If there was ever an overlooked jewel of a band, it is Twisted Sister. Known primarily for their song/video "We're Not Going To Take It" and lead singer Dee Snider's involvement with the PMRC congressional hearings of the mid '80s, the band's other material seems to get passed by. But make no mistake, this is a group that has both the material and the means to present it.
Dee Snider, Jay Jay French, Eddie Ojeda, Mark Mendoza and A.J Pero are an absolute powerhouse on stage with all the subtleties of a Mike Tyson ear sandwich. Though I saw them later on with Iron Maiden during their halcyon days, nothing beats the first time I came across these guys. They were playing a small club in Ottawa, Ontario. There were about 40 of us there tops! Queensryche opened, supporting their debut EP and were unbelievable although they showed great frustration at the lack of bodies in the crowd. Twisted took the stage soon after and you would never know there was a lack of a crowd because they pounced on the audience like a cat spying a mouse and nobody was left sitting. I mean that literally.
After the first few songs, a few people made their way to the front of the stage. Vocalist Snider began to harangue the rest of the crowd, ordering them to get off their seats and get into it. Some did and some didn't. The ones that didn't were subjected to a rabid dress-down by the singer that was amazing in it's ferocity. By this point, I figured it was safer up front and was standing and screaming with the rest of the SMFs (if you are a fan, you know what this stands for). The show progressed and the band displayed a controlled fury that powered the material along without imploding. At the end of the show, the band had the entire crowd standing up in front of the stage and Dee was going, "Oh I guess we had you guys pegged wrong. You guys are OK after all" and just generally back padding the crowd who were by then clearly converted fanatics. I was talking to the promoter after the show who said it was the best example of rock theatre that he had ever witnessed. Forget the lack of bodies, Twisted rocked like they were playing in front of thousands.
After the show, all the guys came out one by one (except for Mendoza who strode past us with a sneer) and spent lots of time with everybody and proved to be the antithesis of their onstage personalities. In short they were excellent to all their new fans!
As with a lot of bands, the tide turned for Twisted a few records after their huge hit Stay Hungry, and they packed it in. Reuniting for the September 11 benefit concerts, the band found that there was still a demand to see them. Subsequent tours got bigger and longer and finally they decided that it was time to put out a new record. Of course, in fine Twisted fashion, the spin on things is that it was a Christmas record…more on that in a minute. I was thrilled to get to speak once again with band founder and guitarist Jay Jay French during a promo trip to Canada and he helped answer the obvious questions about how five guys in black, pink and yellow ended up singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Jay Jay was an awesome interviewee that delivered his lines in a tongue-in-cheek delivery that would raise your eyebrows at times with some of his statements. Am I gushing? Am I a fan? Is it showing? Was this cool? Yup!
antiMUSIC: Man, what a pleasure this is to get to speak with you. Thanks a lot for making the time.
Jay Jay: It's okay. I called you on time. Don't ever tell people I'm that punctual. It destroys ruins my reputation. Just tell them I was out drinking beer, eating pizza and called you like hours later, all right?
antiMUSIC: It's a deal. I first saw you in 1983 in Ottawa with Queensryche opening and it was absolutely outstanding, by far one of the best shows I've ever seen.
Jay Jay: Oh my God! Thank you.
antiMUSIC: "A Twisted Christmas" is excellent. No offence to Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby but finally there's a Christmas CD that I can play without losing my mind. Other bands could have tried this but only you guys could have pulled it off. Plus Dee has such an awesome voice, these songs really work.
Jay Jay: (laughs)
antiMUSIC: So congrats on that.
Jay Jay: Thank you.
antiMUSIC: So the obvious first question that you've probably answered 5 million times already. No new material since 1987 and you guys have toured very little since getting back together a few years back. How did the idea of a Christmas record come up?
Jay Jay: Ah, we were trying to figure out a way to destroy what was left of our career completely and we figured, doing a Christmas album would just about sink it, and I wouldn't have to do any business with these guys anymore. I mean, nobody knew the reunion was going to be as successful as it was. I thought people would be sick of us in a year and all of a sudden it's gotten bigger every year. We're so sick of working together and we're trying to figure out a concept that would just destroy it completely and put us out of our freaking misery. And all it's done is backfired and now I'm forced to work with these idiots for like another three or four years. And the whole thing has been a complete and utter failure as far as I'm concerned.
