A Lesson In Survival: A Conversation With Twisted Sister’s Jay Jay French

On May 30, 2015, legendary East Coast hard rockers Twisted Sister played a 90-minute concert in Las Vegas — the first in a series of shows dedicated to A.J. Pero, the band’s former long-time drummer who had passed away suddenly just two months earlier while playing in another band, Adrenaline Mob. The concert was recorded for CD-DVD/Blu-ray, and “Twisted Sister: Metal Meltdown Live at the Hard Rock Casino Las Vegas — A Concert to Honor A.J. Pero” was released a year later on July 22 to an eager audience, rocketing to No. 1 on the Billboard Music Video Sales Chart.

Vocalist Dee Snider, guitarists Jay Jay French and Eddie Ojeda, and bassist Mark Mendoza are currently in the midst of their “Forty and Fuck It” tour, the culmination of a long and storied roller coaster career that saw them peak in mid-1980s with the release of the multi-platinum selling album “Stay Hungry,” only to bottom out and disband a few short years later.

French took time to speak to Darren Tromblay in a phone interview on the release, the band’s resurgence, and his outlook on the current state of rock and roll.

“Twisted Sister: Metal Meltdown Live” is a recording of a performance last year that the band dedicated to your former drummer, A.J. Pero. It must have been a difficult time for you guys.
It was an emotional project because the band was deciding whether there was a band anymore. It came at a really critical time, and we had committed to doing this thing in February, and A.J. died in March. It basically threw the entire band in doubt. My God, there were so many things to discuss. A.J. passed on March 20, and I met Mike Portnoy on March 21 at a memorial concert for A.J. He said, “Look, man, I don’t know what you guys are planning, but if you need my help, I’m there.” He said it in the most sincere way. He’s one of the nicest guys in the world, not to mention one of the greatest drummers in the world. I’m in the dressing room, I was asked by the Adrenaline Mob guys to play a memorial song for him. I was in the dressing room just crying. I was crying for four days over this. I couldn’t believe it.

I saw the video on YouTube of you playing that song at the Adrenaline Mob show, and I remember thinking, “This guy has nerves of steel. His bandmate just died.”
Portnoy and I were both crying in the dressing room at the Starland (venue). We knew each other a little bit, we’d seen each other at certain social events, but we really didn’t know each other. Mike grew up as a fan of Twisted Sister. So we were like, bonding in this room, both in a daze, and he said if we wanted, he would help, as opposed to the freaking buzzards that were flying around A.J.’s grave. People calling and saying, “Hey man, I’m a great drummer…” I was like, “Fuck you,” and was hanging up on everybody. Trust me, I will never take their phone calls again. Mike wasn’t coming from that position at all. He was coming from, “You guys have to figure out what you’re doing with your life. If you need me to help you, I’m here.” And it was completely from the heart.metCoverTwistedSister

Portnoy is different kind of a drummer in the sense that he likes to be the guy out front. But in this instance, he’s seemingly stepped in and just wants to do what’s right for you guys.
That’s it. He’s doing less than ever. (laughs) He’s just playing. And there’s a relief that the weight of the world is not on his shoulders, and he gets to wallow in the love of hundreds of thousands of people. (laughs) These shows we’re doing, the average is something like 65,000 to 110,000 people per show. We’re standing onstage and hundreds of thousands of people are screaming and singing, and he’s just got this big-ass smile on face, like, “This is cool.” And Mike being Mike, he knew our songs better than us, which is embarrassing. (laughs) He’s going, “Why aren’t we playing this one? Why aren’t we playing this one.”And I’m like, “We haven’t played that song in 35 fucking years. Shut up.” (laughs)

So you decided to continue, but you weren’t nervous about the first show with a new drummer being the one that was being recorded?
We had to decide if we were moving forward. But basically it’s like we were saying, “We’re doing a concert, with a new drummer, for a DVD, and it’s his first show.” It should be the 10th show or a year later. The first thing you don’t do is go under the microscope of a video camera. For Mike to step in is a testimony to two things: how great Mike is and how great we are in our familiarity with each other. Because what band would do a debut DVD on the first show they played after one rehearsal? Only one band would play before 85,000 people around the world on one rehearsal. One band, and one band only.

Why all the love from the Europeans?
We were so unaware of the worldwide appeal of the band that when we reunited in 2001 to do the benefit for the widows and orphans from the New York City Police and Fire Department following 9/11. All we wanted to do was raise money for that. There was no intention of doing anything else. And then the word got out, and European promoters were calling and throwing us headlining shows. I can’t tell you how weird that is. We’d never headlined a single show, ever, in Europe. We were always seventh on the bill. How do you go from seventh on the bill, then 15 years later being the headliner without ever having played again? I mean, what kind of wacky shit is that?

