Ministry Nothing Exceeds Like Excess
Published Mar 01, 2003In 1983, a two-man synth pop act from Chicago released their debut album. Twenty years and many line-up changes later, Ministry has placed an indelible boot print in the backside of alternative music, leaving their synth pop beginnings far, far behind. They've been tagged everything from industrial to death metal, and with three tribute albums since 1999, their influence goes far beyond any single genre. Always managing to stay well below the radar of classification, their music is never without consciousness, intelligence and their scathingly dark sense of humour. Having survived two decades of debauchery, Ministry are still proving that there is much more to be said, and they're just the guys to say it.
Ministry is formed by Al Jourgensen in Chicago, IL. Jourgensen began his musical involvement at the end of the 70s through DJing in Chicago and playing guitar in post-punk act Special Affect with Frank Nardiello (later of My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult). Early punk bands like the Ramones are the true fuel of his creative fires. Punk's DIY, fuck you attitude strikes a chord with him and, despite Ministry's musical beginnings, plays a huge role in shaping later output. As a teenager, his future is ominously foreshadowed when he winds up in a hospital for drug abuse. According to Al, it was the easiest place of all to score.
On New Year's Eve, Ministry plays its first gig at Huey's night club in Chicago. The principle studio line-up is Jourgensen (vocals, guitar, programming) and Stephen George (percussion), with others accompanying them for shows. The "Cold Life" single is released on Wax Trax Records, beginning Jourgensen's long-time involvement with Chicago Trax, the WT recording studio. "It's not just a studio, it's a way of life" words that would appear on the sleeve of 1989's The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste couldn't sum it up better. The time spent and people he meets here become an integral part of all that is Ministry both in and out of the studio. While producing Wax Trax act the Blackouts, Al meets member Paul Barker for the first time. Barker will later become the second half of the Ministry machine.
With Sympathy, essentially a new wave-inspired synth pop record with none of the angst and grit of later work, is released on Arista Records. Although a decent pop record, Al later claims it was a forced release from his new label, unrepresentative of his true voice or vision. It represents none of the severity and honesty of later material, exhibiting none of Al's passion for the guitar. It is the first and thankfully the last time the words "white boy funk" and Ministry could be used in the same sentence.
"The Nature of Love" and "All Day/Everyday is Halloween" singles are released on Wax Trax; the latter is embraced as the dance track du jour (and best known early single) for goth kids everywhere. This year also spawns the most prolific and best-known of the many Ministry-based side projects, the Revolting Cocks (aka RevCo). A who's who of industrial dance music and all around good-time guys, the faces in this project change with virtually every new release, but start out as a threesome of Jourgensen, Richard 23 (from Front 242) and Belgian industrial multi-instrumentalist and fellow Wax Traxer Luc Van Acker. Legend has it that while getting drunk and rowdy during a pool game, a bartender inadvertently names them by calling them a bunch of revolting cocks. More goofy and ironic than anything else, the Cocks show another side to a group of rock stars that too often get taken too seriously. Named after a chain of porno houses in Germany, RevCos first LP Big Sexy Land showcases their uniquely strange senses of humour. RevCo also serves as a catalyst for the slightly heavier sound that Ministry begins exploring.
Twitch is released, and despite the contribution of several others, Jourgensen is listed as the band's sole member. In perhaps the most important moment of their musical evolution, Paul Barker joins Ministry as bassist and keyboardist. As a songwriting team, these two will have their literal highs and lows through the years, but ultimately remain the backbone of the band. As Al explains, "We work well together man. We are yin and yang. I'm Captain Kirk, he's Spock he's like the science officer and I'm just like go get the fuckin' Klingons!'" Jourgensen's continued drug use is garnering him a reputation for being irrational and at times unproductive alternate periods of being sober or strung out make him a two-headed monster. Barker's more even temperament serves as a balance to keep them on track. Al also takes a more active role in the production and mixing duties of Ministry's work with the assistance of Adrian Sherwood.
The side project roster continues to grow P.T.P., Pailhead and the idea for Lard are just a few. Jourgensen explains the goings-on at Chicago Trax during this time. "People would come through town, and we were part owners of a studio, so instead of partying at a club, we just moved the party over to the studio and got something accomplished." Although portrayed as a tattooed, black-wearing, devil-loving outlaw, much of the stigma came more from the party scene that surrounds Ministry. If nothing else, this destructive lifestyle led to the many side projects with other Wax Trax hangers-on.
