MINISTRY: WAGING WAR
Story by Staci Bonner and David Stagna

“It’s like warfare,” says Ministry’s Alain Jourgensen, expressing his belief in quality music with or without a slew of technology behind it. “Instruments of warfare don’t matter. Whether you take out a tank envoy with a Stinger missile or Exocet doesn’t matter…as long as the troops are dead.”

If that statement seems a bit harsh, the military analogy is quite appropriate. Ministry is a militant band with politics all their own. “It’s the difference between blowing up a bridge with dynamite,” adds bassist Paul Barker, “or the most hi-tech device. It doesn’t matter how primitive or intense it is, if it nets the same result.”

In other words, a multitude of e`uipment does not a musician make. “Fuck rich kids with equipment,” continues Barker, “People with talent will rise to the surface no matter what.” “Even if the surface means your own neighborhood or friends or whatever,” adds Jourgensen. We begin to see the Ministry ethic emerge: a priority on the individual making art, not the corporation making money. This is a band with an unusual history, evolving from and early-‘80s synth-pop project that released one Arista LP, to the electro-industrial sound Jourgensen’s collective is known for today – first through a few 12-inch singles on the independent Wax Trax Records, and then via their Sire LPs Twitch, Land Of Rape And Honey and The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste. Over that time, Ministry has fought a lot of much-despised music industry bureaucracy and, today, is proud of is hard-won independence.

“We have to be self-sufficient,” asserts Jourgensen, his dark eyes burning with intensity. “The day Ministry gets told what to do again, is the day there is no Ministry.” His abhorrence and mistrust of record companies is more than evident, and considering the topic of discussion, it is a bit ironic that we are seated in the plush offices of Sire Records. Al expounds…

“The basic premise of any major label mentality is greed, profit, money…and if you’re trying to sell records, it’s like playing poker. You can only bluff for so long. Pretty soon you have to have the cards, and we have the cards. In other words, we sell enough records. They see we’re gonna do what we want. They can’t force us to do anything, but we sell records so they leave us alone.” To put it bluntly, nobody controls Ministry but Ministry. “It’s in the contract. We restructured it after Twitch so there’s no outside interference – from graphics to production to songs. Otherwise, no Ministry. We did it wrong once, on that first abortion of a record, and it wasn’t fun.”

Ministry have evolved from a one-man synthesized sound in to the current duo-core of Al and Paul (the latter formerly of Seattle’s Blackouts), and their touring band – including Skinny Puppy’s Nivek Ogre, former Discharge/Broken Bones guitarist Terry Bones, and ex-PIL/Killing Joke/Brian Brain drummer Martin Atkins. A string of side projects – many with star collaborators – also keep this pair busy. These include Pailhead (with Ian MacKaye of Fugazi/Embrace/Minor Threat), 1000 Homo DJ’s, Lard (with Jello Biafra), Revolting Cocks, Lead Into Gold (Barker’s showcase), African Head Charge, P.T.P. and the recent Acid Horse (the latter two with Cabaret Voltaire). Al stresses these projects exist not because of a lucky break, but rather, an iron will. “You don’t need money or power to do projects. We’ve proven that time and again. We’ve got nine bands now without money or power. We never will have all the money or all the power, nor would we want it. We work with anyone we want to work with, if they want to work with us and we consider them friends with the same aesthetic and artistic beliefs. If someone wanted to work with us for money, we wouldn’t work with them.”

A major label signing is the primary goal of most struggling bands, it is safe to say, but Al declares this is bullshit, encouraging young artists and musicians to ignore the corporations of the world and concentrate on their art. “If you send a tape to me and I throw it out, who cares? If you know your music’s good send it to someone else or do it yourself. What about yourselves, what do you think of it? Who cares what other fuckin’ people think of it.” Why get signed at all?” adds Barker, “What do you expect from getting signed?”

“What’s the point of trying to get signed,” Jourgensen asks, “if you have no previous history of selling records? All the record companies care about is profit and greed, and therefore you’re nothing. You’re someone to fuck around with for awhile.” Ministry has eluded this fate only through harsh experience and learning to say “no,” explains Al. “The first time you say no is the hardest. Then once you get used to that way of thinking, it becomes easier and easier.”

Jourgensen points out that financial reward often means limited creative freedom. “The more money they pay, the more control they have. If you’re confident about your music, put it out yourselves! Press your own records. Get some word of mouth, some press, then the record companies come to you like the vultures they are.”

This refusal to compromise is the key to Ministry’s success, both men agree. Yet artistic freedom carries with it a large responsibility, no longer to Arista or Sire, but to Ministry itself. “What happens is, you accept the weight of your creation on your shoulders,” says Barker. “No longer is it someone else’s baby. Nobody’s telling you what to do. You say, ‘Fuck it, I want to do this for myself.’”

In the end, it’s up to the artist to find a way to be heard. Jourgensen speaks from experience: “Wax Trax didn’t start out as Wax Trax. Wax Trax stared out as “Hey, let’s press a thousand “Cold Life” records.’ We just took our own money and did it.” Al continues, “You know how many tapes come to Wax Trax each day from unsigned bands? About 150. about 149 of them wind up in the garbage without being listened to. Do you know how many tapes I get asked to produce? I can’t deal with it.” Rumors of Jourgensen’s health problems raise questions about his ability to deal with other pressures. When asked Al states: “My health sucks, man. The tour is not good for it. Touring is not a healthy proposition.” True enough, as this is one of their few free days on their three-month sold-out tour for Mind…

Describing their audiences as “rowdy,” Barker notes, “There’s a mosh pit and everything.” This “mosh pit” and the band are separated by a chain link fence extending across the stage – against which, the band occasionally hurl them selves. Why are the shows sold out when Ministry is at its least “accessible” point, so to speak?
“God knows what brings these people out,” Al muses. We haven’t figured it out yet. The kids are going nuts. We’re not glam stars, we don’t have high cheekbones. Well, we’ve got the highest cheekbones ever on our record – an X-ray. You can’t get any higher than that.”

