living in the countryside of England, and he's calling me up in Austin, Texas, and saying he wants me to do the music for his film and he wants me to be in his film and he's famous and all that. I didn't even believe it.
Songfacts: How exciting is that, though?
Al: It was just ultimately cool. By the time we were done filming that scene in A.I., I was really good friends with Spielberg, too. It took us a while, but we got on the same point and yeah, it was all good. I mean, the whole thing worked out great. The only thing is that the original screenplay I got had so much more of the Jude Law character as a male prostitute, like a robo prostitute in Sin City. Kubrick really dwelled on that in the original screenplay, where Spielberg decided to go with a more E.T. approach with kids and bears and things like that. (Laughter) it became really Disney-ized, because the original screenplay that I read was insane.
Songfacts: I'd like to read that screenplay and see the difference. I wonder if it's available anywhere.
Al: Well, I know I got one. I got to dig it up. Maybe I'll put it online or something. His was much, much, much different than the eventual movie. This was like a sleazy futuristic screenplay, and Spielberg tamed it in and that's fine. I got along with Steven. He's cool. We were on set for three days; I saw Spielberg while we were onstage and we were doing rehearsals, but we didn't meet, so they set up a meeting with Spielberg, his handler, and the whole band. And it was kind of like meeting the queen. You couldn't talk to him, you couldn't look him in the face unless he talked to you. I was at the end of the line of the fans, and he got down to me, and I just blew off all the protocol, and I told him, "Hey, Steve, baby, what's the deal? I thought 'A.I.' stood for Anal Intruder and this was supposed to be a porno film." I told him that. "This man's gotta walk. We're quitting today." I was kidding. Just break the ice. But his handler freaked out and Spielberg took it personally and I had to chase him down in all my costuming and all this crap that I was wearing and just go, "Look, I was just kidding! Just relax!" They were so uptight about it.
After that, every day on the set, Spielberg would come up and name a new moniker for A.I. Like, I think his first one was "Animal Indecency." So every day he'd come up and he'd name a new porn title. And then he finally started wearing my cowboy hat and started jamming with us on stage. So I love Steven, man, he's great. But we had kind of an auspicious start.
Songfacts: Sounds like it. It's good that he has a good sense of humor. That's good to know.
Al: He definitely does. He's a great guy.
Songfacts: I was looking at some of your videos. I was looking at "Jesus Built My Hotrod" today, and then I read that your stepfather was a mechanic for Dan Gurney, is that right?
Al: That's true.
Songfacts: Did you have a love for cars growing up?
Al: You know what's funny is in 1965 I went to the Indy 500, and my dad worked in the pit crew. And what struck me most about the whole thing was not about the car racing, but about the volume and the noise - it freaked me out. So I was like 6, 7 years old, and the volume of Indy Car drove me into music. Because the sound was so loud I couldn't believe it. And Ministry is the loudest band in the world. I mean, I've even had Motorhead tell me that, so it's pretty much confirmed.
Songfacts: Can tell me about writing "Jesus Built My Hotrod." How did that all come about?
So they doubled down and they released "Jesus Built My Hotrod," which to this day is still the hottest selling single on Warner Brothers in history. But they had to do that to make their money back, because they'd already put about 1.5 mil into us. And we got one song. By the end of it, we finally got our act together and we created an album. But the first song was a complete accident. This shows the power of the record companies, because they hated it. They were like, What is this? This is stupid. I thought we hired Ministry, instead we get this bing a bang a bong bing bing bing bing, you know, this hillbilly stuff. And they hated it. But it started selling, surprisingly. Because that was released about 6 months before the album was completed. It started selling as a single because they tried to make their money back on anything; they didn't think they were going to get anything else out of us Psalm 69 so they released "Jesus Built My Hotrod" with Gibby, blithering idiot, talking shit, just screaming into a mike and falling off his chair.
And they sold it. They sold like 14 million copies of it or something like that. And so then they doubled down and we were able to finish the record. We knew we couldn't shoot the rest of the budget up our arms, so we went in there, rolled up our sleeves, not only to shoot up, but also to work, and finished the album. But that was quite an auspicious beginning to a multi platinum album.
Songfacts: I'll say. Let me ask you about another collaboration. And this was "Just One Fix," where you collaborated with William Burroughs. What was that experience like?
So we did a drive back to Kansas City to score heroin to come into Bill Burroughs' house. So the next time he opens the door, he goes, "Are you holding?" We're like, "Yeah, we got it." He's like, "All right. Come in." So we were allowed in.
So then I'm sitting there, and he pulls out this like 1950s Pulp Fiction kind of tool belt with needles in it. Like old school, 1950s, huge needles. And he meticulously took that out, found a vein - I don't know how you'd find a vein in a 70 year old guy, but he knew what he was doing. So we all shot up together and we're all stoned on his couch in his living room. And I notice there was a letter on his desk in front of me that was from the White House. Okay? And I'm like, Bill, it's not even opened. And I'm just like, "Are you going to open this?" He goes, "Nahhh, it's probably junk mail." It's from the White House, and we're all completely stoned on heroin. So I go, "Do you mind if I open it?" He's like, "Man, I don't care." So I open it and there's a letter from President Bill Clinton asking him to speak at the White House during some Naked Lunch excerpts or whatever. So I was like, "Man, this is big." And the only thing he said was, "Who's president nowadays?" He didn't know. He didn't even know Bill Clinton was president. He was just so in his own world that he didn't even know who the president of the United States was, and he didn't open the envelope.
