Ministry of Sound
Contemplating the interview scenario with industrial godheads, Ministry — the duo of Al Jourgenson (whose notorious reputation for goofing with journalists includes a claim that he wears diapers onstage) and Paul Barker (The Straight Man) — requires more than mere familiarity with their music. It requires some serious research. One must immerse oneself in the rich history of the living, breathing, hydra-headed entity Ministry has become. And, heeding the mantra of the Good Scout, one must “Be prepared.” Because things might not go as planned.
Things do not. Waiting for an audience with Jourgenson and Barker in the company of a chain-smoking Swedish goth, word arrives that Jourgenson has returned to the hotel, complaining of stomach cramps. This is — to say the least — disappointing news, but no reason to get one’s underthings in a bunch. There may not be any Great Al Quotes like “Whoever’s drunkest gets on the drums” (said of his many side projects), but surely Barker has a few colorful tales to spin, and an interview about the new album will be fun. Fun, it turns out, is an epic understatement. If Paul Barker is the Straight Man to Jourgenson’s Puck, I’ll eat my hat. Speaking of hats, Barker first requests that I wear a purple and gold felt crown (Think: “Da-da-da-da! Imperial!”) during the interview. I politely decline and he acquiesces, considering, “We’ve only had men interviewers today, and Europeans at that. I guess Al was wearing it before.” We decide to let the crown represent “The Spirit of Al.”
Ministry’s much-anticipated ninth record (released June 8 on Warner Bros. Records), impishly entitled Dark Side of the Spoon , is a musical journey so heavy, so relentlessly hard, it could squeeze carbon into diamonds, and it is mixed so loud that even when the volume is on zero, it’s still audible. Dark Side of the Spoon is an ugly aural assault that never lets up, yet refrains from taking itself too seriously. “Supermanic Soul” — the title being indicative of Ministry’s fondness for word play — comes on like stereo machine guns, and Jourgenson’s ‘super-manic’ vocals are as close to hardcore punk as Ministry gets. “Whip or the Chain” works a buzz saw drone effectively through dense, submerged guitars and drums that break out in a stunning resonance. Lurking nearby, the descending guitar chords and driving kick-drum beat of “Bad Blood” nudges you further into the mortal combat. This song provides the perfect soundtrack for making out in fetish clubs at 4 AM or destroying your enemies in one of those ultra-violent video games. The swing beat of “Step” (as in “12 Step Program”) sets up Jourgenson’s platform to mock “I’m OK/You’re OK” platitudes, as he repeatedly bleats “I need help/help me” with no trace of sincerity. Moods turn sober (pun intended) towards the album’s close with “Kaif,” a non-harmonic cut-and-paste dirge of impending doom that holds hands with “Vex and Siolence” (another multi-faceted word puzzle), the token gloomy goth song. Resolution comes in an instrumental gem; a syncopated groove called “10/10” that loops hypnotically but knows when to explode. Dark Side of the Spoon moves easily between an impressive range of styles without ever losing the listener. In a word, Ministry is back. Here’s what Barker had to say about the record, working with Jello Biafra, and the threat of MP3.
I heard that you and Al had recorded a bunch of songs for Dark Side of the Spoon and then decided to chuck them and start over.
Paul Barker : Basically, yes. What happened was, Al’s the primary vocalist, right? So he’s got to figure out what he’s going to sing on these songs. He was like, “these songs are cool, but I don’t know what to do with them.” That was the struggle with the whole thing. We can’t finish a record unless most of the songs have vocals on them. There’s a rumor going around that these songs were more atmospheric or whatever, ambient or something like this, which isn’t necessarily true. There were slower songs and we also didn’t want to put out a slow record this time.
I know there were a lot of problems encountered in the recording of Filth Pig , with the fist-sized spiders on the walls and the haunted house aspect of the studio and the technical difficulties. Did you encounter any such hardships recording Spoon ?
