INTERVIEW BY MARKO SYRJALA
A New York native Joe Franco is a professional drummer, best known for his work with the Good Rats and Twisted Sister. He’s been a part of many of Dee Snider’s post-Twisted Sister projects, including Widowmaker and Van Helsing’s Curse. Franco has also toured and recorded with acts like Jack Bruce, Leslie West, Vinnie Moore, Blues Saraceno, and Fiona. Currently, Franco is mainly working as a music producer in his recording and post-production company called Beatstreet Productions in New York City. Last November, I had a chance to visit Beat Street studio and discuss with the man himself about his current activities and, of course, about the old days, including his Twisted Sister days. Read on!
Metal-Rules.com: When did you get the idea to start Beat Street Productions, and what kind of projects are you doing here in the studio?
Joe Franco: I opened it 20 years ago. At the time, I had my recording studio in my apartment and my drums in a space I shared with a drummer bud, Jonathan Mover. My wife and I were expecting our first child, and we needed to move the studio and make a baby’s room. We live just three blocks away from here. I walked down the Broadway, found this space, packed up my drums and recording gear, and set up shop. A few years after that, I was asked to play drums on a children’s television show. When the show’s producer and music director came down and saw my space, they wound up recording the whole show here. That was almost 20 years ago, and now we’ve done probably three or four dozen children’s television shows, and it’s what keeps this place afloat. We do music projects as well. Foreigner were just here to mix their upcoming live album, and we just did a big project with Keith Urban for Home Shopping Network. But the bulk of our business is audio post-production for television.
Metal-Rules.com: So that’s the base of this business. Do you still do drum session work as well?
Joe Franco: Absolutely. I did a couple of projects with Steve Walsh and a couple for the band, Magellan. Nowadays, I am into drumming for the same reason as I got into it 50 years ago, it’s my passion, and I love it. I love playing, but to go on the road in a tour bus for six months is not what I do. That was cool when I was younger, but now I mostly do projects with friends. I did some tracks for Mark Wood, a great electric violin player. I also produced and played drums on a record with Eddie Ojeda, Twisted Sister’s lead guitarist. And I’ve done records with Dee Snider, one of them being Van Helsing’s Curse, which I recorded and produced here. I’ve done a bunch of projects with Dee over the years. My favorites are the two albums I did with Widowmaker in the ’90s. It seems I’ve had a project with Dee every decade; in the ’80s, it was Twisted, then the ’90s, it was Widowmaker in the 2000’s it was Van Helsing’s Curse. And last year, I played some Broadway shows with him promoting his Dee does Broadway album. I’m now doing shows with his new band. Joel Hoekstra started them but was tied up with Night Ranger, so Dee brought in an L. A guitarist originally from Philadelphia named Nick Perri. We played a bunch of shows with Nick this summer, and he’s amazing. He’s 30 years old and listens to the same stuff I grew up on. He’s co-writing with Dee, and we just recorded three new songs. The songs sound great, but I can’t play them for you. “Laughs.” Dan McCafferty played 2nd guitar, and Nic Nifoussi plays bass.
THE BEST OF DEE SNIDER, DESPERADO AND WIDOWMAKER
Metal-Rules.com: I heard that Dee is putting out a “Best of “compilation on spring, and you’re going to release those new tracks on that release?
Joe Franco: Yeah, exactly. So, you know what’s going on. It’s for his 60th birthday. I almost said 50, but the years are flying, and I’m a few years ahead of him. So, on the 60th birthday, he’s releasing ROCK AND ROLL AIN’T DEAD, which is also the title of one of the three new songs we recorded, and we’ll be doing dates next spring and summer. The record will have the life span of Dee Snider material from Twisted Sister, Widowmaker, Van Helsing’s Curse, Dee Does Broadway, and these three new songs. I’m not sure which songs he’s choosing.
Metal-Rules.com: Does the album include anything from the Desperado as well?
