Sunday, April 3, 2016

Keep Rage Alive: Inside Al Jourgensen's Surgical Meth Machine

Photo courtesy of Freeman Promotions 

Before you read anything else here, go have a listen to “TV II” off Ministry's Psalm 69.

Now, imagine that song even more frenetic and spread over almost an entire album, and you'll get an idea of what to expect from Al Jourgensen's latest musical maelstrom.

Out April 15 via Nuclear Blast, Surgical Meth Machine's self-titled debut album finds the Ministry/Revolting Cocks (RevCo)/Lard leader (along with engineer/partner-in-crime Sam D’Ambruoso) not only creating the heaviest, most intense sounds of his nearly 40-year career but also delivering what is easily his strongest and most cohesive album in a decade. Highlights of the 12-track release include Lard collaborator Jello Biafra's guest turn on the blistering “I Don't Wanna” and the hyper-fast insanity of “Tragic Alert.”

After bashing listeners over the head for more than half the album, Surgical Meth Machine takes a surprisingly melodic turn with a five-song block that concludes with the mellow (but no less menacing) “I'm Invisible.” Twenty-seven years after helping to define the sound of the '90s with Ministry's The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste (and more than 30 years after helping to build the American Industrial scene through his early work on the legendary Wax Trax! label), Jourgensen is producing work in the here and now that is as innovative and challenging as ever.

The high quality of the Surgical Meth Machine album made sense when I recently got Uncle Al on the phone for our first interview in four years and heard an incredibly focused, clear-headed and insightful guy with plenty to say about his career (past and present) and the world around hm. After decades of notoriously debauched living (and a few spotty musical moments along the way as a result), Jourgensen appears to be entering the next chapter of his career in his strongest position in years.

Al's back and he has his shit together, folks. Watch the fuck out. 

The last time we spoke, you were living in Texas; now, you're in Los Angeles. How's the city treating you?

I've lived here before, so it was no problem. I knew what to expect. It was nice living in Texas for a total of 14, 16 years, but I've been out here on and off for about six years. It's home; I love it out here.

Most people who have been in this industry for 35-plus years tend to kind of mellow out at this point in their careers, but this is probably your most intense record ever. What enables you to keep your edge and anger after all this time?

Well, look outside your window. (laughs) The world's a pretty fucked up place. If you can't get inspiration from that, then you're not paying much attention.

Despite the sheer intensity of this record, there are some funny moments on here, and obviously there's always been a touch of humor in your work. Do you feel that's often missed by people when they take in what you're offering them?

I'm sure it is, but that's just my personality. I really find that the best way to combat something is through humor instead of just violence or anger. If we can elicit a chuckle out of something that makes you think about something, that's the path that I feel most comfortable taking. 

How has your approach to making records evolved over the years?

It's kind of the same M.O. for like the last decade of so. Especially since I have a lot of bands that I'm associated with, instead of setting down a specific amount of time and living, breathing, eating and sleeping that particular band for a certain period of time, I just set aside three to four months of my year and just record ideas that have been building up in my head or that I've written down or hummed in some recorder somewhere along the way. At the end of those four months, I'll listen back to what we've done. Whoever happens to be there is also a big dictating factor on where these songs go. For me, my last decade or so of writing has been more like songs writing a band instead of a band writing songs. At the end of four months, I'll be like, 'You know what? That song kind of sounds perfectly tailor-made for a Ministry album' or 'That song has a funny-ass riff. Let's put that one in RevCo' or 'You know what? Jello Biafra just spent the weekend here at my house. He loves this song; let's set that aside in the Lard pile for a future Lard release.' If we don't know what the hell to make of a song, we'll say, 'Just put it on the shelf and eventually some band name will come to us someday.' But on this one, me and Sammy, my longtime engineer, jotted down all of our ideas. We went in and did our four months of recording; meanwhile, some friends had come by and listened to it and went, 'Man, that shit's dope! You've got to release this stuff.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, okay. Whatever.' And they're like, 'No, I'm serious. This has to be released; this album's awesome.' I'm like, 'What album? We're just putting down ideas.' The next thing I know, I've got some labels calling me and stuff. They're like, 'We really want to release it; what do you call the band?' We didn't even have a band name, let alone thinking that this was going to be a record. (laughs) This is quite the accidental band happening right now. It wasn't meant to be like that; it was just meant to be ideas that were going to be scattered throughout my little fictitious kingdom that I have in my brain. (laughs) Instead, it turned out to be like a legitimate release. I'm still kind of taken aback by it; it's pretty funny... There was no intention of making this a band or touring or doing photo shoots or fucking press, for that matter. I'm still freaked out that I have to wake up on Mondays and Fridays and, for eight hours, spill the beans on something that wasn't supposed to happen. It's really bizarre, but I'll go along with it. I'm having fun.