[Laughs] Yes, but they were all of the urban sort. Dealing with some people was difficult at times, unfortunately. The cool thing about “The compound” — as it was affectionately known — where we worked on Filth Pig , was that no one else was there. This time we moved that equipment to Chicago, and became partners with a commercial studio (Chicago Trax). There were these other bands with other sessions going on, and at times it was distracting.
So, civilization proved to be distracting?
[Laughs] At times, yes.
I know a lot of the hard core Ministry fans didn’t embrace Filth Pig because it was so different from Psalm 69 . Do you think Spoon will win the old fans back into the camp?
[Long pause] I don’t know. [Sigh] Perhaps there’s more pure chewing satisfaction in this new Ministry record for those people, yes. I mean, that’s not why we make the records we make, obviously. [Long pause] There is more of the classic Ministry sound to sink your teeth into in this record, yes. How’s that?
What was the most exciting part of making this record?
[Heavy sigh] Two words: it’s done! Oh man, um, there were lots of really exciting moments. The coolest thing was that, because the record was so intensely belabored, when we found something that worked intrinsically with the music and helped express exactly what we wanted to express in that song, that was very satisfying. The way we work, we try so many different things to see what will fit, and at least 50% of it doesn’t work. So, it’s always very satisfying when we stumble on something that really works. There was a moment there, we were working on “Kaif,” I remember. We had vocals on it and everything was cool but there was still something that just wasn’t right. So, it was like, alright, fuck this, let’s just go back and try to find something….let’s just see what else we can layer in here to see what will work. We discovered those parts that are like little refrains between the verses, like the melodic things that go through there, which made all the difference in the world, well, to us (laughs). It’s the little things that count, believe me.
Would you say “Kaif” turned out to be one of your favorite songs on the record?
“Eureka Pile” is my favorite song. “Nursing Home” I think is really a pretty good song. Why? Because those songs embody ideas which worked in spite of ourselves, so to speak. In fact, we stumbled on it. As hard as we work on those things, once again it’s very satisfying that we could complete them and that they sound [perfect]. I don’t want to qualify them, like “They really kick ass!” you know what I’m saying?
If it feels like you captured the sound that you wanted, by accident or however, what else matters?
[Picking up a pack of cigarettes] This guy [who was here before you] he was Portuguese. He was SO… I don’t know, perhaps excited to the point of distraction, that he left his cigarettes here.
Imagine that. He must have been distracted.
[Laughs] Yeah, when that’s your life (laughs). When your life revolves around it.
These side projects that Al talks about that haven’t yet come to life… Like Buck Satan and the 666 Shooters. Is that something he talks about to yank people’s chains or will it really happen?
No, I believe it’s really going to happen. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, because, after spending two years in the studio with Al, I’m not really prepared to back into the studio with him [Laughs].
You and Al are both involved with Lard, along with Jello Biafra. I wondered what it’s like when you get in the same room with Jello; is it like all chiefs and no Indians?
I don’t want to break the mystique, but at times it’s a lot of fun. This last record we did ( Pure Chewing Satisfaction ), we weren’t all in the same room at the same time.
I interviewed Jello once, and basically what happened was I asked him one question and he talked for an hour.
[Laughs] Oh yeah, that’s Biafra.
So I can imagine what it’s like when he and Al get together.
Well, I’ll tell ya, when Biafra’s talking, Al’s like “Right Biafra.” [laughs] “Yeah, we really care about the owner of Blimpies,” or whatever. “We really care about his political affiliations,” You know, whatever! [Laughs] Believe me, I think Biafra’s really great and I’m really happy that he’s doing what he’s doing, because you need people to do that. Everyone has their drive or their raison d’etre or whatever, but we don’t hang out together so we can go to political rallies. And no, he doesn’t force his political viewpoints on us. He’ll talk about it and maybe chastise us about this, that and the other, but it’s all in fun.