The Land of Rape and Honey takes its title from words on a coffee mug purchased in Saskatchewan, complete with pictures of smiling bees and bales of wheat. Despite pressure from Warner to keep their sound light, the album is their heaviest and most abrasive yet, a landmark effort as Ministry finds the voice that defines the sound of their career. The guitar is Jourgensen's instrument of choice here, and his vocals show all of the aggression that was buried before. Although there is still an electronic edge, the subject matter is darker and the lyrics are of a more socio-political nature, yet never brow-beating or preachy. Sound bites (from right wing politicians to movies like Aliens and Platoon) are re-contextualised, taking the band into newer creative territory. For the first time if for no other reason than their use of samples they are associated with an underground sound movement called industrial. "I never thought it was accurate," Jourgensen says. "We certainly never crowned ourselves that. ZZ Top has sequencers and shit when they play, are they industrial? When we went out and got our samples except for the spoken word stuff we'd go on site, bring out the tape recorder and start recording. Nowadays, it's all pre-packaged. You buy CDs of samples of other bands and everyone sounds the same." LORAH's production is credited to Hypo Luxa and Hermes Pan Jourgensen and Barker's new producer pseudonyms, taken from two male Greek prostitutes. Al meets Skinny Puppy front-man Ogre when the two bands follow each other's touring footsteps, each recognising the other by the blood stains left behind on dressing room walls. In both cases, their reputation precedes their actual meeting, setting the stage for the drama that will follow them throughout their notorious friendship.
The Mind is A Terrible Thing To Taste furthers their shift to a heavier sound it couldn't be any louder, angrier or more intense. Combining elements of electronic and metal with a rock approach, it's a landmark of its, or any, genre. The resulting tour is a powerhouse, with a star-studded guest cast (including Ogre and Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra, who works with Al in Lard) and an infamous chain link fence separating the band from the audience. In one smaller venue, the barrier is suspended from the ceiling, but this doesn't stop fans from climbing. In all the mayhem, the fence falls, is ripped apart and pieces serve as makeshift weapons for more aggressive fans. At this point, the band is at the height of both their productivity and self destruction. After one night of debauchery, Al and Ogre are discovered passed out in a van, Ogre with his face frozen by drool to the floor. Kindred spirits they are, but good for each other they are not. Tension also arises from Jourgensen's involvement with Skinny Puppy as a guitarist, vocalist and co-producer on SP's Rabies. As Jourgensen and Ogre spend more time together, Ogre and his band-mates spend more time apart. Resentment fuels drug use fuels resentment, culminating in Ogre and Al's formation of side project W.E.L.T (When Everyone Learns the Truth). Although some material is recorded, it is not released at this time.
A six-song live recording, In Case You Didn't Feel Like Showing Up, accompanies a full-length video capturing the sonic assault of the Mind tour, featuring two drummers, as many as four guitarists and numerous others on stage. "When we play live, we don't fuck around. We do one song right into another, it's like a medley an hour-and-a-half straight of one song, even though it changes into 12, 13 different songs. We don't have breaks, I don't tell jokes and tell them to tip the waitress in between." Hypo/Luxa Productions produce and engineer a track on shock-rock outfit Gwar's Scumdogs of the Universe for the gracious payment of some pizza and a little cocaine. Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor comes out to play with the Chicago Trax gang, and lays down vocals for the "Supernaut" single, released by yet another side project, 1000 Homo DJs. After Reznor's record company expresses their disapproval at his involvement, Al and the DJs do some clever remixing; the track is slyly released with very few changes.
Al Jourgensen is falsely linked to the overdose of Chicago poet and friend Lorri Jackson. Accusing him of being the principal in some huge heroin-taking party scene, the press have a field day and his reputation as an advocate of illegal substances finally catches up to him. Because of his frankness and no bullshit attitude towards drug use he is made an easy target for persecution from the press, and for the first time he appears visibly upset by rumours that would normally not shake his rock star constitution. The single "Jesus Built My Hotrod" is released on Sire/Warner and becomes their biggest selling single of all time. Featuring the Butthole Surfers' Gibby Haynes on vocals, the song is a catchy Southern-flavoured stomper featuring samples taken from the film Wise Blood.
The nefariously sexual title of Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs is inspired by occult head Aleistor Crowley; it sells platinum, garnering attention from mainstream media and new fans. Despite Jourgensen's denial that Ministry is an industrial band, Psalm 69 is ground zero for a new breed of industrial music. Despite Jourgensen's and Barker's differences, its success leads to a world tour, and after initially rejecting it, a spot co-headlining music and lifestyle festival Lollapalooza. Before taking the stage, Al gets pumped not by drugs or whiskey, but by slugging back a fresh glass of sideshow freak Jim Rose's regurgitated stomach juice.
Feeling the itch to break away from the scene that has become Chicago Trax, Al and Paul pack up and move to Texas, where they set up Ranch Apocalypse, a haunted, sequestered whorehouse-turned-studio outside of Austin. By moving away from the ongoing party that fuelled addictions and distractions, they are indeed more productive, but cabin fever kicks in. The desolation of the desert studio has its own drawbacks when the two are alone together all day every day. RevCo release Linger Ficken' Good, features the vocals of Timothy Leary and a raunched-out remake of Rod Stewart's "Do You Think I'm Sexy?"
