Ministry’s Al Jourgensen on New Trump-Era LP, How Pot Changed His Life
Six years ago, the fate of Ministry was looking grim. Following the untimely 2012 death of longtime guitarist Mike Scaccia, frontman Al Jourgensen declared that he was putting the band to rest. But on the phone with Rolling Stone, Jourgensen seems upbeat, invigorated by his most recent tour with experimental hip-hop outfit Death Grips. What’s got him vexed enough to reenter the ring with his industrial-metal powerhouse? You guessed it: Donald Trump.
“It just seems like we’re right back in the same spot that I’ve been jabbering about for, like, 30 years,” says Jourgensen, who dubbed the president “Hurricane Cheeto” after his remarkably catastrophic inaugural year. “Here we go again. I have to do another anti-fascist record. Hello? Anybody out there?”
The result is Ministry’s upcoming 14th album, AmeriKKKant, due March 9th. Heavily informed by Eighties hip-hop, thrash and cable news, the new LP also boasts a new lineup – featuring live scratcher DJ Swamp (Beck, the Crystal Method) and a guest appearance from founding N.W.A member Arabian Prince. At Ministry’s recent NYC show, turntables merged with guitars while Jourgensen rallied the crowd, marching between two inflatable chickens designed in the image of Trump. He hopes to bring the chickens back on Ministry’s North American tour next spring, alongside opener Chelsea Wolfe.
“I’ll tell you what,” says Jourgensen, “to detractors of Ministry, I promise you, I will stop making music. You just make it a nice little utopian world. All right? Then I’ll shut the fuck up.”
Given that you once released a song called “70’s Rock Must Die,” I want to thank you for talking to Rolling Stone.
Yeah. That was my, uh, little collaboration with Jello Biafra. I can’t think of a more perfect person to write that song than Jello. I wrote the music to that, but he wrote the lyrics, which are hysterical.
Jokes aside, tell me about your new album. How would you compare it to previous Ministry records?
It’s very different from most Ministry albums. I think the consensus [among] people who’ve heard it so far is basically that it sounds like … well, “Punk Floyd.” [Laughs] It’s pretty ethereal, most of it. But then there’s a couple of clunkers in there that are very reminiscent of Ministry’s glory days, or whatever: “Antifa,” and “Wargasm” is another one that fits right into that realm. The rest of the album is pretty trippy. I think it will do really well in states with legal marijuana.
This is your first Ministry album without Mike Scaccia. What was it like, working on new music without him?
I mean, I don’t go in there with any preconceived notions when I go into a studio. … Basically the music flows through me as opposed to the other way around. I’m just going there and bashing out ideas. Some of them work, some of them don’t. A lot of things have happened in my life over the last few years: I moved from Texas back to Los Angeles, I got divorced, Mikey died, and all this stuff. There was a lot of different emotions to tap into. We got some real rippers in there – you think you’re at a thrash concert, then the next minute you think somebody dosed your drink with some psychedelics. I mean there’s no time in between songs; all the songs talk to each other. It’s kind of like telling a narrative or story the whole way through. We had some problems with contract negotiations and this and that. … The last time this happened was with the album Psalm 69, when we ran into some legal bullshit about seven months before it came out. But it finally got resolved, and [AmeriKKKant is] coming out this March.
Psalm 69 turned 25 this year and also ranked number 80 on our 100 Greatest Metal Albums list. What are your feelings on that record today?
I didn’t like [Psalm 69] for a lot of years just because of the difficulty of making that record. It was a real pain in the ass. There’s a lot of shit going on. But I guess if you’re a mother and you have a difficult child, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be, like, “I hate that kid forever” because they caused you a lot of pain. My stance towards it has softened over the years. It took me years to learn that because it was a nightmare to make. A lot of that was internal band drama and substance abuse. But time heals all wounds, and now I can appreciate it. Now it can vote and drink and drive. You know, Land of Rape and Honey turned 30 this year too. My babies are growing up! Fuck, I’m getting really old.
