Few rock and roll outsiders have been as influential on modern-day music as Al Jourgensen.
The Cuban-American musician has been composing (and producing) since the early 1980s, wetting his toes in synth-pop bands and punk groups. With Ministry, Jourgensen pioneered a genre whose grinding guitars, breakneck beats, and judicious samples would inspire countless imitators—including big-name contemporaries like Nine Inch Nails, Rob Zombie, and Danzig. MTV kids from the Beavis and Butthead era will remember Ministry’s stuttering Psalm 69 crossover hit, “Jesus Built My Hot Rod” (featuring the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes on the ding-a-dang vocals).
But Jourgensen (aka Alejandro Ramirez, Alien, Uncle Al, and Hypo Luxa) has always been more than Ministry’s anchorman. His arrangement expertise and programming savvy were crucial to offshoot band the Revolting Cocks (1986-2010), and his serrated guitars provided the bedrock for Jello Biafra’s (Dead Kennedys) vitriolic spiels in Lard (1989-2000). Jourgensen’s also written for film and television, produced other bands (Skinny Puppy), and dabbled in alternative country (Buck Satan & The 666 Shooters).
Ministry never matched the commercial success of Psalm 69, but the indefatigable Jourgensen continued creating at his 13th Planet Studio in El Paso with guitarist Mike Scaccia and a coterie of equally colorful accomplices. The treads eventually snapped off Al’s Sherman tank, due in large part to his legendary drinking habit and rampant drug use—but he cleaned up, then chronicled his transformation in a compelling memoir (Ministry: The Lost Gospels), and reteamed with Scaccia for Relapse in 2012.
Sadly, Scaccia passed away during the making of that record, which for now stands as Ministry’s studio swansong.
Now the recovered and recuperated Jourgensen is back with a brutal new project. Crafted in his new California digs with engineer ace Sam D’Ambruoso, Surgical Meth Machine is the next chapter in Uncle Al’s lifelong aural onslaught.
Out this week on the Nuclear Blast label, Surgical Meth Machine will placate Ministry and RevCo fans alike with its relentless tempos (200 bpm), rapid-fire guitars, and Jourgensen’s signature snarky vocals. The “band”—also called Surgical Meth Machine (or SMM for short)—tackles eggshell-skinned Facebook socialites on “I’m Sensitive,” multimedia violence and sensationalism on “Tragic Alert,” and consumerism / instant gratification on “I Don’t Wanna” and “Smash and Grab.”
“Rich People Problems” brings the hammer down on rock star prima donnas—but the tune also reminds ninety-nine percenters that we too spend an inordinate amount of time bellyaching about petty inconveniences and first world trifles.
“I can’t seem to remember the name of my personal chef,” muses Jourgensen’s spoiled superstar.
“And he can’t seem to remember that I’m allergic to tap water. I only drink the bottled stuff from France! You just can’t count on the help these days!”
Jourgensen and D’Ambruoso level their sights on musical snobs with “Unlistenable,” whose cheeky, conversational what’s hot, what’s not verses upturn popular acts (Lamb of God, The Cure) not because Al dislikes them, but because he dislikes the armchair critics who judge others without ever producing anything of their own.
There’s a rocket launch countdown (with ‘60s TV commentary) on the space age “Spudnik” and a call for pharmaceutically-enhanced mind expansion on the tripped-out “Just Go Home” and “Just Keep Going.” SMM even boasts a campy Devo cover (“Gates of Steel”) and a lounge-singer sign-off (“I’m Invisible”).
It’s spoof, it’s satire, it’s the sort of speed-metal sound-off on American cultural depravity only Jourgensen could provide.
We caught up with Uncle Al by phone last week to discuss the making of Surgical Meth Machine, his relocation from Lone Star state to West Coast, and his take on the music and philosophy behind SMM’s nightmarish, naughty new music.
CLEVELAND EXAMINER: Hello, Al!
AL JOURGENSEN: Hey, Pete, hiya doing?
EXAMINER: Good, good. Just calling to talk up Surgical Meth Machine with you.
AL JOURGENSEN: All righty! Let’s get going!
EXAMINER: Could you walk us through the making of the record, and how it’s different—or not—from other projects? Like, what makes this not a Ministry album?
AL JOURGENSEN: Well, it was different because there were no other musicians on it. There was no band to speak of; it was just me trying to get some ideas I had down, with my long-time friend and engineer Sam D’Ambruoso helping me out. I did all the guitars and bass work and most of the vocals. And he did some of the vocals, and did all of the drum work on there. It was just the two of us, just playing around with ideas. It wasn’t meant to be a band, or even released or anything—but then some friends heard it and said, “This shit is dope, man! You’ve got to release this!” So I was, “Okay, I guess we’ll release it.” But we didn’t have a band name or anything. What to call it? I didn’t know. We’d done it without band members and drama, just us laying down some ideas. So it was surgical in the way we did it. And we’d used a lot of machines in getting the drums down. And the first half of the album is faster than fuck—like some tweaker’s heart rate—so it was like, a surgical meth machine! It was a case of the songs writing the band as opposed to a band writing the songs.
