"Apparently I was vomiting in the bathroom," says Fear Factory frontman Burton C. Bell about the second night of his journey to El Paso last year. He was in Texas to record with his hero, Al Jourgensen, leader of legendary industrial-metal bile-dozer Ministry. But the session of Bell's dreams was thrown horribly off schedule. "Al just handed me drinks all day long, getting me wasted. We do some recording, we get to a bar. I'm there for five minutes and after six shots, I black out. I walked outside, laid on the asphalt, and was like, 'Don't move me,' while leaning over and vomiting on the ground."
Maybe it was an initiation rite, because soon after Bell's barfdown, Jourgensen fully absorbed him into his circle. First, Bell finally laid down those vocals for the final Ministry tantrum, 2007's Dubya piñata, The Last Sucker. Then Jourgensen agreed to release a record by Bell's Fear Factory–hiatus project, Ascension of the Watchers, on his 13th Planet inprint. Now Bell is back in El Paso, seated comfortably next to someone who went from idol to friend, ready to interview him for Revolver. Even though they're now best buds, musical collaborators, and business partners, you can still hear reverence and even a bit of stuttering nervousness in Bell's voice when he talks to Jourgensen about how the uncompromising robo-pummel of Ministry shaped his life.
In 1988, Bell was a 19-year-old art-school dropout bumming around Washington, D.C., selling records and bongs at Penguin Feathers Records and listening to cynical noise-rock by bands like Swans and Steel Pole Bathtub. He ended up on the dance floor at a punk/industrial/goth club called—no fooling!—Poseurs, when he heard "Stigmata," the first single off Ministry's 1988 opus, The Land of Rape and Honey, and a song that, in just under six minutes, essentially wrote the template for the next 20 years of industrial music. Today, Bell remembers thinking, What the fuck is this? His mind was blown for good. About a year later, he had migrated to L.A. and caught Ministry at the Palladium, supporting their punishing follow-up, The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste. Again, Bell was stunned: "When I saw that show, I was like, Man, I wanna be up there."
The band Bell started bolting together that year would play the Palladium soon enough. And for the evidence of Ministry's influence on that group, Fear Factory, take a cursory listen to 1995's Demanufacture. An industrial-strength legend in its own right, Demanufacture was clearly influenced by Ministry's chilly samples, piston-like insistence, and glass-gargling vocals, not to mention their mistrust of government, though Fear Factory brought their own unique touches to the formula: death-metal drumwork, dystopic imagery, cleaned-up melodies, and man-machine grooves.
Of course, a lot has changed for Bell and Jourgensen since the '90s heyday of industrial metal. In fact, Ascension of the Watchers' just-released debut, Numinosum, forsakes the subgenre altogether in favor of a kind of ethereal cryptogoth that owes as much to vintage 4AD as to vintage Wax Trax. Jourgensen, meanwhile, has allegedly abandoned Ministry after 27 years, finishing off his touring schedule this spring on the C U LaTour with Meshuggah. Despite calling it quits, he seem pretty anxious to wrap this interview up so the two can get back to the studio to lay down some tracks for, well, something. However close their relationship, Bell still seems psyched just to have this opportunity to tell his boss and buddy just how much he means to him: "This is a dream come true. Twenty years later and I'm still a fan."
BURTON C. BELL Do you think it's your upbringing that made you the person that you are? Or was it the music scene that made you the person that you are?
AL JOURGENSEN Nah, it's a life sum of work. Of delinquency. It's nurture not nature. Although, on the nature side, I've got a couple crazy motherfuckin' uncles that are insane. One of 'em works for the C.I.A. and the other one is just a fall-down drunk and is in and out of jail. And they're nuts. And I think I got a little bit of that DNA in me. Nature made me predisposed to it; nurture honed the skills.
BELL Your music has always been anti-establishment, but it doesn't really become anti-government until [1992's] Psalm 69.