Ministry’s emphasis is on spontaneity, raw gutteral humanity, rather than pre-programmed technology. “We like to have fun live,” Jourgensen says, “We don’t like to make everything the same, and it can’t be. We’re not using backing tapes this time. It’s gonna be fun for once. It’s kinda nice seeing actual sweat, piss, blood, cum, shit, everything out there going on at once. I don’t know if people appreciate how much work actually goes into doing something like that, to actually have a dense pack of sound like that come across live. It’s pretty difficult. The easy and the least expensive way out is to put everything on tape. We wanted one last hurrah.”

“We didn’t want a coupla guys with reel-to-reel tapes with a very sterile atmosphere behind them, and one guy hitting a few Simmons drum pads every so often and grabbing his crotch a lot, flipping his shades around, doing the fuckin’ poses in smoke and fog and shit. How many times are you gonna see that?” he spurts. Al is on a roll. At his best, Jourgensen is like a combination philosopher and standup comedian…to use a phrase of Jim Morrison’s, an “erotic politician” of sorts.

For now Ministry is thriving, but Jourgensen underscores the importance of getting out before the edge is gone. “We don’t want to become a parody of ourselves. We’re 31 years old, going on juvenile delinquency. Soon we’ll need walkers. There isn’t going to be a Rolling Stones or Who thing with Ministry. We’ll be long gone before that happens".

What would be the catalyst for Ministry’s end? “Well, we don’t want it to get to the point where people are going to Ministry shows for the wrong reasons, where it’s the place to show off your new haircut or new leather coat. It’s already starting to get to that point. Once it’s saturated to that point, then there is no reason to continue Ministry. It’s time to start building something else up. I could see a trend going to the point where Ministry is the new hip little cult band with nice little titles like techno-thrash-new-wavo-fucking-this-that-and-the-other. That’s just the way it is, you become a cartoon character. I don’t want to be Robert Smith.”

Reaching for a bread stick on the fruit and cheese plate Sire provided for the band, I notice the plate is stuck to that table. Before I can gracefully dislodge it, Al comments, “Warner wants to make sure nothing’s going out the door. Fuck, you think this shit ain’t accounted for? They got a breadstick accountant here in this building.” Gesturing in the air, he quips, “Ministry? Hmmm…take forty breadsticks off their royalties.”

After the yucks subside, the conversation turns to a new live video they recently filmed. “We’ve already taped the show – an officially sanctioned bootleg, if you will. We filmed two nights in Chicago, and we’ll do the audio to it in L.A. It should be quite amusing. Depeche Mode has a live video out, don’t they? We want to show people Depeche Mode’s evil twin!”

This band wants to do more than fill your ears with the delectable agro they concoct; they want to make you think. How? “A cold hard slap in the face is one way,” Jourgensen says, “and hopefully that’s the approach we’re taking. Obviously you can attract flies with shit or honey. Hopefully we’re shit. Ministry is ike a wakeup call, a blaring alarm at 9:30 in the morning in the middle of a nice slumber, a catalyst to get you off on your own merry little way and into your own reality.” Barker adds, “The problem is you have to overcome years of school and television, which doesn’t lend itself to creative thought. It’s a day-to-day, just-above-the-water type of existence.”

“That’s why revolution in America is going to be the hardest,” Jourgensen says, “Because people are so spoon-fed and pacified through a TV medium. People don’t want to give up their cheap electronic trinkets, their VCRs, their TVs and microwaves. They have so much to lose here – that’s what they’ve been taught.”

As always we return to the Ministry ethic – the emphasis is on the individual. It is up to people to create utopia or Armageddon for themselves. “What they have to stand up for,” Barker concludes, “is where it’s at, not what they have to lose. They have to learn the reverse of what they’ve been taught all their lives. The American dream is intellectual laziness.”

Do Ministry think their cause will realize its end? Will people be able to reverse course from the cultural wasteland they are heading towards, and think for themselves? “Time marches on and people have to fuckin’ wake up,” declares Jourgensen, “If nothing else, for ecological reasons. There’s just not much time left. A lot of things have to be changed. At the root of that is the entire socio-system we’ve set up for ourselves, which includes laziness, greed, etc. These fundamental changes have to occur before any cosmetic changes can be made. You can’t just clean up an oil spill and let them keep dumping oil. You have to clean the whole system from the bottom up. I think things have to change, it’s not a matter of choice anymore. Mankind is not an easily changeable creature, we are creatures of habit. But I think we have to look beyond that, open our eyes and realize that time has run out for superficial change.”

We, as a population, need to act now. Yet, whether personal or political, change begins and ends with the individual. Al Jourgensen easily sums up this important concept – the kernel of what he ant the rest of Ministry believe in – with three brief sentences. “The first time you say ‘no!’ to other people’s whims, it becomes easier and easier. We don’t give a fuck what Reflex thinks of us, or the public, or Warner Bros, or anyone else. We’re happy doing what we do, and that’s the bottom line.”

 


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