Ministry guitarist Mike Scaccia on Rigor Mortis, Psalm 69 and his friendship with Al Jourgensen
Catch Ministry this Sunday, June 17, at the Ogden Theatre.
Ministry (due Sunday, June 17, at the Ogden Theatre) got its start when Al Jourgensen moved from Colorado to Chicago, where the Wax Trax label was headquartered. The early Ministry offerings were in line with a lot of the more experimental synth-pop of the era, but its landmark 1986 album Twitch was the line of demarcation between the more new-wave sounds of old and the darker, ultimately more creatively fruitful era of the band's music.
Jourgensen met guitarist Mike Scaccia when his band, Rigor Mortis, opened for Death Angel in Chicago in 1985. An immediate friendship formed, and Jourgensen invited Scaccia along to perform on the tour for the political and nightmarish 1989 album The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste.
Scaccia then contributed his signature guitar work to writing 1992's Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs. That album was an aggressive and invigorating release that broke Ministry -- and industrial music in general -- to a wider audience. We recently spoke with the frank and charming Scaccia about Rigor Mortis, Psalm 69, his friendship with Jourgensen, and Scaccia's hero, the late, great Les Paul.
Westword: You were in Rigor Mortis when you were young. How did you get involved with playing heavy music?
Mike Scaccia: Music, in general, was very common around my house growing up. I come from a pretty big Italian family, and I have three older sisters. My dad grew up with the famous drummer Gene Krupa, so he wanted me to be a drummer. I was more fascinated by guitar, and I obviously stuck with that. When I was growing up, I saw Black Sabbath in 1978 with Ozzy singing, and Van Halen opened up that whole tour. When I saw that particular show, I realized that I liked my music really loud and heavy. I was really into Ted Nugent and Aerosmith and whatever I could find that had heavy guitar in it.
At a very early age, I was attracted to long-haired rock-and-roll bands. That's what I wanted to be in. So in junior high school, I would live in the record stores, and I would look for whoever would be the next heavy thing. I remember discovering the band the Rods, Judas Priest, of course, and I'll never forget the first time I heard Iron Maiden. I thought, "Okay, this is it." These guys have taken my favorite bands, like Judas Priest and Thin Lizzy, and made it faster. So, that was the beginning of it all. Between the Rods, Judas Priest, Saxon and Iron Maiden, I started listening to more underground metal.
Then, of course, I've always had a love for rock and roll, period -- which, to me, is just what punk rock is, the aggression of it all and everything like that. Being just an overall fan of music, I tend to lean toward aggression in music. I find aggression in bluegrass music. That's kind of how I got involved with always looking for the next heaviest thing. Of course, now I think it's all been pretty much covered. I think Electric Wizard topped everybody.
What Iron Maiden album was it that you initially discovered?
The very first one. I still listen to that record. I was lucky enough, where I was growing up, that they still had arena shows. So it wasn't seeing bands at clubs, it was going to an arena and seeing these great packages. I saw the first U.S. Iron Maiden tour, when they opened for Judas Priest, and I was so excited. I couldn't believe it. They had so much speed and intensity in what they were doing that that's what I wanted to do with my band Rigor Mortis. I wanted to take that music and do what they were doing except with thrash music. I just could never find the right producer.
In the early days of Rigor Mortis, what kinds of bands did you play with at that time, and what kinds of reception did you get from audiences then?
People didn't get it. A lot of the people wanted to hear Def Leppard, you know. We would go, "Okay, you wanna hear Def Leppard? Well we're going to speed it up to where it's not going to sound like Def Leppard; it's going to sound like we wrote it." Where I come from is the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Dallas/Fort Worth is really strange. On the Fort Worth side -- and it's still like this -- you have much more reserved, dedicated metal fans. The Dallas side -- and that's where I'm from and where I live right now -- is more reserved and more trendy. Whatever's happening at the time, that's what's happening. We started out over on the Forth Worth side because that's really where all the crazy metal was going on.
But we started bringing it over to the Dallas side because we were such huge fans of the punk-rock scene, and that's where the punk clubs were. So we were bringing our music into those clubs. They didn't know what to think of us because we had hair down to our asses, we were wearing spikes or whatever, cut-off blue jean jackets and stuff. So they didn't want us in there. To them we were just a bunch of hippie pot smokers, which we weren't, because we wanted to kick in their asses.
