Monday, February 28, 2011

MONDAY INTERVIEW: JAY JAY FRENCH OF TWISTED SISTER

  The name Twisted Sister still evokes vivid images of Dee Snider testifying in a black tank top at the U.S. Senate's 1985 McCarthy-esque PRMC hearings, the video for heavy metal's universal political theme song 'Were Not Gonna Take It', and legions of concerned parents misguided effort to protect us youngsters from the dangers of hair metal open-mindedness. Snider has always held the highest visibility with his stage presence and showstopping charisma, but the business touchstone holding this notorious band together the past forty years, is guitarist and original member, John 'Jay Jay' French. It's French's business savvy, negotiation skills, and a uncommon bluntness, that have ensured continued behind the scenes success for a group who's Gotham creativity spawned songs like 'Burn In Hell' and 'Love is for Suckers'.
  Surprisingly humble, yet unmistakably confident, French exudes a well-deserved pride when discussing the band's history, particularly 2010, where they are coming off their most successfully year as a touring group. But underneath the makeup, French has embraced new challenges. He's worked extensively with the band Sevendust, guiding their early career and producing their first four albums. But his most personal project may be spearheading a foundation to bring attention the debilitating ocular disease Uveitis. The Blog was fortunate to catch up with Jay Jay French in New York to discuss the past, present, and future fortunes of rock icons Twisted Sister.

  There is, perhaps, nothing less exciting that doing interviews.

  Well you know these are necessary evils in this business.

  Dee Snider, in an interview, once described Twisted Sister as Slade meets the Sex pistols. In another interview, you described the band as a New Jersey version of the New York Dolls. How would you describe the evolution of the band's sound ?

  It started as a New Jersey version of the New York Dolls, but it didn't sound like that. I think the Dolls were an original band making original music, Twisted Sister were not. It was a cover band. Now the songs we covered were musically sophisticated. The Dolls were not sophisticated, they were punk, and pretty bad actually. Twisted was a bar band that dressed like that and we were playing the new music at the time. David Bowie, Lou Reed, Mott The Hoople, that kind of stuff. Later on, as an original act, we became much more of what Dee described. So that's the evolution. As time went on, we assimilated AC/DC and Judas Priest  and became a much more mainstream eighties metal band. So, I would say our direct lineage these days is a bit of Slade and Alice Cooper, and a lot of AC/DC and Judas Priest.

  Was there a specific moment where, personally, you realized 'Hey, this band is actually going to achieve some level of national recognition' ?

  I wish I could tell you there was a moment, where time froze and stood still. But, the reality of it is that, in every band, and every person who's has ever been in band would probably say what I'm about to say: You struggle on a daily basis, for success, for validation from someone, your peers, your lover, your family. Whatever gets you through that day, whatever occurrence happens in a day that gives you justification and validation for your dream, you use that to keep going when all else fails. So when the demos were being turned down, when we were being rejected all over the place, and clubs didn't want us. Wherever the rejection levels come in, there's your validation. So there were certain instances along the way, where validation points occurred, that said 'keep going, keep going'. But there were very dark times. And those dark times exposed the weaknesses in the band, and those dark times dictated changes. Which is why if you go to the website and you read the history of the band, the group that started it, and the group that finished it were all different, except for me. Because the people could not adapt to the changes. Its a tough, tough, businesses. And how you respond to rejection is the key.

Up until recently, the band's popularity seemed to peak in 1985.

 We're more popular now than we've ever been worldwide. While we experienced a bump in popular in 1984 and 1985, because of 'Were Not Gonna Take it' and I wanna' Rock', here we are in 2011. Our last year, we had our most successful tour ever. I think were good, that's all I can say. The band is arguably the best live band in the world. I would put us up against anybody. AC/DC, U2, whoever. It wouldn't matter, we can take anybody. And we do this every year, were always on these festivals and we always get the best reviews at these shows. I could say it and sound like a jerk for saying it. Or I can read you the quotes from the articles, magazine, and websites saying when we play these festival and you can see for yourself. We wound up playing a festival in Holland a couple of years ago, with Whitesnake, Journey, KISS, Def Leppard, and Motorhead. We had to go on at 3 in the afternoon. Well, Dee's flight was late so they dropped us off in a helicopter behind the stage, and we came right out from behind the stage and played. Here you got all these amazing bands, and the only band who's picture appeared in the straight press the next day was ours. They said you've got all these amazing bands, but Twisted Sister was the best one. And it helped us last year. We played at the biggest festival in France last year and the reviews were exactly the same, so we obviously do what we do well. And I have a great pride in it. And the day that we can no longer do it at that level is the day we hang it up.

  What was the experience like being a glam band signed to a punk label ?

  We never looked at ourselves as a glam band anyway. We looked the way we did as more or less of a political statement. We weren't Poison, we weren't Motley Crue. We started out as glam band, but evolved into a performance artist band like Alice Cooper. These 'pure' glam bands were a little different. It didn't surprise me that we were signed to a label like Secret Records, because if you listen to the music purely in it's aggressive form, it was of a similar type. There was an aspect of that in the early stages of the bands original music. We played thrash we played very very quick fast stuff.

  What circumstances led you into management ?

