TAKING IT BACK TO 2010 WHEN WE SPOKE TO JAY JAY AHEAD OF THE LEGENDARY ROCK N’ AMERICA FESTIVAL – THE ROCKPIT LOOKS BACK ON IT’S FIRST FIVE YEARS OF INTERVIEWS
Jay Jay French is a man with nothing left to prove: A renowned manager, he steered Sevendust to considerable international success, as well as working with blues guitar legend Johnny Gale, The Sound Of Urchin, The Step Kings, and more. His production work with Twisted Sister & Sevendust among others is also highly acclaimed. In 2005 Epiphone even honoured Jay Jay with a Les Paul based Jay Jay French Twisted Pinkburst signature guitar.
But it is his work with the band he founded in December 1972 for which he is most well known. As guitarist of Twisted Sister (originally called Silverhead and christened TS in ’73) – whose sound lead singer Dee Snider once described as Slade meets the Sex Pistols – he continues to play to huge crowds worldwide, and he has sold more than 12 million records through his playing, managing and production careers. He has managed the band (and the brand) for almost 30 years now, and he continues to preside over Twisted Sister products into the new millennium.
Relationships between the band members have been notoriously tense since their 1988 breakup – so much so that at their 1997 reformation, one of the band members was alleged to have brought a gun along to rehearsals!
When I spoke with Jay Jay he proved to be eloquent and enthusiastic, garrulous and down to earth, witty and forthright in his opinions – in short, a dream interviewee, and as a long time fan, I endeavored to leave no stone unturned in my quest to discover what makes Twisted Sister 2010 tick…
In recent years the band have only played a couple of shows a year, but this year sees the booked in to headline no less than 12 major festivals in The States, Europe and even in Mexico. I asked Jay Jay what’s prompted this renewed activity.
“Band college tuition” he jokes. “Oh it’s so arbitrary year to year. It just depends on what festivals are offered. A few years ago we took the summer off, two years ago we did two festivals the whole summer – It really is arbitrary, if we’re offered, we look at the offer and see if the offer makes sense. If the offer makes sense then we obviously do it. So, the offer’s have been making sense so far, and we’re gonna keep playing until they don’t make sense any more.”
One of the biggest shows on their schedule for 2010 is Oklahoma City’s Rock n’ America, to be held July 23-25th At the Zoo Ampitheatre.
Rock n’ America is the new festival created by the EMG group, the same people who brought you Rocklahoma, which they handed on to AEG Live after last year’s event. Rocklahoma’s biggest selling point was a lineup almost exclusively consisting of bands who originally made a splash in the heady late 80’s days of aqua net and power ballads, when the sunset strip was music’s mecca and grunge was still only a sparkle in a young Cobains’ eye – a festival twisted Sister headlined two of it’s three year run, playing “Stay Hungry” in it’s entirety in their 2009 set. With the Rocklahoma 2010 shift to a lineup which includes many 90’s and 00’s bands, Rock N’ America is, effectively, the new Rocklahoma, and with Twisted Sister once again topping the bill, I asked Jay Jay what to expect from their headlining set, and got more than I bargained for in response!
“We’re not wearing makeup any more – we did our first show two weeks ago, and the world withstood it. Not one person went on the website and said a bad word – not one, not one person.
“And what I think about that is, for years Twisted Sister was dissed by people because of the way we looked – now there’s no excuse. They have to take us for what we are: a performing band. And you know what, if you look at all the glam bands of the era, Poison and Motley, no-one wears makeup any more. Motley doesn’t, Poison doesn’t… and the only band that does, is Kiss. And Kiss – not being offensive to them – but they’re not a glam band… they’re a kabuki theatre band!
Jay Jay continues as I laugh…
“They ARE! They’re like a heavy metal version of the musical “Cats”, as far as I’m concerned! Yeah, okay… they know how to make money: They give the people what they want. They want the concert, the makeup, the fake Ace, the fake Peter, that’s what people want. You know – so what, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not knocking it, it’s what the people want to see.
“People who are honest about that, I respect them for that. I think it’s about understanding your crowd. But I think, I’d go so far as I don’t think the crowd cares about their new stuff… that’s just my opinion…”
As for their headlining set for Rock n’ America and other festivals this year, “I think we’re going to change it around a bit, play a few tracks from “Come Out And Play”… But you know, ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, ‘I Wanna Rock’, ‘Burn In Hell’, ‘Stay Hungry’, ‘SMF’: these are staples in our line-up. We’re the only band out there that tours it’s original lineup, which I think is pretty cool.
