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Sunday, December 10, 2023

‘F*** it. Instead of being owned, let’s own it.’


Ministry's Al Jourgensen at the time of the release of 'With Sympathy, 1983. (Photos: Getty Images/Arista Records)

Ministry’s Al Jourgensen at the time of the release of ‘With Sympathy, 1983. (Photos: Getty Images/Arista Records)

“You are the one and only. That’s it. I’m not talking about it after this.”

So proclaims Ministry mastermind Al Jourgensen, speaking exclusively with Yahoo Entertainment from his home in Los Angeles. It’s been 40 years since the release of Ministry’s uncharacteristically synthpoppy debut, With Sympathy, and it’s taken that long for the industrial-metal provocateur — who quickly, furiously disavowed the album and went on to pull off one of the most drastic career/image reinventions in music history — to even begin to come to terms with it.

“My hatred for this record was so deep,” says Jourgensen. “As a matter of fact, the two-inch [master] tapes of it, the actual two-inch tapes, I had a barbecue party and I burned them on a barbecue. So, there’s no existing original With Sympathy’s. I just burned them.”

But now, in a completely Hellfest-freezing-over development, Jourgensen is pulling a Taylor Swift of sorts, exclusively revealing plans to re-record as many as four classic With Sympathy tracks in his signature heavier, angrier style. In fact, on the very day of this interview’s publication, Ministry are heading into the studio to commence work on a new recording of the early 120 Minutes hit “Revenge.” And if all goes well, they’ll proceed with reworking the only other With Sympathy cuts that Jourgensen says he actually wrote: “Effigy,” “Work for Love,” and “Here We Go.” As for when fans might hear these new versions, he teases: “I think it’s going to be sooner than you think.”

“We’re doing ‘Revenge’… this version that we have, it’s going to be different. Let’s turn it from this synthpop thing into a metal arena-rock song… and then we’ll take it from there and see where it goes,” says Jourgensen, divulging that he is “thinking about possibly playing that song live on the next tour” or even embarking on an “Early Ministry Tour” before the band retires in the near future. “If we can make it sound the way I want it, when I originally came up with these songs, then yes, I will do it. If not, I won’t. … So, we’re working our way towards putting a bow on the whole thing and calling it a career. And then everyone can leave me the f*** alone so I can do what the f*** I want.”

Call this surprising new labor-of-hate With Sympathy (Al’s Version), if you will. “I can’t believe that I agree with Taylor Swift … yet another first!” Jourgensen chuckles. “I do agree with her [decision to redo her old material], yeah. This is like, management-controlled music, and then when you finally go into your own and you have enough veritas to pull it off and f*** off to the system and the companies and the management and all that, then it becomes kind of like you own it — instead of they are owning you.”

Casual Ministry fans — or fans who only got on board once the band (ironically) broke through with much less commercial-sounding industrial albums like The Land of Rape and Honey, The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste, and Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs — might not fully grasp the significance of Jourgensen embracing a record that he had such an “such an aversion towards,” he literally did not listen to it for 40 years. So, let’s go back to the beginning, when a struggling young Jourgensen signed to Arista Records and found himself subjected to a new wave makeover; ill-fated tours opening for Culture Club, Madness, and the Police; and making what he describes as “some little pop-synth-manipulation thing of 1983, a Clive Davis fever-dream.”

“I was living in a squat, an abandoned building, on 9th and Roosevelt in Chicago. There was a hole in the roof of where we were staying, so I used to have to shovel snow out of my apartment,” Jourgensen recalls of his starving-artist days. “And then [legendary Arista executive] Clive Davis calls on the phone and you’re living in a squat, and he offers you [a deal] to you. It’s just like you won the lottery. … So, it was like I sold out before I started. I just like, completely sold out. … Of course I was into it! Who wouldn’t be?”

In retrospect, Jourgensen says the Arista contract “wasn’t lucrative at all — but it did get me out of the squat.” The first sign that this wasn’t going to be the big opportunity he’d hoped for should have been when “they said, ‘OK, we have control over your look. We have final approval on your songs. We have final approval on your producer. We have final approval on your musicians. We have final approval on where you record. We have final approval on your videos, and who does them. We have final approval.’ But I was 21, 22 years old, living in a squat, going, ‘This sounds pretty good to me, man!’ At 21, 22, when you’re shoveling snow, you don’t have a permanent job, and you’re freezing your ass off in Chicago… and somebody offers you all this stuff? I’m like, ‘I’m down with it!’”

