On The Line with Jay Jay French of Twisted Sister

To quote the band’s frontman, Dee Snider, “Is there a man, woman, or child alive that doesn’t know We’re Not Gonna Take It?” I had the privilege to speak with Jay Jay French, the guitarist for Twisted Sister, a band that has delivered anthems for the ages throughout their legendary career. Jay Jay French and I discussed life in New York, his favorite guitar riffs, Twisted Sister song appearances in television and film, Sevendust, and much more!

Alex Obert: What have you taken out of being around New York City, from the music scene to the people and everything in between?

Jay Jay French: I was born and raised in New York, that’s an interesting question, but it’s a very long answer. I spent my teenage years at the Filmore East. That was an extraordinary time because you got to see the great rock gods playing there. Then in the seventies when Twisted started, I left the New York area, basically for twelve years. We played the tri-state area bar scene. With New York City and the whole CBGB’s scene, I wasn’t apart of any of that. It had no impact on me, other than the fact that I saw these artists playing there. I saw The Ramones once in 1975. I’d seen the Dolls a couple times because the Dolls were rehearsing at the studio that I rehearsed at.

But this is where I was born. Where you’re born is where you’re born. New York is great and it’s a wonderful experience, the most unique city in the world. I have nothing else to compare it to because this is where I was born and raised. When people tell me about their experiences and they didn’t live in New York, I find it fascinating. I’ve been here all my life, it’s not as spectacular to me, it just is what it is. It could be a sleepy community in certain neighborhoods, it could be a crazy nighttime thing, but I think growing up in New York is probably one of the most unique experiences you can have. I think that most people essentially want to gravitate to New York. Most New Yorkers don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I wanna go to Dubuque, Iowa.”, but those in Dubuque, Iowa wake up and say, “I wanna be in New York City.” So you’re here in the epicenter of culture, the epicenter of finance, the epicenter of everything except for government. And even then, who knows, because the United Nations is here. So it’s a pretty amazing place to grow up in, but I’ve been here all my life and I don’t sit here going, “Oh, isn’t this an amazing place to be?” It just is what it is.

Alex Obert: Though New York is your home, what do you take out of traveling to other countries while on tour?

Jay Jay French: First of all, most bands never see where they are playing. You kinda just go to a country, you play and you leave. And for years, I never saw anything. I flew in, I went to sleep, I woke up, I did a show, I got in a plane or on a bus and went to a different country. Lately in the last ten years, we’ve had chances to spend a little time in the countries we’re in and so it’s interesting. But my ex-wife is British, I met her in England. My daughter’s English. I spend a lot of time in England, I’ve lived there for long periods of time. I love it over there, I love visiting it, I have a lot of friends there. I find that the well-worn cliche that the music fans are the same all over the world to be exactly true. People sing our songs in country after country, they know the lyrics to songs. They’re bound by their cultural connection. And as an observer, it’s an extraordinary thing to see. When you’re on stage and you see people singing your songs and connecting to you, that’s a very powerful, powerful feeling to have. And I don’t ever take that feeling for granted.

Alex Obert: Getting back into New York for a moment, do you have any memories of going to Trash & Vaudeville?

Jay Jay French: I buy clothes there, but I have no long term memories of Trash & Vaudeville. I know Jimmy and I’ve been in the store several times, but growing up, that wasn’t the store. You went to Different Drummer, you went to Granny Takes a Trip, you went to Ian’s, that’s where you bought your clothes. These places predate Trash & Vaudeville in every way. Granted Trash & Vaudeville is currently there and Jimmy’s great and the store is wonderful, but that’s not where I got my clothes. We went to Pandemonium on the Upper West Side. And of course Ian’s is where the Dolls bought all their stuff from. If you ask Jimmy at Trash & Vaudeville, he’ll tell you that he’s an exact extension of what Ian’s was. Also in the early seventies when you bought leather, the only place you could buy leather was the Pleasure Chest in New York, which was an extremely gaycentric leather shop.

Alex Obert: Getting into your music, how do you feel you and Eddie compliment each other’s styles? (Eddie Ojeda, co-guitarist for Twisted Sister)

Jay Jay French: We’re really different. I’m much more free-form, he’s much more specific in what he does. Eddie will write a solo part and play that solo part on an album pretty much the way it’s written and he’s very, very, very disciplined that way. And he’s always been an extremely excellent and disciplined guitar player. I tend to be more emotionally off the cuff. And so it kind of works.

Alex Obert: With all the touring that Twisted Sister has done, who do you regret not playing a show with?

Jay Jay French: Well I always would have loved to be on a bill with AC/DC because I love them. But other than that, we’re basically on the same circuit with so many of these bands that we once revered. Bands like Maiden and Priest and ZZ Top, we would play with these bands all the time. Whitesnake, we find them opening for us as often as we go on before them. That’s the irony of that and it’s interesting that it is that way. That’s how it’s gone down.

Alex Obert: A Twisted Sister song I’d love to discuss, can you take readers through the writing and recording of The Kids Are Back?