It doesn’t make sense, honestly.
 Exactly. We waited a whole year, and then we decided in 2003 that we would do it. By extraordinary luck or coincidence or whatever you want to call it, it wasn’t enough that we headlined Sweden Rock, it wasn’t enough that we headlined Bang Your Head. Iced Earth was scheduled to headline the deepest, darkest metal festival in all of Europe, which is Wacken. Slayer headlined on a Friday and Iced Earth was supposed to headline on a Saturday. All the bands were demonic bands like Rotting Christ, Kill the Nun, Burn the Church, Hang the Dog — all that black metal shit. So the Wacken promoter is telling the guy from Bang Your Head that the singer for Iced Earth quit and he was screwed and needs a headliner. The Bang Your Head guy says, “Pick Twisted Sister up,” and the Wacken guy almost fell off his chair. But the Bang Your Head guy goes, “No, no, no, no. You don’t understand. They played here (Bang Your Head) three weeks ago, and they blew the place apart. Trust me.” So the guy at Wacken did, and we annihilated it. All of a sudden it altered the trajectory of the band, and every festival wanted Twister Sister. That started the annual stampede of booking the band, because, unless Twisted Sister was headlining, it wasn’t a real festival.

It sounds like, at least early on, that there was no preconceived strategy as to what Twisted Sister’s long-range plan was, if there even was one.
If you would had asked me in 2003 how long this was going to go on, I would have said, “Eh, ‘80s metal fests? Two years, maybe four or five at the outside.” We’re now 14 years in, and the shows are bigger than ever.

None of the headlining acts are getting any younger, though. What happens when these headliners are no longer there?
I don’t know, but we’re going. Crue is gone. Sabbath is gone. Motorhead is gone. But the thing is, no one is replacing us. And people say, “You’re doom and glooming.” And I say I’m not. Show me Billboard charts with 25-year-old superstar rock bands. The problem is, when I was 17 years old, the Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix, Floyd, Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane — none of them were older than 25. Can you name one band with 25-year-old superstars?

Well, that’s a problem. And by the way, when I was 17, I wasn’t watching 60-year-old guys playing guitar unless I was in a blues club or my parents dragged me to Carnegie Hall to watch some Spanish Flamenco player. But here we all are, at 65, and the Rolling Stones are 75. The Stones are so old their fans they don’t clap because they’re afraid the lights will go on in the arena. (laughs) The phenomenon is aging itself out. I shouldn’t complain; it makes us more valuable, right?

But on the other hand, it’s sad. When people say I’m just knocking it, I say, “No I’m not. Make me feel better. Give me a list of 10, 25-year-old superstar bands that are out there, and make me feel better. Please.” I’m still waiting for that list.

The kids of later generations will never understand certain things about music because it is so different now.
It is. If you’ve seen our documentary, “We Are Twisted Fucking Sister,” it’s a real lesson of survival — not just a rock band lesson of survival, but what it takes to succeed in anything you try to do. I’m a motivational speaker, writer and tell the lessons as I experienced through the prism of rock and roll. We killed ourselves. It’s not going to happen again, and one of the reasons is that the drinking age was 18 then. And when it was 18, that means 15-year-olds were getting in so the clubs were 20 times larger, the business was 10 times bigger for live music. There are so many reasons why it simply cannot replicate itself, and why we are so valuable. These DVDs tell a very important story.

Do you see you guys getting together for any one-offs at any stage?
Well, in life, you should never say never. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a focus to where you’re moving, and our moving focus is to never play again. I don’t see it happening.

Are there any tracks you haven’t played live that you go, “It’s the last time. We have got to play this.”
We have thought about it. We have an ace in the hole, but I don’t know if we are going to play it. It’s the very first original we used to play. We rehearsed it, but I don’t know if it will see the light of day. But I’m not worried about it, because it seems people can’t get enough of the songs we do play.

“We’re Not Gonna Take It” being one of them.
I feel bad for all the bands we’re playing with this year, because apparently our fans are singing our songs during their sets. Fans are singing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” between Iron Maiden songs. It’s very disconcerting. (laughs) Am I endorsing it? No. But do I like it that we are a quasi-religious experience? Sure. When we played Buenas Aires, it was kind of like, the Pope has landed, with Elvis on one shoulder, the Beatles on the other, and Jesus driving the car. We’ve kind of morphed into this global love feast.

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