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Interview: Al Jourgensen of Ministry

25 February 2024

Photos by Derick Smith

Al Jourgensen, frontman for Ministry, is in an affable mood when he calls from his Los Angeles home to discuss the legendary industrial band’s sixteenth studio album, HOPIUMFORTHEMASSES, which is set for release on March 1 via Nuclear Blast Records. But make no mistake: on this new batch of songs, Jourgensen is as outspoken about social ills as he’s always been throughout his nearly five-decade career. This time, against an intensely throbbing and jagged musical backdrop, topics such as misogyny, racism, and religion come under his intense (and witty) scrutiny. Soon, the band will take these powerful musical missives out into the world, as they undertake an extensive spring tour with Gary Numan and Front Line Assembly (see the list of dates below). After that, Jourgensen says, he’ll begin the process of winding down Ministry for good, satisfied that he’s accomplished all he wanted to do with it.

How are you feeling as you get ready to release this album into the world?

AL JOURGENSEN: I feel really good about it. I feel like the album holds up. I think Ministry just keeps getting better in the genre that we’ve defined. There’s going to come a point in time very soon where, well, that’s as far as we can take it. I think this one is really refined, polished, on point, and produced well. Out of all my albums, [this one is] definitely in the top five. So yeah, I’m excited about it.

Why did you pick HOPIUMFORTHEMASSES as the album title?

AL JOURGENSEN: It’s kind of a sarcastic tongue in cheek description of a Karl Marx quote, which was “opium for the masses.” We like to do that with all our titles. Ministry fights injustice with sarcasm, and that seems to be our calling card.

What do you hope people will think or feel when they hear these new songs?

AL JOURGENSEN: I just want people to think! [laughs] If I could do that, that would be amazing – it would be a step in the right direction!

What themes or ideas are you trying to get across this time?

AL JOURGENSEN: I don’t even consider myself a musician; I consider myself a photographer. I just go around taking snapshots of what society is. I’m like a time capsule. So if you listen to Ministry albums, in between the lines you can see what I felt was going on in society at that given point in time. So at this point, the themes are pretty self-evident. “Big Dick Energy” [“B.D.E.”], I just really feel like misogynistic tendencies in this society have gotten more and more violent – and also become more normalized, which is not cool. I don’t know if you notice that #MeToo movement has never set their gaze on Ministry, because we actually respect the other gender in this band. As I watch all my fellow ’90s compatriots go down with some kind of scandal. The only thing I cared about in the ’90s was that my dealer was going to show up on time, so I never had time to grope or any of this other shit that people do now. Nor would I have anyways; that’s just not the way I am. But I do feel like this has been a really under the radar topic, that we’ve normalized misogyny. I don’t see anyone else really talking about it, so I just figured, why not? Give it the usual dose of Ministry sarcasm and see where it goes.

When you write about things that you find so aggravating, how do you not let it make you angry all the time?

AL JOURGENSEN: I used to be a very, very angry person. I think age subdues some of that because you’re able to analytically, through personal experiences, process information in a different fashion than when you’re young and you’re really angst ridden and you want to take care of all the problems in the world at once. And then you start maturing, getting older, getting more educated on subjects, and I think the anger kind of simmers to just a frustration. I’m not angry anymore. In the early 2000s, during the [George W.] Bush administration, I was pissed. I was pissed when [Donald] Trump won, and I wrote an entire album about it, [2018’s] AmeriKKKant, [which] was just completely dedicated to the shock to my system of when Trump was actually elected. But as you mature, as you get more educated, now it’s just a matter of pinpointing why these things happen in society and what you can do at the root cause – let’s get to why these things are happening in the first place. So I think at least my lyrical style has progressed from reactivism to activism.

How did you know you should write these kinds of lyrics in the first place?