You’ve been critical of every president over the years – isn’t Trump just a symptom of everything else you’ve railed against?
Trump is just one pimple on the rash. And I found that out while doing the three [George W.] Bush albums. By the last album I did, The Last Sucker, it was not just about Bush being a sucker – he was an idiot, a puppet, a mouthpiece for of the powers that be. But I realized that I’m a sucker for getting so bent out of shape about Bush, because Bush was just one pimple in the rash. It’s the same thing with Trump. He’s detestable, of course, but how could anybody actually like this person? Unless you’re in the top one percent of spoiled, rich, misogynist man-toddlers who are entitled to getting anything they wanted. I mean, Trump’s in the new album, saying some stupid shit, but he’s not the focal point. I’m basically holding up a mirror to society and saying, “How have we allowed [ourselves] to be duped this way?”
You address this in the new song “Antifa.” It’s hard to believe that people are stigmatizing anti-fascism and protest, given the horrific events of the 20th century.
We’re going back even further than the 20th century – people are just now tearing down Confederate statues! I’ve seen a number of cycles within this generation alone. And this one I have to say is like the Sixties, only on steroids. The whole civil rights thing is up for debate, again. Roe v. Wade [was decided upon] in 1973 and we’re still fighting just for women to choose what they want to do with their own bodies. I was cognizant of all that stuff that was going on in the Sixties – I actually went to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and got tear-gassed when I was still a kid.
I know it seems like I can’t put out enough records, but by next week I could be doing like a triple box set on, like, sexual harassment in the workplace, which has been going on for years. Probably next record. I’m sad for the people who have had to go through it, but I’m happy to see people like Rose McGowan open up about shit like this. It’s fucking enough.
Say you were to make a record on sexual harassment – who would be some of your dream collaborators?
Well, first of all I’d work with some female artists, who I admit I haven’t really worked with. So there’s a couple of bands right now that I’m into right now, like Savages and Chelsea Wolfe. Really good. Matter of fact, Chelsea Wolfe will be touring with us in the spring. So I’m looking forward to that.
Let’s talk about your collaborators on this record. How did you link up with DJ Swamp and Arabian Prince?
It’s a weird story – through a friend of a friend of a friend, at a party that I didn’t even want to go to. I didn’t know who was going to be there. One of those deals. I just got to talking to this guy and didn’t know who he was – turns out it was Arabian Prince from N.W.A. He appreciated a lot of stuff that I was doing and incorporated some of that into his style as well. We hit it off and he started scratching on the record while I was in the studio. Another friend of a friend later hooked me up with DJ Swamp, who mixes samples through the turntables, instead of just the keyboards. He was scratching onstage with us, on our tour with Death Grips. It’s pretty cool that these worlds are merging together.
The way you developed Ministry’s music, both in the style and subject matter, seemed parallel to what was happening in hip-hop in the late Eighties and Nineties. Although you took a more metal route.
We never really felt comfortable just doing metal. We played all the fast metal and we have a lot of friends in metal, of course, but we never felt like a metal or even industrial band. Just because I use sequencers and samples and shit like that? I mean, so does ZZ Top, but their name doesn’t roll off your tongue when you think of an industrial band. I’ve just never really been comfortable with any tag that’s been put on me. I just write what I write – basically I’m more of a photographer than I am a musician. I just take snapshots of what’s going on around me. Sometimes it’s very metal and sometimes it’s not. I started with a shitty Eighties pop record. It depends on what’s happening at the time.
I’m glad you brought up the pop record [With Sympathy] – it’s one of my favorites.
Some people like it, and good on them. It took me years to like stop loathing that album or distancing myself from it. It is what it is. I’m glad I did that record because then I realized [music] is not all it’s cracked up to be. You’re 21 … you sign a record deal because they find you talented in some way, shape or form. And then as soon as you sign to them, they tell you exactly what to write in their image, who to work with, what to wear, what to do, you know. I did the best I could, living somebody else’s dream.
Would that be your least favorite phase of Ministry?
