More than a decade ago, a Chicago record-store clerk named Al Jourgensen would have done just about anything to make it in the music business.
British synth-pop was hot at the time, so Jourgensen, calling himself Ministry, adopted a fake English accent, turned on a drum machine, noodled out some pretty melodies on a synthesizer and pretended he was Depeche Mode.
These days, Jourgensen and his partner of seven years, Paul Barker, sound like they eat Depeche Mode for breakfast. Ministry makes some of the most extreme pop music ever by a band on a major label, and Jourgensen-with his "Mad Max" outlaw look and larger-than-life stage persona-is perhaps the most notorious anti-celebrity in rock.
"From what I can tell, Al did it in reverse: He sold out at the start of his career and now he's doing only what he wants," says Dwayne Goettel of Skinny Puppy, a band with whom Jourgensen worked as a producer several years ago.
What's remarkable is that Ministry is selling far more records now than it did in the "sell-out" days. Sales have doubled with each Ministry album, peaking at 150,000 in 1989 with "The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste."
Now, with a prime slot on the much-ballyhooed Lollapalooza tour, which arrives at the World Music Theatre on Aug. 2 and at Alpine Valley Music Theatre on Aug. 29, Ministry is being primed by its record company, Warner Brothers, for a commercial breakthrough.
The recent Ministry song "Jesus Built My Hotrod" sold 128,000 copies, says a Warner spokesman, an extraordinary figure for a CD-single. And the label is projecting at least 500,000 sales for the group's new album, "Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs" (Sire), released Tuesday.
"Heaven forbid we become mainstream, but we can't tell people not to like our music," says Barker, in an interview a few days ago at his Northwest Side apartment. "It scares the **** out of us that Warner Brothers can pull a lever and all of a sudden we can be huge around the world."
If anyone knows about how big labels push levers, it's Jourgensen, who was interviewed at his North Side residence before the "Psalm 69" sessions began.
After releasing the frothy "With Sympathy" album on Arista Records in 1983, he did a 180-degree turn in terms of his attitude toward the record business.
"I was stupid when I started, the epitome of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," he says. "It was like, `I get to live in L.A. and drive around in limos? Really?' I didn't realize I was owned. The more money gets pumped into you, the more you become a marionette.
"It made me a true redneck in attitude: I never wanted to wake up ever again feeling owned. Without that experience, I wouldn't be where I'm at today."
Where he's at sonically is some place just north of hell, and dropping fast. "We've just scratched the surface of how to aggravate people on vinyl," he declares. "The goal is to make every record harder than the previous one."
Although its mission is musical mayhem, Ministry carries it out by maintaining rigid control. The band is an obsessively self-contained business operation that keeps its eye on the bottom line and fiercely guards its independence.
Its leaders, Jourgensen and Barker, are family men, whose private concerns sometimes seem at odds with their public personas. Barker, articulate and thoughtful in his wire-rim glasses, lives in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. He and and his wife are expecting their first child in a few weeks.
Jourgensen, who has a 7-year-old daughter with his wife, Patty, says he listens to country music at home. "Bob Wills, Red Sovine. I even catch a glimpse of the Nashville Network."
If he's a man possessed on stage, he's guided by pragmatic concerns off it.
"Basically, people keep paying me to be a goof. But the only other things I've ever done is wash dishes at Denny's and work behind the counter at a record store," Jourgensen says. "I'm not going to go away because this is the only way I can support a wife and kid."
Besides Ministry, Jourgensen's work has led to numerous spinoffs, such as Rev-Co, Pailhead, Acid Horse and Lard, and earned him a reputation for gonzo recording sessions, especially at Chicago Trax on the South Side.
"The only thing that makes me a `technical wizard' in the studio is a bottle of Jack Daniels and saying, `Put everything on 11,' " Jourgensen says.
It's often Barker who acts as the voice of reason, playing "Spock to my Kirk," Jourgensen says. But both are committed studio rats, sometimes spending days on end working on a mix.
"Sad but true, we're obsessive perfectionists," says Barker, which he says accounts for the year-plus it took to make "Psalm 69."
Once labeled an "industrial" band because of its fondness for machine-driven rhythms and sampled sound effects, Ministry lately has begun to incorporate more of Jourgensen's pit-bull rhythm guitar into the mix. Like the band itself, "Psalm 69" straddles the fence between metal and industrial; it's divided into a propulsive, guitar-driven first half and a more densely textured, nightmarish sound collage on the second half.
It's a sound that defies categories, which is no surprise given that Barker and Jourgensen, both 32, grew up loving bands such as Killing Joke and Public Image Ltd., "who used conventional instrumentation and did something unique with it," Barker says.
"Our music is very stylized, refined, focused, and, of course, it doesn't leave room for solos or technical virtuosity. We prefer the relentless rigidity of machines," Barker says. "Sampling plays a huge role; that's what creates the texture and what creates the difference between us and any metal band you could name. There's more going on in our music than just guitars and drums, and that's the element that metal fans might find the most enlightening or interesting."
