Al Jourgensen Talks New Project Surgical Meth Machine: Ministry frontman discusses new solo debut album, his synth-pop past, 2016 presidential election and other new projects in our exclusive interview.
Al Jourgensen announced that Ministry’s 2013 album From Beer To Eternity would (possibly) be the band’s swan song after the death of guitarist Mike Scaccia. But be that as it may, he’s staying busy, as witnessed on the début album from his new solo project, Surgical Meth Machine (out April 15th on Nuclear Blast Records.)
In many ways the album (recorded with engineer Sam D’Ambruoso) feels like a sampler of his various past incarnations, with slamming industrial metal, humorous musical rants and even a nod to his brief dalliance with 80’s synth-pop.
I recently had a chance to interview the colorful industrial legend, for an oft hilarious and illumining conversation regarding the creative process behind his new album, his thoughts on Donald Trump, making peace with his New Wave past, his Patreon channel and much, much, more.
Enjoy the spirited Q&A (edited only for length and clarity) below:
SLIS: Surgical Meth Machine feels like your most diverse album to date: you’ve got songs like Tragic Alert that are the fastest, heaviest stuff you’ve ever done, but then you have I’m Invisible which is your most melodic song since the 80’s. Was that broad scope intentional, or was it just an organic process?
AJ: Well it was an organic process in the sense that it wasn’t supposed to be a band–it wasn’t supposed to be an album. It was just me and my engineer trying to put some ideas down on a hard drive. We started out with the idea of like–“let’s try some extremely fast tempos and see how we take to that.” And then about halfway through the record we failed miserably, so we just got stoned and that’s how the other half of the record got recorded!
So it all seemed organic at the time–and then some friends came around and they heard it and they’re like “dude this shit is dope, you gotta release this.” And we’re like “well okay” and then some record label calls up and said “we want to put this out” and I said “ok” And then they cut me a check and I went to the bank…and then next thing you know I wake up one fucking morning and I have about 20 of you fucking lot trying to ask me about this fucking project that was never supposed to be a fucking project you know? I don’t know what fucking happened but here I am.
SLIS: I’m So Sensitive takes aim at social media in very sarcastic fashion. That’s become crucial for many artists in engaging their fan base, but your song acknowledges the downside. Do you feel social media is a necessary evil and do you enjoy certain aspects of it? Or do you hate it?
AJ: I don’t know anything about it man. Every four months I go into the studio and record ideas and some of them wind up in bands like Ministry, Revco or Lard, and other things we have to make up a name at the last-minute because we don’t even know what it is and somebody wants to release it so we had to come up with the name Surgical Meth Machine without a band or anything–so it’s more of the case of songs writing a band than bands writing a song you know what I mean (laughs)? Over the last decade that’s how I’ve done all of my albums.
I just go in…and I go ok, “this works out to be a Ministry song, or you know what? That one is pretty funny so let’s go Revco.” So for this one, my daughter came down for a weekend…she’s 30 years old and she’s just absolutely consumed by social media shit! I mean her entire day was either bolstered or ruined by the amount of likes or dislikes or friended or unfriended that she got from complete strangers on Facebook. And I just found the whole thing ludicrous so I basically mocked her the whole weekend!
So the lyrical content just came from that–I didn’t have a real cause to promote or anything–I was just making fun of my daughter for a weekend.
So that’s pretty much the lyrical content and the rest of it was just putting ideas down on a hard drive and somebody happened to like it and there we are! I mean this whole thing is really bizarre for me. I mean at least with the other stuff that’s on the shelf…you know that sounds like Ministry, that sounds like Revco…and if there are some Revco friends of mine in the area, they might come by and we record and that album comes closer to coming to fruition.
Same thing with Ministry: its like if some of the guitar players I play live with are in town we might finish up a record. The one that’s mostly finished…is the new LARD record because Jello (Biafra) came down for a couple of weekends while we were recording SMM and sang on (I Don’t Wanna)…but when is it going to be released? I dunno…we’re not gonna go in the studio and go “OK, we gotta finish a LARD record!”
Come September I’m gonna go back into the studio after we’ve done this damn Ministry tour that we’re finally finishing up after two years…and I’ll record until Christmas…after that we’ll see if any of the records that are half done on the shelf are gonna be finished.