“We’re faithful to our fans, I think we’ll play more songs from “Come Out And Play” this year, and change it a bit, but frankly we don’t play very often, you know, if you see the band once a year that’s a lot, right.
“So, changing it up, I don’t know if it matters you know, you see the band, you go wow, you tell your friends you gotta go see it. If you go back and see the same set, I don’t think you sit there and say ‘It’s the same set’, I think what matters is how the hell the band plays, right?
“If you suck, you can play the same set all the time, but if you go out there and play really well, and people love the material you play [then they enjoy the show]
“So, we played Rocklahoma [last year], and we headlined Rocklahoma 2 years ago [before that], and [this year] we get to play with The Scorpions – our buddies – you know, the last time we played with The Scorpions we broke ZZ Top’s attendance record in Canada. [Editor’s note – this was July 8, 2006, in Quebec City]
“We played with The Scorpions three years ago in Quebec, and the outdoor record was held by ZZ Top, 75,000 people – and 80,000 people came – [we even] got on the front page of the Quebec daily newspaper! So we’re looking forward to seeing our buddies Scorpions, we’re gonna see our buddies Ratt – who have a new album out by the way, which sounds great. Good for them, I wish them the best of luck
“And there’s a lot of other bands, and we’re excited about doing it…
“The stage show is the stage show. Whether Dee looks like Sarah Jessica Parker dipped in a vat of acid, is the difference! You know I don’t think the rest of us… AJ & Mark haven’t worn makeup in five years, Eddie & I have worn a little and Dee wore a lot, that’s really the cold reality of it. Mark & AJ have not, Eddie’s worn a bit, I’ve worn a bit, Dee looks like Dee – like the caricature that he looks like. And we’re still gonna dress up, and blah blah blah, just there’ll be a little less of the face paint.”
Let’s discuss Australia. In 2009 Twisted Sister were booked to headline the Rockout Festival with Girlschool, Diamond Head, Rose Tattoo, but the entire festival sunk without trace mysteriously… What was the story behind that?
“It did! I don’t really know: I was told to clear my schedule, I cleared my schedule and the next thing we know… it was done. And it was disappointing. We hadn’t been in Australia in 25 years and we were ALL looking forward to it. You know, it was the same old story, it’s always money issues. We heard that the promoters [didn’t have] the work permits… I always find those things rather curious: why would you go that far without having the proper permits? So it is was it is and there’s nothing more to be said about it, except that unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to play in Australia.”
Is there any chance that we’ll get to see Twisted Sister Down Under again?
“You know, I always tell people the same thing. Promoters have to make offers that make it worthwhile for us to do it. In this particular case, just to leave New York, to do a show in Australia – if that’s all you’re doing – is impossible. So you really need a multiple set of reasons to do it – several shows and someone has to bring you in. Now, we don’t tour: we only play one offs, so it’s just involves the right offer. If it comes – we’ll tour: I’d love to come back. Australia is the only country that I’ve been to – and I’ve been to 23 – that I’ve ever come to that I’d ever consider actually living in.”
In 2010 Jay Jay has pared back his management company to just be handling Twisted Sister. I wonder what would make him get involved with another new band in a managerial capacity.
“The business has changed drastically. I’m really analyzing the business as to what opportunities exist, but frankly, being in the business is of course as you know, not anywhere near what it was: It’s changed drastically. The chance of a band to succeed has dropped dramatically, so the amount of man hours put in for financial gain winds up being a ratio that’s much too small.
“Unless I’m looking at a band that is established and may change managements, I’m not looking to break a new band – unless they are so incredible, and their story is so amazing that it warrants it. It’s just a tough business, and right now, probably I spend most of my time managing the brand Twisted Sister which, thank God, has only become more valuable.”
How about your production work. What’s going on with that?
“Well again, I spend my time producing Twisted Sister product. We are looking forward to re-releasing the catalogue with all new DVD’s. Hopefully within the next 12 months we have all that happening, so that’s something else we’re working on.”
One thing furthermost in the minds of many Twisted Sister fans is: will there be a new TS album, but Jay Jay has no good news to share.
“Ahhh… probably not…”
That’s a shame…
“The band just looks at the whole record industry and wonders why people bother. People really don’t buy albums anymore, so you can spend a great deal of time and effort to make something that really doesn’t sell. The Christmas record did very well for us, that was a very unique product – but people really don’t buy records, they buy songs. Whether we record a new track for a single release that will depend on the state of mind of the band, but essentially we are a special product so we’re kinda like a… “, Jay Jay searches for the right word, “… a special attraction, and we’re really comfortable being that, so whether or not the world cares if we make a new record – and frankly classic rock bands, people don’t care because you sell about 10% of what you sold in your peak.