"To us, it's all just instruments of warfare," Jourgensen adds. "Does it really matter if you take out an enemy troop with a String Ray or an Exocet missile? They're both dead right."
That seek-and-destroy mentality is winning the band an unexpected following outside the hard-core industrial dance scene.
"When we got calls from management companies a few years ago about working with us, we were surprised that most were from the hard-rock, heavy-metal camp," Barker says. Ministry eventually signed with Crazed Management in New Jersey, which is associated with the Megaforce metal label.
"The people who worked there realized we had as much or more power than most metal bands," Barker says. "Up until now, we've been selling to this underground, industrial market. But there's this huge crossover market there just waiting to happen."
Ministry's potential for "crossover" isn't as far-fetched as it sounds in this post-Metallica, post-Nirvana era, in which noisy, aggressive rock and huge sales are no longer mutually exclusive. A band no longer has to sound like Color Me Badd or Slaughter to sell lots of records.
To Jourgensen, there's no mystery why ugly music is in these days.
"When you have a real right-wing shift in society as America did in the '80s, you get a much more entrenched underground," he says. "Some people get mellow with age, but what I see on CNN these days, I get more ticked off."
Ministry keeps its lyrics intentionally obscure, though the occasional eye-opener slips through the cracks: "You're lyin' through your teeth!" or "Tell me something I don't know!"
Instead, the band prefers to create a foreboding mood with an avalanche of non-literal details; such as the air-raid sirens, screams and "hut-hut-huts" of soldiers on the march in "N.W.O.," a reference to President Bush's call for a "new world order" after the fall of the Soviet Union.
"Sure, we're angry. Let's hope everybody is angry," Barker says.
"We're a wake-up call to do something about what aggravates you," Jourgensen adds. "I hate to use a phrase like `people power' because it sounds like some kind of half-time entertainment at a football game, but we're just trying to raise people from their TV-induced hypnosis."
If Ministry's central message is about taking control of one's own life, the band lives as it preaches.
Ever since Jourgensen viewed the corporate underbelly first-hand in the early '80s, Ministry has been a resolutely independent operation: writing, recording and producing everything itself, booking and running its own tours, and ignoring everyone else.
The band didn't hire outside management until 1991, and its contact with Warner Brothers, after jumping from local Wax Trax Records, has always been minimal.
"I think the label's attitude was they never gave a (expletive) about us," Barker says. "I think they realized we were a bargain, because we made cheap records, which they didn't promote, but which sold anyway. So they made money. They were probably thinking, `I wish all our bands were like this.' "
Ministry's distaste for outside interference even made it wary of joining the Lollapalooza tour, a major showcase for alternative rock and one of last summer's commercial successes. Promoters approached the band in February.
"We said, `No way in hell,' " Barker says. "We want to do everything ourselves, and we didn't want to be in a position where we would have to work with some promoters we may have been ripped off by in the past. Relinquishing any control is a bad thing as far as we're concerned."
Besides, he says, the tour "had become just another corporate thing, designed to make money by appealing to as many white, suburban middle-class kids as possible."
Weeks later, however, the band reconsidered.
"We were slaving away in the studio, dementia was setting in and we began to realize that we were spending all this money on recording time," Barker says. Ministry saw the six-week tour as a way to finance their own studio. "So we came up with a list of demands to join Lollapalooza and a motto: `Six weeks equals studio.' "
Among the demands granted was that Ministry would perform in darkness, which means it will be the second-to-last band to take the stage. That's a prime slot for a group that has yet to sell as many records asPearl Jam, Ice Cube and Soundgarden, also on the bill.
The Lollapalooza quid pro quo is typical of the way Ministry does business. A few years ago, Jourgensen allowed one of his earlier songs, "Everyday (is Halloween)," to be used on a beer commercial in exchange for cash, used to buy recording equipment.
"It wasn't a question of good taste or bad taste for me," he says. "I didn't write anything specifically for a beer commercial. For us, it's a matter of getting equipment to make records that matter."
That blithe rationalization is in keeping with Ministry's attitude: Never look back, full speed ahead.
Barker and Jourgensen claim they're unsatisfied with every piece of music Ministry has ever recorded. For Jourgensen, a song like "Everyday" means nothing to him now, so selling it for a commercial didn't cause him to think twice.
"I like bits and pieces of what we've done, a verse, a guitar riff, but I've yet to find anything that I've liked completely," he says.
That's why Ministry keeps pushing the extremes. "Do what we want, do something constructive, have as much fun as possible. That's the attitude. Nothing's changed," Jourgensen says.
"We're kind of scratching our heads about all the attention now," Barker adds. "Actually, the one thing we're itching to do is work on our next record. Because it's going to be one step further."
Page Last Edited on 2005-08-24 19:56:44 UTC CST (4399)