Sometime in the early 1990s GARY STEEL picked up the phone expecting to chat to Ministry’s Paul Barker and found himself talking to drummer Bill Rieflin instead. As a tribute to Rieflin, who died this week, for the first time we print the transcript of that conversation.
Bill Rieflin really was a latter-day renaissance man. He was a wicked drummer, of course, but his real talent seems to have been able to find creative foils and contribute his extraordinary skills and creativity to a diverse range of bands and projects, from King Crimson to Nine Inch Nails to REM and Ministry.
Sadly, Reiflin died earlier this week, aged 59, having been ill with cancer for some time. The following transcript was a relatively brief phone conversation I had with him sometime in the early 1990s, prior to Ministry’s New Zealand tour. (If anyone knows the year that happened, please let me know!) Newly acquainted with the group’s music, I hadn’t memorised the names of Ministry’s members.
Clearly, Rieflin is acting a part in this interview as a member of one of the more controversial industrial-metal groups of the era, and his trajectory hadn’t yet taken in the more sophisticated music he would contribute to later in his career, but it’s a small insight into his playful conversational manner.
Bill – This is Bill Rieflin. I play with a group called Ministry.
Gary – You’re a current member?
Bill – I’ve been a member of Ministry since 1986. The reason you don’t get Paul Barker today is that he had a baby last night, a girl, Ursula. It was decided before it came.
Gary – So you’re the man with the big drum sound?
Bill – Yeah, and an even bigger head. You should see my pants. Oh yeah, massive.
Gary – How’s Lollapalooza?
Bill – It’s going well, aside from the fact that it’s rained at over half the shows.
Gary – You didn’t have to go through New Orleans or Miami?
Bill – In fact we were in Miami two days before Hurricane Andrew, and we will be in Louisiana in four or so days time. We missed all the fun.
Gary – So Paul had a baby…
Bill – We have an understudy who is replacing Paul for the next week or so. He’s gone home to be papa.
Gary – Somehow it seems really weird for a band like Ministry to be making babies.
Bill – Al Jourgenson has a 7-year-old daughter and is currently married.
Gary – How life-affirming.
Bill – What?
Gary – How life-affirming.
Bill – Yes.
Gary – So you’re not the bunch of nihilists we see you as.
Bill – Well, we do have our seamy side. Our steamy seedy side.
Gary – The music’s just so over-the-top that it’s hard to imagine that any of you guys lead normal lives.
Bill – Well y’know… I don’t think it’s a prerequisite for somebody to play really intense music to be like a total fucking out of their mind idiot freak all the time. I think it’s quite possible for someone to lead a relatively normal life and still really love intense things. And we all really like to play this music, which gets a little extreme, but it doesn’t mean we’re completely out of our minds. In fact, if we were I’m sure we wouldn’t have come this far.
Gary – You guys live with the music the whole time though.
Bill – It reflects all that stuff that people talk about, y’know, anger and alienation and frustration and bad moodism. We’re not doom and gloom, woe is life, things are horrible, pull out your gun…
Gary – Yeah, the music’s got humour.
Bill – Yeah, sure it does of course it does. Half the time onstage we’re laughing ourselves to death.
Gary – I hear the band’s been a hard act to follow at Lollapalooza.
Bill – Well, we’re trying to make it that way. The last few weeks we’ve been in a bit of a slump but I think we’re on our way out. Even when we do a really mediocre show it’s powerful, just because it’s so fucking loud.
Gary – You’ve got a reputation for that. You don’t wear earplugs I hope.
Bill – I don’t? Are you kidding? I might be in this band but I’m not stupid.
Gary – Do you recommend the audience wear protection as well?
Bill – I can’t make any such recommendations. I will say that everybody do what’s comfortable.
Gary – The show varies a heck of a lot?
Bill – Of course it does. Like any other band, you have a good night or an off night. Maybe you’ll play a week’s worth of great shows, then the next show is the worst show you’ve played in your life. It’s an occupational hazard. It’s not always there, on or perfect.
Gary – I guess compared to the Chili Peppers your show’s a bit more spontaneous.