“It doesn’t really seem to be worthwhile – especially when we play live, and as soon as we say ‘here’s a new song’, they’re gonna go to the bathroom, y’know?”
Unfortunately, despite the new song ‘30’ which appears on 2009’s 25th anniversary reissue of the band’s “Stay Hungry” album being a very strong tune and sounding completely at home next to the rest of this classic album, Jay Jay has a valid point. Whether the old songs are so iconic now that they eclipse anything that the band could create 25 years later, or whether audiences simply prefer to be reminded of their own glory days, is a mystery not lost on him.
“You know what, if you go to see Springsteen or The Stones, or any of these bands, they’re playing all that stuff that you want to hear, then [when they announce a new song] chances are you get up and go for a beer.
“Considering the fact that the tickets cost so much – when I saw the Stones, tickets were 350 dollars each and they did a 15 minute version of ‘Love Train’. I’ve nothing against Ashford & Simpson, but really, I don’t wanna hear them do ‘Love Train’, I’d rather hear them do ‘Get Off My Cloud’, ‘Mothers Little Helper’… that’s like, that’s what I’m paying for!
“You have to truly understand who you are, we ARE a classic rock band with classic songs – people wanna hear those songs, once we play those songs, they’re happy!
I mention that Jay Jay uses the term “classic rock band” in the same way that I use it – in terms of a classic rock band – but I think there’s a lot people out there who use that term almost as a derogatory term.
“It’s much better than a ‘hair band’!” he jokes again.
I recall reading an interview with vocalist Ian Gillan, and he was adamant that Deep Purple was NOT a “classic rock band”, since that term implied that they were past their prime or purely a heritage act. Jay Jay was quick to put this attitude in perspective.
“I don’t care what Iron Maiden thinks, or Priest thinks – they are what they are – I mean, you are what you are! You’re never gonna be contempory, because twenty year olds will never care! I don’t care how cool you think you are. So you’re not going to be the ‘buzz band’, no matter how cool you think you are, but who cares about being the buzz band? All I care about is entertaining.
Entertaining seems to be what Twisted Sister 2010 is all about, as Jay Jay explains.
“If [you] come to our shows and we play 17 songs [you] wanna hear, then who the hell gives a damn, you know what I mean. [They should] just stop this bullshit, it’s just stupid marketing – that’s just my opinion!
“It’s a stupid mentality. People are looking at you now because of what you did, and no matter what you think you are, you are what you give, and that’s really the reality of it. Just go ahead – if that’s what makes you happy, making new music, then go ahead, [but] I guarantee the vast majority couldn’t care less and therefore why waste the energy, that’s the upshot.
“Having said that, the Christmas Album became a huge success…”
The Twisted Sister Christmas Album, released in 2006, featured the band “Twisted Sistering” Christmas classics such as ‘Deck the Halls’, ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ and ‘Let It Snow’.
Seeing as the album was effectively a covers album – albeit a unique one – I ask Jay Jay if Twisted Sister would ever consider making an album of covers of their favourite songs.
“We were offered a covers album about two years ago, but the band turned it down.
“You know it’s interesting how this band functions, because we don’t really see each other very often, we see each other very rarely… and we travel very, very rarely… and it takes a huge idea to get this band to do anything, because it’s just … the band just doesn’t do much, it just doesn’t particularly WANT to do much.
“It just wants to play one show once in a while and go home, so we enjoy it when we do it, but we don’t sit there with Twisted Sister on the front burner – the only one that does that is me, when I have a marketing idea. And usually I’ll throw a marketing idea out and I’ll get ‘No no no no’. How about this – ‘No no no no’, how ‘bout this? so that’s how I deal with the band members.
So if 90% of people don’t buy records any more, so you doubt whether it’s worthwhile Twisted Sister regrouping to record an album, why do other “classic rock” bands such as Ratt, The Scorpions, Cheap Trick, Def Leppard and so on continue to record successfully if financial failure is such a certainty?
“Record sales and profits from them are not important to most ‘classic bands’ – they are loss leaders to help promote ongoing and extensive touring schedules and commensurate merchandise sales. These bands don’t put up their own money. A record label does and the bands don’t really care if the sales actually make a profit (though their egos may be slightly damaged though!)
“I also strongly doubt that many of the ‘classic bands’ that record do it successfully. It’s easy to tell because a change of labels from one release to another signals that the record label lost money on the act. Also, it’s obvious that anyone or any band who still records still believe that, not only do they have something to say, but that there is actually an audience who cares. That’s their opinion and they are entitled to it. I don’t share that view and sales consistently prove that not many people do either.