Joe Franco: Yes, there will be, and I’m betting that “Heart is a Lonely Hunter” will be one of them as it’s one of Dee’s faves, and we’ve been doing it in the live shows. I want to tell you something about history with Desperado. I played on the first demos with Dee and guitarist Bernie Torme. They went over to the UK to complete the band with bass player Marc Russell and the late, great Clive Burr on drums. They recorded an album called “Ace,” When things didn’t work out with the label, and the record wasn’t released, Dee came back and approached me about starting it up again. I recommended Al Pitrelli for guitar. Marc Russell, who played bass with Desperado, wanted in, so basically, Desperado evolved into Widowmaker. There are some songs in the Desperado record that we wound up re-recording for the first Widowmaker album, like “Emaheevul.” When I first started that project with Dee and Bernie, we must have demoed 50 songs in my basement studio in Huntington.
Metal-Rules.com: I remember when the first Widowmaker album BLOOD AND BULLETS came out. It got a lot of attention even in Finland and Scandinavia, but unfortunately, it wasn’t a commercial success.
Joe Franco: Yeah. It was tough to come out with a record like that at that time. First of all, the Seattle thing became popular here, and a lot of the 80’s bands were having a tough time. It’s also tough to sell an ’80s band in the ’90s. People would come to the shows wanting to hear Twisted Sister. It’s kind of fun playing with Dee now because he gives them everything. He gives them a few Twisted, a few Widowmaker, a few covers, and even a Desperado song. He plays whatever the hell he wants to play and has a great time doing it, and there is no…
Joe Franco: Yeah. We all have a great time, and it’s a fun gig.
Metal-Rules.com: Going back to Widowmaker, in 1994, you released another album, STAND BY FOR PAIN. Musically, it was completely different from the first album, and I think it sounded as though you were trying to make music that was more mainstream at that time?
Joe Franco: You always want to think of yourself as evolving, and it’s hard not to pay attention to what’s going on. We were listening to the Seattle bands and liked Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and that sort of stuff at the time. And, of course, that worked its way into what we were doing. Did you like the first album or the second album better?
Metal-Rules.com: The first, of course. “Laughs”
Joe Franco: You liked the first; you are a real metalhead. You are hardcore! Thinking back at what was going through our heads. We were trying to be conscious of not sounding old… we wanted to sound current. That can work both ways. AC/DC never worried about that stuff, and it worked for them. “Laughs”
VAN HELSING’S CURSE
Metal-Rules.com: Another interesting project you’ve had with Dee Snider was the Van Helsing’s Curse. What was that band all about?
Joe Franco: The band was about 18 people, last I counted. “Laughs”
Metal-Rules.com: The legend tells that Dee came up with Van Helsing’s Curse concept after seeing the Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert. When did that happen?
Joe Franco: I think that was in December 2001. Years after Widowmaker split up, Al (Pitrelli) played in Savatage and was instrumental in developing TSO with Paul O’Neil. Al invited Dee & I to a TSO show at the Beacon Theater in NYC. We both thought it was terrific. About a month later, Dee invited Al & I out to dinner to discuss a new project. Basically, what he had in mind was TSO for Halloween.
Metal-Rules.com: What was the main idea and concept behind the Van Helsing’s Curse music and image?
Joe Franco: The main concept was, again, a TSO-like sound for Halloween. Christmas was a Bright & Cheery Holiday, but Halloween was Dark and more suited to Metal. So with Al as music director and myself as a producer, we gave it a go. One problem- Christmas had a plethora of songs, but what music was associated with Halloween? Monster Mash? “Laughs.” So one day, I asked a friend to lay down the Mike Oldfield “Tubular Bells” riff, and I started fooling around with a groove. Al took over and added the heavy factor and sequed it into “Hall of the Mountain King” and a whole middle section, and it started to develop. One day, I had a client who was a total Musicologist and asked him what the darkest thing I could add to what we were doing was. He suggested I check out the Gregorian chant, “Dias Irae,” which we tacked on to the end, and we had what we called “Tubular Hell.” That set the tone for the rest of the album, where we took dark classics and horror film soundtracks and arranged them as you would in a Metal Band. Dee decided from the beginning that he didn’t want to be the singer but rather the storyteller. He’s certainly no stranger to the Horror genre, and he wrote a storyline that evolved as the music did. Then I tied all of his narrations with the music and designed a soundscape that took the album from song to song, and that became OCULUS INFERNUM, which is Latin for “The Eye Of Hell.” Dee also named the band Van Helsing’s Curse. It was a pretty unknown name unless you were a horror buff. Then, the Van Helsing movie came out while we were doing the album, and we considered changing the name but decided to stay with it.