Jay Jay French: Well Dee would write these songs and throw them out to me and Eddie. Eddie said, “I’ll take the solo on this one.” I said, “I’ll take the solo on that one.” On that album, for example, I’d take the solo on the song, You Can’t Stop Rock ‘n’ Roll, the solo on Ride to Live, Live to Ride. Eddie does the solo on Kids Are Back, does a great solo on it. It was a great song, had a great hook to it. I don’t remember much recording any of it except when we recorded when it sounded like we were marching for that track. We did that at Jimmy Page’s Sol Studio in England. It was the first album we made for Atlantic Records, it was a very exciting time. We did the album and the A&R person, Phil Carson, who signed us, he was also the president of Atlantic in England. And he went, “I need a single, I need a single, I need a single.” I think if memory serves me, I Am (I’m Me) was the last song for the record. And Dee came in and said, “I have this.” and I remember it was always an astonishing thing for me to watch the development of a song and watch it become a hit single. The first song played off the record was I Am (I’m Me) on the John Peel show, I believe. Although the irony of that was that he played it at the wrong speed and we didn’t realize until halfway through the song, I think he probably went to the bathroom. He then said, “This one’s from Twisted Sister, it’s their new single!” It was either played at 33 or 78, but it was the wrong speed and we couldn’t believe he put it on the wrong speed. And then he caught it, but didn’t play it again, he was just like, “And that one’s Twisted Sister!” I went, “Wow, so much for the debut.”

Alex Obert: Would you consider you and Dee to be the “rock duo” of Twisted Sister?

Jay Jay French: I am fully aware of the dynamic of rock duos, but I’m a fan of a band. I’m a fan of a band’s sound. So I can’t say, “Oh, Mick and Keith or this and that one.” I grew up in the era of Mick and Keith and then watching Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, they were just copying Mick and Keith. And when you’re watching Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart, they were just copying Mick and Keith. I mean Mick and Keith kind of set the blueprint for that singer/guitar player thing and that just kind of became a cliched scenario in bands. So I’m fully aware of it, but that’s not what I necessarily draw my inspiration from and it doesn’t necessarily connect me to a band. The guitar players I like are the guitar players I like and they don’t necessarily go hand in hand with somebody else. Keith is okay as a rhythm player, he can’t play lead. When Mick Taylor was in the band, they were a great band, and then he left and they stopped being a great band. I just don’t perceive it and my connectivity to a band by their singer and guitar player.

Alex Obert: Present day, do you have any favorite modern bands?

Jay Jay French: There’s a band I just started listening to, Vintage Trouble, I like them a lot. And I like The Strypes from Ireland, they’re really an amazing band. They’re a throwback in a way, but a modern take on it and they’re young and they’re great. Right now, they’re my favorite new artists. And I think Vintage Trouble is right there as well.

An older band though, I have to tell you that I saw the Grateful Dead twenty six times between 1968 and 1972. I saw them during the holy grail era of their career. And what I say about the Grateful Dead is for twenty five times, it was the greatest experience of my life. But after the twenty sixth time, I went straight and I never went to see them again after that. (laughs) I went, “What was I thinking?”

Alex Obert: You briefly worked with Sevendust, how did you discover the band’s frontman, LaJon Witherspoon?

Jay Jay French: Basically around thirty years ago, I started going to Atlanta a lot and I saw a band called Red Threat, who signed a demo deal with me. And then Red Threat changed to a band called Roulette and did a demo deal and then Roulette changed into a band called Snake Nation and then Snake Nation morphed into a band called Stiff Kitty and then Stiff Kitty morphed into a band called Crawlspace, all over a ten year period, and then Sevendust came to be. When they were called Snake Nation, they played with a band called Body & Soul, which had LaJon as the lead singer. And I said to the drummer of Snake Nation, “Listen, if you ever hook up with that guy, call me. I think he’s a great singer.” And then a couple years later, he said, “Hey, we got that guy.” That was LaJon. The thing was, LaJon was singing in this very soulful R&B band and he sounded amazing when he sang, but then when I went down to hear the band that became Sevendust, LaJon was doing death metal. It was all like Cookie Monster shit. And I went, “What are you doing? What are you doing? What happened to that great soulful voice? Let’s get back to that!” So they got back to that because LaJon is just a fantastic singer.

Alex Obert: Getting back to your band and frontman, were you apart of the roast of Dee Snider?

Jay Jay French: No, that was in conjunction with the NAMM show, a giant music industry convention. I had done it five straight years, I promised myself the year before that saying, “I am toast. I’m not doing another NAMM for a while.” I was just toast. So I had already made plans almost a year before that to do something else. I found out about the roast and I said, “Man, I’m not here. I have no intention of going to the NAMM show and going out.” So had I been out there, it would have been something different. But there were never any plans to be out there, so that’s the situation. By the time they contacted me about it, I said, “Look man, I’m spending that week on vacation with my girlfriend.”

Alex Obert: What would you say is your favorite use of a Twisted Sister song in television or film?