“Twisted Sister doesn’t need to promote a new CD to get work. We play so rarely and we are sought after all over the world. We can do what we want. We are very lucky that way because we are one of the very few acts who perform entirely in its original album line-up. That alone is a very valuable commodity.”
It’s a shame we are unlikely to hear any new Twisted Sister music any time soon, if at all, but Jay Jay has made the band’s position on that clear. The only point I really disagree with him is that of whether other ‘classic bands’ can record successfully or not.
My definition on a successful recording isn’t purely based on sales figures: bands such as Ratt, The Scorpions, Def Leppard, etc have all released artistically successful albums recently.
Is Jay Jay saying that Twisted Sister have no imperative to make any further creative statement and are just happy to play the occasional gig?
“Our creativity comes with the continued release of our catalogue and never before seen concerts as well as the development of the awareness of the Twisted Sister brand which stands for the dedication of perfection as it relates to the live experience which I believe our reputation is based on.
“We are among the greatest live bands of our generation. That legacy is our heritage and is never taken lightly. Making a new record is but one facet of what would be construed as a career. That part is not the present focus. We have been and are so much more.”
That Twisted Sister is comfortable not needing that creative expression is fair enough – at least the opportunities still exist to see them live, which as Jay Jay says, is where the cornerstone of their reputation was laid. I personally saw them for the first time at Rocklahoma 2009 and they proved themselves as good or better onstage than any other band of their or any other generation.
As for the future of the band, Jay Jay has no hard answers
“People will say to me – how long are you gonna keep going, it’s an impossible question. The promoters offer us dates, I send emails out, the band either says yes or no. One day all the members will say no and that will be the end of it. Until that day we’ll continue to play, so when people say to me ‘when’s the last day?’ I say, well, right now, the last day’s Mexico, but it may go past that, it may go past that for five years, it may never go past that. That may sound strange, but that’s about how it works with Twisted Sister.
“There’s no long term plan – it’ll go for however long the band feels it makes a difference to go on and at some point the band will just go and be done and that will be the end of that. I thought that was going to happen at least ten times since we’ve been back together.
“I have no expectations – The Christmas record was like a half joke… and then everyone went ‘gee, wow’ and it turned out to be a hit. We executed it very well, everybody was very happy, we had a lot of good times, the record’s become very successful – and I love that, that gives us the option to do our Christmas shows, and we went to Vegas with it last year, and that was great. The Hilton Show – the Hilton in Vegas was AMAZING, it was great!
“And who knew? But then again ten years ago, who knew the band would get back together again. Ten years ago if you had said to me the band would get back together and if you had asked me in 2000 what I thought that the world of Twisted would be like in 2010, well I would’ve said ‘Well there’s NO world of Twisted, ‘cos the band isn’t together and it won’t be’, so if you could have told me in 2000 that by 2010 we would have played 115 shows headlining 85 of the worlds biggest festivals… If you had told me we would’ve released 4 DVD’s… If you had told me we were would’ve released 3 CD’s… If youd’ve told me we would’ve been on Broadway in the musical Rock of Ages… If you would’ve told me we’d have had a Christmas musical on Broadway… and that ‘We’re not Gonna Take It’ and ‘I Wanna Rock’ were [voted] two of the best liked songs of the Eighties, and more TV commercials, and movie trailers, movie soundtracks and commercials, I’d say to you, you gotta be crazy.
Which leads nicely into my next question. Is there anything else that you would like to achieve.
“I only have one thing else that I would like to do and that is play at Madison Square Garden, I’ve never done that. Other than that I have so far exceeded anything I ever dreamed of and there’s nothing that I particularly – outside of just performing in front of lots of people, which, believe me, I’ve never ever taken for granted, because in reality, you know, the phrase ‘Party like a rock star’, it’s because everybody wants to party like a rock star – nobody says ‘Party like a construction worker’, ‘Party like a butcher’, ‘Party like a dentist’, even ‘Party like Alex Rodriguez’ or ‘Party like David Beckham’ – EVERYBODY wants to party like a rock star!
“I would say ‘Everybody wants to party like a golfer’ but Tiger changed that a little!!
“Other than that, everybody does want to party like a rock star, so that means that I’m being paid a lot of money to travel round the world and stand in front of 50,000 kids with a Les Paul strapped around my neck, playing through six Marshall Amplifiers, playing rock music… well, you know what? [pauses for effect]… Shut up n’ enjoy it! That’s what I say to myself!