Jourgensen actually first realized he’d made a huge mistake “the day I had to get my hair cut. I was like being drafted into the military. I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I’d spent years battling my parents to grow my hair, and then to have it cut off? And then going to this f***ing horrible place on Melrose, Fred Segal, to have them pick out suits for me, sharkskin suits. It was like [dapper ABC frontman] Martin Fry — a Walmart Martin Fry. … They also decided my manager would be Elliot Roberts, who did like the Cars, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, blah, blah, blah, blah. We were their ‘baby act.’

Portrait of the band Ministry, 1982. (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Portrait of the band Ministry, 1982. (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

“And then, by the time I get to London at AIR Studios, where I’m meeting Paul McCartney and recording at George Martin’s studio and this should all be great, there’s a daily call from Clive Davis and Arista about what we should be working on today — and the rejection of all the songs that they’d signed me for!” Jourgensen recalls, saying some of those vetoed tracks included “(Every Day Is) Halloween,” “The Nature of Love,” “All Day,” and “I’ll Do Anything for You,” all of which became Ministry classics years later. “I realized, ‘OK, this is not gonna end well.’ … I would be in a studio in London and get a call at like, 6 in the afternoon, which would be about 11 o’clock Clive Davis’s time, and he would either do it himself or get somebody to sing lyrics of what we were supposed to do today.

“That still confuses me to this day, because I think all they really cared about was the male-model Zoolander pretty-boy look,” Jourgensen continues, wondering aloud why Arista didn’t just sign one of the countless fledgling synthpop bands who already had the slick look and sound that Davis — who’d also recently signed the Thompson Twins and Haircut 100 — was supposedly seeking. “They found a little white kid — you know, before the piercings, tattoos, and all this other shit. I guess they thought I was good-looking? It really boils down to that kind of simplistic thinking: that they could mold me.”

Portrait of Al Jourgensen of Ministry at the Metro in Chicago, 1983. (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Portrait of Al Jourgensen of Ministry at the Metro in Chicago, 1983. (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Jourgensen says he “did the best job I could on that album with both hands tied behind my back,” but he loathed the result, and despite With Sympathy’s modest success (it cracked the Billboard 200 and spawned two top 20 U.S. Dance Chart hits), he wanted to exit his Arista deal immediately. “I was just like, ‘I don’t care at this point. Just get me off this label. Anything you have to do!’” he recalls. “I rebelled, and I went through legal channels to get off this label when I realized how oppressive this was. I couldn’t look into a mirror anymore. I hired a lawyer, and Clive Davis actually had the Thompson Twins call me and say, ‘Stick with it, because we each just got 3 million-pound checks for our last year. Our first year wasn’t so good, but this year is really good. Stick with Clive!’ [Davis] actually sent a psychiatrist to my house in Chicago to see if I was able to play along with the game. That kind of shit.. … [The psychiatrist] just asked me a bunch of questions and I told him to f*** off and kicked him out of my house after about half-hour. Like, ‘What the f*** is this? This is like, really intrusive.’”

Some music industry pundits must have thought Jourgensen was totally foolish to want to part with a major label like Arista, but he insists, “All of my friends thought I was doing the absolute right thing. I have a good circle of friends. They were just like, ‘You’ve made an ass of yourself. … You’re way too talented for this. So, follow your heart.’ And that’s what I did, on the advice of my friends and everyone else that was close to me,” he explains. “It didn’t matter [if I had success afterwards]. Career aside, just I knew that I could look myself in a mirror at the end of the night and be happy with what I saw. That is priceless. There’s no Thompson Twins price you could put on that.”