Once they heard us, they were completely blown away. Like, "Oh my god, this isn't some regular metal band." So our shows started having such a wide variety of people. You had jocks, you had skinheads, you had metalheads, rednecks -- everything. Mix that with alcohol, and there's going to be a big fight, and then we're on the news. That's pretty much how we got signed. There were always fights, and there was so much buzz about, "Man, did you hear what happened at Rigor Mortis? Have you seen Rigor Mortis?" So it started becoming this kind of thing to do, and all the promoters were putting us on a lot of the shows that were coming through town.
The buzz started happening and it happened almost a little too soon for us because the next thing we knew, we were signed to a major label. When you're signed to a major label at twenty years old and given a bunch of money -- to a bunch of drug addict drunks with no direction -- it's just a recipe for disaster. No regrets, though. It's all good. You live and learn, man, but I'm happy with my age right now.
Probably the first time a lot of people heard Rigor Mortis outside of Dallas/Fort Worth was on the soundtrack to The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years
Right, right. We went to the premier of that movie. We were supposed to be in that movie. We were yanked out because of a lawsuit to do with our name. So we wound up being on the soundtrack. I saw that movie for the first time since I went to the premier, and I had forgotten how horrible it was. I mean, there was some horrible stuff in there. But that's what that time was. It was a good time. It really was.
A lot of the glam bands were really horrible, but there were some good ones. And there was some great music then because it was so guitar heavy and bands could really get record deals. It wasn't so mass marketed as it is now. It was a good time for music. That was really the end of it to me. Of course there's great music now, but back then, there was less to choose from.
How did you meet Al Jourgensen
I met Al in 1986 on the tour for Twitch. His soundman at the time was this guy David Ogilvie, "Rave" from Skinny Puppy, who also produced the first Rigor Mortis record. Well, he was in line to produce our record, and I had gotten the call from one of the people at the label saying, "Hey, can you go down and meet this guy. He wants to meet you, and he's on tour with this really cool band. Go hang out with him."
So I drove through a massive ice storm in Dallas to get to the show. I met Al that night, and we partied our asses off all night. We just hit it off like we were long lost brothers. We became really good friends. When he would come through Texas, I would hang out with him. When I would come through Chicago, I would stay at his house, and I remember giving him my demo that night. I remember him calling me a few weeks later going, "Dude, you inspired me to pick my guitar back up." Which was a great thing because I think The Land of Rape and Honey came after that.
We just formed a bond and became really good friends. That went on for a few years, and he asked me to tour with him in 1989. After that, I was asked to join the band, and the rest is kind of history. We've had our ups and downs together. We've lived through a really very long and intense heroin addiction together. We've survived it; we got out of it.
We're like brothers, and we have fought like brothers in the past. About four years ago, we decided no more of that dumb shit. We're best friends, man; let's write music together. I don't even think we've had an argument for four years now. So the bond is there. It's a crazy relationship, but man he's like my big brother, and he has taught me so much about tones and music, and even when I was mad at him, I still had the highest respect for the guy. It's a pretty good thing going on right now.
When you joined Ministry for that tour, were you involved in writing any of the music for The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste?
No. I came in on Psalm 69 with writing and tracking guitars and stuff. I'm on the live record, In Case You Didn't Feel Like Showing Up. But I didn't write anything on that. I was told I inspired him but I believe I was off doing Rigor Mortis when they were doing that record. But I love that record.
What kinds of adjustments did you have to make, if any, from playing music as you did in Rigor Mortis to playing like you did for Ministry?
It was a lot of adjustment. The thing I was coming out of was this loud, aggressive, one guitar, punk/metal type thing attitude about Rigor Mortis. It's very intricate music. It's all about notes and precision, so it's a completely different style. When I came over to Ministry, Ministry was about sound and tone and weird time signatures at the time. So it threw me off, and I had to take a step back and learn how to count in certain ways I didn't do before. So there was a bit of an adjustment, but it did nothing but make me better.
Did you tour with Paul Barker and Bill Rieflin?