I mean well, what happened really was a year ago, we were playing a show and I was trying to figure out a way to extend the band's life because essentially although the reunion has been spectacular and although we have continually been more popular especially in countries that we never played in, there's no new material. Not that's a big deal. I don't believe in new material, just to be honest with you. I think bands that come out with new records that have been around for as long as we have are wasting their time and energy because I don't think people really care. I don't think the bulk of the people care. I think maybe a couple of the people care but nobody's selling records so who's kidding who? Not a single band from the '80s sells records except for Bon Jovi. All the rest of it is an exercise in ego, and frankly when you're selling tickets, you're selling nostalgia. And people just don't like to admit it. But we're free to admit it. We have no problem with that. And normally you go to a show of a band who's been around for 30 years and they say "Here's a song from our new album" and you go, "ah, I'm going to go take a piss right now, sorry", because you don't care. And that's the truth. A couple of people may care but for the most part, nobody cares. And that's the truth of the matter. I don't care how big you are, I don't care if you're Elton John or Paul McCartney. Nobody cares. They want to hear your 25 songs. Go home. That's all they want. And we're really good at that. We give you our 25 songs, and go home. And we give it to you exactly the way you remember it. That's what a band like us should be doing.
antiMUSIC: Yeah but this record sounds so good, you guys can still do it…
Jay Jay: We do do it. We just don't want to do new material. (laughs) I mean it's just, no one has any interest in it. But the point is we're sitting around figuring out what to do. And I said half jokingly: "Well, why don't we just make a Christmas record." And all of a sudden it was like, whoa. Alright that sounds like a good idea. That doesn't call for any new material. You know, how do we do it? So we sat around, and really kinda thought about it for a while. We really thought about it. I mean, the thing about this record that I'm so proud of is that the work, the thought process that went into the concept of how to approach a Christmas record is a brilliant concept. Of going in and aping bands that we loved the most like Thin Lizzy and the Ramones and Judas Priest and AC/DC and Iron Maiden and even us and reworking songs to make it sound like it's hard rock and what happened was, in the process of pre production, the development of the sound of the record came together. And I'm more proud of the energy it took to conceive the approach, cause obviously the approach has been very successful and people love it.
antiMUSIC: The 2nd obvious question. You morph some rock staples into the cuts. When did it occur to you that Judas Priest was the best way to go into "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"? And "War Pigs" into "Let It Snow". Where did that come from?
Jay Jay: Well Dee had an idea years ago of making a Christmas record and calling AC/DC and Judas Priest and asking them each to do a song. And I think what happened was we realized at this point that wasn't going to happen but we were a cover band for years. That's what we did. So it wasn't a stretch for us to be a cover band again, you know? We said, well we can do these songs, because people said, you know, you did Priest as good as Priest and AC/DC as good as AC/DC and Sabbath as good as Sabbath and Zep as back in the day. So let's just do it ourselves, you know. And that was it. So we tried it. We had to find songs with the chord structure that really worked. And nobody thought "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" would be a Priest song, did they? I mean, nobody. So we did. We had the vision. And of course the whole key to the whole thing was Dee saying that "We're Not Going To Take It," and "O Come All Ye Faithful" was the same song. And when he said that and then he sang it in the dressing room. I said, my god you son of a bitch. You did steal the melody. And he said, swear to god, it was subliminal. I had no idea. So it evolved that way. And then the execution, as the rehearsals were going on, I can tell you honestly…there were times when I was thinking; this is could be the biggest mistake. But you know what? I was thinking it going, ok, if it's a big mistake, it's over. I mean no one expected the reunion to last five years or four years. I thought the reunion would last a year, and people would get sick of it. I didn't think that every freaking festival on the planet Earth of which there are millions of them, that we had never even heard of, would want the band to play and that the band would only get bigger and bigger and playing for more people. I mean last year, you know, we covered the world again like we did the last three years but it even got crazier. It was Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, Germany, Canada, I mean it just got crazier and crazier. So like, I don't even know where it's going after this. People ask what's the future? I have no clue. I had no clue five years ago. And I have no clue today. And I had no clue as to how this record would do. And the record's doing very well. So that means that we're going to continue I guess to play. But I have no idea where or how or what because every year we do the same thing. Christmas time comes around and we look at each other and go, "Well I guess that's it. Have a happy life". And then March rolls around and the promoters start throwing money at you. And then you say to yourself, "Oh man, we've do it again." And that's kinda of where it's at this point.
antiMUSIC: Obviously you recorded this prior to the holiday season.
