Al Jourgensen: “I’d shoot heroin, smoke crack, take methadone… and I still managed to put out some decent records”
At the age of 10 Al Jourgensen was on hand to witness one of the most incendiary concerts in the history of American rock’n’roll. This was in the summer of 1968; the occasion was the Democratic National Convention held that summer at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago. These were the days of the Vietnam War, not to mention the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F Kennedy. As politicians made their way to the convention, thousands of protestors were getting ready to rumble outside. The police were about to do the same.
It was after a set by Detroit’s dependably combustible MC5 that hell slipped its leash. The band’s guitarist, Wayne Kramer, high on acid, watched the helicopters and the ranks of jittery cops and just knew that the whole thing was about to blow. This it duly did, as a riot arrived that saw live ammunition fired into the crowds and so much tear gas deployed that it seeped into the bedrooms of nearby hotels.
“My mom was pretty angry at me for being there,” says Al today. “I think I got grounded for a week after that day.”
Since forming Ministry almost four decades ago, few artists have been quite as productive as Al Jourgensen. As a member or associate of at least a dozen different outfits, few writers and performers have been quite so prolific. Considering that for many of these years Al was as high as a satellite, the achievement is even more striking. He was in hock to heroin for two full decades, and one time almost lost an arm due to an infection from a hypodermic needle. As if this weren’t enough, he also developed a taste for crack.
Now almost clean and serene, Al shows no inclination to either slow down his production line of often truly startling music. Always one of the more tantalising faces of the underground earthquake of the early 1990s, we thought the time had come to let Al Jourgensen have the floor, and to speak a mind that he seems in constant danger of losing…
Can you tell us something about your early life, please, Al?
“Sure. I was born in Cuba, but moved to America when I was really young. There was a lot of crazy stuff going on down in Cuba at that time [a revolution and the arrival of Fidel Castro as President] and like most Cubans we didn’t actually move very far away from there; we lived in Miami, which is full of Cubans. But we did move further afield, to Colorado and Chicago, and then eventually I spent time living in Berlin and London.”
Ministry spent a large part of the 1980s finding your sound. Did you ever have any doubt that you’d get there in the end?
“No, I knew we’d get there. The music business was so different back then that bands were allowed time to develop. I don’t think that any band that formed today would be given as much time as we were to find our way. But it was a good time – I got to be in Chicago and see the whole Wax Trax! [Records] scene, and I got to live in Germany and England, and that was a real eye-opener.”
Is it true that when you lived in London you used to go to see Millwall play?
“Yeah, that is true. Millwall are my team, man. I remember being taken to a game at [the team’s former home] The Den and it was just a whole different experience from going to see a sporting event in the United States. I recall that there was a car set on fire outside of the ground, and there were kids selling shiny pebbles for the fans to throw at the other team’s supporters. I mean, it was crazy. I really had seen nothing like it. There was an energy down there that was just so different from anything I’d ever experienced – it felt dangerous. So, yeah, Millwall became my team.”
In 1986 Paul Barker joined the band on bass and became your partner in crime for the next 17 years. Do you miss him at all?
“To be honest, not really. I love Paul and I wish him every success in all of his future ventures, but the truth of it is that he and I were never really that close. We really were the odd couple. But I do wish him all the best and I hope that he’s well and happy in whatever he’s doing. That part of the band is over now and I don’t have any desire to go back to those days.”
Your and Paul’s first album together, The Land Of Rape And Honey, signalled the start of a high creative and commercial watermark. Did you enjoy those times?
“It was a little bit of both good and bad, I’d say. You know, on the one hand we’d kind of figured out what we were doing and how to do it and we were making some good music. The records from that time have stood up pretty well, I think. But on the other hand, those were crazy times and it’s just a question of finding the right tools to help you get through the situations that you find yourself in. My tools for survival probably weren’t the smartest ’cause they were really nothing more than pumping heroin into both arms.”
What did you like about drugs so much?
