Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Matt Mills

‘My first death was the weirdest …’ Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, metal’s great survivor

Al Jourgensen of Ministry.
Al Jourgensen of Ministry. Photograph: Derick Smith

A few weeks ago, Al Jourgensen was floating in the swimming pool of his Los Angeles home, and the Ministry frontman was in an existential mood. Lying still, gazing up at the California sky while looking back on his life, he raised his fist and shook it at the universe.

“I’m getting to that age where I’ve got to start thinking about my mortality,” the 65-year-old tells me on a video call. “I waved my fist in the air and said, ‘You’ve got to promise me you’re not sending me back here!’ And, I swear to God, I heard a voice in my head that said, ‘No. You paid your dues, man. We’ll find you somewhere better.’”

Jourgensen has already died three times – or at least seen his heart stop. He founded Ministry in 1981 and went from playing synthpop to defining industrial metal with mechanical-sounding drums, distorted snarls and staccato guitar chords. But, just as well-known as his musical achievements are his addictions. The musician had his first drink aged eight, and began using hard drugs at 12. He’d use both until his mid-50s and mid-40s respectively, overdosing on heroin to the point of clinical death twice, before flatlining once more, in 2010, after an exploding stomach ulcer.

“The first death was the weirdest,” Jourgensen says, talking about it as casually as a walk to the shops. “I was at a party and OD’d. When I came back after being defibrillated, everyone was astounded that I could tell where everyone was, even in different rooms. I’d been hovering above me, watching all the panic and mayhem below as they were working on me.”

It’s heartening seeing a man who’s endured so much struggle look so healthy today. He appears young for his age, his facial tattoos joined by white teeth and long dark hair, and he chuckles during discussions of even the most tumultuous experiences.

The musician isn’t a self-described “promo-sexual” – “once I’m done with a record, I move on from it,” he says – but we talk a little about Ministry’s forthcoming 16th album, Hopiumforthemasses. It continues the band’s EDM-metal bent and has the political bite they first unleashed on their 2004–2007 anti-George W Bush trilogy: Houses of the Molé, Rio Grande Blood and The Last Sucker. Today, it’s the alt-right and incels inciting the band’s ire. In opposition to what stereotypes suggest, Jourgensen clearly isn’t becoming more rightwing as he ages.

“My own mother is a Trump supporter,” he says, “and I’ve stopped talking to her. I’m like, ‘How can you support somebody that would have made us the villains?’”

Jourgensen and his mother are Cuban immigrants. He traces his political engagement back to his earliest memory: being on one of the last flights leaving his home country post-revolution, age two. An only child, he was subjected to racist bullying when he started school in Chicago, while his mother married an American man who had no interest in being a stepfather. Speaking Spanish, Jourgensen’s mother tongue, was banned in the house.

The isolation led to his early exploration of drink and drugs. “I found older friends,” he explains. “I’d get out of school and go to a friend’s house, who was smoking pot. They were 18 or 19; I was 12.”

Many musicians would say they found solace in certain artists or albums amid such ostracism, but not Jourgensen. He initially wanted to ride bulls in his teenage home town of Breckenridge, Colorado, and didn’t view music as a potential career path until he was 18. “When I went to an actual professional-amateur rodeo event, I lasted less than one second on one bull and he crushed my entire ribcage,” Jourgensen laughs. “I had to go to the hospital for a couple months and I thought: there has to be a better way to meet chicks!”

Fascinated by the then-nascent sound of synth music, Jourgensen formed Ministry, who soon inked a deal with Arista Records. However, the label forcibly smoothed the band’s aggressive stylings and fashioned Jourgensen a clean-cut look, complete with a faux English accent. “I’m one of the few people that actually sold out before they started,” he jokes. He’s since disowned the band’s 1983 debut With Sympathy as not truly Ministry, and his notoriously tattooed, dreadlocked and pierced visage was a rebellion against his once-sterilised appearance.

