It’s nearing 2 a.m. and Ministry’s Al Jourgensen is sitting by the hotel pool, eyeing his last Jack Daniel’s and Coke of the long, long day.
True to his reputation as one of underground rock’s genuine renegades, Jourgensen--the godfather of the stark, aggressive style of danceable rock known as “industrial"--has already had enough liquor to stock the bar for a modest wedding reception.
He’s trying to unwind in the calming moonlight after a grueling, three-hour sound check at nearby Shoreline Amphitheatre, the final preparation for the opening show of the two-month “Lollapalooza” tour, a showcase of alternative rock bands.
This is the tour that many pop insiders predict will push Ministry, long cult heroes, into stardom.
Anger and alienation are the governing emotions in college and alternative rock at this early point in the ‘90s, and no band dips into the well of discontent more powerfully than this Chicago-based group. In by far its largest concert trek ever, Ministry will be seen by more than 500,000 fans by the time the tour ends with three shows, starting Sept. 11, at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.
Sire Records is so excited about Ministry’s prospects that its initial shipment of the group’s acclaimed new “Psalm 69" album was 250,000 copies, almost 100,000 more than the sales of any of the four previous Ministry albums. First-week sales justified the optimism. The album entered the Billboard magazine pop chart at No. 27 and the CMJ chart, which measures sales in stores specializing in college or alternative music, at No. 1.
But Jourgensen, the band’s leader, hasn’t got celebration on his mind as he lifts the glass.
A private and intense man, Jourgensen is concerned about what’s ahead--whether this tour was really a good idea and how he will adjust to fame, if it comes.
“This tour is a necessary evil, one of my compromises ,” he says anxiously, exaggerating words for emphasis. “Eventually, when I sell enough units , as they say in the record business, I will stop touring. I’ll concentrate on what I like to do . . . stay in the studio.
“Being on stage is not creating, it’s re-creating . I’ve always wanted to be in the background. I’m a very reluctant frontman. I’ve seen reviews where they talk about my strong presence on stage, but it’s nothing I do.
“It’s like the person in a long grocery line who stands out because he’s so agitated. He’ll have presence too. He’s probably late somewhere and has parked in the handicapped zone and knows he is probably getting a ticket at that very moment. Well, that’s my aura on stage. I’m the pissed-off guy in the line who is parked in the handicapped zone.”
Ministry isn’t a one-man band. Paul Barker, a bassist and co-producer of the records, has been Jourgensen’s partner in the group since it was formed in 1981, and there are six other musicians with them on this tour, including “Psalm 69" participants William Rieflin (drums) and Mike Scaccia (guitar).
As in most bands, however, there is one dominant force--some say dictator: Jourgensen, 33, whose family moved to the United States from Cuba after the Communist revolution in the ‘50s.
Jourgensen is a guitarist, writer and singer, but his main talent is as producer. He exhibits an independence and vision reminiscent of Phil Spector, arguably the most imaginative record producer of the modern pop era
Jourgensen weaves a wide range of musical influences--from punk to metal to a touch of disco and his pet passion, country music--into sonic excursions that are at once brutal and beautiful, music that combines the visceral punch of a jackhammer and the soulful grace of film composer Ennio Morricone. Besides Ministry, Jourgensen has worked with several allied underground projects, and he recently remixed a song for the Jesus and Mary Chain.
The references to Spector, however, go deeper than their shared excellence as pop conceptualists.
Like Spector, Jourgensen appears to be a complex blend of tough exterior and sensitive interior, total confidence and deeply rooted insecurities. He may be at ease in the studio, but he has sometimes been reclusive and uncertain out of it.
The goateed, dreadlocked Jourgensen has an uneasy relationship with his record company, both sides acknowledge, but Sire executive Howie Klein is a big fan who has made an effort to win Jourgensen’s friendship.
“Personally, industrial is my favorite kind of music,” Klein said in a separate interview. “So here is this guy on the label who is doing the most exciting thing with my favorite kind of music, and I have really tried to understand him a bit, but it’s hard. I’ve been to his home, met his wife and his daughter. I’ve been out with him, and he is still an enigma to me.”
Read rock magazine articles about Jourgensen’s studio escapades in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and you wonder how he ever got anything done.
A 1991 profile in Rolling Stone magazine reported that Jourgensen usually mixes his records while on LSD during marathon day-and-night sessions. It also tells of the time a journalist attended one of his sessions at Chicago’s Trax Studios, the studio where the ‘80s form of disco known as “house” was born.
