Sonic Assault: Ministry’s Al Jourgensen Talks Politics, ZZ Top and His Love for San Antonio

click to enlarge Sonic Assault: Ministry’s Al Jourgensen Talks Politics, ZZ Top and His Love for San Antonio
Jaime Monzon
When we found out Ministry was celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Land of Rape and Honey by playing a chunk of the record live on its current tour, we were more than a bit stoked.

With the release of that 1988 album, Ministry emerged as leaders of a then-new fusion of industrial music and heavy metal that united fans of both in a celebration of chunky guitar riffs and machine-gun programmed drums.

And with band frontman Al Jourgensen calling the Lone Star State home in the early ’90s, dare we say Ministry is Texas music?

Of course, San Antonio’s long been notorious for championing all things loud and heavy, it welcomed Jourgensen and family with open arms. Audiences devoured the band’s unique sound, rooted in everything from post-punk, thrash metal, punk rock and dance music.
“It was pushing the envelope in every direction. That is Ministry in a nutshell,” said longtime friend and Jourgensen-collaborator Phil Owen.

Owen fronts the Austin-based Skatenigs — whose first album Jourgensen produced — and he also co-wrote the title track for Beers, Steers, and Queers, the second record by the Revolting Cocks, another of Jourgensen’s musical imprints.

While some of Owen’s recollections of working with Jourgensen reflected standard rock ’n’ roll shenanigans (like someone vomiting on a $50,000 keyboard computer), the Skatenigs singer also shed some light on the now-60-year-old industrial/metal icon’s creative genius.

“[Ministry] would spend a ton of money banging garbage and making snare sounds out of crazy stuff — a distortion chain made out of $10,000-worth of compressors,” said Owen. “This whole idea of ‘let’s make some noise and turn it into instruments’ — I don’t know what the intention was, or if they were trying to put a label on it. It was just what was going on at the time. They got really good at it, and then people would start to adopt those techniques.”

Those folks included Trent Reznor of the mammoth electronic/industrial act Nine Inch Nails, whose music, like Ministry’s, has stood the test of several decades. While some industrial contemporaries toned down their sound and drug-fueled excesses over time, Jourgensen kept hammering away, full volume, at both. (He’s said he stopped using heroin and other hard drugs a few years ago.)

With Ministry slated for another of its seemingly annual performances in San Antonio, we got a chance to talk with Uncle Al about what drew him to the harsh sounds of industrial music, his relationship with San Antonio and his perspective as a longtime icon in his genre.
click to enlarge Sonic Assault: Ministry’s Al Jourgensen Talks Politics, ZZ Top and His Love for San Antonio
Jaime Monzon
San Antonio has been a huge supporter of industrial and metal through ’80s and even up to today. Do you have any fond memories of playing here back then, or even more recently?
Well, I love the city, man. To me, that’s the metal capital of Texas. You know, I lived in El Paso for 10 years and in Austin for four, so I’m pretty well aware of Texas, and San Antonio is my favorite metal city. Austin’s more alternative, goth rock, emo rock, but San Antonio is full on metal. Houston and Dallas are pretty metal, and El Paso — I don’t know what the fuck they have besides Beto O’Rourke. (Laughs.)

At the Drive In came out of there, so they’ve got something going on.
Yeah, At the Drive in, Mars Volta — the bass player from the Clash lived there for a few years too, ’cause he just wanted to drive his Harley around mountain passes. That’s about their big claim to fame. Now, Beto O’Rourke.

But I love San Antonio. I love coming back to Texas in general. I spent 30-35 years in Chicago, now close to 10 in California and the rest of my time has pretty much been spent in Texas. It’s like coming home for sure, and I also truly believe that San Antonio has the best Mexican food on the planet, so it’s always good to come back.

I saw that you turned 60 on October 9, which is crazy because that’s my birthday too.
Get out! You know that we share that birthday with John and Sean Lennon, Jackson Browne oddly enough and Ornette Coleman? So, we’ve got pop, rock and jazz and industrial covered all on our birthdays. It’s a good day!

Did you happen to celebrate or do anything fun that day?
Dude, when you get to my fucking age the last thing you do is celebrate. You’re just like, “Aw, shit, here I am again.” (Laughs.)
click to enlarge Sonic Assault: Ministry’s Al Jourgensen Talks Politics, ZZ Top and His Love for San Antonio
Jaime Monzon

I felt the same way about my birthday. I mean, I turned 32, but I didn’t really feel like doing anything.
Oh! Then party down, man! Party down! You’ll see what I’m talking about, you little rookie, when you get into your late 40s. Ugh! You’ll dread those fucking days. (Laughs.) But it’s OK, man, I’m still here. I’m happy, we’re still making good music and doing good shows, and it all works out.

Speaking of anniversaries, birthdays and what not, Land of Rape and Honey came out 30 years ago, and it’s crazy to see the impact of industrial music and watching it re-emerge again in the past five or ten years. What has it been like for you as a major player in that genre to be around long enough for it come back?
You know, it’s odd from my perspective, because I don’t think of myself as an industrial band, and it’s like I was always just was doing music. And then you folks, you journalists, called it “industrial” and whatever, you know. I didn’t understand what the difference was between ZZ Top and Ministry, to be honest. We both like guitars, you know what I’m saying?