EXAMINER: Was it recorded at your home studio, 13th Planet?
AL JOURGENSEN: Actually, I moved out from Texas back to California. So it was done in my garage out here, which I haven’t named yet. Maybe I’ll get stoned some time and come up with a name for my studio [laughs]!
EXAMINER: Maybe the Surgical Meth Lab.
AL JOURGENSEN: Ha! Surgical Meth Lab [laughs]! I might use that! Thanks! We’ll call it, “SML.”
EXAMINER: The guy I hear questioning you about music on “Unlistenable,” is that Sam D’Ambruoso?
AL JOURGENSEN: Yeah, that’s Sam. He also sings on “Rich People Problems” and “Tragic Alert.” We just had fun doing the record. We just had fun trying out the ideas, and when the people heard it, they were like, “You’ve got to release it. It’s good!”
EXAMINER: Would there ever be a live concert featuring this music? Is it even humanly possible for a person to play drums or guitar that fast?
AL JOURGENSEN: [Laughs maniacally] Good point! We’d often discussed that, if it’s physically possible to do it. And it actually is. But I’ve got like three other projects on the shelf right now, so when I go back into the studio I’ll probably finish up one or two of those. And I’m working on some other stuff with a guy who was a founding member of N.W.A. named Arabian Prince [aka Professor X]. So we’re doing some psychedelic kind of hip hop shit, which is fun. I dunno. I just like having fun. I go into the studio three or four months a year, and I turn off the cell phone and everything else, and I just record for a few months. And at the end of that time, I’ll listen back to what we’d been doing the last few months, and various musicians come by. And after some review, I just go, “That sounds like it’d be good on a Ministry record,” or “This one would be good for RevCo [Revolting Cocks],” or “Jello Biafra would sound great on this.” Or even, “I don’t know what to make of this, so let’s form a band around it and call it ‘Surgical Meth Machine!’” It’s all about getting the ideas on a hard drive. There’s no agenda, no trying to please record labels or anything. The ideas start filling up, and then you’ve got to take a shit. I go into the studio and “shit” out this stuff; the entire product of my catalog is really just the result of me taking a massive musical dump every year, man! And then my bowels are clean and I can get more ideas!
EXAMINER: And you feel lighter on your feet, and ready to take on the world again.
AL JOURGENSEN: Exactly! And there’s a big smile after the final day of recording. And I do feel lighter on my feet! My entire career is based on the premise of me doing a Metamucil on myself!
EXAMINER: The opening track, “I’m Sensitive,” you poke a bit of fun at social media. Is there anything autobiographical to the verse rant, where you’re calling people out on their judgmental Facebook posts and whatnot?
AL JOURGENSEN: Hell, no! I don’t go on that crap! That song is written about, like…. It’s one of the most intense sociological changes as far as cultural patterns that we’ve ever seen. If not the most. I watched my 30-year old daughter—she stayed at my house for a while—and to see her be all-consumed by this social media was like, wow. It’s like now, to be “unfriended” by somebody in actual reality is less heart-wrenching and jolting than being unfriended or not getting the amount of “likes” you wanted from complete fuckin’ strangers and other people you don’t know. I was like, “What?” I mocked the shit out of my little girl, man! Well, she’s not little. But I was like, “What are you doing?” She puts out a thought, and then she checks out her likes on it all day long, and she’d get all upset. She’d come to dinner all upset, and I ask what’s wrong. And she wouldn’t want to talk about it. Then she’d spill the beans that there was some kind of drama going on with the Facebook involving people she doesn’t even know! I just find the whole thing amusing. And it’s not just my daughter. That’s what we’ve become. That’s what this album is, man. Things like “Unlistenable.”
EXAMINER: “Unlistenable” is one of my favorites. You have a bit of fun with that one, picking on various bands—from Nickelback and Morrissey to Iron Maiden and Megadeth. Anything personal against those particular bands, or did those names just work for purposes of the track?
AL JOURGENSEN: I don’t even have anything personal against Ministry, which I slag on that song [laughs]! It’s like people sitting in their basement—some unemployed 45-year old guy without a girlfriend living in his mom and dad’s basement, who hates everything, and the only reason for his hatred is because he’s not in that band or doing something with that band. Just losers who finally get to voice their opinion, and people actually take the shit seriously! They care about the opinion of some embittered, over-the-hill person in some basement, and what they think about what you’re doing. And you actually stop to listen to that? That’s the kind of conversation I had with my daughter. Stuff like, “This is not important! Trust me!” So the whole thing is just like holding a mirror up to society. And I hope when people look in that mirror, that they see what we’re becoming. Or they see what we’ve already become!