You've had a lot of collaborators over your career. What makes Sammy the best person for you to work with right now?

He's been with us for two Ministry records and two RevCo records. He's just a really great drum programmer; I think that's my favorite thing [about him]. We have a comfort level. I tend to do things a little bit out of the ordinary, and he rolls with the punches that way... He fits right in with every other knucklehead we have in our little satellite circle. People like Jello Biafra come in, or [Fear Factory frontman] Burton Bell comes in, or whoever happens to be around that week. There's a cast of characters from Ministry and Cocks, and Sammy is just one of the members of that. He just fits right in as opposed to having somebody who might be doing things by the book. The first thing we do is shred the book and light it on fire and proceed from there. (laughs) He seems to roll with that.

You've mentioned Biafra a couple of times, and Jello's been in your orbit for a long time. What does he add to a project that makes you keep that studio door open to him every few years?

I don't care what he adds to a project; we spend time together because we're friends... I don't usually get him down here specifically to record something unless we've stored up enough riffs on the shelf after recording for four months and there's enough Lard songs there. If we could actually finish a record if we had three for four more, then I might give a Jello call. I'm going to have to do that this year, because we're getting frightfully close to getting done with a Lard record with riffs that he and I like. We might actually make a concentrated effort on getting that project done next. I think that's probably the next one in store. We're pretty close on RevCo and Ministry, too, but I think for sure we've got a Lard album pretty well ready to do the final push on.

Now that Surgical Meth Machine has sort of become a band, what does it look like at this point as far as bringing this material out live? I know you had a 10-piece band re-create the songs on the '89 tour; I imagine this would be something similar.

First of all, I would hate to do a tour on just one record. If it's just one record of material you’ve got, you might as well sit at home, spark up a fatty and listen to the record as opposed to paying a bunch of money and hearing probably shitty sound in whatever venue it's at to watch a bunch of old white fatties on stage trying to re-create the album that you could be smoking a fatty to in the comfort of your home. It doesn’t make sense. (laughs) I would have to do at least one more SMM record and then be able to pick and choose before we go on tour with that... I would hate to say never, but I seriously doubt under that modus operandi that I would be able to do a tour at this point, plus the mitigating factor that we have no band. (laughs) I would have to put a band together and all this other stuff, when I think my time is much more well spent getting all of these half-finished projects that I have floating around in the ether to come to fruition. I'd rather create than re-create.

When you released RevCo's Sex-O Olympic-O in 2008, you said that was the best record you ever did. Now that you're a few records beyond that point, what are your thoughts on that album now?

I think it's way up there; I think it's really good as an album and in the way it flows. Yeah, I like that one. Some press thing had me list the Ministry albums in order [of quality]. There's like two of them on there that are like Sex-O Olympic-O. My likes are different in that they don't just come from a paradigm of what I feel is the best musical record. I also have insights and thoughts on the whole recording process, what problems we had during the making of it, what was going in my life and what was going on in the world. So there are favorites that may not necessarily be my favorite musically, but they were the most fun to make. For instance, my best album that I think I've ever made from a strictly selfish point of view is Buck Satan and the 666 Shooters. I had so much fun making that record [2012's Bikers Welcome Ladies Drink Free], and I think it transferred to the actual recording of it. That one always holds a special place in my heart. The rest of them all have their merits to some degree – some of them a lot less, to an extent. But I guess they all have their purpose, or they wouldn't have been released. But yeah, Sex-O's a fine record. I approve that message!

