The Universal Fundamentals of Al Jourgensen
A musician finds connection in creativity.
Posted September 24, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
“So watch yourself
And watch what you say
The martyr dies
So what’s at stake?”
From “The Missing” by Ministry
In 1969, the late Jim Morrison of the Doors had a prophecy—the birth of electronic music. He imagined that “some brilliant kid will come along … a lone artist with lots of tapes … a keyboard with the complexity and richness of a whole orchestra.” What was critical about Morrison’s prophecy was his excitement about this new possibility. He did not seem afraid of electronics, but rather open to what humans could do with machines to amplify the creative and emotional experience of music.
One of those brilliant kids who came along was Al Jourgensen of the industrial band Ministry. Industrial music is an aggressive fusion of electronic music and rock that employs harsh and provocative sounds created by any number of machines—from synthesizers to tools found in factories. Anything goes—nothing is off-limits. And Jourgensen has embraced Morrison’s enthusiasm for the possibility that machines can bring to creativity over the past four decades, propelling Ministry to be considered one of the greatest industrial bands of all time.
But in talking with Jourgensen for the Hardcore Humanism Podcast, the art is only an extension of his deeper philosophy on human nature—what he describes as the “universal fundamental.” The universal fundamental is that all beings throughout the universe are connected to one another. And the way we stay connected and communicate is by perpetually engaging in a creative and dynamic process by which we take in the information the world gives us, interpret it in our own unique way, and send it back out into the world. Jourgensen’s embrace of the range of sounds that make up industrial music in general and Ministry’s music, in particular, is his way of staying connected to the “universal fundamental.”
At the core of Jourgensen’s approach to the world and his art is open-mindedness. Like Morrison, Jorgensen did not fear but rather reveled in the new opportunities provided by industrial music. Intricate to this perspective is that all sounds are fair game for music—not just the ones made by traditional instruments. If we want to be truly aware of and connected to human experience and the world around us, we need to listen to and utilize all available sounds in art.
“Basically, since the 19th century, we've been living in an industrial age. All of a sudden, there's been all these new noises that had never been heard before on this planet. You know, cotton gin, steam presses, printing presses, all these large machineries that make these audible sounds that have never been heard,” Jourgensen told me. “We're familiar with these sounds. It took a long time to get used to these, and nobody thought of them as music ... but now you can go on online anywhere and get plugins or apps of pretty much every sound that's ever been made.”
Jourgensen approached these new sounds with curiosity rather than consternation—seeing them as opportunities rather than limitations. In fact, engaging with these different sounds creates a connection to the world around him. “We live in this ever-evolving world of sound that we've created,” he explained. “Music is basically, just to me ... a Polaroid snapshot of your surroundings, and you're singing about it and trying to make sense of it.”
While many people fear the role of machines and technology in our life, Jourgensen does not see industrial music as such a leap from the more traditional blues music that influenced The Doors and most of rock and roll. The binding factor is the human experience—the emotion. He even went so far as to say that the rock band ZZ Top was one of the godfathers of industrial music.
“I think emotion is a big part of industrial music as opposed to a small part … For instance, blues is pure emotion. I mean, you learn three chords, whether you're adept at it or not—those three chords and the offshoots of them with the correct emotion, you can still do a really moving blues song,” Jourgensen said. “ZZ Top is an industrial band; they started realizing that incorporating sounds that you hear every day into standard blues riffs that humanity can understand and process is a natural thing. It's not an unnatural thing. And to me, they're the godfathers of industrial … From my perspective, I'm just utilizing new instruments, the sounds of our era, of our epoch, and incorporating them into more traditional things that humans understand and feel comfortable with.”
In order to build from that open-minded perspective, Jourgensen employs a unique approach to developing his music. Specifically, he begins by connecting with specific sounds that occur while he is awake. And then, when he is sleeping, Jourgensen feels that his mind builds upon that experience. Ultimately, while he’s sleeping, his mind is relaxed, and his “antenna goes up” and connects him to the world around him in a deeper way that pushes creative boundaries.
“And by the morning, I have entire cosmic opuses songs, complete songs delivered to me, or interpreted by my antenna that I spend, you know, my next waking hours for months, trying to get it exactly as beautiful as I heard when I was in a supine state,” he described. “I mean, it's interesting, in other words when I'm asleep, I'm cosmically connected, as opposed to Earthbound ... then spend my time on Earth, my waking hours, trying to recreate that cosmic connection, as opposed to an earthly connection. Yet, I use all the earthly sounds available in my music to try and attempt to recreate the cosmic sounds that I get on my antenna at night.”
And when Jourgensen finishes a piece of music and puts it out into the world, he believes that this connects with the universal fundamental—that ongoing and dynamic free exchange of ideas that exists among all living things throughout the universe. “I think, other societies and other galaxies, other planets, we've received their radio waves like they've received ours,” Jourgensen explained. “All I'm doing is receiving their radio waves and then putting on the Earth-type stamp on it with the noises from Earth, problems and concerns from Earth in the lyrics and agenda, but then sending it right back out into the cosmos for other people to interpret in other places and other galaxies.”
What emerges is a celebration of rather than nullification of humanity. And in celebrating that humanity, Jourgensen reasserts that it is humans rather than machines that provide the most critical element of industrial music—emotion. “Computers can do everything. AI can do everything. But they really don't have an algorithm for human emotion. They can do human brain calculation power, but there is no algorithm for human emotion. That is not a universal fundamental. That is indigenous to this planet,” he said. “And that's what we need to really focus on—what makes us different. Say it loud, say it proud, we're human! This is the way we are. Yeah, it's f*cked up. We know it. But this is what we're doing in line with also a universal fundamental truth.”
To be sure, when Jourgensen uses the term “universal fundamental” he does not imply a uniform process. Diversity of thought and creative process is crucial to the dynamic and open nature of the universal frequency, particularly in humans. But there is always a risk of being lulled into conformity. “Well, that's not one frequency … Following one frequency—that would be almost like The Matrix or something, and we don't need that. And that's what makes Earthlings special is the sense that they innately and inherently question everything,” Jourgensen explained. “And that's what we need to deconstruct … societal paradigm, societal norms that keep us in this worker bee mentality.”
There doesn’t seem to be much of a threat of that for Jourgensen. And he will never stop tapping into the universal fundamental. “I'm still fascinated by it. I'm still a rookie. And I'm still learning,” he said. “So, I'm in no way able to quantify the universal fundamental, but I'm certain that it exists.”
Somewhere, Jim Morrison is smiling.
You can hear Dr. Mike's conversation with Al Jourgensen on the Hardcore Humanism Podcast on HardcoreHumanism.com.