Jay Jay: Oh man it was done during the heat of the summer. During the hottest part of the summertime.
antiMUSIC: Was it hard to get into the Christmas mood of things in a New York studio in whatever it was…summer? Did you have to put up wreaths and all that to create a kind of mood-inducing environment?
Jay Jay: No. to be honest with you, if you read stories about Christmas records, almost every good Christmas record there's a story about how it was done in July that year. Like Mel Torme wrote The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire", in Los Angeles, in 98 degree weather. Phil Spector recorded my favourite Christmas album of all time in the middle of summer 1963. So we knew the irony of it. We have film of us sweating, sweating, sweat pouring down with no air conditioning cause you know we were doing background vocals so we had to shut the a/c off. Dying in this heat of the recording studio, thinking, it's going to be good in December but boy does it suck right now, you know. (laughs) So no, the irony didn't escape us. I mean we knew because what happens when you make a Christmas record, to be honest with you, is you have to work backwards. Because once you affiliate yourself with a label and you get a delivery date, then you work backwards from that date. You know, we know on this day we have to deliver the master. So how is it going to get to that point, that's how you have to look at it.
antiMUSIC: How long did it take to get everything down? Obviously it's not like tracking a normal record. You know all these songs intimately, but you've got little twists all over the place.
Jay Jay: Right we do. But the problem was we can only record one day a week. Or two days a week, because of the schedules of the band members. So it's not like you go into the studio for three weeks and make a record like most bands do. We had to stretch it out so we started in April and literally we finished on August 31. I think we delivered it, September…I believe the drop-dead delivery date was September 4, maybe September 2, we mixed up until the drop-dead delivery date. So, interspersed with that we went to Bulgaria and came back, Germany, came back, Greece, came back, Spain, came back. It was an insane summer. England, came back, you know, for festivals. Canada because we played a huge festival in Quebec and drew all those people, and again, you know, by all rights, who expected what happened? Nobody expected. The promoter expected 20,000 people. It was the last day of a 10 day festival in Quebec. You know, thank god, that this country of yours, still does festivals, right. We don't really have these in America, you know. So it's just amazing, you know, that 80,000 people show up. Totally shocked everybody.
antiMUSIC: How did you get Lita Ford and her hubbie to guest?
Jay Jay: Dee stayed friends with Lita over the years. She used to open up for the band, you know we used to tour with Lita. Dee stayed friends. Dee vacations with Lita and her husband and his wife and family had vacationed in the Caribbean where Lita lived with her husband. And you know, they always said, hey if something ever happens, let me know---one of those kinds of conversations. Well something happened. (laughs) And we called her up. She did a great job. She sounds great.
antiMUSIC: You were one of the first bands to experience massive success partly due to your excellent videos. So it makes sense that the video for "O Come All Ye Faithful" would do the same job for you guys. Have you had a good reception for it?
Jay Jay: Well, you know, YouTube, which is the great people equalizer. We put it on YouTube and the first week it was the no.2 video in all of music videos YouTube video thing. How many music videos on YouTube? Hundreds of thousands? So I mean, you have to thank them because MTV doesn't care anymore and VH1 doesn't, but VH1classics does. So we're the number one played band on VH1classics. And it's the biggest, you know, VH1classsics specializes simply in old videos. Occasionally they play a new video. Well we are now the most played music video in the history of VH1classics. And YouTube has been unbelievable and we're also on the GameTap video site, because we made a special video just for GameTap. Razor and Tie did a special animated video. So we have video all over the place except you learn guerilla tactics on how to market yourself because you can't use the old formula. Having said that, we don't spend $300,000 on a video. Or for that matter we don't spend $300,000 on a record. We learn how to do everything, and also that technology brings the cost of everything down. We do it much less expensively so you know so you know we're not Beyonce with a $400,000 video budget, you know. We can make a relatively inexpensive video and get it out there and have it be cost effective. So, of course, the video for "O Come All Ye Faithful" is a funny video because that's what we do and I love it. And the reaction's been great.
antiMUSIC: I've read that part of Dee's reluctance of late had been the fact that at this stage in his life, he's not sure he can reconnect with the rage and fury that was part and parcel of the makeup of Twisted Sister. Have there been any developments in that area and how does that relate to the live presentation of Christmas music?
