Interview with TWISTED SISTER guitarist and founder, Jay Jay French

Interviewed By Jeff Kent


How many of you remember the first band you ever saw? I'm not talking about some local band playing in your High School gym or a cover band in a dive bar. I'm talking about the first big name so-called famous band you ever saw. I'd be willing to bet that most of you remember it like it was yesterday. That moment when the house lights suddenly go off and the capacity crowd roars to life is like nothing else in the World. A little more than sixteen years ago I had that very same experience with TWISTED SISTER. January 15, 1985 at The Centrum in Worcester, MA TWISTED SISTER was opening for IRON MAIDEN and I was on my feet next to my best friend screaming like the young Metalhead I was. When the stage lights came on and I saw that bright pink fence and the painted faces of the band, I was blown away. "Stay Hungry" blasted from the PA at a volume that I had never before experienced. I was hooked. Getting the chance to speak to one of the men responsible for that night was a dream come true. Jay Jay French was a founding member of the mighty TWISTED SISTER and went through Bar Band Hell in order to make it. Along the way he learned a lot about what it takes to make it in the music business, most of it the hard way. As we looked back on the history of the band itself and forward to the hype surrounding the tribute album, Twisted Forever to be released on Koch Records August 14th, Jay Jay and I relived the glory days. And were also able to discuss the present and possible future of one of the greatest live bands in the World.


So how'd the tribute album come about?

I was approached by Dave Squillante of Koch and he asked if I'd be interested. I asked him what he was basing the whole idea on and he told me he had a version of "Shoot 'Em Down" that MOTORHEAD did and we'd like you to listen to it. Up until then I probably would have said no, because who the Hell did we influence? You don't know until time goes on. When I heard Lemmy's version of it I just freaked out, because MOTORHEAD's just one of those bands, one of those great bands that we love. So I thought maybe it was doable. So we laid out a blueprint, this was two years ago, it took forever because of scheduling nightmares. We knew what LIT was gonna to do, we knew what NASHVILLE PUSSY was gonna to do and I knew NINE DAYS. I didn't know that the CHUCK D track was gonna come in when it came in, so that was really startling just to know CHUCK D was on it was startling. I didn't know the CRADLE OF FILTH track was coming in; that knocked me off my chair because again it came to us and it was so reverential and so unbelievably powerful and I was very shocked. I was aware of this band and that we meant so much to them, that was great. THE STEP KINGS version of "Burn In Hell," I mean basically here's a New York Hardcore band which I manage now, they did a great version. FU MANCHU's "Ride To Live, Live To Ride" is a great Stoner version of that song, in fact their vibe on that song evokes the meaning of the song better than the original version. It just sounds like you're on a motorcycle going down some highway in Arizona wrecked out of your face. I just think it's a great version of the song. SEBASTIAN BACH obviously gets his chance to be the lead singer of TWISTED SISTER because we back him on that track. On the LIT version of "I Wanna Rock," Dee is singing background vocals. HAMMERFALL, "We're Gonna Make It," incredibly reverential version of that song by a band that's one of the biggest bands in Sweden. SEVENDUST "I Am, I'm Me" I think is hysterically funny, it's a Punk version of the song which makes sense because we were signed to a Punk label back in the 80's, Secret Records. Then we do "Sin City," we just did that as our ode to our favorite band AC/DC.

 

No one really wants to hear a note for note reproduction of the original song.

Well some bands do literal versions. LIT's version of "I Wanna Rock" was pretty literal.

 

I love the acoustic version of "The Price," that may be my favorite track.

Yeah NINE DAYS, again a great version. I think they did a phenomenal contemporary version of that song.

 

They all had great songs to work from.

All in all it turned out better than I thought it was going to turn out. I envisioned it, but seeing it finally all out there is great.

 

If the first track that came to you hadn't been MOTORHEAD, would the album have happened?

It's impossible to say. Speculating is a waste of time because the fact is it was and it blew me away, so I have no idea. Had they come to me with CRADLE OF FILTH I may have been blown away. With MOTORHEAD you have a band that did a song of ours, we know the guys and we love them and you listen to what they did with one of our songs and imagine what we can do with other bands. So we went out after a lot of people. The only artist that didn't appear who wanted to was JOHNNY CASH. We know JOHNNY CASH and originally I wanted him to do "The Price;" I thought he could just do it with an acoustic guitar and it would be great, but he was getting over pneumonia.