  Well, early on in the band I noticed the manager was incompetent, and I could do a better job. My sense of business was better, my negotiation skills were better, my understanding and take on how to approach people is better, so it evolved from that. You either know it or you don't. You have an instinct, or you don't. So I'm from New York, I'm pretty much a social guy and it made sense.

  Is the production work you've done with Sevendust as satisfying as performing ?

  Performing trumps it all. I am not a fan of the studio. I am a fan of doing deals. I liked working with Sevendust and developing them, a great deal. That was a great thing to watch that succeed. I loved it. But I think the performance on stage speaks for itself. And that's where my reputation really stands out.

  Given that you're a New York City guy, was it ever difficult for you to get up on stage wearing make up ?

  Never. I was told from day one, this is the way to get girls. So the first time we did it, I thought 'that's kind of crazy' but after a couple of weeks . .  It was sold to me by the drummer of the band that contacted me, Silverstar, which became Twisted Sister. He told me 'Man, the girls love it'. I was twenty years old and a Grateful Dead freak. But, I retired from the Grateful Dead world, thankfully. I stopped doing drugs and realized they weren't as good as I thought they were. I'd spent four years following the Dead everywhere and saw them 26 times. I saw them 'open' for bands, that's how far I go back with the Grateful Dead. I mean can you imagine the Dead opening for people? I watched them open for Janis Joplin and Country Joe and the Fish. When they opened, the played thirty minutes. So they tuned up, played one song, that's what they set was, and went home. They were great for awhile, then I just evolved and moved on. I fell in love with Bowie and Lou Reed and I wanted to do that. So it was a perfect mating of my hormones and my urge to become a rock star in the time. Perfectly matched.

  By comparison, your onstage appearance was fairly tame. But, was there every a point where you wanted to approach Dee and say 'Hey, your wardrobe is getting a little out of control?'

  I have no idea what you mean by that ? If I look back at the band's evolution, we were ALL wearing the same type of clothing. I don't perceive it that way. You may, but I don't look at it and go 'Huh, that's crazier than anything else!' I would disagree.

  Is it frustrating having this great wealth of material ? Do you ever wish fans would get excited over lesser known, but quality tracks such as 'The Price'?

  We just finished playing South America. If you watch the video posted on our website, there's this little snippet, the fans knew every song, sang every word, they even sang the guitar solos. They were obsessed and crazy. I love playing 'Were not Gonna take it'. I think people who bitch about playing songs that are (their) hits, are assholes. And anyone who doesn't appreciate that's where their strength comes from, are assholes. And, anyone who doesn't play those songs for their fans, are assholes.
There's a quote from Ray Davies from years and years ago, when a reporter asked him “Are you sick of playing 'You really got me'?”. He said 'Let me tell you something: here's my choices: play you really got me or flip hamburgers. I'll take playing you really got me, anytime'. I'll play 'Under The Blade', I'll play 'You can't stop rock and roll', I'll play 'I wanna rock' everyday. It makes people happy. I think if you take your fans for granted, you're an asshole. It's as simple as that. I don't respect bands that don't understand that. The fans don't want you to get cute, they don't want you to reinvent it. They don't want you to fuck around. They want you to play the damn song, just the way it is. That's what they want. That's what they are paying for. So you're either a performer or you're not. You're a performer or an asshole. I prefer to be a performer.

  Given the relationship between band members, do you feel that Twisted Sister would've reformed at some point, even without the World Trade Center attack benefit concert ?

  Probably not. I mean, probably not. Three weeks prior to that, the VH1 Behind The Music special came out, and it was so negatively cut and it was so damaging to the band on a personal level, I thought any dream I had would've gone down the tubes at that moment. So, no, I don't think the band would've performed together again.

  What does the future hold for you in terms of more production work ?

  No idea. If someone wants me to produce a record and I love the music, I'll be involved, but I don't actively seek anything. If you seek me out, and I love it, then maybe. But I don't actively seek it. I'm into These days, the Pinkburst Project is really my life.

  Can you tell us a little bit about the Pinkburst Project and why you're passionate about it ?

  It's at www.pinkbrushproject.org. I'm doing a benefit to raise money for the their foundation that does research into Uveties, which my daughter has. Uveitis is the leading cause of blindness among American girls. It's a frustrating disease to deal with, there's no cure, only treatment. That's my focus, to raise awareness and money for a cure. And help save people's sight. Once you get involved with a project like that, everything else seems to pale in comparison. There's an auction taking place on May 1st in which these guitars and amplifiers I designed, one of a kind guitars and amps will be auctioned off and the proceeds go to the foundation. All of it's on the website and Twisted Sisters is doing a show in New York City on April 29th where the proceeds from that show will go to the foundation. Only about ten thousand people are you get this disease where as ten million suffer from heart disease. The bottom line is that if you can educate young families to get their kids checked, you may save your kids sight. There's one less person who's quality of life wont be destroyed. One less family who won't go bankrupt due to the health care system. One less person who won't go on the rolls of the Federal government supporting them because they are of limited productivity to society. I want to preserve the quality of life for these kids.
-St.Aubin
for the DRB
*EDITED FOR CLARITY AND CONTENT*




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