EXAMINER: Between Sam and yourself, you rattle off a bunch of bands where the reaction is “They all suck.” But then you get around to Devo—an Ohio band—and the tone changes. It becomes, “They rule!”
AL JOURGENSEN: That’s because these kids are like, finally—after hating and hating on every band for every reason—something breaks through and they go, “Oh yeah! I like that one!” I saw Devo in 1981, and I got to know a couple of the guys before they died. They were always an influence. That song [“Gates of Steel”] was always like a punk anthem to me. But in order to make it different, obviously we’re not going to be as artsy and quirky as Devo on it. So we just made it the punk anthem we always felt it was when it came out, in 1980 or whenever that was [on Devo’s Freedom of Choice album].
EXAMINER: There’s a clip on there, a sample or something, with some guy telling someone else to raise his right hand and put his left hand down there. Is that from the old Three Stooges movie Disorder in the Court, where they’re swearing Curly in?
AL JOURGENSEN: Ahhh, I’m not gonna tell you!
EXAMINER: It sounded familiar, and my mind immediately went to the Three Stooges. You don’t hear Curly, you just hear the court bailiff or whatever. But the clip works well in the context of the song.
AL JOURGENSEN: Yep, yep. It’s one of the few actual samples on the record. The rest is just dialogue between me and Sammy. But that one, yes—it’s a sample. And I’m not sure about the legality of using it or whatever. But yes, it’s sampled.
EXAMINER: “Rich People Problems” is another good one. You take on these guys complaining about how their day is ruined, because they have to drive their yachts slowly through the no-wake zone, and they’re gonna be late for the regatta. And how some celebrities bitch about their personal chef and their eccentric menus and demands.
AL JOURGENSEN: Well, I know people like that. Trust me, after thirty-five years in the music business. And just as much as I make fun of my daughter about being “unfriended” or whatever, I also make fun of some of the people I’ve met where like, this is a concern to them [laughs]. It always just cracked me up. I’d be like, “Really? Are you serious?”
EXAMINER: And that’s Jello Biafra with you on that one, yes?
AL JOURGENSEN: Yeah, of course! That’s the only other person who was in town while we were recording. Like I said, these projects I have are all about whoever is there at the time…you know what I’m saying? It’s kind of fun, because you don’t go in there with a set agenda. So you don’t know what you’re going to come out with. And Jello came out for a weekend. He was doing a spoken-word show somewhere, and he stopped by and was like, “I have an idea!” So we used it.
EXAMINER: I’d recognize Jello’s voice anywhere. His voice, his sing-speak style.
AL JOURGENSEN: We have like, four or five other songs we recorded in my Metamucil dump files. So there’s that, and RevCo, and Ministry. There are like, half albums ready to go for any one of the three of those. And there’s the other project—as yet untitled—with Arabian Prince. So we’re branching out into different territories. It’s fun. And it keeps you fresh, man. Whoever drops by is there, and whoever isn’t just isn’t on that one, but they’re welcome back next time. It’s like that.
EXAMINER: How about the album cover? Looks like an X-ray of you—a full-frontal cranial scan with all the piercings and dental hardware. I read your book, so I know you had to have some of your teeth pulled.
AL JOURGENSEN: That is more than an X-ray, my friend. That’s a cautionary tale [laughs]. This could happen to you! If you keep up with your drug addiction, you could wind up like this!
EXAMINER: In your book, you mentioned wearing a German war helmet around the house so you wouldn’t have seizures when you passed out and hit your head. Do you still have that?
AL JOURGENSEN: Actually, the ex-wife got that in the divorce settlement. I’m not kidding! And I wouldn’t just wear it around the house. I’d wear it out to the liquor store a few blocks from the house, just in case I fell down. So that was me, wearing a medieval helmet outside in El Paso, Texas. It was quite the look, I must say!
EXAMINER: Those were some of the most visceral parts of the book, the stuff about the drinking and drugs and rehabilitation. Going to the bathroom and having blood just pouring out of you….
AL JOURGENSEN: It was from a ruptured ulcer. I couldn’t figure out for years why I was bleeding out from my nose, mouth, ass, everything. I was like, “I guess it’s just normal, since it’s been happening for years.” So I didn’t do anything about it. But since I did find out about it and got it taken care of, I’m in great health. I have a great attitude, and everything is good. But at the time, yeah, it was freaky. There was something in me that said, “This probably isn’t normal,” but I didn’t do anything about it!
EXAMINER: Like, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” Or, “Why am I lying on the bathroom floor in an inch-deep pool of blood?”
