Interview: Twisted Sister's Jay Jay French
As Twisted Sister guitarist Jay Jay French prepares to host a screening of the band's film in London, he speaks to Classic Rock to explain the secrets of their success...
Hey, you sick mother**er, have you heard the news? Everybody’s favourite rabid granny street gang, Twisted Sister, has a new documentary out, We Are Twisted F**kin’ Sister. It’s about their ten year odyssey slogging it out in the f**kin’ trenches in dive bars and (eventually) dive arenas in Long Island and New Jersey, building up a rabid fanbase of hard-partying rabble-rousers while searching for an ever-elusive record deal.
Directed by Andrew f**kin’ Horn, WATFS is a revelation, two hours of startlingly honest confessions from the boys in the band and endless spools of previously unseen footage of pre-fame Sister laying waste to all-comers as they slowly but surely develop into the battle-hardened heavy metal beasts that took over the world in the mid 1980’s. This thing is so f**kin’ ballsy it actually ends when the band finally gets signed. That part of the story’s already been told, after all. It’s public record. This is about all the hard f**kin’ work that made all that other sh*t happen.
“Our band is like an iceberg, what you see is just the shiny tip.” says straight-shooting Twisted guitarist Jay Jay French from his office in New York. “Underneath that is the gravitas of thousands of performance hours that taught us how to put on a show. That’s why we’re one of maybe twenty bands in the world that are hired to play in front of 100,000 people, and they’ll all have a good time. We're professionals. We don’t even have to think about it anymore.”
French is the break-out star of the film, the sturdy shepherd of his mascara-abusing flock, the stern voice of reason in a churning sea of flim-flammers and ego-maniacs. So direct he’s almost villainous, French strips the myth of rock'n'roll stardom down to its very essence: hard work and (if you’re smart enough), cold hard cash.
“It was 100% business 100% of the time,” he says, matter of factly. “That’s all it was. There was no partying. I mean, the band had a house in Long Island and the whole time we lived there we threw one party, a fourth of July party, one year. And somebody brought some heavy-duty fireworks and almost got us all arrested. Outside of that, it was just work, five nights a week. We had two nights off. One we would sleep, the other we would rehearse. One thing I was very careful to say in the film was that we were never a starving rock band. That never, ever happened to us. We were making money all the time, the whole thing was about making money. I don’t mean that at the expense of not being great, but I had no intention of being a starving artist, ever.”
The film also reveals one other component to Twisted Sister’s eventual success, their finely-honed killer instinct. While French and outspoken frontman Dee Snider occasionally waged civil war, when they hit the stage, they were one unshakeable unit, the most devastating live band imaginable. If anybody had to open for Twisted Sister, they likely would not live to tell the terrible tale.
“In our world, frankly, it was kill or be killed, because the bands that played in the bars, they were good bands,” explains French. “They did not suck. So you always tried to kick their ass because maybe next time they’ll hire you instead, and you’ll get paid more. As I said in the movie, we were very predatory. People think the music industry is like some big happy family. Well, fuck all that. My only interest was in demoralizing any band that played with us. All killer no filler, that was our motto. And we still feel that way today. We just played with Iron Maiden and Slayer, and our attitude was, ‘Let’s go out there and make them look like idiots.’ I mean, I don’t know how they are because I never stick around to see the bands. I’m sure they’re fine. But I want people singing our songs during their sets. Because that means I win."
The release of the documentary has aroused new interest in Twisted Sister, but French is quick to remind us that the film serves as more of an epilogue than an introduction. After 40 years, the band is ceasing operations at the end of this year.
“Yeah, this is it. At the end of this year, we’re done. We’ve got six more shows to do, and then it’s over. I do a lot of stuff, and Twisted is only part of it. I’m writing a book, and I do keynote addresses and I’m a business writer. I also do motivational speaking. So the rock thing has always been this side thing that’s fun to do, but it’s not my main focus. My book will be coming out next year. Dee is gonna be a solo artist. I think he wants to be more of a pop artist. Will that work, a 60 year old man playing pop? Listen man, anything can happen. I certainly don’t wish against him. But we’re done as a band.”
Clearly, French is never at a loss for words, and if there’s one thing he loves talking about, even now at the end of their run, it’s Twisted Sister. So it should be quite the treat when French introduces the film and hosts a Q&A after the screening with director Andrew Horn at London’s Prince Charles theatre on August 10th.
“England was very important to the history of the band, as was shown in the documentary,” French acknowledges. “England pretty much rescued us, and I’m always excited to go back.”
When asked what to expect from the Q&A, he states, plainly, “The truth. I don’t think there’s any questions I don’t want to answer. There’s nothing that I want to hide, it’s all out there. I’ve read Keith Richards’ book, I’ve read Joe Perry’s stuff, and the mind boggles about how much those guys don’t get along. I mean Charlie Watts punched Mick Jagger in the mouth once,” he laughs. “We’ve never expressed that kind of animosity. We just don’t harbour those kind of feelings. So hey, ask away.”
Jay Jay French hosts the screening of We Are Twisted F**kin’ Sister on August 10. Tickets are on sale now.
The DVD of We are Twisted F***ing Sister! is out now.
Twisted Sister play Bloodstock on August 12.