Fast-forward to January 2020, when Jourgensen’s friend, Lethal Amounts gallery owner Danny Fuentes, somehow convinced the famously disgruntled singer to accompany him to L.A. nightclub Zebulon to watch a Ministry tribute band… called With Sympathy. Yes, that’s right: a cover band that only covered With Sympathy songs. Fuentes probably thought the excursion would just be a fun lark — “There was no advance warning, no guestlist, no VIP; I just showed up, wasted,” Jourgensen chuckles — but that one random night altered the course of Ministry history.

Jourgensen was completely unaware of the cult status his disavowed debut had attained — his shunning of the album had probably, if unintentionally, only made it even more beloved among With Sympathy defenders — and he was “amazed. … I had no idea people even knew what ‘Work for Love’ was! … I saw like 800 people on a Tuesday night really responding to this, and just went like, ‘Whoa. I don’t get it.’ So, actually, the next day I went back and listened to the album — and I hated it as much as ever! But seeing it in action, I was impressed — like, ‘OK, there’s something there.’ I could see why people would maybe like this. … And then it brought back a flood of different emotions and all that. By the end of that night, seeing that band made me go, ‘OK, this is not something to be so angry about for the rest of your life. This is OK. Let it go.’ … That night I went, ‘You know what? Yeah. F*** it. Instead of being owned, let’s own it.’”

Fast-forward again to 2023, when Jourgensen — who’d already started warming to earlier Ministry material in 2019, when he played “(Every Day Is) Halloween” live for the first time in 30 years — went on the road with fellow reinvented electronic music trailblazer Gary Numan. It was then that his Ministry bandmates surprised him with a revamped version of “Revenge.” Jourgensen recalls, “They were amazed at my reaction. They’d worked on this secretly for months! … They waited till I was on about eight shrooms and they broke it out for me on the bus. And I was just like, ‘F***, that actually sounds good!’ — like, good for this band. So, I have to credit not only this [With Sympathy] cover band, but I have to credit my current band for pushing this to the forefront and forcing me to do this. Well, not forcing me. Now I’m a willing accomplice.

 Al Jourgensen of Ministry performs at the Sick New World music festival in 2023. (Photo: Greg Doherty/Getty Images)

Al Jourgensen of Ministry performs at the Sick New World music festival in 2023. (Photo: Greg Doherty/Getty Images)

“Hearing these songs updated with this band that I have now is pretty amazing,” Jourgensen continues with surprising enthusiasm, explaining that the impromptu bus session made him believe “about half the [With Sympathy] album we could convert to this current band and update, and make arena-rock. … I’m dipping my toe into this [early] stuff and realizing there was some significance to it at the time that I didn’t understand. I felt really shackled [in 1983] by what I wanted to do and what they were having me do, because of the system. … But we’re in a spot where we’re like wise elders, and a lot of people look up to us that we stood up to the system, we survived, and were able to continue going forward, doing exactly what the f*** we want to do.

“I view it as almost like karmic, where my career is winding down with Ministry,” Jourgensen elaborates. “I’m going stop Ministry in an album or two. I have other things I want to do and I’m really kind of now shackling myself [to the band], instead of Arista Records shackling me. … So, I figure there’s only maybe one more Ministry album to go. Maybe two, but probably one; the second one might actually be a remake of With Sympathy, to tie a bow on the whole thing. [Editor’s note: Without Sympathy would be a brilliant title for that full-circle release.] … I think this next year or two is going be really transformative, in the sense that I’m wrapping a bow on my entire career and saying, ‘Drop mic. Thank you. Thank you for buying our T-shirts.’ … It’s gonna be an interesting next couple of years.”

As much as Jourgensen still claims that he has “no fond memories” of making With Sympathy four decades ago and still doesn’t quite understand its appeal, he is excited to revisit the material in the studio, and he believes that any resulting 2023 remakes will appeal to fans of all Ministry eras. “[The new versions will be] a lot more guitar-driven, but not metal. It’s pop — it’s still pop. Just, we’ve done it in a way that I think everyone is going to enjoy and see the 40-year progression of how you wrestle with an alligator,” he says. “Wait till you hear the new versions. You’re gonna fall in love with us all over again.”

Al Jourgensen performs at the Louder Than Life Music Festival in 2022. (Photo: Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

Al Jourgensen performs at the Louder Than Life Music Festival in 2022. (Photo: Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

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