Ministry (Part I)

Ministry Sandwich

A Tasty Interview with Al Jourgenson and Paul Barker

Walking into the dimly-lit lobby of the W Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, just as the sun sets on a rainy Monday, is about as disorienting an experience as walking into the Stanley Kubrick film, Eyes Wide Shut, just after the orgy scene: basically, you have no idea what the hell is going on. A seemingly endless number of mirrored hallways sprout off the main lobby like the tentacles of a huge, chrome-plated squid, and after wandering the maze for several confusing minutes, I somehow wind up in the bar, where a representative of Sanctuary records recognizes me and brings me over to the two men I am there to meet: Ministry’s Al Jourgenson and Paul Barker. I have met Paul Barker before, when I interviewed him in April of 1999 for the Dark Side of the Spoon album. Barker is everything I remember him to be: Very tall, handsome, charming, professional and charismatic. But Jourgenson, who bowed out of our previous interview due to physical ailments associated with a recently abandoned “habit” (which we will not speak of here) takes me by surprise. Lucid and bubbling with excitement, Jourgenson is disarmingly friendly, animated and clear-eyed (this is actually the first time I have even seen his eyes, as they are almost always masked by dark shades). Paul makes reference to Jourgenson as “the new improved Al.”

In many ways, these two men could not be more different, but as Ministry, they share a musical alchemy that cannot be denied. Without their far-reaching influence, guys like Trent Reznor and Rob Zombie would surely be doing something else for a living these days.

Paul and Al are in New York to promote the upcoming release of their latest record, Animositisomina. Said aloud, the title sounds like some kind of latin prayer or incantation, but it is in fact a palindrome — a word that reads the same backwards as forwards. As cryptic as the written word looks, Animositisomina is simply the word “Animosity” with the final “y” removed. It is a very Ministry title. The recording of Animositisomina was completed in under five months, quite a feat considering it’s been known to take over two years to complete a Ministry album. “Actually it only took about two days to record and the rest of the time we just partied,” Barker jokes. “It’s by far the fastest record we’ve ever made.” Both Paul and Al laugh uproariously at this statement, but when pressed for an answer, Jourgenson gives it up. “What was different? Well, try going out in the middle of the fucking desert with nothing but coyotes and cactus for friends, and no town anywhere in sight. I mean, the beer depot, where people drink out of troughs, was the town bar. [The studio] was in Torneo, Texas, 40 miles from the Mexican border. In the middle of the fucking desert.” Paul has one small correction, “[The studio was] 40 miles from El Paso and, like, a quarter of a mile from the Rio Grande river, which is the border to Mexico.” Well, alright then.

How and why, exactly, the band chose to record in such a remote location all falls in line with the desire for isolation. Al laughs, “It was good [because] there were no distractions… except for the border patrol coming to pick up and sweep for illegal aliens through the pecan orchard that we had there. Other than that, there were no distractions… maybe two or three rounds of a 9mm going off every night to scare people away from the main compound, if they’d just crossed the border. There’s no cell phone service, there’s nothing there, man. But they had a maid and a cook and everything was taken care of for you, so all you had to do was worry about what you were doing, which was kind of nice.” All the comforts of home, with none of the distractions. Ah, sounds like paradise.

In order to capture their voices on my tape recorder above the din of the very fine rock mix tape blaring at near-deafening levels, I suggest that I take a seat between Al and Paul and hold the recorder, rather than setting in on the table in front of us. Both agree that this is a great idea, and Paul refers to our seating arrangement as a “Ministry Sandwich.” I’m just going to let that one sit there.

In the following in-depth interview, Paul and Al discussed the making of Animositisomina, Real Life Spinal Tap moments, the band’s appearance in the Steven Spielberg film, AI, and things that piss them off, in general.

• •

Did you have all the songs written when you went into the studio to record Animositisomina, or did you also do some spontaneous writing?

Al: Ask Paul [laughs].

Paul: About half and half, actually, we worked on a bunch of ideas at my place [in Austin] and then took those to Torneo, to the studio there and fucked with them.

Al: Fucked with them hard.

Awesome, I love that.