“That’s tough to say now that I no longer take hard drugs, but I certainly did my time with them. I’d shoot heroin, smoke crack, take methadone, and none of these things are very smart, you know? It seems crazy to look back now, but somehow I managed to put out some pretty decent records during that period. No matter how bad my addictions became, I still managed to remain productive. I don’t really know how I did that, but I did. In some cases drugs clearly impede creativity, but in my case it seems that they didn’t.”
What motivated you to give up the hardest drugs?
“It was just time, you know? Taking as many drugs as I did is dangerous and I realised that if I wanted to end up killing myself, this was probably the way to do it. I’d been taking heroin for 20 years, which is long enough, you know. I just realised that the time had come to clean myself up. I’d been in too many scrapes and too many bad situations and it was time for a change.”
And how do you feel about that decision?
“I feel pretty fucking good about it.”
What do you remember about Ministry’s recording compound in Austin being raided by federal agents in 1995?
“I remember everything about it ‘cause it’s not the kind of thing you easily forget. Basically we were living in what essentially a retirement community in Texas and obviously we were freaking out the locals. So every night they’d call the cops on us. We lived right next door to a golf course so I’d take target practice with one of my guns at the golfers. Next thing you know, the authorities have got the idea we’re living as part of a giant armed compound, kind of like [cult leader] David Koresh. So we were hit hard – dozens of agents in SWAT gear came crashing in and started tearing the walls looking for guns and explosives. I did have guns, but they were all licensed. Another thing they found was trace elements of heroin in the garbage, so of course I got into trouble for that. It was pretty amazing to see the power of the state at work against you at such a close distance, but I wouldn’t say it was amazing in a good way.”
Ministry first blossomed during an amazing period for underground music. How thrilled were you at being viewed as part of a new ‘alternative generation?’
“I hated that phrase. That was just marketing. It was a bunch of typically corporate people dressing something up as being aspirational and selling it for a buck. I mean, we sold a lot of records during that period, so I know I shouldn’t complain – but I’m going to anyway. Any band worth their salt doesn’t want to be lumped in with other bands and told that they all represent the same thing. I felt that very strongly back then and I still feel it now. I didn’t want to be seen as being part of a movement and every instinct I had was to rebel against that.”
You were part of the first Lollapalooza tour, though, in 1991, which was kind of a giant smorgasbord for the alternative nation. One of its founders, Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, even came up with the phrase.
“It was the second year, actually…”
“And here’s what happened. Originally our place on the bill was third from bottom, which meant that we were playing pretty early in the afternoon and in brilliant sunshine. It was horrible and I said, ‘There’s no way we’re playing that early.’ Our music isn’t something that should be listened to in fucking sunshine. So I was ready to blow out the tour, is how unhappy I was with going onstage at that ridiculous hour. And we would have done, too, were it not for Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Both of those bands cut their set time so that we could go on after the sun had gone down. I thought that was really great thing for them to do. Without that, we wouldn’t have been on that tour; us playing in, like, fucking Arizona in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the summer was just never gonna work.”
These days you live in Los Angeles. How do you like the City of Angels?
“I love it there. But when I say I live in LA, I don’t live in Hollywood or on the [Sunset] Strip or anything like that. I live in a nice neighbourhood up in the hills and it’s really quiet and sedate. In fact, while I’m over here in Europe [on tour] I’m having a new studio built, so when I go back that’ll be finished.”
Finally, you’re famously a big fan of the Chicago Blackhawks ice hockey team. But now you live on the West Coast, have you forsaken them for the Los Angeles Kings?
“No, never. Anyone who knows me knows that if you cut me open I will bleed the colours of the Blackhawks. I will bleed red, white and black. I was bummed out when [former Blackhawks player] Jeremy Roenick made the front office at the United Center [in Chicago] stop playing our music over the PA because he said it made him ‘edgy’, but I still love the team. In fact, the only time I go and see the Kings is when the Blackhawks are in town.”
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