By Mike Bax
In about a month from now, Ministry main-man Al Jourgensen is set to release a pile-driver of an album unto the masses using the moniker Surgical Meth Machine (SMM). Recorded on his own with long-time producer Sammy D’Ambruoso and to be released by Nuclear Blast Records, SMM will raise eyebrows once it sees release.
The first seven songs are a relentless mash of lightning fast guitar riffs and rapid drumbeats. Then there’s a Devo cover followed by four quirky songs – two of which throw back to material Al was attached to in the early 1980s. In true Al Jourgensen fashion, the album works. From Al’s own mouth, the album is described as a mix of genres that emulate a methamphetamine high.
Jourgensen is currently doing his least favourite thing – doing interviews and talking about the music he has just created. As much as he dislikes doing it, he’s doing it with a rolling chortle and was a pleasure to chat with for the fifteen minutes we spent on the phone.
(Jourgensen sounds like the demonic brother of Dennis Hopper when he talks, so when you read this, read it like Frank Booth is answering my questions.)
Al Jourgensen: How ya doing Mike?
Mike Bax: I’m feeling a little sensitive (laughs). I’m digging the album, Al. I like what I’m hearing on Surgical Meth Machine – it’s heavy stuff.
Al: SMM man. Just like Orange is the New Black, SMM is the new Ministry…or something. I dunno man.
Mike: You’ve created a new sub-genre here, Al: Meth Metal.
Al: Thank you. I like that.
Mike: For some reason I thought you were going to slow it down after Ministry. This Surgical Meth Machine album is the complete opposite of slowing down. It’s like Ministry played at 45 RPM.
Al: Well, the last half of this record certainly slows down.
Mike: Yeah. A little bit. True.
Al: The way I do things, Mike, is I just go in and record a whole bunch of songs. Different genres. Different everything. Just whatever happens to tickle my fancy at that moment. Then, at the end of the day I listen to what I’ve just done for the last few months and assess it: You know what? Maybe Jello (Biafra) would like to sing on a few of these tracks – let’s make a LARD record. You know what? That sounds kind of like a Ministry song or something like that. But with these songs it was different. Me and my engineer Sammy (D’Ambruoso), after the death of Mike Scaccia, while recording the From Beer To Eternity album, were talking about doing a really fast, vicious record – the fastest record we’ve ever done before. I hate to paraphrase Captain Kirk, but to boldly go where Ministry has never gone before.
So we finished mixing From Beer to Eternity with Ministry and I was itching to get back into the studio and start recording stuff, and Sammy reminded me about doing this extremely brutal and fast album. So I was like, alright, let’s give it a shot. There was no one else around at the time to record. That’s kind of the beauty of just setting aside three months of your life each year to record, no matter what it is that you wind up recording. Nobody else was around, none of my usual suspects so Sammy and I just decided to go into this ourselves.
We started out with six really fast, really heavy songs. During the process of making this record we moved from Texas to California and when we got out here we traded in our Texas driver’s license for a California driver’s license and immediately went to the local weed doctor and got out weed cards. And then all of a sudden the album seemed to slow down considerably (laughter) after getting our weed cards. The last half of that album, if you hate it, you can blame it on weed. If you love it, you can praise weed. Either way, the last half of the record was weed-powered.
I have other stuff on the shelf from my three months of recording; some of it’s slow, some of it is fast. This was like a good dichotomous sample of the kind of stuff I have floating around on the shelves in my studio.
Mike: I can still put on With Sympathy and enjoy it. I’ve been into your stuff from the very beginning – 1984 I think. Your musical journey has been very interesting to follow.
Al: Well thank you. I’ve had fun with it.
Mike: I’m curious about what motivates you as a musician? When you talk about these three months of recording, are you immediately just ready to write? Do you ever get writers block?
Al: No, that’s the point of doing it. Those three months of the year are when I’m itching to create. I have a backlog of ideas that float around in my head, so when that gets full, it’s time to take a shit – get it out of you. You start getting ideas, you’re constipated, you haven’t shit in a while. I just got in for three months and shit it all out and then I’m done. I couldn’t write after that. I do my three months of intensive recoding and then I spend the next six months either trying to explain what I just did to press folks like you or tour on it or some kind of bullshit (laughs). And then you get the itch again and you know it’s time to go in the studio. And this one was funny because I didn’t have the proper facilities to do it in. It was just me and Sammy. Everyone else’s schedules were such that they were busy when I felt like I had to take a shit. So instead of waiting to get to the nearest restroom, I basically pulled off on the side of the road and took a dump right there. Which is what this SMM record is like for me. It’s just like a shit on the road for me.