AL JOURGENSEN: Because I feel comfortable in doing that. I’m educated enough and I’m well-read enough and involved enough to not be just talking out my ass, like Kid Rock: “Aw, shoot up some Bud Light stuff, that’ll tell ’em!” That’s not politics. But the point is, I’m not surprised by the way things are going, as dire as they are. I am frustrated. But let’s find a way to get rid of the frustration and do your part in helping the human species survive this period. Which, once again, is cyclical. This is nothing new. I mean, we had fascism rise in the ’30s, and now you have your populist movements. This right wing thing is rising again, and they’ll be beaten down again, and it’ll come back again. Right wing fascism is like fucking herpes. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

So many artists who’ve had long careers end up doing acoustic reworkings of their songs, or mellowing out in general, but you’ve never done that…

AL JOURGENSEN: You know what? It’s funny. There’s something to be said for that. I don’t expect everyone to be political activists in their music. If you’re educated enough in the topic that you’re talking about and you feel comfortable, then do that. If you want to sing about breakups and relationships and all that, I don’t thumb my nose at it or anything, if that’s what you’re comfortable doing. There’s some good songs that help in processing breakups and romances, that are really complex subjects. I do what I do because I feel comfortable, and I feel educated enough to make a proper response. Basically, like I said, my music just augments the photographs that I take in my mind of what I walk around watching every day.

How did you know you should be a musician in the first place?

AL JOURGENSEN: Back in the day, when I started, it was actually much like athletics is to poverty-stricken communities: it’s a way out, you know. And at that point, before I started Ministry, I had two previous failed attempts at life. One, I wanted to be a baseball player, and I tore up my knee. So then I decided I was going to ride bulls, so I joined a rodeo circuit, and I broke all my ribs. Then I started thinking, “There has to be a better way to connect to people, because I keep getting injured doing that.” So far in music, the only collateral damage is excessive drinking and liver damage, and oh yeah, ulcers. I had to stop a tour and almost quit for a while because I was bleeding out my nose, ears, cock, ass, everything just bleeding. I just said, “No, this isn’t good, either. Maybe I should try something else.” [laughs] But yeah, so that’s how I wound up here, so here I am.

Do you remember the first song you wrote where you realized you really could do this?

AL JOURGENSEN: Yeah, actually – I came in with a four track demo to the place where I worked as a record clerk, a new store in Chicago called Wax Trax!, and I played it for the owners. And they went, “Holy shit!” And they decided to release that as a 12 inch [record, via Wax Trax! Records]. And then people actually started paying money for this stuff, and I freaked out – finally, I’ve got something that’s not going to bust bones in my body, and I’m doing something that is satisfying, and other people seem to appreciate it. So I found my little niche in society. That was good.

But at this point, people seem to have pretty high expectations for your work. Do you ever feel under pressure to live up to that?

AL JOURGENSEN: Absolutely. That’s why I’m ending this real soon, because it gets to the point where I think this album exemplifies how far you can take the genre that you’ve created. In other words, I didn’t set out to create anything. I just did what felt natural to me, right? And I guess it’s influenced other people, and they’ve taken it a step further and made it form fit to their own ideals, and they feel comfortable in it. And so art will eat itself. Again, it’s cyclical. But at this point, I think we’ve gone pretty much as far as we can in the genre with this record. And then the last check off is doing a final Ministry record with [bassist] Paul Barker, [a working relationship] which was instrumental in the success and the growth and evolution of Ministry during the late ’80s and ’90s. So we’re getting back together for one final album, putting a big bow on the Ministry box, and saying good night, drop mike.

What’s your plan for what comes next?

AL JOURGENSEN: My new passion is pretty much just doing film scores. I love the collaboration aspect of working with somebody that’s not in music but is in visual, so I’m augmenting his or her vision for a movie. I find that really fulfilling. So this is really nice, just working on film scores to help other people realize their vision. And I want to concentrate on the musicians union. I was very activated by watching the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild win concessions, finally, and our musicians union does nothing for musicians. So I really want to work on activism on getting creative people a foundation so they can still be creative without having to join the hamster wheel of life, which is what things are really trending towards. So that’s what I want to do, is just film scores and activism.

You’re going to leave a lot of heartbroken Ministry fans in your wake when you end this band, though.

AL JOURGENSEN: Well, then go watch the movies that I write the film scores for; you’ll get plenty of bang for buck on those, I promise!

 

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