Working on a record with the band the Revolting Cocks, Jourgensen allegedly got the writer so drunk that the guest passed out in the studio bathroom. Jourgensen and his mates, the story goes, then erased the interview tape.
There are also other, bizarre tales repeated in fanzines and other more hard-core rock publications. As with many rock legends, the stories get told again and again, developing new wrinkles and degrees of outrage with each telling.
For a while, Jourgensen got a kick out of them, but he thinks they have gotten out of hand. He worries that the wild-man image may overshadow the music.
“I’ve done some things that warranted some nasty press, but everyone was young and stupid, you know--me as well as anyone else,” he says when asked about the tales. “I’ve done some insane things that I can’t even believe, but I’ve learned how to channel that into the music now rather than flailing around without any purpose. That’s the difference.
“But the press really likes the flailing because it’s so easy to write that kind of story. But I’m not going to be that easy. I’m not going to be dead like Jim Morrison. I’m not going to be a flash-in-the-pan burnout. I want to still be around in 10 years; if not doing this, I’ll be doing soundtracks. . . . I’ll be doing my country-Western band. . . . I’ll be doing something.”
Alain Jourgensen, who is of Dutch and Spanish heritage, says he has does not remember anything about his real father. The surname is Norwegian, taken from his stepfather, whom his mother married in the United States in the mid-'60s.
The Beatles’ “Second Album"--the one with “She Loves You” and “Roll Over, Beethoven"--was his first pop obsession. Though he was barely in school at the time, he remembers listening to it over and over.
By his teens, however, his family was living in the Denver area and Jourgensen’s tastes broadened to the progressive rock of bands like Pink Floyd and Hawkwind, whose “Space Ritual” was a particular favorite.
Later, he liked the power of Led Zeppelin and the unfiltered sentimentality of country music stars like Hank Williams and George Jones.
Jourgensen had a lot of time to listen to music, because he didn’t get along with his family and moved out on his own before finishing high school.
“I was a pretty delinquent little kid,” he says, speaking in a rapid-fire manner similar to the insistent beat of his music. “My folks and I didn’t get along, so I basically moved out . . . put myself through high school and then college by working. I’m only a half-year short of a degree in history.”
But he heard the music that changed his life the night in the late ‘70s that he stopped by a club in Denver to see the Ramones, the New York group that greatly influenced the punk revolution in England. He was so excited by the energy and aggression of the Ramones that he wanted to be in a punk band himself. “The next day I had a Mohawk and I was on my way,” he recalls.
Jourgensen was in and out of bands, searching for a record contract and stardom. He eventually signed with Arista Records and put out, under the name Ministry, “With Sympathy,” an album of synth-dance music that he now detests.
If the seeds of rebellion were already in Jourgensen, they were in full bloom after the album experience. Eager for recognition and success, he gave control of the album to other, more experienced hands--and the results so soured him on the record industry that he now refuses any outside interference.
Refusing to even submit demo tapes to show label executives the progress on albums, Ministry simply delivers the finished product.
“I was bitter and the music got a lot angrier,” he says now of the period after the first album. “I actually became more and more of a recluse . . . and really started drinking a lot more.”
Signed by Sire Records, the Time Warner subsidiary that is known for having discovered such innovative talents as Talking Heads and Madonna, Jourgensen and Ministry released “Twitch” in 1986, and it was the first step toward the accomplished sound displayed in “Psalm 69.”
There are themes in the album--ranging from religion to politics--but the heart of “Psalm 69" is in the music itself, the seductive swirl of colliding elements that in some strange way mirrors the chaos that Jourgensen sees in the world around him.
As if impatient with language, Jourgensen merely punctuates the sonic blasts with occasional howls or TV sound bites, such as President Bush’s call for a new world order in the album’s opening song. The sarcastic “N.W.O.” is the closest Ministry gets to commentary. Normally, Jourgensen simply aims to stimulate.
“I’m not a preacher,” he says firmly. “I don’t get on a soapbox. I try to leave the music as ambiguous as possible . . . to force people to think for themselves. I’ve had so many different versions and theories about what the lyrics or the songs are about, and I think that’s healthy--even though some of them are completely the opposite of what we meant.”
Jourgensen waves a hand in the air as if to brush away a question about “N.W.O.” and whether the anger in his music is partially driven by the country’s disillusioned mood in recent years.