Mike: You recorded this all at your studio, right? Your house?
Al: Yeah, we just do it all on computers, hence the name. “Surgical”, because we worked precisely with just two people. It wasn’t a floating flotilla of artists and friends that always happen to stop by whether it’s Ministry, Revco or LARD or whatever. Although Jello Biafra did come and spend a weekend. He didn’t know he was going to do anything though. He’d heard some of the stuff that me and Sammy were working on and went “Damn, I gotta be a part of this” and then immediately wanted to take it away for a LARD record. And I was like “Nah, let’s just stay in here. We had a little battle about that one.” But the good thing is he heard some other stuff that we recorded and he is REALLY into that. So I set aside another three or four songs we wrote for a new LARD record. So that was interesting.
But anyways, it felt surgical in the sense that it was just the two of us in the studio doing it. And of course the tempo and speed of the songs was like a meth heartbeat y’know, like a tweaker. And then “Machine”, because we did the whole thing on just using Pro Tools. Surgical Meth Machine: there you go.
Mike: I can only take your word for the meth aspect. I have not done meth.
Al: Yeah, right.
Mike: You’ve stated in numerous interviews that you don’t really enjoy touring and you also don’t love doing press either, so thank you for doing this today. You are throwing yourself into the belly of the beast here yet again. Will you feel obligated to take Surgical Meth Machine on the road or are you not going to bother?
Al: Um, I don’t know. I mean that’s kind of the beauty of my situation. I’ve gotten to in this long journey that I’ve been doing for 35 years, so I can go in and record and I don’t even really know what band it’s going to be for. I just record. And therefore I don’t know if I’m going to tour, I don’t have any set agenda. I just go in and record and do things that I think sound pretty cool. So as far as the band – since there was no band to really do this, and this isn’t the only mitigating factor here – that has to be figured out.
Guess what, I’ve got plenty of friends here, if that’s something they want to do, and they think it would be fun to go out and tour, then we will go out and tour with it. However, this one is problematic because first of all, it was all written on machines. But we got around that before with some of the Ministry stuff. That moment of “How the fuck are we going to pull this off live?” (laughs) This was us saying we were all going to have a heart attack. I mean, that’s what happened to Mikey, right? He died of a heart attack on stage and we all kind of want to avoid that going forward.
This one could be difficult to play live – it’s almost challenging enough to make it peak your interest a little bit. Could we actually do this live? Then you start thinking about it and maybe it will happen. There are no guarantees. That’s what so crazy about the way that I operate. You have everyone else’s schedule to take under consideration. We don’t even know if it’s going to be a band or what it’s going to be when we go in and record. So then we have to scramble around later and figure things out from there, you know what I’m saying?
Mike: Yeah. You aren’t going to win any popularity contests among your contemporaries with the song “Unlistenable”.
A;: But that’s the whole point. Two of the songs on this album are not about what you think. It reminds me of 1988 when I released “The Land of Rape and Honey” and there was an anti-fascism song yet it starts out with “Sieg Heil’s”. Next thing you know we’ve got all of these national front dope-heads up front “Sieg Heil-ing” me and it was like, really? Don’t you get the point? It’s anti-fascism…I’m mocking fascism. So I had some controversy around that album.
With this one, everyone thinks I hate Megadeth or Iron Maiden or whatever…fuck, I even call out that Ministry sucks on that one, you know? The whole point on this one, just like the song “I’m Sensitive”, I’m making fun of social media platforms and the people that use them and are addicted to them. It’s as bad as fucking heroin: these people that are addicted to saying anything they want under the cloak of anonymity, sitting in mom and dad’s basement probably without a job, bitter as fuck and just hating on everything. Haters, haters, haters. They don’t have to answer for it. They would never say that to your face. But it’s just like “Ministry? They suck!!! Iron Maiden, fuck them!!!” This and that, it’s all over the internet. “Unlistenable” is my take on the society that we’ve become through social media platforms.
Mike: You use that song to nicely segue into the Devo cover of “Gates of Steel”.
Al: Right, you know, eventually you gotta stop hating, man. And I’ve never hated Devo. I’ve loved Devo from the start and I was always trying to figure out a way to do that song. I’ve always thought that “Gates of Steel” was quite a punk anthem when it came out, in Devo’s weird, artsy quirky way. And I wanted to try and get a little less art and a little less quirk and make it like the punk anthem that I thought it was, so we proceeded from there. About half way through the record we got our weed cards and the rest of the album went all California hippie psychedelic. But it was fun to make, I’ll tell ya (laughs).