Metal-Rules.com: How the band line-up was put together? You and Al came in through Dee’s past projects, but how about the rest of the band?
Joe Franco: Well, since the project combined Classical with Metal, we knew we wanted strings, and the perfect fit was Mark Wood, who I’m sure you know is an incredible electric violinist and played in TSO in their early days. Al wasn’t able to do the live gigs as he’s committed to TSO, so I recommended a good friend who I thought would be a great fit, Tristan Avakian, for our first tour. The bass player was Derek Tailor, who’s played with Dee in a few post-Twisted projects. The rest of the band fell into place. Mark (Wood) put the string section together, and John Pisciotta, a mutual friend of ours, put the singers together. Danny Stanton recommended Militia for Vocals.
Metal-Rules.com: How many shows you did with Van Helsing’s Curse?
Joe Franco: Only a few a year during Halloween time. We concentrated on the NY, Philly, and Detroit markets for the first two years, but it was tough touring with 18 people, so for the 3rd year, we worked out a deal with the Hard Rock in Vegas to play The Joint for Halloween week. It was the highlight of that band as the place was totally done up in Goth fashion, the entire Casino screamed VHC, we had a Billboard on the strip, the whole Vegas thing. We finally found a way to make it work. Then, right before doing it for a second year, the guy who set the whole thing up at the Hard Rock was fired, and no one picked up the ball.
Metal-Rules.com: There are a few different versions of the OCULUS INFERNUM album. Would you describe the differences between those versions?
Joe Franco: Well, the original CD had the ten tracks ending with “The Curse,” which connected Dee’s original storyline. Then after we weren’t the next TSO, “Laughs,” we were told that we’d have a chance at radio airplay if we had a “hit,” so what do you do as a Halloween Goth Rock Band? John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” of course! So we did an arrangement for “Halloween.” Another thought to make the project more appealing was to have Dee sing. This wasn’t in Dee’s original plan, but I figured if it got people interested, what the hey! We arranged “Cry Little Sister” from the “Lost Boys” soundtrack with Dee singing and re-released the CD with these two new songs.
Metal-Rules.com: I have learned that Van Helsing’s Curse taped many of its shows for the future DVD, but so far, nothing’s been released. Is it something that will happen someday, a DVD release from Van Helsing’s Curse?
Joe Franco: Actually, we did do an amazing DVD from one of the 2005 Philly shows. I’m sure you can find it on YouTube www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQy8GP4PEcg. Or you can buy it from Midnight Syndicate’s site: www.midnightsyndicate.com/vhc.htm.
Metal-Rules.com: Van Helsing’s Curse was a theatrical and splashy live act. What is the most memorable thing for you about those gigs?
Joe Franco: The most memorable thing was the experience of playing the shows. I’ve never done anything like this as it was a total Multi-media experience where I needed to wear headphones and play to a click as the entire show was time-coded to the lights and visuals that were projected. It was like steering a large ship, a cool feeling.
Metal-Rules.com: Are there any plans for this project? At least you still have the official webpage existing…
Joe Franco: Well, certainly possible as the Music is timeless, pretty much Classic Metal meets Classical. Nothing planned at the moment, but you never know?
LEARNING TO KNOW DEE SNIDER AND HAMMERHEAD
Metal-Rules.com: Let’s go back in time a bit… When did you get to know Dee Snider?
Joe Franco: I became friends with Dee when he joined Twisted Sister. The guys in Twisted were good friends of mine before Dee joined. I think Dee joined in ’76, and before he joined, we used to play shows together. I was in a band called The Good Rats, and Twisted Sister opened shows for us back then. When Dee joined the band, they were still doing covers, but in a few years, when Dee started writing, you just knew they were on to something. I remember seeing them one time, it probably ’82, ’83, and they had evolved into the band they are today. I wasn’t surprised to see them become so huge on a global scale. I remember being in Germany. I think it was 1984 at the end of the year and seeing them on Sky Channel, and they weren’t that big back home yet. And seeing them on the Sky Channel, I’m saying, “My God! Those are my buddies.” At the time, I was playing in a metal band called Hammerhead. Have you heard of Hammerhead?