Jay Jay: Well luckily we still hate each other enough to be creative. Which is important because if there's too much love going around, I think we'd just sink the band. The band functions on a certain level of hostility which is healthy, you know. I don't mind us being idiots, you know what I mean, as long as we're creative idiots. So luckily the stupidity and the immaturity of the band has still maintained a certain level. And we can be a functional rock group. I think if we were too mature it would suck completely. So you have to have some element of arrogance, otherwise how can you pull this off, you know. But we are professionally arrogant now. We know how to channel the arrogance perfectly. We summon it when necessary. We hate each other just correctly enough to put on incendiary shows and after they're over with we go out and have a meal. So while we're on that stage I really couldn't stand to be up there. Just like the old days. It's a wonderful feeling.
antiMUSIC: You've also been extremely busy with your management company. Can you just up and head out on the road while still maintaining the company?
Jay Jay: My artists hate me. They freaking hate me. And they've basically given me permission to go out and basically act like a middle aged transvestite. And you know, which is nice of them, but they hate me. I mean they're basically saying to me: this is it, this is the last time. What about us? (laughs) No, luckily for me I have a partner who's great and I have artists who kinda understand, but that's another reason why I can't be doing this all the time, you know. It's fun to do it. It's fun to do it, but I have to be at my desk Monday morning, you know. They let me do this during the summer time, they let me do this to promote this record. It's fun but it's hard to run a management company when you're doing something like this.
antiMUSIC: Sevendust is getting to a point where….
Jay Jay: Oh Sevendust and I don't do…we haven't done business in a while.
antiMUSIC: Oh, I didn't know this…
Jay Jay: No, I manage solo artists. I don't manage rock bands. They're freaking crazy man. You know? I have to deal with one bunch of dysfunctional guys, which is Twisted. But I couldn't deal with a bunch these people. I'd just go into a mental institution, you know. There wouldn't be enough tranquilizers created on this planet to put up with this crap, you know. So basically I manage solo artists who are much more tolerable than a whole band's full of you know --- psychotic people.
antiMUSIC: So you're out touring on this record. How do you plan your show? Do you do a lot off this record?
Jay Jay: Well we tried not to make the Iron Maiden mistake, which is; here's our new record and that's all we're playing" because I think that's suicidal. And I love Maiden, but what a dumb idea. I'm sorry. The people could care less so we're very careful. But I'll say this, we only play half the record, but we play all the hits too. All of them. So if you're coming to listen to "Under the Blade", or "Destroyer" or "You Can't Stop Rock and Roll", or "The Fire Still Burns", you know what I mean, "We're Not Going to Take It", "I Want to Rock", "The Price". We play all that stuff, you know. Because that's what you're there for man. You want to hear all these songs and we're going to play them for you. But the good thing about a Christmas record is: even though it's a new record? Everybody knows the songs. So it's like you know, oh man, they're playing "Let it Snow" or they're playing "O Come All Ye Faithful". They're playing "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" or "White Christmas", they know these songs. So it's another plus in the package but you're getting the other hits as well.
antiMUSIC: I read that you and Dee worked with Lordi this year. What was your involvement and how did it go? How did this develop?
Jay Jay: Well they asked me to play guitar on the album. I had no idea the album was going to be a smash hit. If I did I would have spent more time writing the solo. I mean literally they mp3ed me the song. I went to a studio in midtown and I did the lead in two takes. And I literally walked in at 4:30 in the afternoon and walked out at 4:38. And then I went on my merry way. Then I go to Finland and freaking get awards gold, platinum and double platinum. And I'm thinking my god if had any idea how successful this record (would be) I'd have really thought about it. I mean yeah, the lead was fine and the song was fine and they're great people. They're great people and I wish them the best. They got Euro song of the year and made them superstars.
antiMUSIC: OK, I guess I'm over my time allotment so I'll let you go. Thanks for taking the time and please consider doing some new material. You guys obviously still have the goods as evident from the ideas on this record. And I would definitely buy a new album.
Jay Jay: Well thank you for your support and you know I've learned to never say never because we were never going to get back together again,. The fact that we did is remarkable. You never, ever, ever know for sure. So thank you so much for your support. I appreciate it.
Morley Seaver and antiMUSIC thank Jay Jay French for making time to speak with us.