JOURGENSEN Basically, if you're a malcontent, you start wondering why you're a malcontent. And generally a finger always gets pointed at government eventually. Or at some kind of institution, corporations, the military-industrial complex, governments—eventually you realize the smell is coming from there. 'Cause you're wondering why you're a malcontent. Why am I a social misfit? Why do I hate everything? And that would be where you start pointing the fingers. And government is certainly one of the reasons, especially when you have friends starting to get blown up in Iraq. Literally people that you know, and they join the army just to get a college education because the government says they'll pay for it, but they never come back to collect on the college education because they get blown up.
BELL Religion is an establishment…
JOURGENSEN Yeah, but not for me anymore. Government affects my everyday life; religion doesn't affect my everyday life. It absolutely means nothing to me if the Pope visits America, or the Pope takes a shit, or the Pope dies or whatever. Or whatever Ayatollah's in the news today. I look at it in a political sense 'cause I don't look at religion as anything but politics and money. So it doesn't really affect me in that sense. It affects me in the sense that if we have a Middle East war, it probably started from religion, then went to politics. But it's not something I care about in my everyday life. I believe in a higher power, universal power, all that other crap; but I don't believe in the embodiment of that through a single individual that's in charge of a moneymaking scam called the church. That's why I don't really write about religion anymore. I'm writing about politics because those fuckers bug my phones, they fuckin' sic the IRS on me, they raise the price of oil to $110 a barrel—that affects me on an everyday basis.
BELL Religion is politics.
JOURGENSEN It is at its base core, but the actual day-to-day effectiveness of that is run by the politicians, and that affects my wallet, that affects my friends gettin' blown up, that affects the fear card that they play, that affects your everyday life. I don't go to church. I am a church, for fuck's sake. I'm Ministry.
BELL The translation of that disgust, that was really revolutionary at the time. I would really think that it started with Land of Rape and Honey. That revolutionized an entire scene. To me, that started the industrial thing.
JOURGENSEN In a music sense, maybe I would agree. In a lyrical sense, I was still young, I was still gropin' my way around society. Lyrically, I was kind of angry, but much ado about nothing. A lot of shaking your fist in the air mad, but you don't really know what you're mad at. Over the last few years it's pretty much honed in on specific items.
BELL I'm asking about the sound that you chose to translate your thoughts. It seems like you took from noise bands. Maybe like Throbbing Gristle, from Whitehouse…
JOURGENSEN You know something? I actually took more from [painter, writer, and performance artist] Brion Gysin and [Beat author] William Burroughs than I did off the noise bands. I love Neubaten, Gristle, all that shit. That was all good stuff and I understood how they did it, but the concept of it was basically a random, anarchy-driven, fractal chaos. You take a bunch of pieces of tape, you throw 'em on the floor, and you put 'em back at random. And that's what Rape and Honey was. That comes more from the authors than it does the noise bands. I was more author-inspired than I was music-inspired.
BELL I never would have thought of that!
JOURGENSEN Well, those guys are complete anarchists. And I was living with [psychedelics pioneer] Timothy Leary, so come on. So, I had some pretty good teachers as far as the anarchy cookbook. I listen to ZZ Top, Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and I have fun with it, but it doesn't really lend itself to that style. But then when I started reading all these knuckleheads, it was like, Let's do that, and then we had to come up with sounds to make it fit around the cut-up aspect of it, the randomness of it.
REVOLVER Were you reading that stuff heavily around 1985, when Ministry made the switch from a synth-pop dance band to an industrial band?
JOURGENSEN No, way earlier than that. That whole switch is so overblown. I got offered money. I was living in a squat. We had no electricity, we had no heat. South Side of Chicago, I had nothing. Somebody offered me money—a bunch of money to me at that point—and told me, "You're gonna be a rock star." OK, it's better than living in a squat. That's awesome. Once I signed on the dotted line, they're telling me what to wear, what to write, here's the lyrics you're gonna sing, here are the people you're gonna play with, here are your producers. What?! That wasn't part of the bargain! Here's the funny thing, dude. In 1979 and '80, a lot of the shit that ended up on Rape and Honey I was doing for six or seven years, then I got sidetracked with all that pop crap. I had no choice; I signed a paper. I basically sold out before I started; I shook hands with the devil and then as soon as I realized this was gonna go nowhere, I hired some really good lawyers and we sued 'em. We got off that label and then I started back over again to where I was six years before.