Joe Franco: You really know everyone. Ian Parry, the lead singer, is still out there killing it. If you run into him, tell him I said “Hi!”
Metal-Rules.com: I will, I will. I know the history of metal. “Laughs”
Joe Franco: HEART MADE OF STEEL that was the album we did.
Metal-Rules.com: Yeah, actually, I have that on vinyl.
Joe Franco: You do? Do you have that on vinyl? Do you know how I got into that band? David Rosenthal, who was in Rainbow at the time, recommended me. He was a big Good Rats fan. I went to Amsterdam to rehearse with them and did a live show with them somewhere in Holland before David came over to do the record. I had so much fun making that record, and it was probably one of my more memorable experiences. I had just done a record at the time with Fiona. I really thought that Hammerhead would be my next band, but they weren’t ready to go out, so I came back home as Fiona’s record was about to be released. We had a hit, “Talk to Me,” and we played all summer. As we started the second Fiona album, I found out that the Hammerhead album was shelved. So it’s how it goes… you never know.
Metal-Rules.com: That’s so true. One more thing about Dee and your friendship, as you said, you have known him forever but did something change once he became a big rock star?
Joe Franco: Of course, success changes many, and Dee is the first to admit that he was pretty much unapproachable in the later part of Twisted Sister. I mean, it’s really hard to take all that attention and not to think that you have some superpowers. “Laughs.”
LOVE IS FOR SUCKERS
Metal-Rules.com: How about your time with Twisted Sister. First of all, how you end up in the band?
Joe Franco: I knew AJ had just left the band and one day, I was coming out of a drum shop, which happened to be right across the street from the studio where Twisted were doing demos for LOVE IS FOR SUCKERS. I saw Eddie, Jay Jay, and Mark in front of the studio, so I said, “Hey! You guys are looking for a drummer?” And I just pointed to myself, and they said I should speak with Dee. So I went in and spoke with Dee, and they were doing demos with a drum machine. So, I listened to what they were doing, and I said, “Let me help you out, I can program.” I wound up programming a bunch of demos for them, and the short story is, I might have done too good of a job on programming because when Beau Hill came in to produce the album with pressure for the release date, he said, “This programming sound amazing, the drums are done.” And they wound up putting it out, and I was really pissed off because I wanted to go in there and play some drums. I’ve programmed for Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and Taylor Dayne, and that’s the stuff you’d expect to hear programming on, but Twisted Sister needs a drummer. So, I wasn’t really happy with that record any more than the fans were. That’s the way it goes, I’m just there to do a job, and if the producer likes what you do as a programmer and wants to put it out, I had nothing to say about it.
Metal-Rules.com: Reb Beach played a lot of guitars on the album. I just thought that maybe he came in through because you used to play with him before in various sessions like the Fiona one?
Joe Franco: That’s true. We auditioned guitarists for Fiona’s 2nd album, which Beau Hill also produced, and that was Beau’s introduction to Reb. I just saw him with Winger last week, and he sounded great. Some of the shows we’ve been doing this Summer combine a bunch of 80’s bands, and we’ve played with Warrant, Winger, and Lita Ford. So it’s cool to get to see old buds.
Metal-Rules.com: In addition to Reb, there were many other “outsiders” used on the album. What was the main reason for that in your opinion`?
Joe Franco: Again, it’s the producer’s call. The producer wants to use the drum machine; the producer wants to use a different guitar player; the producer actually made Mark Mendoza play with a pick! We did whatever did the producer wished to. It wasn’t an actual Twisted Sister record at all.
Metal-Rules.com: I have learned that Ronni le Tekro from TNT participated in LOVE IS FOR SUCKERS sessions. Do you remember seeing him working in the studio with the band?
Joe Franco: Ronni did some of the demos. I remember that. I remember him doing “Tonight” and his famous line before recording his solo. He said to Dee, “Be careful for your heart.” It was his way of saying, “Don’t have a Heart Attack when you hear what I’m gonna play here.” You needed to be there, but it was one of the funnier moments of those sessions.
Metal-Rules.com: You also shot a promotional video for “Hot Love.” Do you have memories from that session?
Joe Franco: I remember Dee picking me up at my house in his big black hearse (complete with coffin) and driving to the video shoot. It was right down the block from where I lived in Huntington at the time and setting up my set in a junkyard, and basically mimicking the album, with a hot chick washing a car.