Ministry’s ascent was truly springboarded by a label change and the addition of bassist/co-writer Paul Barker, who’d remain until an acrimonious 2003 split (Jourgensen today attributes the parting to financial tensions and the pair’s wives not getting along). The duo unchained the seminal, seething industrial metal of The Land of Rape and Honey in 1988 (named after a dubious agricultural marketing slogan), and the antifascist title track, which sampled a “sieg heil” chant, was taken at face value by neo-Nazis; Jourgensen later complained of having to “konk them on the head with a bottle of Bushmills, wasting precious, precious whiskey”. The band’s commercial powers peaked four years later with the platinum-selling Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs, but, following that apex, Jourgensen’s addictions worsened.

In 1995, Ministry’s HQ in Austin, Texas, was raided by federal agents searching for drugs and weaponry. The incursion was by the same team who, three years earlier, infamously besieged the Branch Davidian cult in nearby Waco. “I was filming a music video in Waco for [side-project] the Revolting Cocks when the Branch Davidians were stormed,” Jourgensen remembers, “so some of the agents recognised me!”

As his substance use continued, Jourgensen had to have a toe amputated, when a wound from treading on a hypodermic needle grew gangrenous. “A buddy of mine, Dave Navarro [guitarist of Jane’s Addiction], offered me $20,000 for the toe,” he reveals. “He’s always waiting for body parts to fall off because he collects curios. I had to inform him that [my doctors] wouldn’t give me my toe back.”

Despite these experiences, his two fatal overdoses, a spider bite that almost necessitated the amputation of his arm, and contracting all three forms of hepatitis, Jourgensen says he didn’t strike rock bottom until the early 2000s. “My house was taken away, I was divorced and I was sleeping in North Austin, in the house of a family who were crack dealers. I was just like, ‘I’ve got to do something about this or I need to kill myself today.’”

Now – after a stint in rehab that, after the ruptured ulcer, helped him battle his alcohol dependency – Jourgensen’s only indulgences are cannabis and magic mushrooms, along with the odd beer. He has a healthy relationship with his 38-year-old daughter, Adrienne, and is currently more prolific than he’s been in nearly two decades: Hopium … will come out less than two-and-a-half years after its predecessor, 2021’s Moral Hygiene.

But Jourgensen reveals he’s plotting the end of Ministry. He first vowed to retire from touring due to alcohol-exacerbated health issues in 2008 (he unretired in 2011), then said the band would split as a result of longtime guitarist Mike Scaccia’s fatal heart attack in 2012 (they never did). This time is different, though. When we talk, Jourgensen’s facial piercings and dreads are gone: a symbol of his desire to move on and finally “become an adult” at 65.

“I said [Ministry’s 2008 tour] was the last tour because I was puking up blood,” he says. “I had an ulcer which eventually perforated and I died. Then my best friend Mikey died. I said those things for specific reasons, but I’m healthy now and we have a great lineup that’s been together for 10 years. We’re doing great work. But we all feel that we want to wrap it up.”

The final Ministry plans are to release a re-recording of With Sympathy (which the band are playing in full on stage this summer), with the goal of reclaiming those songs and bringing the band’s tenure full-circle, in 2025. Then, Jourgensen will reunite with pivotal ex-bandmate Barker for one final studio album. “Since he’s moving back to LA this year and I have a recording studio, it just makes sense,” he says. “We’re really good friends now.” From there he hopes to focus on scoring films, and finish a degree in history and political science.

When I ask him about how he wants to be remembered, Jourgensen casts his mind back to that swimming pool, and the words he heard from that voice in his head. “What’s relevant to me is that I got a guarantee from the universe: I don’t have to come back!” he laughs. “You guys can write whatever you want about me when I’m gone, because I know I won’t be coming back as a cat, a frog or another tortured artist. I’ll see you in the next plane!”

• Hopiumforthemasses is out via Nuclear Blast on 1 March.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.