AL JOURGENSEN: [Laughs] Exactly! It seems like a real “duh” moment to me now. But my solution was to buy a helmet!
EXAMINER: Well, you know us guys. Men are less prone to admit they have a health problem and go see someone for it. We’re proud, we try to soldier through it without telling anybody.
AL JOURGENSEN: [Laughs] I’m surprised I didn’t just wrap myself in Saran Wrap. I could’ve kept my clothes clean that way. But that’s the kind of mentality you’re dealing with when you’re completely addicted to a substance. You’re not thinking about common-sense solutions; it’s just about how you’re getting the next fix. But it’s been thirteen or fourteen years for me, and after rehab I learned how to drink responsibly on social occasions. It’s not an everyday, morning-till-night drink-a-thon thing anymore. So my health is really good, and I’m happy, and I get to keep working. And I take these big musical “shits” once a year.
EXAMINER: That’s a fitting analogy. You process all this creative stuff, and eventually you’ve got to unload. You have to get all that creativity out of you in order to prep for the next wave.
AL JOURGENSEN: Right!
EXAMINER: The first half of the album is hyper-speed, but the tempos get slower later on. By the last song, “I’m Invisible,” you’re practically a lounge singer. But it’s nice; I like it. What the idea with that particular song? How do you get from the breakneck speeds to the quiet atmospheric stuff at the end?
AL JOURGENSEN: Yeah! That’s kind of like, making fun of my early days with Arista Records. I showed up with all these songs, and they said, “Throw them all out. This is how you’re going to dress. Cut your hair. We’ve appointed you a band, and this is the kind of music we want out of you.” But fortunately—or unfortunately—I’m capable of doing anything. If you tell me to write a free-form jazz album, I’ll come close to Ornette Coleman if I set my mind to it. But that’s not what I want to do! But now, I can do whatever the fuck I want. And I’ve been around a while. I’m not trying to impress or please anybody. So now I did it just to poke a finger in the eye of those fuckers who made me become the original Milli Vanilli before there was a Milli Vanilli! So it’s kind of like a nudge-nudge, wink-wink middle finger to the eye to the powers that be. On top of that, the album—starting with the Devo song—it was all recorded chronologically. So the very first idea that we recorded was, “I’m Sensitive.” We set aside those three or four months to see how fast we could go. How fast is humanly possible? That was the original intent—at which we failed miserably! Because halfway through that record, like halfway through the Devo thing, I moved from Texas. I got my California license, and then of course I got my medical weed card out here! And right when I got the medical weed card was on the Devo song. So then the record became mysteriously slower! We even found a delivery place—I swear to God, the reason we smoked so much weed doing the record was because we started doing daily races between pizza delivery and pot delivery. There’s a place right up the street from the house where they’ll deliver the pot in twenty minutes or less, or it’s free! Same thing with the pizza. So we’d order the pizza and a bag of weed, and we’d see which came first. So far, we’ve gotten two free pizzas—but no free pot! Those fuckers are on time! Twenty minutes, dude! I was blown away.
EXAMINER: Thirty minutes or it’s free! Ohio is still kind of lagging behind with that progressive stuff. No pot boutiques in the Buckeye State just yet.
AL JOURGENSEN: A lot of times, we didn’t even need the weed. We were just testing for time, to see if we could get some free shit! And they were always on time! And so the album just kept getting slower and slower, and more silly and fun. But we decided to keep it—and we kept it in chronological order. I think it’s funny that way. It’s almost like a diary, like when you go off to summer camp as a kid. By the end of summer camp, you’re a complete juvenile delinquent by the time you come home to your parents!
EXAMINER: Well, thanks so much for talking with us, Uncle Al!
AL JOURGENSEN: Awesome, man. And you’re based out of Cleveland?
AL JOURGENSEN: Well, guess where we’re playing during the Republican National Convention.
EXAMINER: Here? Really? I hadn’t seen any dates announced yet.
AL JOURGENSEN: It’s on the Sunday night before the convention starts.
EXAMINER: Let me guess. The Agora?
AL JOURGENSEN: We’re playing the Agora.
EXAMINER: Talk about a juxtaposition. Trump and Uncle Al Jourgensen in town on the same night.
AL JOURGENSEN: It’s just perfect timing. And it’s a Ministry show, with us playing during the Republic National Convention. Tell me there’s not gonna be some shit going down that night! I cannot wait for this. I hope you’re there at that show, man!
EXAMINER: And the show is a done deal? Like, can I run with the news?
AL JOURGENSEN: The contract’s signed, we’re playing. We’ll have some guest appearances and surprises, too, rest assured! I cannot let an opportunity like that go by without doing something. You know that. I have to. I’m required to by law!
Preview and purchase Surgical Meth Machine on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/surgical-meth-machine/id1082863216
Physical copies (CD, vinyl, deluxe) available here: