Al Jourgensen, it seems, really wants to be Buck Satan. The Ministry founder has left a lot of alter egos behind — he's no longer Alien or Alain Jourgensen, although as his band's co-producer he's still Hypo Luxa — but it's clear that his part-time country-and-western persona is what interests him now. In a recent phone interview, the crafter of some of the most mechanistic music ever recorded says these days he pays little attention to “industrial,” “ambient,” or other electronic music. “I listen mainly to old jazz and old country. I'm pretty limited right now,” he explains. After a show, he prefers to “just crawl in a bunk and put on some George Jones.”
Touring in support of the band's new Filth Pig, which offers a more spontaneous but no less brutal version of the Ministry sound, Jourgensen, longtime collaborator Paul Barker, and four other players pound as hard as ever. On the tour bus after the show, however, Jourgensen is writing and recording songs for a new country album, to be released under the name Buck Satan and the 666 Shooters. Perhaps this interest explains the slowdown in Ministry's recorded attack. Though its textures are as harsh as ever, the tempos of Filth Pig are almost relaxed. “It's just Mother Nature,” jokes Jourgensen. “I'm 37. Paul's 37. We're ready for our walkers and Craftmatic beds soon.”
As the vehemence of its current live incarnation demonstrates, Ministry is not exactly worn out. Besides, Jourgensen and Barker probably couldn't stop being Ministry if they wanted to; the duo's misadventures in Texas suggest that psychodrama is not about to leave the band alone. “Texas was ideal for us: cheap rent, proximity to Mexico, the topography,” recalls the Cuban-born Jourgensen. Relocating from Chicago “was actually a sound, practical decision” — or at least that's what it seemed until the band tried to make Filth Pig at its newly pur-chased studio in the hill country near Austin.
Jourgensen and Barker had recorded part of Ministry's previous album, 1992's Psalm 69, at the studio, but they found that actually owning the facility was more complicated. The band was bedeviled by various demons, first a series of equipment failures and then what Jourgensen calls “the cabin fever aspect of it. After a while, you're right in the middle of The Shining or something.”
“We moved too far from the urban centers,” he says. “You have to wait two to three weeks for parts. And then you're just sitting around doing nothing.” Both Jourgensen and Barker ended up leaving the studio for weeks at a time, and at one point the latter temporarily quit the band; their routine was further disrupted by Jourgensen's divorce and a spectacular drug bust that saw his house invaded by nearly a dozen local narcotics task force officers. (The police found small amounts of heroin and cocaine; Jourgensen, who has been candid about his formerly heavy heroin use, got probation and a $1,000 fine.) Deciding that their Texas experience was “one gigantic glitch,” the duo finally finished Filth Pig at their old haunt, Chicago Trax.
The technical difficulties, along with Jourgensen's production of an album for the Rev. Horton Heat and the band's tour of Australia and Japan, explain why it took four years to make the follow-up to Psalm 69. In fact, Filth Pig was recorded faster and more spontaneously than any of its predecessors. Using fewer samples and sequencers than before, Ministry achieved a looser, less intricate sound without diminishing the sonic clout that inspired such bands as Nine Inch Nails, the most commercially successful of Ministry imitators.
“It all worked out for the best, because it changed our recording habits,” says Jourgensen. “It was like, 'Keep it, before the fucking machine breaks.' A lot of these tracks are just live rehearsals.” The new approach was inspired by a West Coast tour, which the Ministry singer/guitarist calls “a lifesaver. We came back tight as a band.” He also credits new drummer Rey Washam, who previously played with Scratch Acid and the True Believers. “We've had live drummers for the last three albums,” Jourgensen says, but the new album “was written with a live drummer.”
“It's a different style of drumming than we're used to,” he notes. Where former percussionist Bill Rieflin “was a metronome, a freak of nature,” Washam's playing is freer and less mechanical. His style suits such Filth Pig songs as “Brick Window,” which features a stuttering Jourgensen guitar solo that sounds more like Neil Young than Black Sabbath. “I'm really happy about that progression,” says the guitarist.
For Filth Pig, the pair tried to stifle the Ministry formula — “We could have made Psalm 69 in our sleep,” Jourgensen confesses — by abandoning tracks that sounded too pat, although they may yet be used by such side projects as Pailhead, Lead Into Gold, and the Revolting Cocks (sometimes tastefully abbreviated to “Revco”). “It's kind of a nice recycling project we've got,” Jourgensen admits.
It was actually the singer's experiences with Revco that helped inspire Filth Pig. Upon discovering that the band was slated to tour the U.K., the British tabloid press made such a stink that the group was almost barred from the country; one member of Parliament denounced Jourgensen as a “filthy pig.”
The Ministry frontman's reaction to such charges, as well as some acid invective toward other tormentors, can be heard on the album. Ministry doesn't include lyric sheets, however, and buries the vocals in a bubbling stew of noise. Filth Pig listeners are more likely to notice the unprecedented sounds of pedal steel, mandolin, and grand piano. “We just had 'em lying around and used 'em,” Jourgensen says, although that explanation shortchanges the singer's renewed devotion to traditional country music, which he first encountered as a high school student in rural Colorado.
Although Jourgensen is a big Buck Owens fan, he doesn't nurse a secret affection for Bob Dylan, despite the presence of “Lay Lady Lay” — radically restructured — on Filth Pig. Actually, Jourgensen intended to record “Wichita Lineman,” whose chords he found “really haunting,” until he heard Urge Overkill's cover of the song. (Informed that Freedy Johnston has also recorded it, Jourgensen underscores his professed ignorance of contemporary rock by saying he's never heard of him.) When he “realized that it's kind of like the same chord progression,” he picked the Dylan song as an alternate.
If “Brick Window” and “Lay Lady Lay” are the album's major deviations from form, it's significant that the band didn't play either one at a recent concert. Perhaps they didn't fit the light show, which sometimes seemed to be calling the shots: The septet cued its slamming electro-beats to the recoil of the tank gun projected on the screen behind it, and synchronized “Just One Fix” to the accompaniment of spiraling images of syringes.
It's odd to think of the corrosive, Parliament-outraging Ministry as a crowd-pleaser, but that's the role the band is currently playing. Filth Pig may have been constructed differently than its predecessors, but it doesn't sound all that different, and its tracks fit naturally into a set that emphasizes earlier material. The band's current tour is about as non-confrontational as brutalist aggression can be.
Indeed, aside from speculating wickedly on how easy it will be for Trent Reznor to copy the new album's sound, Jourgensen seems almost mellow. I save my best provocation for last: Is Jourgensen aware that Fifth Column, the Washington, D.C.-based industrial label, is planning a “tribute” to With Sympathy, the prissy electro-pop Ministry debut that he has long since disowned? Jourgensen does the long-distance equivalent of a shrug. “Have at it,” he says, his mind clearly somewhere in Nashville or Bakersfield.
Ministry plays with the Jesus Lizard and Laika & the Cosmonauts Saturday and Sunday, May 25 and 26, at the Warfield, 982 Market, S.F.; call 775-7722.