"Stormy, husky, brawling/Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action/Building, breaking, rebuilding." The words which poet Carl Sandburg used to describe Chicago 80 years ago apply today to Ministry front man Al Jourgensen, the godfather of that city's industrial scene, and something of a maniac.
How the dreadlocked Ubermensch's chief collaborator, Paul Barker, has maintained his sanity and kept all his limbs through 15 years of playing straight man to Jourgensen's on- and offstage shenanigans is anybody's guess.
A few years ago, the vocalist nicknamed "Buck Satan" ignited so many fireworks on the band's tour bus that the cabin filled with smoke, blinding the driver and forcing the vehicle into a ditch. And on the '92 Lollapalooza tour, Jourgensen was in rare form, swilling Bushmill's whiskey before staggering onstage, bellowing and hauling several animal carcasses behind him. All the time, bassist/programmer Barker was in the background, staying out of range and keeping the show together.
Of course, if there were nothing more than a series of sociopathic outbursts to recommend Ministry, the only people keeping tabs on the band would be the police. For almost 15 years, though, Jourgensen and Barker, along with a shifting group of collaborators, have produced some of the most raucous politically tinged music of the last two decades.
Coming off the line with Jourgensen's 1983 Euro-synth outing With Sympathy--a recording its creator now scorns as an "abortion"--Ministry quickly shifted gears, cranked up the volume and moved away from the Human League vibe that served as the band's initial muse. While some of the band's work is gratuitous racket ("Psalm 69" off the 1992 album of the same name is a prime example), Ministry also has produced sublime social commentary shot through with a guitar sound as volatile and prickly as a porcupine on fire.
With side projects like Lard, Pailhead and the Revolting Cocks, Jourgensen and Barker have explored variants of the industrial sound while railing against religious fundamentalism, media manipulation and corporate criminals. They've also sold a lot of records: Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs went platinum. Filth Pig, Ministry's latest and best recording, should do the same. The instruments crash and wail on the new release, rubbing up against each other in a frenzy before settling uneasily into powerful grooves over which Jourgensen and Barker trade distorted vocals. "You got something to say/You better jump in my face," says Jourgensen on "Reload." He's not kidding; the singer sounds ready to scratch his message into your forehead.
Scary Al was evidently too busy blowing spiders off his wall with a shotgun (reportedly one of his all-time fave leisure activities) to join Barker for the following interview from a Ministry tour stop in Atlanta.
NT: Filth Pig is about as feral as any Ministry record, but it seems full of actual songs, as opposed to the noise that dominates Psalm 69.
PB: I really dig the new record a lot, but I'm getting the sense that a lot of new fans don't like it. I think this record has songs on it, whereas Psalm 69 had soundscapes. The main thing we wanted to do going into Filth Pig was throw out the habits and formulas we've used in the past.
NT: I heard there was a lot of trouble in the studio on this record. Any comment?
PB: Filth Pig was very difficult from a technical standpoint. We had all these studio malfunctions. I think the most difficult record to complete, though, was Psalm 69, because we kept running down blind alleys and writing music we weren't inspired to complete because it was all the same kind of shit.
NT: Getting a little too easy to churn it out?
PB: That's exactly right. I mean, I'm still fascinated by using sequencers and samplers to write music, and there's all kinds of experimental shit we could be doing--wallpapery, chill-out kind of stuff. Which I don't find very interesting. Intellectually, it's a trip, but it doesn't get me hard. We like rock music.
NT: Do you ever get into the studio and say, "I wish we could try something else because industrial music isn't letting me express all that I want?"
PB: That's exactly what happened with Psalm 69. All of a sudden there was no reason to be doing it anymore. We weren't challenging ourselves intellectually or honestly or viscerally. There was nothing there. We chose rock music because it's easier. We don't have the chops to do jazz honestly.
NT: Maybe you could talk to Sting.
PB: You're killin' me.
NT: Filth Pig seems packaged as a political statement; the cover shows a young Republican decked out in red, white and blue, and you have a bunch of skewed American flags on the insert. What political ax does Ministry have to grind?
PB: By and large, ours is the same old rant that's been voiced from the '50s on, dealing with the dehumanization of the individual based upon corporate consumption; how the governments of the world are working for the corporations. It's not necessarily a conspiracy theory or paranoia--it's simply having open eyes to see what's happening and why.
NT: William Burroughs said something about how a paranoid individual is someone who's in possession of all the facts and knows what's really going on.
PB: We don't know exactly what's going on. We think we know, but I don't know who knows exactly what's going on.
NT: American society might simply be this machine spiraling out of control with nobody actually running the show.
PB: Yeah, and I really think our civilization is coming to an end. I don't mean mankind, but our civilization. Our extinction will be the direct result of fossil-fuel-based living.
NT: Presumably the "Filth Pigs" will play a part in this extinction. Can you elaborate on this concept? Is a pig just a dehumanized corporate lackey, or what?
PB: Well, yes, but the attitude is really more of "me first." That's the pig angle. It's total, blind consumerism.
NT: Since you're on your way to Arizona, you may be interested in the current furor over a flag exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum. Old Glory is draped in a variety of ignominious scenarios, including inside a toilet. A lot of conservatives are livid. Any thoughts on the persistence of this debate regarding artistic freedom?
PB: At the center of this argument is the issue of misplaced pride; in this case, pride in the flag. I really have a problem with pride; it creates wars and leads to bloodshed. It's a destructive force. The people advocating censorship are saying, "This is my way of life and I have to superimpose it on you."
NT: Who will you be voting for in the fall presidential election?
PB: (Sighs) I gotta vote Democrat. I have to. It's sad, but true. We'll see if Clinton can do anything this time around. He was totally neutered by the Republicans after a year in office. Clinton took all the blame when he was undermined from the start.
NT: Speaking of presidents, in "N.W.O." [a song on Psalm 69], you manipulated a loop of George Bush giving a speech on the "New World Order" he took partial credit for orchestrating. What's your take on the idea?
PB: The New World Order is a despicable farce and oxymoron. It's big business and industry manipulation of world events with the help of government. It's a euphemistic code similar to "downsizing"--or better yet (sneering), "right-sizing"--in the corporate sector, where the industry makes money by laying off 75 percent of the workers.
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NT: So, is Al Jourgensen nuts or what?
PB: (Laughing) We're all nuts, man. People who aren't are consumers. I'm totally into the concept of the Mad Scientist. I'm also fascinated by autistic people, people so focused on their one thing. They seem prescient somehow.
NT: Yeah, but there's a picture of Al sipping a cup of puke in Jim Rose's book Freak Like Me. (Pause) So is Al nuts or what?
PB: I don't know if Al drank bile, but I did, and I'll tell you exactly what it tasted like. Bile is really fucking foul. It's like when you're really sick and you've got all this green shit in your nose. It's the worst.
Ministry is scheduled to perform on Saturday, May 11, at Mesa Amphitheatre, with the Jesus Lizard, and Laika and the Cosmonauts. Showtime is 6 p.m.