 

Maybe he can put it on one of his albums, he's been doing that a lot lately.

We'd love that; that'd be great.

 

It's good to have a band like MOTORHEAD because they're not some young upstart band who grew up listening to your music. They were well established when you came along and took to your music right away. That must be flattering, to have your idols cover one of your songs.

They were the band that basically introduced TWISTED SISTER to England. We are so indebted to Lemmy for basically saying, these are great guys, they're cool guys and a great band and if you get turned off by the image or what you think the image means, don't let that get in the way. They're a great Heavy Rock band. It was under those grounds that we bonded with him and he's been great. ANTHRAX, they've been fans of ours for years, they used to come down to the bars and see us, OVERKILL, same thing. JOAN JETT, a Long Island legend, huge. SEBASTIAN, before he was in SKID ROW used to come see us in bars too, so there's a really good connection here with just about every band.

 

You were wondering who you influenced, I think there are a lot of bands who were, even if they don't realize it. A band like CRADLE OF FILTH takes your image to a new extreme. I think a lot of bands built on what you did fifteen years ago.

Well I also don't think we're the only band that influenced them, I think we are AN influence. Like ALICE COOPER can be and BLACK SABBATH can be and we can be and KISS can be, they absorb it like we did. TWISTED SISTER started out in it's original form in 1973 as a New Jersey version of the NEW YORK DOLLS and we were a BOWIE, MOTT THE HOOPLE and SLADE Glitter band. And then when that version ended we transformed into an English Glam Rock band ala THE FACES, SWEET and that kind of thing. Then we transformed into a LOU REED type of New York hip dark act because I was singing lead at the time and God created people like LOU REED so I could do cover tunes because my voice just sucks. You can't tell if someone's doing a LOU REED song flat; that's the good thing about doing a LOU REED song. No one got that at all, kids in the suburbs did not get it. It was a parallel universe you had these bands playing in New York like BLONDIE, TELEVISION and the RAMONES who the critics loved and you had these bands playing in the suburbs like us doing all this cover material like THE CRYSTAL SHIP doing the DOORS' show. We all considered ourselves great musicians and our fans thought the RAMONES were awful, they sucked, they couldn't play. Meanwhile their fans thought bands like us were dinosaurs, old style, corporate Rock, blah, blah, blah. There was a cultural divide, there were very few of our fans that ever went into New York and came back saying, oh man I saw a great set by THE TALKING HEADS at C.B.G.B.'s last night. I don't remember that EVER happening. I don't know one fan of the RAMONES who came out to The Whiskey Bar in Weehawken, NJ to see TWISTED SISTER. That didn't happen either, so we kind of existed in these separate planes. We understood who we were. We were a Middle American Hard Rock or Heavy Metal band; we were not a New York critic's darling esoteric Andy Warhol loving type of cool group. So we followed our heritage and when Dee joined we couldn't get work, so our agent said we needed to be a LED ZEPPELIN type band. We hired Dee because Dee could do ZEP. We went though all these versions and we got Dee who does ZEP, but he also does ALICE COOPER and BLACK SABBATH, so we said let's do that. While we're at it let's revise some of BOWIE's older stuff and I continued to do LOU REED. Then we started doing a little bit of JUDAS PRIEST. At that point our bass player left and Mark Mendoza came in and Mark was the freight train; Mark was the actual bridge between New York cool which was the DICTATORS and us. When Mark came in, the freight train arrived and everything changed; we became a Heavy Rock band. When people say we're an 80's band I disagree, I think we're a 70's band that made it in the 80's. I think we're just a Heavy, Heavy freight train of a Rock group that happened to make it in the 80's. We weren't this cheesy type of Southern California Metal thing, which you know with all due respect sold a lot of records and was fine, but it wasn't my idea of Heavy music. My idea was much more 70's…

…Blues based…

…Blues based, Rock that we came out of. AC/DC exemplified that for us I think and we absorbed all that.

 

I wonder how many people saw the dates on the live bonus tracks from the Live At Hammerstein album [being reissued soon] and were shocked and or confused. They were from like 1979…

Yeah, "Train Kept A Rollin', " that was one Hell of a version too.

 

Isn't it like ten minutes long?