Or, maybe I wont work on any of those and I’ll just come up with an entirely different thing with a new name…in other words I have absolutely not a fucking clue about what’s going to happen when I go into the studio…sometimes shit gets done and sometimes it just takes off into a different direction…what matters most is that we’re happy…and go “that sounded like some pretty dope shit” and move on from there and spend the rest of your 8 months trying to figure out whatever the fuck you did in the last four months.
Simple, organic, but effective, because I seem to have a lot of records out.
SLIS: Do you have any plans to tour the album, or was this envisioned simply as a studio project?
AJ: Hell no! I mean I’m not saying never…but we just have one record out–I’m supposed to go out there and stop what I’m doing trying to finish three other records going on and a new project that I have going on with this rap guy…and go back and recreate the one record that we have. So in other words we have no other material, so I have to go onstage and recreate the SMM album in its entirety?
And that’s all well and good…except wouldn’t you rather save your money, sit at home, spark up a fatty, listen to the record on headphones instead of spending exorbitant amounts of money to see a bunch of fat old white people trying to recreate something they did two years ago?
So in the interest of all concert-going people, I wouldn’t bestow that shame and harm upon you (laughing).
I’d rather be in the studio trying to figure out how I’m going to put out all the stuff on my shelves you know? The good thing is–with like Hendrix for instance–I heard like two years ago he had a new album out and somebody told me that guy died a long time ago!
But he’s still putting our records. So maybe if I can go on tour and die in a plane crash then I’ll have records for the next 20 years and wont have to do another fucking tour…I can die miserably in the Pacific Ocean on Malaysian airlines and be happy as fuck that I don’t have to tour alright? Have I made that pretty fucking clear to you?
SLIS: Yep, that’s pretty clear! Back to I’m Invisible: In a press release you stated that you were “almost acknowledging that first horrible pop record [With Sympathy] I did in 1983.” There are many Ministry fans (myself included) who still have a soft spot for that album—was that a tongue in cheek homage, and what made you embrace your melodic side after so many years?
AJ: That’s a good question. That one was purposely done actually…that one was actually like a big middle finger towards that entire period of my life where I went into a studio, they appointed producers, they appointed the band, they wrote the lyrics, they made me cut my hair, they made me dress up in tuxedos and things…I mean I was Milli Vanilli before fucking Milli Vanilli alright?
They harshed my mellow in a big way. I mean I almost didn’t want to do music after that record…I was ready to be like a fucking greeter at Wal-Mart or work at Denny’s or Popeye’s. It’s just like, enough! But that was a direct jab, middle finger to their fucking eye, going you know what? You want this shit? You got it kiddies! I can still do it. I mean I can do anything at gunpoint, you can put a gun to my head and tell me to write freeform jazz and I’m sure I could be the next fucking Ornette Coleman!
But that’s not the point! The fact is it’s not what I wanted to do, so it was definitely a jab at these fucking people going “I can do it…but on my own terms.” And we had a gas making that song.
SLIS: Unlistenable is another track with your classic sense of humor—you’re taking potshots at everyone from Megadeth to Morrissey. Is there any real venom directed towards those bands, or were you just trying to rile people up, or was that written from someone else’s perspective?
AJ: Nah, listen we just went in and recorded like 30 different fucking band names and Sammy (D’Abruso) actually edited the ones that he chose…Ministry’s in there too!
Like Ministry sucks! So that song has nothing do with the bands–I actually like Iron Maiden y’know? So that’s not the point. The point of that song and I’m Sensitive is just about all those social media trolls, all these losers in mom and dad’s basement just hating on everyone you know, for no reason except…I mean fuck Andy Warhol’s 15 minute of fame…for like a minute of fame they feel empowered and their voice is heard, like “wow oh my god somebody actually gave me a thumbs up for hating Megadeth!” You know? That’s their whole life. I find the social media thing kind of sad because it’s probably changing this culture more than any singular event or product or anything ever! More so than radio in the 20’s or 30’s or TV in the 50’s and 60’s.
