Lost Gospels and Surgical Meth: An Interview with Al Jourgensen

ON

SMM2016d.jpg

SHOCK talks to Industrial Metal Overlord Al Jourgensen about his his work, life and new outfit Surgical Meth Machine.

One fateful Christmas Eve in the early 1960s five year-old Al Jourgensen awoke in the living room of his grandmother’s house not to the clatter of a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, but by the otherworldly rustling that ushered in the first of many encounters with the “Grays”—“little fuckers from another planet,” he explains in his riveting, riotous autobiography THE LOST GOSPELS, “who come down to Earth every once in awhile to check it out.”

Nearly half a century later, while digging deep into the radically nonconformist sonic/aesthetic goodies in Jourgensen’s magical, debauched Santa’s bag of an oeuvre, it occurs to SHOCK that perhaps a connection exists between this communion and the Ministry/Revolting Cocks/Pailhead/Lard mastermind’s weird, visionary, boundary-eviscerating, where-other-artists-fear-to-tread work.

And so when we get the equal parts jovial and acerbic Jourgensen on the horn at his Texas compound to chat about the recent bellicose self-titled live wire metallic industrial rager from his latest outfit Surgical Meth Machine, the question soon arises: Did having an experience so outside the norm at such a tender age kick in the Huxley-ian “doors of perception” for the iconoclastic heavy music trailblazer thus opening his mind up to a broader range of perspectives and possibilities that eventually affected how he created and—more to the point—mutated music?

“Well, I mean, it’s not just aliens,” he replies. “I’ve been clinically dead three times, too, you know. Dying was at least as big an influence on me as the Grays—knowing that this is not the be-all end-all? That’s fucking huge. But, yeah, alien encounters certainly are the sort of experiences that’ll keep you from becoming too Earth-o-centric, where you’re limited to obsessing over this planet and the small things occurring on it. There’s so much else going on in the universe—there really is—and of course it helps in music and life to understand and appreciate that.”

This is where our conversation begins in earnest…

SHOCK: Has possessing that knowledge of something more also contributed to kind of a fearlessness in how you’ve approached your life and art?

JOURGENSEN: Uh…yeah. [Chuckles.] I mean, I’m definitely not a person whose personality is based in fear or regiment or being controlled. I’m kind of a perennial heretic in that sense—a rebel. Tell me I can’t do something, that’s the first goddamn thing I’m going to do. You know, that kind of shit. I’ve always been like that.

SHOCK: That attitude ties into the SURGICAL METH MACHINE opener, “I’m Sensitive,” right? It seems like right off the bat you’re putting the whole social media generation/trigger warning generation on notice.

JOURGENSEN: Well, I’d say the lyrical content and themes on this record are more a general sociological comment on where we’re at, as opposed to the strict political commentary I’ve done in the past. As far as “I’m Sensitive” goes…I have a thirty year old daughter and I’ve watched Facebook consume her fucking life, man. Seriously—it’s like she cares more about “likes” or “thumbs up” or being unfriended by some stranger she’s never met than her real friends, you know what I’m saying? If she was “unfriended” in real life it wouldn’t mean as much to her as being unfriended on Facebook, and I just find the whole notion ridiculous. I’ve had many talks with her about it. I just make fun of her, you know, and the whole thing—like with the song “Unlistenable.” I find it fascinating that people are really absorbed with what some fucking asshole hiding under the cloak of Internet anonymity thinks. Some guy, probably sitting in his mom’s basement, no job, about 45-years-old, two divorces, alcoholic, types “This band sucks,” “That record is shit” and you actually are gonna give a fuck? That’s ridiculous, you know? I mean, why would I care what that person thinks? I don’t. I truly do not fucking care!

Surgical_Meth_Machine_-_Surgical_Meth_Machine_-_Artwork.jpg

SHOCK: Musically, there are a lot of interesting asides and detours on this record, but all of it feels really natural—diverse, but not forced or contrived.

JOURGENSEN: I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years so I really hope I wouldn’t have to force anything! Honestly, this wasn’t even supposed to be an album or a band. It was just me and my engineer going in and recording shit and then at the end of the day a bunch of people heard it and went like, “Goddamn, this stuff’s good. You have to get this released.” At first I was like, “Yeah, whatever.” I put it on the shelf full of all the other stuff I do—some of it may go to Ministry, some to Revolting Cocks, some to Lard. But it slowly became more and more clear that these songs, though extremely bipolar in nature—the first five or six are basically thrash metal; the last six are more spark one up and sit back on the couch, you know?—did seem to fit together good in the way an album would. So then we started to work out the details. We didn’t have a band name for it, we had no idea this was even going to be a release, but people seem to like it, so here it is.

SHOCK: The guitar tone and some of the stark, super-digitized drum patterns on the first half of the record have an almost a MIND IS A TERRIBLE THING TO TASTE vibe.