Yeah, really long. The Hammerstein album is just ridiculous… Look, I'm never going to say that were the greatest live band that ever existed, but I will say that we were one of the greatest live bands that ever existed and you can easily say that we could hold our own with the bands who were our peers. I don't want to say they were second to us, or us second to them, but we along with AC/DC, JUDAS PRIEST and I think MOTORHEAD stood equally apart from almost everyone else. If we ever all played together on a bill, we could hold our own.

 

Because it all of those bands knew how to put on a great show, not necessarily be the most amazing technical musicians or be more brutal or over the top. It was about being entertaining. There are bands today who will say they don't care what the fans think, they do care, but they think they look cool if they act indifferent. You gave the people what they wanted and kept your integrity at the same time.

Exactly. Not this introverted long-suffering artist, no. We had fun with it, we were a party band. But an East coast party band that's totally different from a West coast party band.

 

An East coast party band would play in a bar with a stage and a West coast party band would play on a stage that also had a bar.

We were a Bar Band, we were the World's Greatest Bar Band at the end of the day, that's why we made a T-shirt that said "World's Greatest Bar Band." We were a Bar Band that made it, but AC/DC was a Bar Band that made it. They played bars and pubs, it's how they cut their teeth. We played bars thousands of times and that's how we learned to play.

 

That's why you can play a ten-minute version of "Train Kept A Rollin'."

Yeah in a way, because we also had to entertain ourselves. When you're playing the same bars over and over again, unlike today where a band can't play a club more than once a month, we would play these rooms at least once a week and on weekends, so you had to do something different. We played within a seventy-five mile radius of Manhattan for ten years, hundreds and hundreds of fans that would keep coming back and you wanted to keep them entertained. Also, you get bored playing the same thing over and over, so you had to change your set list, attitude, image, anything to keep it interesting for yourself. It forced us to become showmen. Dee used to come up with these ideas and so ok, here's the date, by May second all this has to be done and we'd go insane trying to make that deadline so that on May second we could premier the new show or whatever he'd come up with. We were doing that even in bars; we were forcing ourselves to become big fish in small ponds in order to maintain the image to the fans that we were that. That's one of the reasons we were able to cut it when we made it, we'd been doing it.

 

Bands have a hard time doing that today because they play one show and a record company guy see them and signs them right away based on whatever the current musical trend is and they're stuck in that mold or they'll get dropped.

It's tough if a band can't get that pedigree.

 

There are some bands who are smart who can make it work in their favor. The other way that they come up is by putting a few songs up on their website and cultivating a group of loyal fans online. They're not necessarily concerned with getting in the van and touring for a month.

I think every band starts with the same dream. It is different today, but I don't want to sound like my father, "kids today…" because then you get in trouble. I think everyone's goal is the same: at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen you want to be a Rock Star. You follow the rules of the road, whatever the rules are at that time is the road you take. The road today is different, you get a band you do demos you do a few shows and you hope a record company notices you and signs you. In earlier days you had to pay more dues, so more bands from that time stayed around longer, having said that LIMP BIZKIT probably wasn't around all that long and they've stayed popular, like them or not not like them.

 

They're first album had actually been out for a relatively long time before they caught on. I saw them almost get booed off stage opening for QUICKSAND right after the first album came out.

Mhm. KID ROCK had been around for a long time doing his own thing before he became what he is today.

 

I find it hard to fault people like that, who stick to what they do and let the trend come to them. Too often the band that starts the trend gets lumped in with all the followers and I never thought that was fair.

If I don't like KID ROCK or LIMP BIZKIT's music per se, it's irrelevant. Do I recognize the work? Yes. Do I appreciate the work? Yes. Do I appreciate that they figured out how to be famous? Absolutely. So it doesn't matter if I like them or not.

 

What you don't appreciate the next hundred bands that the record companies sign just because they have a similar sound.

Yeah but those bands don't sit there saying let's imitate those guys for profit. I don't know of a single band that says we suck, let's go make a record. Everyone says, "that band sucks," but the band doesn't believe it sucks. A band believes it's a real band. Whether or not they suck is in the ears of the beholder.

 

Maybe they're just a little too close to their influences.