BELL So some of your anger was fueled by what you were doing.
JOURGENSEN I was mad at myself, too! I couldn't believe that I had been that naïve and stupid. But to everyone else it must have been this psychotic change where the guy just went crazy. But it wasn't like that. I was crazy before I started and then I had to be un-crazy for the big corporation. I did it ass-backwards. Most artists do 10 years doing really cool shit and then they're like, We're tired of being broke and living on peanut butter and macaroni and cheese. And then they do a sell-out song, and then they make money, and then they get in bed with the devil. I got that shit out of the way right from the start. [Laughs]
BELL Since then you've always chosen really cool musicians to work with.
JOURGENSEN I didn't choose 'em; it worked out that way. They like me, I like them, we meet and we find out. "Hey…bingo! You're not an idiot!" You're in that category. How did we hook up? We met in Germany for, like, a minute. I started doing Last Sucker, Burton read that it was going to be my last one, he called me up out of the blue and said, "Man, anything I can do?"
BELL "I work cheap!"
JOURGENSEN That was the key word! [Laughs] Basically, this shit just happens. I don't seek out and go, "I wanna work with Neil Young." [Ministry appeared on the 1997 Young-curated album The Bridge School Concerts Volume 1.] A band cancelled at one of his benefit concerts for cerebral palsy and Neil happened to be in town one time and saw us live and felt we were the loudest, most obnoxious band he'd ever seen. This just falls into place if it's meant to be. It's a charmed life. That's another reason I'm quitting the band, because I'm really not that angry anymore. Things have just gone so well the last five or six years, working with a lot of people that I wanna work with and doing the music I wanna do, railing against shit, and now I'm seeing society railing against the government, and bands finally railing against the government, like the Dixie Chicks and shit. I'm only at my best when I'm pretty pissed off. And right now I'm kinda happy!
BELL It's like therapy. Therapy is for a reason—to get over it. If you stay angry, then whatever you're doing is not working.
JOURGENSEN Not only that, you can't falsify anger. I've got a great wife, I've got great animals, I've got a great daughter, I've got a nice little house. What am I gonna be pissed about? I make crappy music when I'm happy! [Laughs] I know. As soon as Clinton took office, all my records went to shit. When there was a Reagan and a Bush and now another Bush, all our records are great! So, you tell me!
BELL I just think that we evolve. You just can't stay angry. You can't be Henry Rollins all your life. [Laughs]
REVOLVER How are you feeling these days, Burton?
BELL I'm pretty chuffed!
JOURGENSEN Burton just did a fucking great album that people are still scratching their heads over. Ten years from now they'll be like, That's a pretty good album. But right now they're like, Hey! This doesn't sound like Fear Factory!
BELL I'm in a good place because I did a record that I'm very happy about and that I've been wanting to do for many years. I'm happy that I had the balls to do something like this.
JOURGENSEN So am I! That's totally something I would have done. It's a big middle finger in the air to everyone.
BELL In way it's very rebellious, going against everything people know me by. People only know me by what I've done, they don't know me personally.
JOURGENSEN And this album's pretty personal. I'm diggin' it. People are so spoon-fed nowadays. Jesus. If it's not already pre-chewed for them. After Psalm 69, when we did Filth Pig—everyone was expecting Psalm 70. And that was the most hated record of all time for Ministry. But nowadays, 10 years later, everyone's like, "Oh yeah, I guess that wasn't bad." Whatever. They'll catch up. They'll be sorry later.
REVOLVER How is Al treating you as a record label boss?
JOURGENSEN [Laughs uproariously] It's gotta be better than what you were on before!
BELL You know what? I second that emotion. When I came here to do The Last Sucker and we started discussing 13th Planet, he told he wanted it to be an "artist community." And I was sold. Labels like Mute, 4AD, early Wax Trax, Amphetamine Reptile, Blast First. Artists that worked together in a lot of ways.
JOURGENSEN It's all a bunch of people hanging around the office because they wanna be there. On any given day, you never know who's gonna be passing through, and if they pass through town and come to my house, I put 'em to fuckin' work. Get in the studio, you fuckin' lazy bastard!