Mike: I dig a lot of the songs at the end of the record. There’s some interesting heavy beats on them, and some throwbacks to your sound from back in the day.
Al: We had a gas making it. Another reason this record is different is, like I said, I like to bulk record and assess the material: That’s a LARD song, that’s a Ministry song. But for this one, it was a bit of not knowing what the fuck things sound like so let’s just keep it all on the same record. We were having fun, just the two of us out there sparking up and playing with computers. This is what came out. We decided to just keep it all under one roof.
Mike: What brought you to Nuclear Blast Records for this release?
Al: Not quite sure, actually. I wasn’t really sure if this was going to be a band, a record, or what. But somebody got their hands on some of the songs we were doing – I don’t know who sent what to who, but the next thing you know I’ve got this record label on the phone showing interest. I knew we had six of the songs done, those tracks made it out and apparently they went crazy over it. They called us and asked if we wanted to release it. So I was like “Yeah, sure. As a matter of fact we did some other songs too. You want to hear those?” They said yes and within 24 hours there was a contract signed (laughs). It was really weird. It wasn’t meant to be a band or anything like that. They really thought what they were hearing was pretty cool, so I was like “Great! Release it. I don’t care.”
Mike: So let me ask you this, if you are walking into a record store – assuming you even do that anymore – what do you go in and look for?
Al: Well, I’ve never been that way… It’s been YEARS since I was really motivated by one specific thing that I’ve heard. I go in and look for a lot of period pieces from the late 1960s to early 1970s. I bought vinyl like two weeks ago of this band called The Pink Fairies from I believe like 1971 or 1972 which I found really interesting. I’ll look around for obscure country tracks from the late 1950s and mid-1960s. I’m interested in entire periods of music and tend to keep it at that. I think that my interests haven’t fermented in years.
I don’t really see any new thing that really gets me going. I like to take entire periods of music and try and put my spin on it – it’s an art stealing from art kind of thing, you know? It’s not theft or burglary if you put your own stamp on it. My stuff tends to be completely different. I’ve done stuff from complete seventies rockers in LARD. We even did “Seventies Rock Must Die”, a song on the LARD record, that me and Jello just take the piss out of a certain genre that you find ridiculous at the time. We’ve done Revco songs like that, the cover of “Me So Horny” which was just ridiculous. But you know, it doesn’t sound like the original, right? It’s your own personal take on it and most of the time it’s pretty mockingly done, you know what I’m saying?
Al: It’s fun to do – to take something already there and make it into something entirely knew. I remember doing one cover record where we included “Sweet Dreams” by Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics and “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse. If you didn’t know the songs at all, you’d not know that those were the songs our material was inspired by. It’s totally distorted, like a funhouse mirror being held up to the original song. I find that fun. I find that interesting to do.
Mike: I went to your Bandcamp page yesterday and was happy to see that you have double clear vinyl for Twelve Inch Singles and a vinyl live soundboard recording of a Canadian Club RPM show from 1986.
Al: Cool. I don’t even know that (laughs). I never go on my own site. I have no idea what’s on there. I’m happy if you’re happy.
Mike: You did mention that you moved from Texas to Burbank, California. Has that been a good move for you? Any regrets? Do you look back on Texas at all?
Al: Nah, not at all. I’m really happy here man. You can’t beat the weather. It’s pretty expensive, you’re basically paying for what’s almost like a carbon tax, if you want to go environmentally talking (laughs). The California carbon tax. You are paying extra to live here because the weather is so fucking great. When you start getting up into your late fifties, your bones start feeling that cold. I spent 35 years in Chicago and I love that city to death, but I just couldn’t live there anymore. My bones just don’t react well to it (laughs) – they’ll just snap off and crack if it gets before forty degrees Fahrenheit. I freak out in the cold, so I love it out here, man. The pace of life is great. All my friends are out here, anyways. Texas was always kind of isolated out in El Paso where I was dwelling. It was great there because I had a really nice recording studio that I built there. Now I am in a much smaller studio but with much better weather. So I’ll take it.
Mike: Right on, Al. I’m looking forward to when this album comes out. I’ve already pre-ordered it on pink vinyl. Keep on keeping on sir.
Al: Alright, I will. We’ve got some more stuff coming next year, man. I’m starting to work with one of the original founders of NWA, so that should be interesting. – the Arabian Prince (Kim Nazel). We’ll see what comes outta that. Maybe it will come out, maybe it won’t. We just go in and do shit in the studio and see what happens. I’ve got that and I have a new Revolting Cocks record that’s about half written. And I’ve been sending Dropbox shit back and forth with Jello Biafra trying to get a new LARD record together. There’s a lot more stuff coming down the pike.