Yeah. I've toured with those guys a few times. Bill Rieflin is a brilliant drummer and brilliant musician all around. Plays every instrument. Paul Barker is a good musician and producer. It was different for me to play with those guys as far as rehearsal. But when we were writing together, they were completely the opposite of what I was.
I was a misfit maniac who hung out in very shady places, and that's why I think I hit it off great with Al. They were the kind of people, and I'm not putting this down, to be reading a book in a coffee shop, you know what I mean? I was the guy slamming whiskey in a biker bar up the street. So I got quite a few eyes rolled at me. But as far as the music goes, and the musicianship, hey man, I was always there for them, and I always felt like I gave them my best.
What was it like playing that second Lollapalooza tour, as opposed to playing your usual shows?
That was the first time I'd played to such a large audience. It was really cool. I had a great time on that tour and bonded with a lot of bands. It was just a giant party the whole tour. That was the first time I played in front of twenty or thirty thousand people a night. Between that tour and Beavis and Butt-Head selling Psalm 69, those were good years, man.
When you were writing Psalm 69, what kinds of ideas did you discuss in making that record?
We did several different things. Al brought me in because it was a different approach. We actually went in as a band to do that record. Before then, I believe Al and Paul would just write stuff. We went in as a band. We got a room and jammed. We would record stuff, or if somebody had a riff, they would bring it to the table. My job every night was taking the demos to Al for him to listen to. "Hey, what did you guys do today?" "Well, I got this, I got this and I got this."
I'll never forget: I must have brought him like ten songs a night, and I was so frustrated because they weren't turning out the way we wanted them to. One night, the very last song on the demo I was bringing in was a joke. It was Bill Rieflin telling me to play as fast as I can. That turned into "T.V. Song." That was one of the first tracks we came up with for Psalm 69. It was the B-side to "Jesus Built My Hotrod."
It was a crazy process, and if I remember right, we went in and did that record and probably spent I want to say eight months on it, and then we scrapped it and started over. I'm glad we did, because that's how Psalm 69 was created. You know the record label hated that record? They said it was going to be a flop, it wasn't going to do anything, the songs were horrible, they didn't get what we were doing. Why are these guitars in here? Why are these guitars so heavy? What's going on? What are you doing? Sure enough, the rest is history, and it became one of the most classic records ever recorded. It kicked off a couple of genres of music, you know?
If you really think about what Al was doing then, who else was really doing that? When he called me and said, "Dude, I want to bring in your guitars with my samples, my techno background. Let's create something new." And that's what it was about, creating a new sound. Which is what I'd already done with Rigor Mortis, so I was all about it. I'm a huge fan of the old Ministry stuff. I'm a huge fan of music in general, especially pop music. I'm sure a lot of my diehard fans don't want to hear that. I like country, too. So yeah, I thought it was cool. Who knew what it could do?
Of course when the record was done, I knew it was going to be a big record. I just didn't know it was going to touch so many people the way that it did. I think it could have been a bigger record myself. But it just happened that way. Outside of the one I just did with Al, it's definitely my favorite. I'm really happy with this new one. It's different like that. You know how Psalm 69, every song it went into, it was like a different little baby. This record reminds me of that. The last few records weren't like that to me. They were kind of straight up thrash. This one touches on different grounds, you know? I love that.
Is there anything you did consciously for Relapse that made it so different from the other recent records?
I didn't really play on the last couple of records. I did Houses of the Molé. I think I did a solo on Rio Grande Blood, but I was so fed up with the business, and I'd wanted out for a few years. I was starting a family stuff, so my head wasn't in it. What Al did was he brought in me and Casey Orr for a couple of weeks. We worked every day and came up with great stuff, I felt like. Then we left, and he brought in Tommy Victor and Tony Compos, two complete opposite people from two crazy, Texas maniacs. That created a whole different vibe, obviously. When Al mixed all that together, that's how this record came about.
Man, I love it. Each song is different in that sense because you've got a collaboration of me and Al and a collaboration of Tommy and Al, and me and Tommy are night and day. Even though we share the same passions, we're completely different guitar players. And I love Tommy's guitar playing. I was the one that got him in Ministry. It's in that sense that makes it so different.
Now you're working on a new Rigor Mortis record.