BELL The biggest difference is, I actually like the bands on the label I'm a part of. [Laughs] On the label I used to be on, there's maybe one or two bands I did like.
REVOLVER You're not a Nickelback fan?
BELL Dude, you hear what happened? He did an interview for Playboy and said two things that really pissed people off. First, he's trying to get more money from Roadrunner to do the next record, and if they don't give it to 'em, he's just not gonna record. And the second one was that he sucked his own dick for a case of beer.
JOURGENSEN I've actually done that for less, so I can't fault him on that one. [Laughs] But the petulant child quitting because they don't pay him enough money? Like, he doesn't make enough money?
BELL I heard a Nickelback song in Fiji. Come on.
JOURGENSEN I can't fault him for that. I heard a Ministry song in Vietnam. In a cab! In Saigon! "Stigmata." I couldn't believe it! I'm the new Nickelback. Black is the new pink.
REVOLVER What were you doing there?
JOURGENSEN I don't know. I guess I got on the wrong plane. [Laughs]
BELL Did you see The Deer Hunter? He was in that movie.
JOURGENSEN Didn't you see me [in Apocalypse Now] in my underwear as Charlie Sheen's stunt guy punching the mirror?
REVOLVER You guys have both sampled Full Metal Jacket on your records…
BELL Back when sampling was legal [Laughs].
JOURGENSEN It's an attitude. And [director Stanley] Kubrick—anything outside of that Mouth Wide Open or Eyes Wide Shut or whatever the fuck—anything that guy's done has been life-changing. I got to meet him, which was great. He wrote the screenplay to A.I., before Steven Spielberg tortured it, and one of the things he said was that Ministry had to do the soundtrack and be the band in A.I. So Spielberg was stuck with us.
BELL A dying man's last wish.
REVOLVER How did you meet Kubrick?
JOURGENSEN He was at the Columbia Hotel—he was drinking there—I recognized him and just said, "Hey," I didn't think about it. And 10 years later I get a call from his secretary saying, "Will you guys be in this movie?" And then he dies! So then Spielberg took it over. I got along with Spielberg, but I was really looking forward to that Kubrick thing. I read the original screenplay that Kubrick wrote for A.I. and Spielberg totally changed it and made it, like, a children's story about this fucking little electronic bear.
BELL So you've met some of your heroes; what person do you still want to meet?
JOURGENSEN The only guy left I actually met already, but only because he was drunk and borrowed a cigarette off me on the street at 3 in the morning—that would be Tom Waits. Drunk off his ass! I was like, "Oh, my god, you're Tom Waits!" He's like, "Yeah, you got a light?" That's the only guy, because I've pretty much met everyone else I wanna meet. I've been everywhere I wanna go. Like Mickey Rourke says in Barfly, "I just get exhausted thinking about the places I don't wanna see." That's pretty much where I've gotten to in life now. I don't wanna travel, I don't wanna meet extra people. The more I know people, the more I love my dogs. I'm pretty much over it.
BELL I think it takes a rebel to really say, "I'm done."
JOURGENSEN Captain Beefheart! Beefheart did that! And Zappa, too. Those are my heroes. Zappa is probably the person I pattern myself after most in life.
BELL I think more bands should really just call it quits. Someone wrote me telling me that the Hellacopters were breaking up, like, "How do you feel about that?" Do they wanna break up? Then awesome. The only reason that bands continue and create shitty music is for money.
JOURGENSEN So you can keep up your yacht payments? Keep up the Botox-in-your-lips-Steven-Tyler payments? [Laughs] In these last few years I feel that Ministry is doing the best work we've ever done. And it's perfect to leave it at that. Anything from here on out is a downward fuckin' spiral. I wouldn't do that to myself. I wouldn't do that to the knuckleheads that love us. Just leave it at that. I don't need the fuckin' money because I don't live extravagantly. I don't live in L.A. with a yacht and all this other crap. I remember Beefheart, man! He moved to a mobile home in New Mexico where he had to shit outside, and that's pretty much where I'm going. And I'm pretty happy with that.