JOURGENSEN: I can see that. But I think there’s aspects of every part of my career in there. I mean, “Invisible” is kind of like a piss-take on my very early days. Just making fun of the fact that I had to do music the way [the label] wanted it [on Ministry’s 1983 debut WITH SYMPATHY]—and I did it, you know, begrudgingly. This time I’m revisiting it just to, like, tweak their noses and say, “Look, if I would’ve been left to my own devices—as opposed to being told what to do—I probably would’ve come up with something way cooler than what you wanted me to do back then.” I’m kind of making fun of that. Fuck, man, this whole album is just making fun of everything. I’m a cranky old Uncle Al sitting on my porch, yelling at kids to get off the lawn, screaming at clouds. That’s me.

SHOCK: Speaking of throwbacks, another track I love is the cover of Devo’s “Gates of Steel.” I really enjoy the rock groove you slide into there.

JOURGENSEN: Always been a big Devo fan. Always. First saw them in 1981. Subsequently, became friends with a couple of them—one of whom is dead—and I always thought that song was a real punk anthem. I just wanted to speed it up a bit. [Laughs.] Of course. I thought it was perfect for Devo—very art-y and quirky—and we turned into more of a rock n’ roll, teen angst kinda thing. We just had fun with it. I’ve done a lot of covers before, and this one just seemed to fit naturally.

SHOCK: Are there any ideas or sounds you’ve explored in the past but didn’t fully comprehend the implications of until you’ve followed it down the rabbit hole for two or three records?

JOURGENSEN: My albums to me are kind of like that box of Polaroids in some dark back closet that you only ever open maybe every ten years or so. You look back and go, “Oh yeah, I remember that day!” That’s about it for me. Other than that sort of visceral, in the moment reaction I don’t give it any further thought. It’s just a straight reflection of what was going on at the time. Maybe someday when I get even older and even crankier I’ll sit around and actually reflect, but right now I don’t look back. I keep looking forward. Right now I’m, like, two or three projects beyond [SURGICAL METH MACHINE] and, to be honest, it’s difficult for me even to go back and talk about something that I did already close to a year ago. I literally had to listen to the record this weekend to get ready for today’s fifteen interviews or whatever. I haven’t heard it in months and months and months.

SHOCK: You seem to have a solid grasp on it!

JOURGENSEN: Yeah, well, you happened to catch me in the morning while I’m still somewhat coherent. At the end of the day all I really have to say about this thing is, to my ears, it’s a keeper. I think it came out pretty good. It’s one of so many different things that I’ve got going on right now, but I like it. What other people think once it’s out in the world, I’m not too concerned with. I’m on to other work.

SHOCK: It does seem like you have an unusual level of artistic output. Do you just feel like that’s how you’re built or is it something you’ve cultivated?

JOURGENSEN: I just don’t know what else to do. I thought about this couple years back, actually. Like, if this music thing doesn’t work out, what am I qualified to do? I started going through a list of potential careers and shit like that. What I determined is, at this point, as far as options go, I’m pretty much down to Walmart greeter, Denny’s prep cook, or making these records. I really don’t have any other skills useful to this society or planet. Out of that list, what’dya think I’m going to pick? I guess I’m good at—I definitely enjoy doing it—but the reality is I’m also stuck.

SHOCK: One interesting thing about your music is there has always been this multimedia, cinematic element to it in terms of flow and composition. Are there any particular non-music touchstones for your work?

JOURGENSEN: Yeah, I actually have very few musical influences. I mean, my entire career was basically launched by applying the cut-up methods of writers like William Burroughs to music. Obviously, I love film as well. There’s the samples and all that and then I did work on that A.I. film—starting with Kubrick, ending with Spielberg—and I’ve done soundtrack work for a lot of films before from ROBOCOP to…well, let’s just say I’ve been around the periphery of film for about the last thirty years. I enjoy the collaborative aspect of it—which is why I also have all these bands. I prefer collaboration over masturbation, for sure. I don’t like the insular process where you’re just getting your own thoughts and aggressions out. I like getting a different perspective on things and working with other people. And collaborating with directors on the challenge of translating music to visuals? Yeah, that gets my dick hard.

SHOCK: You’ve also done some acting in darker cinema, right?

JOURGENSEN: Yep. I just did a walk-on part for a horror movie coming out next Halloween called THE BLACK ROOM. I play, like, this right hand man of a satanic worshiper in this cool séance scene. It wasn’t a real stretch for me, you know what I’m saying? I’m not playing a romantic lead or anything like that. I play some crazy-ass, douche-bag, satanic worshiper—real close to home shit. I also did a vampire lesbian movie called WICKED LAKE. I dunno. I’d much rather do the music than the acting, but it’s a nice, fun change of pace.