Metal-Rules.com: At that time, the band decided to take off the makeup changed their style more “serious,” if I can say that. What was overall the reason to do that by then?
Joe Franco: Again, you get affected by what surrounds you and what was around us at the time with all the ’80s hair bands. And Twisted kind of went with that flow. It’s hard to remember almost 30 years ago what was going through everyone’s head, but maybe it was just kind of time for a change.
Metal-Rules.com: Did you ever wear makeup in Twisted Sister before the thing was completely dropped off?
Joe Franco: I never did, they never asked me to, and I’m glad because I wasn’t into wearing makeup. Ironically, I wound up in full makeup every Halloween for the Van Helsing’s Curse shows years later. “Laughs”
Metal-Rules.com: Once the album was out, you went to tour, but it wasn’t a long run, right?
Joe Franco: No. We toured for just a few months back in ’87.
Metal-Rules.com: And only in here the States, right?
Joe Franco: Yeah. We never went overseas. Actually, the tour was Twisted Sister, Great White, and TNT with Ronni. That was the tour line-up.
KISS AND TELL
Metal-Rules.com: As I said, I just came off from the KISS Kruise, so I want to ask something about KISS as well. Since you’re a native New Yorker, you have been around since the days when the band was formed. Were you how familiar with their music and image, and do you personally know the guys still?
Joe Franco: I was friendly with Paul and Gene back when they were NYC based. But their first record came out the same year as The Good Rats’ first record, 1974. I looked at it in the record store and laughed. It was just like, “Who are these guys trying to be four Alice Cooper’s?” I can’t say I’m a kid that grew up with KISS because I’m not. I grew up with Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, and Cream, and then I got into all of the great amazing players of the fusion scene; Tony Williams and Billy Cobham and all of those cats, so I was never a KISS fan. I like a lot of the KISS songs, and I got where they were coming from.
Metal-Rules.com: I think that the Good Rats and KISS also did some shows together in the ’70s?
Joe Franco: Good Rats? I don’t think we did. I remember one show I did with Kiss at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. It was a benefit, and it wasn’t with Good Rats. I had a band with Blues Saraceno, a guitarist that I used to play with back then, and TM Stevens, an amazing bass player. We called ourselves “The Perry Comos.” KISS liked us. Gene said we’d be great for his label. Clearly, nothing came of that. Bruce called me once when Eric fell ill and told me they needed someone to play on the record they were doing at the time.
Metal-Rules.com: That must have been in the early ’90s?
Joe Franco: Around then, I might have over-priced myself. “Laughs.” I’m pretty sure Eric Singer played on that record. That’s about the time where I was doing a lot of records in the late ’80s. Some of them I got credit, some of them I didn’t. Actually, do you know what happened with that album?
Metal-Rules: I think we are talking about the REVENGE album, and Eric Singer played on it. On their previous album, HOT IN THE SHADE Eric Carr still played most of the tracks, but some parts are recorded using a drum machine.
Joe Franco: Yeah, that was happening back then. Drum sounds were getting bigger, and drummers used huge samples and played simple parts with click tracks. So, you’re playing really bold grooves with a click track, then replacing the sounds with samples. I guess to most, and it wasn’t that different than using a drum machine. So, it became pretty much blurred. Sometimes we’d use a drum machine for drums and then play live cymbals over it, so it sounded a little more real. I’ve done records all different ways, and I’ve done records where I played pads into a computer, so it felt a little looser but still had the sampled sounds. In the late ’80s, even Alice Cooper’s records were done with drum machines. Nowadays, it’s just as bad with quantizing drum parts in Pro Tools. You know, I’d instead put on a Hendrix’s record any day.
THE LAST WORDS
Metal-Rules.com: When you said that you are going to do some dates with Dee in spring. Are there any shows outside of the States coming this time?
Joe Franco: I think there will be. But you have to have to ask Danny about that. He will give you much better information than I can. I just will be ready to go out and rock!
Metal-Rules.com: Right. I think this is enough. Thanks for your time, Joe!
Joe Franco: Thank you.
SPECIAL THANKS TO DANNY STANTON FROM COALLIER ENTERTAINMENT FOR SETTING THIS INTERVIEW UP !!