Paul: And I have to tell you that you’re the last interview today, so we’re kind of interview-burnt, right now. We’re going to come up with new stuff to tell you. [he and Al laugh].

What inspired the name of the record? What’s with all this animosity in the Ministry camp?

Al: Oh, well that’s easy, we’ll show you the cover art work …

Paul: We will? Do you have it?

Al: Yeah, yeah, I brought it. Why? Well, let’s see, Serbs, Croats, Muslims… Jews, Arabs, Christians… I mean “Where’s the love people?” Anyway, wasn’t there some incident here with some towers coming down and shit?

I recall that, yes.

Al: Yeah, exactly. Well, there’s a lot of animosity going around. I mean, it’s pretty obvious, it’s not real cerebral or anything. It’s pretty straight forward.

Paul: Unlike any of our previous work, this one…you know, we want to kind of poke fun at the [laughs]…

Al: Notice he’s rubbing his chin…something really clever’s about to come out… [laughs]

Paul: Anyway, unlike those previous records, we decided that we wanted to poke fun at the society we live in. [Pause, laughs].

Al: Unlike the other records…

Which were just basically meaningless pop records…

Paul: Yeah, right exactly.

To someone who hasn’t heard the CD yet, how would you describe the mood or themes of the songs?

Paul: Hear that music? [Referring to the “chill mix” pumping through the bar’s sound system]. That’s… nice… yeah, alright! [laughs]

And we’re chillin’ with Ministry…Al, field this question for me, baby.

Al: What was the question? [Paul reads the question aloud to Al from my list of questions]. Well, it’s something we had never done before, we were really pissed off. [Paul laughs uproariously].

I have a feeling this question will get answered as we move along. OK, Al, you once said, “I use what it takes to get the atmosphere I want on a song.” How do you know what it’s going to take?

Al: Oh, well, when you get there, you know. I don’t mean to be difficult, but it’s true. When you get there, you know. I’ll elaborate okay? I’ll expound upon that later.

You’ve always had a policy of not explaining the lyrics to your songs, yet this is the first Ministry album that comes with lyrics printed in the liner notes. Why the decision to do that?

Al: Because we have stock in magnifying glass companies [Paul laughs] and — no, seriously, good luck trying to read them — but this is a compromise, a compromise situation. This record… why we have lyrics… because they’re good lyrics. I like the lyrics on this record, and I haven’t always been satisfied before.

Another thing is, and Alex [editor of MK Ultra] actually pointed this out to me, this is the first record where you can actually understand what you’re saying.

Al: Oh, yeah, yeah! This is a whole newfound upcoming tradition for us, where the singer is actually singing and stuff and… at Paul’s prodding. I mean, basically, I was threatened. [It was a] “sing or die” kind of thing.

Paul: Yeah, that’s true. That’s all true.

Well, Paul is a pretty intimidating presence.

Paul: Yeah, there you go. [To Al] Did you answer the question about why the lyrics are going to be printed on the record? I’ll tell you why. Because no one’s going to make heads or tails out of them anyway, so, why not?

I guess you want people to be able to sing along. Ministry Karaoke!

Paul: [Laughing] Exactly!

Al: Around the campfire with Ministry!

Paul: Did you hear about the Nazi experiment that went awry? It’s a campfire joke. You know, when you’re at summer camp or something that would scare the shit out of you, that sort of thing.

Like the escaped serial killer on the loose who’s only got one arm or whatever?

Al: YEAH!

Paul: Exactly, he comes and he carries an axe with his other arm and he’s looking for somebody to… yeah!

Al: “Where’s my golden arm?” [general pandemonium breaks out as we all distract ourselves from the interview by discussing campfire folklore for several minutes]

Not that you’re at all concerned with genre classifications, but this record sounds like a metal record to me. Do you think this record fits in with the current genre of aggressive “Nu Metal” that’s so popular?

Al: We don’t give a shit about that.

Paul: We don’t know.

Al: It’s out of our hands. Once the tape leaves our hands it’s anybody’s guess. We don’t care.

I’m really intrigued by the very faithful cover of Magazine’s “The Light Pours Out of Me,” which I know you’ve done as part of your live show for years now. What first attracted you to that song and how did you decide to finally record it properly?