“Don’t sit there and go blah blah blah, [with your] annoying whining. This is why I Don’t Like Bands [Jay Jay states this emphatically] that bitch and moan and complain about life, and how their wife sucks, their girlfriend sucks, their dog sucks. Quit bitching and moaning to me, ‘cos frankly, a fan pays money to have a good time. A fan pays money to go to a show and enjoy themselves – they don’t need to be reminded of the crap they deal with on a day to day basis.
“We have a responsibility, we’re entertainers, we want people to have a good time. “
I agree whole heartedly with Jay Jay, yet we’ve all heard of so many bands that mope around miserable, and self importantly declare ‘Oh I don’t wanna play that song, I hate it’
“Yeah. I’ll play ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ for the rest of my life – [it’s] that or flip burgers, are you kidding me!! It’s not even a question!
“That’s what I do for a living! I’m sorry – it doesn’t suck, my friend!”
So, almost forty years later, what’s Jay Jay’s favourite Twisted Sister song?
“‘Shoot Em Down’, or ‘Can’t Stop Rock n Roll’”
I realised that our fifteen minute interview has stretched to almost 25 minutes, so I start to wrap up by asking Jay Jay what’s his most vivid memory of the band’s early days?
“Hmmmm, oh boy. There are just… there are dozens! I’m doing a book now, and I don’t know what my MOST vivid memory is, there are so many great memories and so many painful memories – because the band was turned down more times than a bedsheet in a whorehouse!!
“When we tried to get a record deal, maybe some of those stories – ‘cos they were so bad, they’re good because they teach you lessons, right…
“There are too many memories! Too many… too many band members, too many trials and tribulations, [sighs] it’s impossible… all I can say is, in general, every time the band was presented with a challenge, rather than run away, we confronted it.
I suggest that maybe this is what initially brought the guys together as a band – as more than a band, as a gang.
“Yeah, that’s why we survived. In those moments, when we doubted the reason to go on – for whatever reason: band members leaving, personal problems, or just the fact that the band was rejected by record labels a thousand times, and having to deal with rejection – every time we were confronted with ‘what the hell are we gonna do’, regardless of what I’ll ever say about my band members personally (oh your getting me annoyed, blah blah blah blah), the band exhibited the band mentality – the CHARACTER of the band – to overcome [and that] is the reason why we’re here. And I guess all those reasons are compiled to create a character profile of the band, so… I don’t mean to be that HEAVY, but, those are the times I’m really the most proud of the band – when confronted with the end of the band, we stood up [and stayed together]
“Until of course it all crashed and burned in ’88 – but that’s a chapter in another book itself…”
I leapt on Jay Jay’s revelation that he is writing a book and wanted to know more about this venture. Is this to be a personal memoir?
“Well, it would be, I mean, history goes to the ones who remember, right? I don’t know how accurate it’s gonna be, it’s gonna be my story. I’m gonna have to write something for Oprah Winfrey – don’t accuse me – this is how I remember it! Gimme a lie detector test, this is how I remember it, [even if] it’s wrong!
“The title of the book is “Before I Forget””
When I ask Jay Jay the last question we ask all our interviewees – “What is the meaning of life?”, he pauses for a good ten seconds, the first time he’s been lost for words in the entire interview!
“You know, I’m glad you didn’t ask me a tough question!
“I’ll… uhhh… leave that to a better man than me! “
But it’s not long before he finds an answer, deep within himself.
“I… I really do not know, I really… I don’t know. The longer you live, the more amazing things, the more tragic things you see… That question, I don’t know…
“… all I hope is that my daughter – who I have put on this earth as my extension – has a more positive than negative effect on this planet.
“And I think that all we can ever hope is that our offspring do something more positive than negative, because there’s an awful lot of crap and negativity, and you hope that you don’t ADD to that noise…”
And what a lovely sentiment to finish on…
Jay Jay pauses again… “Well I’m glad, I was… I didn’t want to sound too pretentious, but I really do mean that, I really think you have a responsibility to have your kids, somehow carrying on something of a more positive than negative nature, so… now I have my answer to that question!”
See, you can be a rock star, and still be a family man and have deep thoughts, it’s all good!!
“Well, I love my daughter!”
And on that note I bid farewell to a legend, a man whose music I grew up listening to and still love almost 30 years after first hearing. Thanks very much for your time talking to The Rockpit Jay Jay
“Thank you for your support”
If you have the opportunity, get yourself to Rock N’ America or one of the other festivals Twisted Sister is playing and catch them while you can!