Look it is always the case. When you had FRANK SINATRA, you had AL MARTINO and TONY BENNETT and you had all these less successful FRANKs. Then you had ELVIS and FRANKIE AVALON then all these lesser guys. Some of them did well and then down the line a bit they all fell apart. THE BEATLES broke and then you have the DAVE CLARK FIVE, JERRY AND THE PACEMAKERS, HERMAN'S HERMITS and THE ROLLING STONES, nobody could have known back then who was going to make it to the finish line. No one had a clue in 1964, you had tons of British invasion bands THE SEARCHERS… and no one knew who was going to be around; as it turned out THE BEATLES and THE ROLLING STONES made it. In San Francisco you had JEFFERSON AIRPLANE, THE GRATEFUL DEAD, MOBY GRAPE, blah, blah, blah, THE STEVE MILLER BAND and on and on. Who made it to the end? THE GRATEFUL DEAD made it to the end.

 

They were probably the least likely to succeed if you looked at them when they started.

Maybe the least likely, maybe. It's the scene, the scene creates this. The Punk scene did the same thing in England with THE SEX PISTOLS, THE DAMNED, Etc.. With these new bands now, the one name bands, the 'SOIL',' FUEL', 'TANK', whoever, they come out with a record and they have a good song just like the hair band era where everyone was looking for that one hit song. Then you pray the second album can do any business at all. That's just a sign of the time.

 

If after ten years of playing bars you hadn't been signed, would you have continued?

No, because we had planned to break up finally. Most people don't know, it's something we talk about in the VH1 Special [Behind The Music]. We were turned down more times than a bed sheet in a whorehouse and we were turned down in cruel ways and we were defeated and deflated. The very last time was so demoralizing that the band decided to break up, so we went and played one more show in England on the vague chance that we'd get a deal, but we'd already decided to break up. The system finally beat us and then we were snatched from the jaws of oblivion… only to be destroyed again five years later [laughs]. So the band makes it big and becomes Worldwide and five years later decides not to go any further.

 

Better to go out by choice than to have someone yank you or to continue on as a dinosaur act.

It didn't matter back then because Dee didn't want to be in a band like us because he didn't believe it was sophisticated enough. AJ [Pero] left for the same reason he wanted to be in a more technical band. But the irony of that is that Joe Franco who's one of the most technical drummers in the World joins us because he wanted to be in a simpler band. So I thought that was kind of funny. Dee wanted a band with super guitar players like YNGWIE, it was a mistake; he acknowledges that now. He said he made the biggest mistake of his life, he said he didn't realize how good he had it. So everyone makes mistakes and when we're together we play and it's fun…now. We appreciate the music now, more than ever. We appreciate what we can do well and what we can't. It's no big deal.

 

And you learned a lot and didn't try to make it into something it's not.

I think you do that when you have a distorted view of what and who you are. I don't want to have a distorted view of us, if the band truly has that impact and there's a real reason to play, we'll play. Does any band want to go back out and risk everything and fail, be a flop and go home? I don't want that. THE BEATLES stopped playing because they felt they couldn't live up to THE BEATLES. Now I'm only using that as an example of smart business. They don't need the money, but second of all they know the image. Just like a lot of people don't want Michael Jordan to play basketball again because he went out on such a high. You couldn't ask for a better way to go out, that will be the legend that lives forever. Do you want to come out with the Wizards and suck? I don't know, maybe he does, he's well entitled to do so.

 

The problem is that he can't do it without the media scrutinizing his every move. If he has fun playing professionally then he should come back and do it, but he won't be allowed to enjoy it.

Yeah, as far as the TWISTED SISTER thing is concerned, we have a certain legendary status I guess. We saved ourselves from the pitiful endless bands playing bars that have been around for twenty years but only have three original members thing. No one's memory of us if a bunch of decrepit guys in a bar. So you only have this one view of us. Which is nice. It's like seeing a Playboy Bunny years later. Do you really want to see what she looks like now or do you want to remember her from back then. So I don't know. We never claimed that we were going to play again and a lot of people projected that. I don't want to let anybody down, but we never said we were playing again, ever, ever. But we may. If given the right circumstances, but we've never committed to that. As it is we're gonna show up and do an autograph signing in August.

And wait and see what happens after that?

Yeah, we'll see what happens….


Read out review of TWISTED FOREVER

Visit the official Twisted Sister webpage

Thanks to Jeff Kent from Promethean Crusade for contributing this interview. Be sure to check out the zine! Go to prometheancrusade.com for more information on how to subscribe!


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Saturday, November 17, 2001