Al: Ok, I’ll take this one. [Paul says OK]. What attracted me to the song is that it’s a fucking goddamn excellent song OK? And Howard Devoto’s a god damn excellent songwriter, OK? He rules! We did that song live and a lot of people really said [adopting appropriate voice], “You guys sound good on that one.” So, I bought a bootleg [laughs] of Ministry at a store one time, because there was me, on the cover, and this bald cinder block-head fucking guy on this bootleg. I bought it, because it said my name and they said that that was Nivek Ogre from Skinny Puppy, right? [Laughs] It’s not Ogre. It’s not human, basically.

I’ve met Ogre and he’s quite a handsome man.

Al: Right, so this was a Cinder block on legs and I thought it was [Henry] Rollins at first, but whatever. So I bought this just to give Ogre shit and show him, like, “Hey! This is you!” Instead I listened to it and, yeah it sucked. Our live version of “The Light Pours Out of Me,” at the time. We’d done it good almost every night, this was probably the one night, one night out of 100…

That was bootlegged. The crappy version.

Al: So… we got pissed off and we said, “We can do this better.” So, we did it.

I think Al’s vocals really come close to emulating Howard Devoto’s, good job Al! It sounds just like the original version, to me.

Al: Except for it’s much punchier, according to Howard Devoto.

It’s crunchier! You should cover, maybe, “Rhythm of Cruelty” next.

Al: Or “Song From Under The Floorboards.” I like that one too. But we’re not going to make a career out of covering Magazine songs. I didn’t know the lyrics to the song, I’d forgotten it, because we hadn’t done it in so long. We hadn’t done it live in, what, seven years or something like that? Eight years.

Paul: Oh yeah.

Al: At least. Oh god, I’m old… So, we tried to download the lyrics and we go on the website and the only way we could find that song was…it was listed under Ministry, from that bootleg that I bought! They didn’t even credit to Magazine, so that was really weird. It was another omen. Weird. I give nothing but kudos to Howard Devoto and Barry Adamson (Magazine bassist) and John McGeoch (guitarist), who plays with Siouxsie now, and — who was the drummer though, man? Dave Formula was the keyboard player.

Paul: I don’t remember who the drummer was.

I’ll look him up and give him his props [Note: Magazine’s drummer was a guy named John Doyle]. Anyway, good on ya.

Al: Thank you.

Paul: You thought that [our version of the song] sounded fairly accurate?

Yeah, I really did. And I’m a pretty big Magazine fan, so it fooled me. The bass intro really gives it away.

Paul: Ahhh! Yes.

I’d like to give myself credit for being so awesome that I knew that was a Magazine song.

Al: That is good.

Paul: [laughing] Can you do that in your article?

Yes, I rule!

Al: Should we vote on that?

Paul: Yeah! We should vote on it.

Al: So anyway, “Aye!”

Paul: Aye!

Al: You have a complete UN Counsel, unanimous decision, you do rule. Easier than Bush getting through his bullshit. But if you’ve noticed, our covers are usually fucked up.

Yeah! Like, Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” I have to really worship you for that one. That was the best thing on Filth Pig. The first time I heard that song on the radio I thought it was just the most fucked up shit I’d ever heard. It was awesome.

Paul: Awesome.

Al: Well, that’s good.

Paul: But that’s odd, that song got played on the radio? [laughs]

Yeah, I think they played in on K-Rock here.

Al: If you’ve noticed, Revolting Cocks have done “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” and “Let’s Get Physical” and we usually fuck them up, but Howard Devoto is such a titan to us…

He’s a god.

Al: So we decided to do it straight and true, just straight ahead, and he likes it.

Have you heard the Spiral Scratch EP that he did when he was in the Buzzcocks?

Al: Please. [Paul just laughs]

Sorry. Here’s a good question, they’re all good, of course, I only write good questions…

Paul: Yeah, of course! And we only answer them… goodly.

Who participated in the recording of the album and who is in the touring ensemble of Ministry now?

Al: [To Paul] You can answer the first part and I’ll answer the second part.

Paul: What was the question?