Jourgensen takes a break from his formal duties as rock star and appears in Hustler magazine. "They had a four-page spread of me and naked girls shooting off guns at other magazines Playboy and stuff like that. They asked if I wanted to do a celebrity porn rate-a-magazine. They flew me out, gave me guns, gave me liquor and had me read porn twist my arm!" Any chance of someday appearing in Playgirl? "Yeah sure. Why not?" Al also continues his duties as producer as he works on the Reverend Horton Heat's Liquor in the Front. To appease media curiosity, Al welcomes cameramen into the studio to watch him work. Never without his sense of humour, he stands on the console and shoves a pencil up his ass, showing them the true magic behind his mixing madness.
As problems escalate, Al and Paul keep their distance aside from work on the next record. The inevitability of a drug bust hits Jourgensen as police raid his studio and home in late August while he's having sex with his girlfriend. He is released the next day on $7000 bail and is later convicted of drug possession. He escapes harsh penalty and jail time, and is instead given a slap on the wrist, five years probation and put on a methadone program. Oddly, that same day guitarist Mike Scaccia is busted for heroin possession while being searched under the suspicion of shoplifting at a Wal-Mart. After all the chaos, Barker and Jourgensen move back to Chicago. The maxi-single "The Fall/Reload," originally written for the W.E.L.T. project in 1989, is released on Warner. Al and his wife Patti divorce.
Filth Pig, the most questionable record in terms of fan appeal, is released on Warner. Not wanting to make another Psalm 69, they do the opposite, the most stripped-down of all their albums, with electronic instrumentation replaced by mandolin and pedal steel guitar. Although Jourgensen will consider this his favourite, the lack of sequencers, drum machines, samples and synthesised sound coupled with a more straight-ahead metal sound takes them into territory that makes die-hard fans sceptical. Bob Dylan's ballad "Lay Lady Lay," released as a single, shows a softer side of the band's usual aggressive tendencies. During the North American Sphinc-tour, in Oklahoma, drummer Ray Washum ends up hospitalised when a neo-nazi lets loose a tear gas grenade half-way through the set. After the venue is aired out, the band wastes no time getting right back to the show.
After taking several years to write material for the next record, the guys toss the tunes and start again from scratch. The nine new tracks (including the single "Bad Blood," heard in The Matrix) make up Dark Side of the Spoon and they take their show on the road with the Clit-tour. All across America, K-mart bans Dark Side, but ironically not for its title. They take offence to the hind view of a nude woman on the cover. They claim the fact that she weighed about 300 pounds has nothing to do with it.
After parting company with Concrete Management Company, Ministry no longer perform with the Ozzfest metal/hard rock festival. This year also brings their first Grammy nomination "Best Metal Performance" for the "Bad Blood" single, but they lose out to Black Sabbath. Over conflicts resulting from production funding, Ministry gets dropped from Warner.
Due to the confusion and uncertainty while changing management companies, Ministry gets cut from the Ozzfest tour. They are nominated for their first Grammy, "Best Metal Performance" for the "Bad Blood" single, but they lose out to Black Sabbath. Over conflicts resulting from production funding, Ministry gets dropped from Warner.
Warner's last Ministry release is the Greatest Fits compilation. "What About Us?," the only new cut on the record, is written specifically for the Spielberg film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. The band also appears briefly in the film, appropriately enough playing at a festival of robotic torture. Later in the year they get signed to Sanctuary Records. On tour in the summer, the boys decide to have their own Fourth of July fireworks display inside their tour bus. They light the sticks, the sparks fly off and try as they might they cannot extinguish the many fires. With smoke pouring out the windows, the bus pulls over and the driver calls the police. Al's maniacal charm gets them off once again without so much as a warning.
The first release on their new label is Sphinctour, a collection of live recordings from the Filth Pig tour. In the fall, Al and his girlfriend Angie Lukacin wed at Graceland.
Animositisomina, recorded at a secluded ranch outside of New Mexico, is released on Sanctuary. With all of the brazen energy of previous work, the new record exudes a new-found vitality. "It was the first album I did clean and sober," Jourgensen claims. "It was a lot more fun. You actually get to do the music instead of all the distractions and the partying. It was a lot different in the sense that you could actually do what you set out to do, which kind of shoots the theory that you get soft when you get clean." Given their relatively drug-free status and he stresses the word relatively they're also looking forward to the upcoming world Fornica-tour as being a new experience. "I've never been clean and sober [on stage], so this should be good. Nothing exceeds like excess," he says, promising a killer show. With as many as four guitar players and two drummers one of whom is Tia Sprocket of Luscious Jackson it's a unique line-up. "It's the first time we have tampons on our rider!" Al exclaims proudly. "We got a kick-ass band this time. Best line-up we've ever had."