Yeah, we just started in [early February]. We got all our drum tracks done last night. For some dumb reason, we went and played a show at eleven thirty last night. But I'm starting on some guitar in a couple of hours. I am excited about this record, man, like no other Rigor Mortis record. We're obviously older and more mature, and our writing has gotten that way too. So we actually have a couple of slower type songs on here, more thrash songs on here.
It's still a straight up metal record, and we still write about our love for horror movies. But it's a new time and a new direction. It's not death metal because we don't have that grindcore vocal. It's going to be good, and I think for our diehard fans who have waited this long, they will be satisfied, and I think we will cover some new ground, too. It's got some old school metal vibe to it. And definitely crazy lead solos.
What kinds of guitars do you usually like to play?
I'm so glad you asked me that. The last interview I just did, the guy goes, "What do you not get asked enough about?" I said, "People never ask me about my guitars." I work for Gibson guitars. I am a clinician for Gibson, so they pay me to fly around the world and do clinics for them. I prefer Gibson guitars. I learned on those, and I got my first deal with them. So I'm kind of indebted to this company.
I love Les Pauls. My number one guitar is a 1957 Goldtop Standard. And it is my baby. I just had a Flying V made for me that is pretty sweet too. But I love Les Pauls, man. Les Paul, alone, is my idol. I just have this thing about Les Pauls. Like I say in my clinic, if it's got strings on it, I'm probably going to like it. But I'm prone to Gibson guitars, especially their acoustics.
I like the balance. I love the weight. I love fat necks, so I like the '50s ones. My idols played them. To me, it's the perfect stand-up guitar too, for some reason. I love SGs and Explorers, as well -- I learned on Explorers. That's probably what I'll be using on Ministry tours. But Les Pauls are more my Rigor Mortis thing. I like to mix it up. I collect them. And I don't collect them in the sense that I used to. You used to walk into my house and you would see seventy-five guitars. Now, I only have what I'm going to play. Which is quite a few.
Did you ever get to see Les Paul Fat Tuesdays or Iridium Jazz Club in New York that he played for years?
No, I missed him. I didn't get a chance to before he died. It's funny because when I come to New York this summer, I'm going to meet Lou Pallo, who was part of the Les Paul trio. One of the bus drivers for Gibson was one of Les Paul's dearest friends. They were friends for like fifty years. Every time I do an event or I'm around this guy, that's all I do is ask him about Les Paul stories. Unfortunately, I did not get to meet him but I will carry on the tradition of his guitars.
What was one of the best stories you heard about him?
My favorite is when he got divorced...I don't know if this is published or not, but it is a true story. In 1961, him and Mary Ford got divorced. It was in 1960, but it was finalized in 1961. But 1960 was the last year they made the Les Paul shape, the classic shape. The reason for that is that Mary Ford tried to take him to the cleaners, and he was worried she was going to take that guitar because she had threatened him. He went to Gibson and said, "I've got this shape I've been working on. What do you think of this, and we'll call this the Les Paul for seven years and just put my guitar out of commission for seven years, and we'll call this guitar the SG.
If you look on all those old SGs, it'll say "Les Paul Custom" on it. Well, that's why, because those were called "Les Pauls" from 1961 to 1967. That's why 1960 and 1968 are great years for Les Paul because they brought them back out in '68. The reason why is because the seven years was up, so Les Paul said it was okay to bring them back out. I thought that was cool. A lot of people don't know that, but it's definitely a true story. It's pretty awesome.
I heard this other story, and I probably shouldn't tell this, but I just think it's funny. If you think, man, Les Paul...who knows? We might not even be having this conversation right now if it wasn't for what he did for guitar and music in general -- multi-tracking and plenty of Echo Plexes he created. I was talking about Lou Pallo a second ago, and they were best friends. And every day Lou took Les Paul to lunch and Les Paul never once picked up the bill in fifty-five years. Never once. Lou always grabbed the bill.
The bus driver was telling me this story and I asked, "Well, didn't Lou kind of get bothered by that?" He was like, "No, that's the kind of person he is. But he said every once in a while Lou would pick up the bill and ask, 'How much is it?'" Lou would go, "It's a lot." He said, Les would shake his head and go, "Oh...okay." I just think stuff like that's cool. I know that sounds boring but I love that kind of stuff. It's just pretty funny.
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