The reason I brought it up was because I had asked him why he was so down on heavy metal artists, and he said “Well, wait until you hear ’70s Rock Must Die’ on the next Lard album, and then you’ll know.” And then the record came out and that song wasn’t on there. And I e-mailed him “Where is this song?” and supposedly he said “Paul and Al didn’t like it.”
[Laughing] It’s being remixed.
You’ve said that side projects like Revco and Pailhead are created because it’s a type of music that doesn’t fit in the realm of Ministry. So, what if, as Ministry, you wanted to do “softer” music, would that work, or would you have to create another side project for that?
I don’t know what you mean by “softer.”
Well, most of these side projects are hard or industrial music.
Yeah. I think so, yeah. Softer, perhaps in the guise of Ministry, would be slower…but even if it’s slow it’d still be pretty dense and power-packed or emotionally rich or something like this. [Long pause] So…what? (Laughs).
Are these questions too open ended? Like you forget the question?
Oh, totally [laughs].
Well, I don’t want to just ask “What is your favorite color?”
No, I understand and that’s good. But I think, should we decide that we wanted to do softer music, I don’t know…we’re not there yet.
You once expressed some trepidation about becoming too popular and I know Al once said he’d be happy if Ministry were just the world’s biggest Fugazi. How do you feel about the degree of fame that you’ve achieved?
Well, I only have one life, so what the fuck. I’m dealing with it as it transpires, and I know Al is as well. Clearly, we’re not interested in having a quiet life, you know. We’re not that popular. [But] When you’re in the public eye and you have distinctive features, you’ll be recognized.
I guess you don’t become a rock star if you don’t want the attention.
Sure, and that’s what I’m saying. You can always choose to do something different.
Do you have an opinion of this whole MP3 explosion?
Yeah, I think that, well [long pause] this music is my livelihood, and that means that I get paid for it. I think MP3 is a great thing. By the same token, I don’t want the existence of that to jeopardize my livelihood. For instance, it’s strange, because I’m very amused and at the same time not amused, that apparently this new Ministry record is available on MP3 along with different edits and some B-sides (two months in advance of its release). It’s serious, I mean, I’m totally into the punk rock attitude, like “Steal it.” But it’s so weird.
It’s like a double edged-sword.
Of course it is. My trepidation is if [laughs]…it’s impossible for me not to be hypocritical about it because, like I said, it is my livelihood and I cannot hide that. If all music was free, then how, as a musician, would I make money? Well, you’d have to play out, you’d have to play live, that would be the last resort. By the same token, I think it’s really wonderful that it’s available for the taking.
Do you really think it will take off to the point where it could actually pose a serious threat to your career?
Well, no, because not everyone has access to the Internet. We’ll have to see how it pans out. I’m sure that within the course of the next two years, something will be worked out. And we’re talking about who can access this stuff and have it sound good? Obviously, a lot of people have computers with enough memory and CD burners and whatever, so they can do this kind of thing. I don’t know how that’s going to affect retail. The one thing that it’s doing, for me personally, is that the anticipation of the record, perhaps, is diminished as a consequence. But they don’t have the artwork! (Jumps up enthusiastically, pulls a packet of artwork out of a briefcase and hands it to me).
Oh, it’s a really fat woman, an obese naked woman. Now that’s frightening.
I know, it’s going to be so cool!
I don’t think I want to see anymore [handing it back to Paul].
Okay, that’s fine!
One time I interviewed Ogre, and he shared a story with me about the time he toured with Ministry where you were traveling to Detroit, in a blizzard in a Winnebago, and everyone was frying on acid. And I wondered if that’s a typical Ministry tour story? Is that the way it usually is?
Usually…define usually [laughs, pauses] That’s all true, and things like that do happen. Was there any mention of the van spinning around or anything like that? Lots of insane things happened, sure. There’s rock and roll lore in abundance. To me, it’s not interesting to validate or invalidate certain stories or rumors. I think it’s more interesting that they exist at all. So, let them lay and become embellished. Sure, there are some really “Wonderful” stories which could be told but…it’s in the book!