So then he starts going off about his petunia garden. That's all he cared about. He didn't care about who the president was. He cared about his petunia garden and how the raccoons were eating his petunias. And he tried to shoot the raccoons, but they were too fast. Obviously, not the William Tell story of his life in Mexico.
I knew he was on the methadone program, so I said, "Why don't you put out some methadone wafers and slow the raccoons down?" And he told me, "You're an astute young man." So we immediately got along. He came in the video shoot the next day all happy. He came in early, which is rare for Bill Burroughs, man. He came in early and he was all happy and he was like, "I finally got one of those bastards, thanks to your advice." Apparently they'd eaten the methadone; they slowed down enough for Bill to shoot them. [Laughing] So he was totally happy and we became friends over the years until he died. And now I love that guy, man.
Songfacts: I read that you've been clean for quite a few years now.
Al: Ten years.
Songfacts: Congratulations. How is songwriting different now that you're clean?
Al: It gets different every album. Like I did one album sober, I did a couple of albums drunk. I just haven't done drugs. But lately I've got these back problems and back spasms and knee problems and foot problems, and so I got this legal marijuana in New Mexico, so now I'm just stoned all the time. I'm on pot, and it's legal. And it's great. It's a different way of doing records. This last record was done completely pot fueled.
Songfacts: You think that's better?
Al: I don't know if it's better. I had a gas making the record. And it takes away my pains, my groans and moans. So pot's a good thing. I never smoked pot before. Not even in high school. I went straight to heroin. I went to psychedelics and heroin and coke. I skipped over the pot part. So I'm getting into the pot part right now. Like, I'm stoned talking to you right now. It takes away my pain, it allows me not to be a pillbilly. My guitar player, Mike Scaccia, also has back problems and spine problems and all that stuff. He's my longtime guitar player, and he chose the pillbilly route, Oxycontins and Percocets, and I didn't want to do that. So I'll just stick to pot and I'm happy, man.
Songfacts: So you're kind of going backwards. I'm afraid you're going to discover caffeine and coffee next.
Al: Caffeine I quit. That's not a drug of my choice. But the pot thing, yeah. Actually, everything in my life I've done bass ackwards. I started out with a sell out Milli Vanilli record and then got harder and harder and harder. Whereas most bands start out hard and then they sell out at the end. It's the same thing with drugs. I went right into heroin and coke and psychedelics. And now I'm just back nice mellow old guy with pot.
Songfacts: You had a song about George W. Bush. I'm wondering if politics still fuel your writing and if you have any songs about the current political situation.
Al: Well, yeah, on the new record. But it's not directed at one target. Like, Bush was such an easy target, man. He might as well have just been wearing a T-shirt with a target on it. It was like shooing fish in a pond. This is more social economic commentary on the state of society, so it gets a bit more complex, because I'm not an Obama basher. I love Obama. I'm going to vote for him again, but the point is, there was no easy target on this record, so I had to really dig deep to find some social commentary on what the hell is going on in politics these days.
Songfacts: Right. Because it's not exactly one person. There's a lot of circumstances that have caused us to get into trouble.
Al: Listen, by the end of Last Sucker, I actually felt guilty and bad about bashing Bush. In Rio Grande Blood, I was all into it: this guy's evil. But by the end of Last Sucker, I was just like, this guy is in over his head. The oligarchy rules, and this guy plays with crayons and reads My Pet Goat. I mean, he's a blithering idiot. I protested him here in El Paso one time. I got within 10 feet of him. I can't believe the Secret Service let me get that close. And he was at a taco stand, like, "I'll take one of them there enchiritos." Well, there was no enchirito on the menu, and I don't even know what an enchirito is. But George W. was insistent, so they made him an enchirito, and I got to witness the whole thing and I started feeling sorry for him. What a dolt, man. This guy is so stupid, he can't be running the country. Cheney and the oligarchy is running the country. This guy just plays with Tonka trucks and orders enchiritos. I actually felt sorry for him.
Songfacts: There's the song that you worked on for the Chicago Blackhawks. "Keys to the City." You don't strike me as a hockey fan, but it's a pretty violent sport.
Al: Oh, no, hockey is my life. Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me???
Since I was 6 years old I've been going to Blackhawks games. I know the owners of the Blackhawks. The son of the owner was my best man at my wedding. I wear Blackhawks gear everywhere, I'm a hockey freak and that's all I do in my winters. I don't even really watch football - big people go slam each other around. But hockey to me is like a mixture of chess, ballet, and UFC. You can't find a better sport, man. I'm a total hockey fan and I'm married to a Canadian whose godfather was the general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers for a long time, Bob McCammon, and so yeah, I've got a long hockey history and it ain't going away soon, I'll tell you that.
Songfacts: Even though you have a scary image, you're one of the nicest guys I think I've ever talked to.
Al: You know a lot of people say that. I don't understand this scary image, because I'm not a bad person. It's just people freak out. They expect the extreme, and I'm just homespun, down to earth. People think I'm this complete monster. Whatever. I don't care, because I don't go out and I just work in my studio. I never socialize. I'm kind of a recluse. It's kind of like a Captain Beefheart thing, where he only had a trailer park in New Mexico. I've got a compound. But it's kind of a southwest thing where you just live and let live. If you leave me alone, I'll leave you alone. There's a lot of misconceptions about me, but whatever. It doesn't bother me.
We spoke with Al Jourgensen on February 18, 2012.
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