Social media just consumes our whole culture to the point that it’s not even recognizable to me, like when I was talking about my daughter and how her entire day was ruined if she was unfriended by a complete stranger! I just never got over that concept. I’m like what?! Really? You’re upset because you don’t have to deal with some strange person anymore…and that’s a bad thing?
And she’s trying to explain to me but apparently I’m just some weird old white guy who doesn’t understand this shit!
SLIS: Speaking of trolls and trolling–it seems like every election cycle gets described as “the most important one in our lifetime.” But do you think this is it given the threat of Donald Trump?
AL: Nice seg dude! I like that! That’s very good. Going from troll to Trump! I like that!
SLIS: Thank you (laughing)!
AJ: Listen I’m not one of those people scared of fucking Trump because here’s the simple fact: last time I checked you need 51% to make a democracy work to get any agenda done. Ok? So over half the people. Well, the 3 out of 10 people is the scary part, because they think Donald Trump’s ideas are valid and good and that he’s our savior.
But it’s no different from the rest of the world. If you look at Europe, instead of being afraid of Mexicans coming over the border, they’re afraid of all the Middle-Easterners migrating away from war zones. So the rise of the right-wing racism, which is exactly the same as right before Hitler and Mussolini came to power in Europe in the early 30’s, it’s the same thing that’s going on now…playing on those same fears in Europe and America and all that.
But the last time I checked, it takes 51% to do it. And 3 out of 10 are idiotic enough to buy into this fear mongering but you have to remember, the comforting part is that 7 out of 10 people actually think the guy’s a douchebag!
So I really don’t see it happening, even though the media makes it sound like its imminent. They spend 23 and 1/2 hours of a 24 hour news cycle talking about Trump, and making it seem bigger than it is. It’s not: 7 out of 10 people, fortunately…still have some semblance of cranial matter left.
SLIS: And its kind of scary that Ted Cruz is being presented as this moderate alternative, because he’s almost worse.
AJ: It’s the same fucking thing. I mean the entire Republican party…but what’s not getting the press in places like Europe, because I’ve done press the last couple of weeks, that’s the first question out of their mouth–these people are scared shitless about Trump and I’m going Trump? What about Belgian Nazi’s protesting in front of the Belgian stock exchange? What about the National Front gaining 32 seats in the French Parliament? What about Angela Merkel being taken down by right-wing extremists in Germany?
It’s the same thing here dude! Why don’t you take a look in the mirror and see what’s going on in your own back yard. We’re all getting a little freaked out by it, but it’s not going to happen!
I’m actually a glass half full kind of guy. I really don’t see this being able to happen. It just can’t! It just won’t. Period.
SLIS: So on the Democratic side, who would you put your $ on this election: Hillary or Bernie?
AJ: Well if I was a betting man I would have already lost all my money on saying a clown like Trump would never get as far as he did, so obviously I’m not going to bet on it. But my sentiments actually don’t align with anyone–possibly the best choice in my opinion would have to be Elizabeth Warren.
SLIS: I agree. I wish she were running.
AL: But she’s not, so Bernie is probably the next closest thing. And if you listen to From Beer To Eternity, which was recorded three years ago, I sampled Bernie because I thought a lot of what he said made sense.
So its pretty obvious where my heart lies, but if I was to bet? If it was between Bernie and Hilary? At this point it almost doesn’t matter, because the system is what it is and you can talk a good game and even if you take actions on your talk, it’s always stifled by other special agendas and special interests who will block whatever you’re doing. So it’s a real broken system: democracy as it exists today. And obviously a big part of that is Citizens United and another big part is the media.
I mean just 23 and 12 hours of Trump a day? For what? I mean would we have 23 and 12 hours of David Duke? Because they’re about the same thing.
SLIS: You’ve said in the past that you’ve written some of your best material when a Bush is in the White House—as frightening as a Trump presidency would be, is there some sick part of you that would like it just for the songwriting potential?
AL: Dude…that is like such low hanging fruit! That would be, like for me, if I did a Trump album? It’d be like my mom and dad walking in on me when I was 12 years old in my room masturbating!
I mean that’s really low-hanging fruit. I mean I wasted my time on three albums of Bush and I’m going to waste my time on an album about Trump? I don’t think so man. I even have some kind of dignity left!