Were there any guest musicians on the album?

Paul: No. Well, Al and I, primarily. We had our drummer, Max Brody out in Torneo with us for three months or something. Adam Grossman worked on one of the songs, he played guitar on “Animosity.”

Is Adam from another band?

Paul: He played in the band Screw. He lives in Austin, he’s a friend of ours. We had two women do back up vocals on two of the songs, Pat Kinslow and…

Al: Angelina Lucason-Jourgenson!

Paul: I remember her. That’s the extent of the people who participated in this record.

Because, really, what else do you need?

Paul: No, that’s not true…well, yeah that is true. What am I saying?

And who will be touring with you?

Al: OK! Adam Grossman on guitar, Louis Svitek on guitar — who’s been with us for eight years — myself and Paul and, on keyboards, Pat Kinslow and Angie Lucason-Jourgenson…

Two chick keyboard players! How Prince!

Al: Wait, it gets better. We also have a girl drummer: Tia Sprocket from Luscious Jackson is playing with us, on drums, and Max Brody. So, two drummers, two keyboard players, a bass player and three guitarists.

It’ll be a full bore onslaught!

Al: There will be a lot of wilted mohawks up front, yes. It’s going to be quite the set.

When are you planning on taking the show on the road?

Al: March. February in Europe. March, April, May in the States and then back to Europe for June and July, then back to the States for August and September, then to Australia for October. I mean, it’s weird knowing what you’re going to be doing, like, nine months from now.

Paul: A year’s worth of touring.

Is the any part of the movie This is Spinal Tap that reminds you of something that happened in Ministry?

Paul: [Laughs hard] Like, ninety percent of it.

Al: Our drummers blow up.

Paul: We’ve gotten lost underneath an arena, we’ve played on army bases…

Al: We started a riot on an army base, Pearl Harbor! We were on the 10 o’clock news, there was a riot at Peal Harbor because we were three hours late to get on stage. But we weren’t late, they just wouldn’t pay us. It wasn’t anything, like, from abuse or anything…

Paul: We were there, ready to play but we wouldn’t play until we got paid, you see.

Al: The guy wouldn’t pay us. He was very shifty kind of guy. The problem was, our sound man played Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” for three hours straight, over and over, before we went on, which kind of got the Samoans riled. When we came on there was quite a lot of fireworks thrown at us.

They were Angry Samoans, ha ha ha.

Al: Yeah, right exactly. There was a lot of fireworks thrown at us. It was, like, my glorious moment in dodging projectiles. I think [for] that show was more dodging going on, I mean, I was light on my feet that night. They were throwing M 80’s and shit at us. Then the Navy decided to shut us down because we were so late coming on that they only wanted us to play for 40 minutes. Our tour manager kind of bamboozled them and said, “Oh, I don’t know how to turn it off,” that kind of shit. He went on as long as he could before they finally pulled the plug, in between our last song and the first encore. First, the lights went out for the last two songs. We were playing in the dark, we just kept playing, fuck it.

That’s awesome.

Paul: And there were noise complaints from, like, a mile away or something [laughs].

Al: Yeah, a mile away, we were at 127 db, which…a 747 taking off is at 123 db. So, yeah, they were kind of pissed off. Then, when they finally shut us off, the Samoans — we’d won them over by then! — they’d stopped throwing M80’s at us and started throwing them at each other, which is much preferable, I think… for us anyways. [Laughs] It was more fun per burn. So, we didn’t come back on and they started rioting. We actually came back on, but it was like Ministry Unplugged…only not as good at MTV because it was just guitars, unplugged. So, the crowd got mad and started storming the jeeps and Humvees and started turning them over and throwing all the fucking fireworks right and left. Oh it was awesome, yeah! We were whisked away in a car, back to the hotel just in time to see it on the 10 o’clock news. There was smoke pouring out of the area of Pearl Harbor, where we’d played. We don’t play many Navy bases anymore, for some reason.

I love that story!

Paul: That’s fairly similar to Spinal Tap. Right?

Al: We wound up getting ripped off, but we played for the kids! [Shouts] It was for the kids!

• •

On to Part II of this interview…

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