Did you just compare ZZ Top to Ministry?
But you know what? You think about it, we both are based in a blues kind of motif, in a sense, and I’m good friends with [ZZ Top Guitarist] Billy Gibbons. So, you know he was always one of my heroes, and we got along great. He’s been on a couple of Revolting Cocks records with me, and so I really didn’t see what all the fuss was about. We used a little bit more clangier samples and were a little bit more political, but I never really understood if industrial was in or out, or what it was, or who was in it, or who started it, or who ended it. We just write music, man, and that music seemed to come natural to me. I’m not trying to force anything, so that’s just the way we sound.
click to enlarge Sonic Assault: Ministry’s Al Jourgensen Talks Politics, ZZ Top and His Love for San Antonio
Jaime Monzon

In a recent interview, you told a story about how your dad was a race car mechanic and took you to the Indianapolis 500 when you were a kid, and you heard the sounds of the cars and said, “Oh, this is a cool noise.” That’s kind of interesting, because some of the music you create and that you’re around sounds, well, like engines.
Actually, there’s a great quote from Billy Gibbons about Ministry, saying that we’re the only music he listens to in his car that actually gets him in trouble. (Laughs.) He gets pulled over by Texas State Troopers all the time because he likes to floor it when he hears our stuff!

But, yeah, I think there’s definitely a NASCAR aspect to our thing, because when I was 6, literally, I was in the pit at Indy and my dad was working with the Dan Gurney crew in 1966, and he came in third that year. But it was my first exposure to that kind of volume. I had never heard anything that loud in my life. I was just blown away by it to the point that I have to say that — God rest his soul — Lemmy from Motorhead actually came up to me when we played together at a festival in Europe and said that we were the loudest band he had ever heard. Coming from Motorhead, that’s pretty good.

And, so, I pretty much have my dad to thank for that, for taking me to the pits of Indy when I was six. I think that that was a major influence on what the hell’s going on with my music today.

My older sisters introduced me to Skinny Puppy, Ministry, early Nine Inch Nails and all that stuff when I was younger, and I pay attention to all the bands that are still doing it. Of all them, you seem to cover a lot more political themes. Do you feel that because of your platform, as somebody whose music is widely distributed, you have an obligation to talk about politics? Or is that just naturally what you want to address in your music?
Quite the opposite. I feel like people should sing what they feel comfortable singing about. I went to college as a history major with a political science minor, so all this shit’s right up my alley: I do my research, I pay attention and I’m an informed citizen. That’s what I know, so that’s what I feel comfortable singing about. I think it’s fucking bullshit when someone tries to make political statements when they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about or they don’t feel comfortable doing it. You know what I’m saying? I mean, basically I think people like Taylor Swift or Kanye West should stick to singing about what they’re informed about, and to each his own, but it’s always come natural to me.

I didn’t actually want to be in the music business. I wasn’t one of these people that played air guitar in front of the mirror at 8 years old and dreamt of being a rock star. I wanted to be a fucking history professor in college, and that was more my gig, so that comes natural to me and that’s the real deal. That’s not me trying force anything.
click to enlarge Sonic Assault: Ministry’s Al Jourgensen Talks Politics, ZZ Top and His Love for San Antonio
Phil Parmet
I get that, definitely. I mean, I’m queer, I’m Mexican and my great-grandparents were immigrants. The more people rally for our freedom and our rights, I’m grateful for it, and I know plenty of other marginalized people are stoked for that too.
You know, you mentioned your great-grandparents are immigrants. Well, I’m an immigrant to this country [from Cuba]. I didn’t speak English until I was 6 years old. I spoke Spanish, and I know I have an affinity for [people caught up in] the immigration crisis that we have right now. It breaks my heart what’s going in Tornillo right now — with the tent cities — because, basically, that could’ve been me. I’ve personally visited Tornillo and got to the gates of the camp three months ago, saw it for myself during one of the rallies there, and obviously I’m a big Beto supporter and visited his offices while I was in El Paso. But people have to realize that that could’ve been me, and it’s so funny because I have some absolutely — in spite of my politics — what’s odd is I actually have right-wing fans, and they really don’t want to hear about my politics. They just like the sonic assault. But you know what? It kind of seeps in. Like, if they go to one of our shows, they see that. “Listen, we’re on the right side of history here, so pay attention or be left behind.” It’s just so funny we’ve been doing — since it’s the 30th anniversary of Rape and Honey — we’re doing half of Rape and Honey at our show.

Oh, wow.
Yeah, we haven’t done that in 20-25 years, close to that, and playing some of the old stuff is kind of bittersweet. A lot of the things we were singing about 30 years ago are still happening and need to be sung about, so it’s kind of cool that we’re still relevant, but it’s kind of uncool that we’re still relevant. (Laughs.)

Yeah, it’s a double-edged sword. It’s good that it’s still talked about though, and if the evil still exists, you’ve got to keep exposing it.
And that’s the sad part: You gotta keep exposing it.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m at the bottom of a well shouting up for help and nobody’s listening, ‘cause I’ve been railing about the same shit for 30 years, and it’s the same shit, ya know? But, at the same token, somebody’s gotta be the town crier or the Chicken Little, I guess.

I guess I’m the Chicken Little of industrial. I’m always yelling that the sky is falling.

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