Jay Jay French: Any use that pays us a lot of money is my favorite. We license the crap out of our music. I think that the mariachi version of We’re Not Gonna Take It for Hornitos Tequila was a lot of fun, it was different. That was really, really different. And outside of that, it’s always a kick to turn on the TV and hear our songs on various commercials. There are so many of them. In the past month, we’ve done three deals, one with KFC in Canada, it’ll be a French commercial there, it won’t be broadcast in the US. And two television shows, The Carrie Diaries and The Goldbergs. Betty White having Twisted Sister as the theme song to her TV show, Off Their Rockers, was kinda cool. There’s so many uses. The first time our music was in a movie was in a movie called No Small Affair, it’s one of Demi Moore’s first movies. She co-stars with Jon Cryer. And we have like six songs in that movie. So that was a kick when it came out, like, “Wow, man. Our songs are in that!” Our music in movies and TV shows pops up at the most unexpected times. When my daughter was young, I took her to see a Disney movie called Max Keeble’s Big Move. I’m sitting there and then there’s a scene in which he decides he’s gonna beat up the football team cause they were pickin’ on him and he gets a marching band that’s playing We’re Not Gonna Take It. Oh my God. My daughter looked at me, she said, “Daddy, are you in everything?” (laughs) So yeah, that’s always a kick when that happens, especially when you’re at schooling events and you hear it coming over the PA systems, at baseball games, World Series games, Super Bowl playoffs, all that stuff. It’s exciting, man. What band wouldn’t be dreaming of that?

Alex Obert: A recent appearance on television by Dee, did you see the Radioshack commercial?

Jay Jay French: Well I knew he was in a commercial, so when I saw Hulk Hogan, I said, “You know what, I’ll bet Dee’s here.” And he was. He’s always changing his mind about his image, “Do I look like that? Do I not look like that?” We never look like that anymore, so he obviously peels it out for financial purposes, I guess.

Alex Obert: What would you say are some of your all-time favorite guitar riffs?

Jay Jay French: There’s a million Chuck Berry songs that I love, first of all. Almost anything that Chuck does. The song Down The Road Apiece that the Rolling Stones did, it’s a Chuck Berry song, the riff that Keith Richards does is the first solo I ever learned how to play. So I would say that I love that particular one. I love the solo in Taxman, I didn’t know for years that it wasn’t George Harrison, Paul McCartney actually played it. That’s great. Almost everything that Jimi Hendrix does is like the greatest thing on earth. I mean how you can listen to Wind Cries Mary or Angel or Spanish Castle Magic, his guitar playing is so incredibly out there. And it’s still out there today. Listen to Little Wing, how do you even do that? How did he compose that? How did he figure that out, man? What a phenomenal guitar player, what a visionary in every way. Clapton’s playing on Steppin’ Out from the Blues Breakers album, that had an effect on me. He did that when he was nineteen years old. That album is the foundation of all white rock blues. In that album, which I urge you to get, you’ll hear a nineteen year old Clapton, pre-Cream. Oh my God, it should blow you away. I don’t think his playing was ever better. However, his playing on Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire is phenomenal. Mike Bloomfield’s playing on the first Paul Butterfield Blues album had a huge effect on me. Zeppelin, first album. I saw Zeppelin as an opening band in 1969. They opened for Iron Butterfly. From those seats, listening to Jimmy play that night was unbelievable. Watching Jeff Beck play with Rod Stewart in the Jeff Beck Group. The guitar playing from Mick Ronson on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold The World, it was spectacular. Talk about a guitar player/frontman duo. Mick Ronson was absolutely just freakin’ brilliant. His tone, he was a producer, he was amazing, and his guitar playing on a song called Moonage Daydream is legendary. These are the songs that kind of stick out.

Alex Obert: Very nice. Before we wrap up, do you have any plugs that you’d like to share?

Jay Jay French: I do public speaking and my next engagement is at the Extreme Leadership Summit in Chicago on April 11th. If you go online to the Extreme Leadership Summit, you’ll see the lineup there. I speak at symposiums on success because the history of the band is so long and it’s so interesting. When I discuss it with people, it has a huge effect on them. And I try to inspire people to follow their dreams because it’s so easy to be discouraged. It takes a lot of discipline and a lot of hard work. The success of Twisted Sister resulted from a great deal of discipline and a great deal of hard work. We never partied, we just worked real hard at doing what we do. And I’m proud to say that forty one years later, for me at least, I can sit back and say, “I have a profession. I have a career because of the foundation that we laid.” And we didn’t let the distractions and the obstructions stop us. We kept comin’ back. I used to manage an artist that had an incredible phrase, and there’s a lot of cliches in this world like, “It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get back up. or “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” This kid came up with a phrase in a song that was so magnificent, it really depends on how you view life, and the way you view life was very simply put by this statement, “When the roof caves in, it lets the sun shine in.” The question is can you see that sunshine when the roof is falling in? If you can see that sunshine, you probably have a chance to succeed. If you can’t, then you will probably walk away with your tail between your legs.

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