I don’t think it was Ministry! I had songs written back then, which later wound up on Twitch and Land of Rape and Honey. We were doing those songs in like, 1982. And then we signed to that label and they said, “No, none of that stuff’s going on the record.” I really don’t have anything to do with it, except for the fact that I executed it, and at the behest of other people. But my name’s on it. So I do a meet-and-greet or something, and people will come in with these obscure bootlegs. And I’ll sign everything – but I will not sign that record.
I started this new thing, like, just as a joke I put on the Internet one time – I said, “Don’t bother bringing these records unless you’ve got a thousand bucks in your pocket – I’m not going to sign that record.” Sure enough, somebody came by with a thousand dollars in twenties and asked me to sign it immediately. I donated the money to a charity event in Chicago called Rock for Kids. So now I occasionally get a thousand dollars and donate it to charity. That’s the only way I’ll sign it.
Could you share your story of coming to this country as a Cuban refugee?
There’s really not much to share. I was only two years old. I do kind of remember one of my first thoughts was actually being on that plane that got here with my grandmother. And I just remember feeling like something big was happening – I had never been on a plane before and felt the tension. That’s all I remember about Cuba at all. I was too young for the Che Guevara crap. And then of course, you know, all Cubans go to Miami, that’s the place where they go to spawn [laughs].
My mom remarried to an American, so I grew up very American and middle class in some suburbs outside of Chicago. I didn’t really speak English until I was six. Once I got into the public school system, much like today, people were like, “Speak American!” I lost all my Spanish at that point … I didn’t really know the ins and outs. Someday I plan on going back [to Cuba] and visiting, maybe performing or something like that. But I wasn’t brought up with people bitching about Castro or Batista or anything. I actually didn’t know much about my heritage until I went to college and started reading about it. That’s why I don’t talk about it much – because if you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, you shut the fuck up.
A lot of immigrants and their children can relate to your experience. It’s difficult to explain to others that, even though you assimilated into American culture, it doesn’t mean that the person you were before is erased – your perspective just gets more complex.
Exactly. And when Obama [lifted] travel restrictions, some walls came down and lot of my political friends immediately wrote to me about Cuba. And I was like, “No, I think I’ll go to Cabo San Lucas and have some fucking margarita on the beach.” I don’t just immediately want to go to Cuba, you know? I don’t have to go back and find my DNA roots or something like that, because I generally find that when you do those things, you build it up in your mind as this big thing and you get disappointed. Cuba’s got its own thing of course – they got old Fifties cars and a different kind of government. But people are still people there, you know – it’s just like anywhere else.
How do you relate to Cuba now, as a refugee who adopted anti-capitalist politics?
It’s interesting. I’m pro-justice. I think there are certain elements of capitalism or communism that work – as with any government, if it doesn’t make it fair and equal for most anyone, I won’t agree with it. Money, money, money, money is all you talk about in capitalism – and in communist countries, the state and blood and soil is all you talk about, romanticizing the motherland and that bullshit. I just think people should be able to aspire and achieve whatever they want to achieve. Whatever they’re comfortable doing. You know what I’m saying? And I don’t think the system we have here is set up for that, especially for people of color, for women. I just don’t see justice in that.
You quit heroin more than a decade ago. How do you feel now?
Well, I still enjoy some imbibement to a certain degree, though certainly not at the pace that I used to. But I have not had any drugs, pharmaceutical or street drugs of any sort – as of September, it’s been 15 years drug-free. That was a good little anniversary for me. Basically I just smoke pot all day long. I’ve finally found my niche in the drug world. It apparently cures any kinds of pains and arthritis that I used to have. It’s actually helped my ulcer because it helps me drink less and sleep at night, no anxiety. It’s a miracle drug. It’s funny that I’d never even smoked pot until I was 51. I mean heroin was my gateway drug – I started out on heroin and went to pot. Pretty much like everything I’ve done in my life, it’s bass ackwards. I start with a sellout little pop record, and wind up playing this metal monster. I’m just bass ackwards. That’s it.