“It’s obvious,” he snaps. “It has to all be said. We’ve gone through a decade that was so sedentary . . . the me generation . . . Reaganomics . . . feel good . . . sweep the bums under the rug as long as you have your (expletive) electronic trinkets at home. . . . No one is going to riot as long as they have their comforts at home, but comforts aren’t cutting it anymore, because people aren’t happy.”
It’s almost 3 a.m. by now and the conversation shifts back to Jourgensen’s dislike of touring and his desire to clear up the “maniacal” image that surrounds him. Despite the four empty glasses on the table in front of him, he swears he is making progress against drugs and alcohol.
“I still drink but not like I used to,” he says, still quite lucid. “Jesus, I was insane . . . heroin as well. . . . I was just trying to subdue feelings. Reality is a tough thing sometimes. It’s like getting used to success, getting used to marriage. It takes a while for me to settle into something. I’m not somebody who is easily adaptable. First thing I try to do is suppress everything with sedatives.
“I finally found out (the drugs) isn’t where the (creative) power comes from. . . . The power comes from within, and it just took me a long time . . . maybe longer than others to tap into this. . . . I’ve learned how to, like, mix a record sober now and go on stage sober, which I’ve never been able to do.”
Was there a time when he feared he would end up like one of rock’s famous fast-lane casualties?
Jourgensen rubs a hand through his dreadlocks and pauses.
“Not purposefully,” he replies finally. “But it certainly was going that way.”
Pausing again, Jourgensen looks around at the quiet, serene pool setting.
“You know, it’s funny. . . . All the people in the world can tell you you’re going to die, (mess) yourself up, but it’s not enough to make you change. I even ODd on New Year’s Eve. I was clinically dead for 10 minutes and that didn’t even wake me up. I just figured, ‘I was lucky. . . . I’d better be more careful next time.’ ”
Various factors, he says, finally convinced him to draw back--principally his family.
“I didn’t realize for years the ramifications of what I did, but there were some personal things over the last couple of years that made me think,” he says.
“And those things changed me. . . . Things like people at the school where my daughter goes reading stories about me and questioning our family life at home, which is sacred to me. I guard that very privately. My wife and I have been married eight years, which is already a record in this business.”
Seventeen hours later on the Shoreline Amphitheatre stage, Ministry lived up to its promise with a compelling performance that easily stole the “Lollapalooza” show from such platinum-status acts as Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam.
Jourgensen prowled the stage like a caged animal, singing into a microphone on a stand adorned with animal skulls and bones. During breaks, he turned frequently to a bottle of Jack Daniel’s placed near one of the band’s amplifiers. He doesn’t see the alcohol as a violation of his pact. It was, at least, the first time he went on stage sober in years, he says.
Well, there was one other time--a show in 1989 when he reportedly fell asleep on the tour bus in the parking lot and didn’t wake up until 10 minutes before going on stage. At that time, there was no chance to drink away the anxiety about performing.
“I was like a deer in headlights,” he says during the poolside interview. “I was waiting for the horn to honk before I even moved. I couldn’t even start singing. I had to run back to the amplifier and chug a bottle of whiskey before I could even go back up to the microphone and deal with people. I got so drunk, and by the fourth song, I was vomiting all over myself, which, of course, was encouraged by the crowd going, ‘ Excellent , he’s throwing up on himself.’ ”
But what about the two months on the road? Will Jourgensen be able to stand up to the strain? Why even agree to such a grueling schedule?
“I didn’t want to be part of this whole picnic-circus. . . . But this band really is a democracy, despite what people may think,” he says. “Basically, I was outvoted within the band, within management, within everyone else.”
Klein confirmed Jourgensen’s reluctance.
“I don’t think there are enough words for me to tell you how much reluctance there was,” he said. “He definitely did not want to do it. It took me weeks to convince them that it was the right thing to do.
“I think what it boiled down to for them was, ‘Let’s go out into the world because if I do that, maybe I can then withdraw further and never deal with anybody again.’ ”
Withdrawing sounds fine to Jourgensen, who plans to move to a ranch south of Austin, Tex., where he can record in his own studio and live in relative calm with his family--away from the merrymakers who tend to surround him in Chicago.
Jourgensen speaks so much about his family (including his 6-year-old daughter) that it’s strange he doesn’t show that tender side of himself in his music.
“Naw,” he says, quickly dismissing the question. “Maybe someday in my country band. I’m not ready to get up and start delving into personal matters, but everything you write is personal in a way. Ministry has a lot left to say. There’s still a lot of anger out there. The ‘90s may make the ‘60s look like a tea party.”