Bill – Well I’m not in a position to make that kind of judgment. Certainly, there are elements of spontaneity in our show, as with the Chili Peppers. It’s also true to say we follow a pretty tight programme… what songs we play, what order they’re going to be played in. All the parts follow each other sequentially. But it is fair to say that on any night, anything could possibly happen. Not that it does but…
Gary – I hear you’ve got skulls and bones…
Bill We’ve got little fuzzy, fluffy, cuddly, cute stage decorations like that but… we have a fellow whose main purpose in life is to wait around in the woods and find dead animals, bring ‘em home and boil ‘em up. He takes the remnants and glues ‘em together. Makes all sorts of little cute creatures.
Gary – Are you bringing the full production downunder?
Bill – In fact I don’t know this. I don’t know that it’s been decided. Possibly not. We will have other surprises in store, so… but I won’t give the game away. You’ll just have to wait and see.
Gary – I guess the live and studio things are very different.
Bill – Of course. They’re a completely different creature. And in fact I think one of my favourite Ministry records is the live record. It’s a lot more risky live, and in the studio it’s really safe.
Gary – The productivity of the group and the drug stories seem at odds.
Bill – Yeah well I’ll tell ya there’s so much hyperbole involved in that aspect of the band. I will comment on the other music. When we record, we record lots of different stuff. Some of it works its way onto Ministry records, some of it doesn’t. It might turn up somewhere else. It might have a completely different sound than everything the colour of white. We like a little bit of variety here and there. So what doesn’t fit in the square peg we stick it in another shape and throw it in, sort of like fertiliser (laughs). Y’know, then it grows and festers and mushrooms bubble up. Give it a name and release it on compact disc.
Gary – I was interested in your productivity versus the image thing, because I thought these guys have gotta have their shit together.
Bill – Like FUCK we do. That’s right. I think that Al Jourgenson is one of the hardest working boys in show business. Paul Barker comes in a close second. Those guys work really hard as the producers to make the records the way they are, and you can’t be a complete and utter flake – well, some people can – it make it a lot more difficult to get anything done if you’re incapable. So obviously there’s something right going on.
Gary – Do you have a very creative partnership with the other guys?
Bill – Of course it is. We all work on the music together. It’s a partnership.
Gary – Most bands start out extreme. Ministry has done exactly the opposite.
Bill – That’s sort of typical. That describes the Ministry way, the Ministry method. It’s all COMPLETELY ass-backwards. So obviously that’s gonna be fucked up too. Everything Ministry does is fucked up. It’s just the way it goes, and why the records sound the way they do.
Gary – Where do you think there is to go?
Bill – I think in a few years time we’re going to buy a cement and concrete factory, or we’re going to release cinder blocks and things like that, shrink-wrapped, and people can go buy them, take them home and rub them on their skin. Here’s the new Ministry experience.
Gary – Honestly…
Bill – Honestly! You want an honest answer to that question? We won’t know seriously until we go into the studio what the next Ministry reality will be. The group can sit around and philosophise and exchange ideas about what we want to do next, but it’ll all be for shit once we get into the studio because it will all change. But it’s not until we get into the studio and get working that we will begin to find the character of the next project. And that’s how every other record has worked.
Gary – One thing the music doesn’t have is a lot of melody.
Bill – That’s true.
Gary – A lot of people can’t handle that. Do Ministry steer away from that on purpose?
Bill – No, I wouldn’t say that’s an intentional… It’s just sort of the way it’s developed. And it doesn’t mean it will be that way for all time.
Gary – The record’s called Psalm 69, right? What’s the little symbol?
Bill – It’s something Al Jourgenson discovered in some book, so… I wasn’t there when it happened.
Gary – Quite an interesting cover. It’s a bit like Joel Peter-Witkins.
Bill – Yeah sure, I know his work really well.
Gary – It has the same muted feel to it.
Bill – Yeah it does, doesn’t it.
Gary – You’re in Minneapolis now?
Bill – That’s correct.
Gary – Thanks for talking to us, Bill.
Bill – My pleasure.