Since the album is 30 years old this year, I wanted to bring up Twitch, which was obviously a major transition point for Ministry. How do you view that album now in terms of its importance in Ministry's career?

It was towards the bottom of my list. (laughs) It was also the last record I didn’t have full control over. Obviously, that first Arista record [1983's With Sympathy] I had zero control over. Twitch came after that, where Adrian Sherwood was the last time I used another producer on something. But I learned a lot from that record. It wasn't on the bottom of my list, but it was the last time I actually did not have control over a record. In that sense, I don't feel comfortable saying, 'Wow, that's record's great!” or anything. If I did, it would only be half-great at most, because there were other people involved. I like keeping the quality control within our little camp of crazies. This was a producer I never worked with before or didn't really know about. Great guy, and I learned everything I know from [him]. It was the best thing I ever did in retrospect, because it sent me off realizing, 'I can probably produce my own stuff.' From there is where I think the real drastic change came, because the next album out was The Land Of Rape And Honey. I think you can see incremental leaps and bounds in the progression thereof.

Lastly, we have another presidential election coming up. What kind of material do you think you'll end up getting out of this latest shit show?

I'm not biting on the low-hanging fruit on this one. I'm sorry. I already know that there's about four or five bands that have already got Trump on the cover and this and that, and that's just playing right into the hands of what he wants. The guy's just getting free advertising, and the entire world takes that seriously... Here's the scary part about Trump; let's just go right to Trump, okay? I've been doing European press all this week, and that's all everyone wants to talk about. So okay, I'll talk about it.

Here's the deal, man. Trump is not the scary thing; Trump is a byproduct of what society has become... Let's say three out of 10 people in America think that he would be a good commander-in-chief, or that his ideas have any kind of logic behind them or would be a good idea. That's three out of 10, and he's getting $9 out of $10 of free advertising from the media. People believe that shit because people just believe the media. It's easy, it's quick and it's accessible. People don't want to dig deeper or think about the ramifications of what they're digesting; they just go ahead and read it, and therefore it's true. Seven out of 10 people don't think that his ideas are very logical or cool, so that's the one comforting thing. What's scary is not Trump; it's that three out of 10 people actually think that his ideas are sound. (laughs)

I talk to these European people, and they're frightened as shit of the possibility of a Trump presidency. What they don't do is look in the mirror and realize that the right wing is making a complete comeback in Germany and France. We had that in Germany before; I think that was right before Hitler came to power, if you recall. It's this sense of playing on people's fears, and this nationalistic fervor. All they want to do is tap into the anger as opposed to tap into the solutions. They're having the exact same crisis in Europe as they're sitting there bashing the Americans for being so stupid as to possibly even elect a Trump – which is not going to happen, okay? But because of the media, they're convinced it is [happening], because that's the only media they hear about. It's really an askew view of society in general. It also makes them feel better about themselves because, 'Well, at least we don't have Trump.' Well, guess what – you do. The National Front has gained seats in Parliament every year in France since the migrant crisis because they're playing on people's fears with the Middle East migrants, just as Trump is with the Mexican migrants here. It's all fear-based policies, and everyone is equally culpable for keeping that myth perpetuated.

I can't disagree with that. We're living in a very scary point in history; that's for sure.

Well, last time, it led to a world war, so keep that in mind. So it is scary. But like I said, the comforting thing is that 70 percent of people in this country realize that this is not such a good idea. Last time I checked, all you need is 51 percent for a democracy – if you want to call it that. We're well above that; we might actually make the right decision.

*Portions of this interview were edited for length and clarity. 


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