AL: well both are just to be interactive with the fans and the other thing is before SMM I really don’t have an income as do most musicians
I mean I made a lot of money in the 90’s and squandered it all like an idiot on drugs and divorces and bad properties and this and that–so its nice for the fans to get to know you and it’s a good way to be interactive and it’s a good way for them to a put a roof over your head because most musicians don’t have that luxury.
They’re working two jobs and they’re trying to be creative…meanwhile you have the populace screaming about how all the music sounds the same and everything sucks, and yet it sucks because musicians can’t do their work. I mean in some Scandinavian countries you have art grants…so they do support artists and even Canada to a lesser extent, but here its dog eat dog.
And as long as the media just keeps hyping up what’s already known and labels just keep doing what’s already been done, we’re not going to go any further. And a lot of people who probably have great ideas have to resort just to make money doing really crappy music probably not to their liking either. But it’s just a cold-hearted reality that the arts just aren’t considered essential anymore, except in very few pockets of this world.
It’s a sad situation and I’ve seen it coming for many years and I was fortunate enough to get out of the 90’s alive with a little bit of dough in my pocket. But these bands starting up now, I mean I feel for them man. Because everyone wants a free download, free T-shirts, free shows, free everything! How are these bands going to make any money? You don’t make any on touring or shirts because if you’re popular all your shirts are bootlegged, you don’t make any money on your art because it’s all being downloaded for free anyways…and I’m one of the fortunate ones–at least I get to hang out with my people and they get to pay me through the nose for direct access, because that’s about the only way to make money.
Because everything else is free. And that’s fine I guess, but you have to think in your mind, like how are the artists going to continue unless you support them? And I really don’t think people are malicious. I just thing they’re not educated on how the system works. People are so accustomed to getting free shit that they didn’t even think, “wow how do these people even make money?”
And it’s sad because I think the arts are really important to the advancement of culture within society and it’s just being litigated to some kind of weird forgotten product that’s now just slight amusement for the masses that’s just expected to be served to them for free.
I’m not talking about me for the most part, I mean I’m blessed, I’m lucky, that I have so many albums out that there is some sort of income, but there are so many people with good ideas that are never going to get the fucking fan base under the current system that we have now.
SLIS: Speaking of struggling artists trying to do something new–Ministry came in on that subversive alternative wave in the late 80’s/early 90’s that bubbled to the mainstream. Do you think rock can ever come back as a more lucrative, cultural force vs. all the auto tuned pop that’s choking the life out of everything else?
AJ: I think that people will do the right thing if they’re educated enough to see that just expecting everything for free, they can also expect really crappy shit to be coming their way as far as any kind of entertainment, whether it be movies or music or art, or whatever: it’s going to be pre-processed pabulum for the masses.
But when people get educated and they start seeing that, I think the internet will become what I originally thought it was going to be many years ago: I thought this was going to be the next punk rock movement: DIY and all this other shit. Just bypass the middlemen that block you from making a fucking living. So I really think that the Internet in the future will become more of an artistic forum as opposed to people just watching cats play piano! Or jackasses jumping off roofs on skateboards or home shopping club–more consumerism. That’s what the Internet has become and nothing more.
That, and a hate forum. But it will explode once people become educated and artists start putting their best foot forward instead of what they think people will settle for–or what they can get paid just to put food in their mouth.
So I do have a hopeful analogy for the future, I just don’t think it’s there yet.
SLIS: Well I think that wraps up my questions–anything you’d like to add about the album or any other new projects in the works?
Well I’ve been kind of dicking around with this new friend of mine, this guy called the Arabian Prince who was one of the original founding members of NWA…he and I have been kind of working together so we’ll see what happens, there’s no guarantees, we don’t have a band name or anything.
Like I said I’m not scheduled to go back into the studio until I’m done with this Ministry tour and then we’ll see what happens. I’ll talk to you next year and there could be a whole bunch of things coming out, or there could be nothing (laughing)! Either way I’ll just keep plugging along and see what seems to fit right in my life.
Many thanks to Al Jourgensen for doing this interview. You can pre-order Surgical Meth Machine via iTunes and Amazon below: