The other day I was driving and I heard “I Wanna Rock” on the radio. I thought to myself, “Man I haven’t heard this in forever! This song’s not that old! Why don’t I ever hear it?” (Bear in mind, I still think the eighties happened last week). “I Wanna Rock” was released in 1984, thirty-two years ago. To further my reality check, I was recently watching Twisted Sister perform at The Joint at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Twisted Sister is celebrating a career that spans forty years – 1976-2016 – with their live-recorded performance as the first act of the Metal Meltdown series hosted by the Hard Rock Casino. My reality check was now complete as I watched the band reminisce and reprise their forty-year career in about two hours. The band was not only as enthusiastic as ever with their live performance, but with utmost sincerity, they dedicated their show to the late AJ Pero, Twisted Sister’s beloved drummer. Twisted Sister: Metal Meltdown, set to be released in both DVD and Blu-Ray disc formats on July 22, 2016, is a fun, high-energy watch. I had a heart to heart with guitarist Jay Jay French this week about the performance, his friendship with AJ Pero, and being “the best live band.”
Q: Jay Jay, thank you for your time today. I watched the Metal Meltdown DVD and loved the performance. What a show it was! How was the idea conceived to shoot live footage from the Hard Rock Casino?
A: We were approached by the director and producer Barry Summers who approached a bunch of management and said “Would you like to be a part of this process?” We started negations and in the end it worked out.
Q: This was the first show without AJ. Was this a difficult choice for you guys to move forward without him?
A: Very. The day before he died Dee and I were having a phone conversation about the future of the band. Dee had been indicating for quite a while that he was done. This time he sent an email around saying he was really done. As in, Last year was it. I thought, you know what, it’s lasted ten years longer [than I thought]. The reunion was supposed to last three years. I called AJ to let him know that last year was going to be it and to make plans for 2016 after 2015 is over. I told him to call his son and let him know (his son was acting as his roadie at the time). I said, “Come to the city, I’ve got some business going on.” He said, “OK, Mr. French.” He called me Mr. French all the time and I called him Mr. Pero. I think he called me Mr. French, not because I was older than him, although I was older than him. I think it was because of the TV show Family Affair. Anyway, I told him the information and he said, “OK” and I told him I’d see him on Monday.
Then, at 9:00 the next morning, in the middle of a breakfast with the director of the documentary We Are Twisted F*ckin’ Sister (currently on Netflix), a phone call came in. It was my tour manager. AJ had a heart attack on the tour bus and he was being taken to the hospital. I got up and I walked out. I was sure it was fine. He has to be fine. Twenty minutes later I got the phone call. All hell broke loose and four days later there’s the wake. Me, Mark, Eddie and Dee retired to Dee’s Father-in-law’s house and we were discussing what we were going to do. It was at that moment that we said: A) We’ll honor the shows that we had booked last year and B) 2016 would be the fortieth anniversary of me, Eddie and Dee together even though the band was around before that. That was it. That was the true nature of exactly what happened.
Q: Mike Portnoy is a talented drummer and he seems to fit with you guys like a glove.
A: The day after AJ died, it was a Friday morning, on March 20. On Saturday his [AJ’s] band Adrenaline Mob asked me to appear with them at the Starland Ballroom and play a song in his [AJ’s] honor. So, I went and I was emotionally a wreck; so was everybody. Mike Portnoy was there because Portnoy had been in Adrenaline Mob. Portnoy and I were sitting in the dressing room while the band is on stage, just the two of us. Mike and I had seen each other at various events but never really had a conversation. Here we are sitting down and he looks at me and says, “Man, I’m so sorry.” I said, “Oh god, I can’t even process this.” I’m crying. He’s all f*cked up…He says, “Look, I don’t know if you guys are going on, not going on, or what your status is…if you need any help, I’m here.” There was a thing about Portnoy. [He had a] genuineness, and a love, that wasn’t being manipulative. He just said, “Hey man, if you need help I can help you…let me know.” Totally on a different level, and you know the difference. AJ had said to us, “Hey, if anything ever happens to me, Portnoy is great.” Mike grew up listening to Twisted Sister and sneaking into the clubs. He knows our songs better than we do. It’s scary! He’s just freakin’ great.
Q: I thought the footage of AJ’s solo in your show was an excellent touch.
A: Yeah, that drum solo wasn’t cut in post-production. That’s a part of the show. The DVD was mislabeled and it’s being re-labeled as a tribute to AJ. He was to us what Bonham was to Zeppelin and what Keith Moon was to The Who. There’s an essence of the human being that’s irreplaceable. AJ was funny and he was silly and stupid and dopey and loving. People always wonder, what’s it like to be in a band like us. We come off stage and here’s how the conversation goes, “AJ, is your phone on? What’s the Mets score?” We’re cursing about the Mets game. We’re not even talking about the show because that’s life on that level. It’s just the job you do. You go out, you do your job, you get in the van to go back to the hotel and have small talk about the family. If there are production problems you discuss them. It’s like a baseball team; you’ve got another game the next day. You go on and that part of AJ isn’t how Mike does things. The part I miss about AJ is that stupid shit. Not just the fact he’s a monster drummer but I loss my Mets buddy. The way you mess around with people and the love you have. That will never come back. That was seriously affected.
Q: Jay Jay, I noticed an absence of pedal boards. Are you plugging directly into the amp?
A: I go to a Kemper. It’s fed by a pedal board from the stage. It’s programmed. We use Marshall stuff but basically the Kemper is another level of programming. For us, it’s not that Marshall’s aren’t great but we don’t carry our equipment with us on the road. With a unit like a Kemper where the sounds are programmed, the soundman can get an instant handle on the mix because we can’t carry all of our amps and all of our stuff. It allows us, technically, to be more consistent on a night-to-night basis. Eddie Ojeda is a whiz at programming the stuff. He programs my Kemper. I don’t have the patience. I love the results. I am Mr. Meat and Potatoes. Give me a chord, plug it into a Marshall head with an overdrive, and I’m a happy guy. There are guys with 800 pedals. I look at them like “Do you have any idea what the hell any of that stuff does?” I’m impressed but I don’t get it. I’m always Mr. Meat and Potatoes guy.
Q: How has your equipment evolved over the years?
A: More so from the guitar side than the tech side. When we did the Christmas album, we used pods. Nobody even used amplifiers. If you told me twenty years ago that we’re going to make an album and it was just going to be a box and you plug into it; I’d look at you like you were on drugs. I play locally with a blues band and I’ll take out my stuff [guitars, amplifiers]. I do have Boutique amplifiers. I’ll play Epiphone and Les Paul’s. Epiphone endorses me. I own a million Gibson Les Paul’s and I love the Epiphone’s. They’re just as good if not better. They are a lot less expensive and I love the depth. They’re beautiful and if you play in front of 100,000 people you want the sound to be good. I think back to when I was sixteen and I bought my first Fender. I paid $135 for it.
Q: One of the theme’s I noticed in the Metal Meltdown DVD is that you’re “the best live band”. Dee comments on this many times and he’s adamant about it. The energy is non-strop from start to finish. Dee’s energy is infectious. Do you think that level of adrenaline has attributed to your live success?
A: I think that the repeatability of our shows because we’ve hit 9000 performances is the key and the fact that we care enough to stay great. A band like the Rolling Stones used to be a great band and now they’re amongst the worst bands I’ve ever heard live. If you want to see [the Stones as] a great band, watch a 1972 show. You will see one of the greatest bands you’ve ever seen in your life, so why they accept being as bad as they are, I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. We want to make sure that when you see us we give you what you expect. We take great pride in it. I don’t go into it anymore when we play with other bands with, “Does this band suck or not?” because frankly, life is too short. If you like a band and you’re happy, then that’s your business. It’s not my job to tell another band how to perform. It is my job, however, to be the best band I can on stage. So, if I blow you off the stage every night, maybe there’s a message. Nobody blows us away, nobody comes close. Most bands don’t want to follow us. I wouldn’t want to follow us. I don’t know how many more years we can play at this intensity! The Vegas show is an example of the plug and play difference. We put Portnoy in there and go out and do what you’ve gotta’ do. Can any other band be that seamless the first show out? I don’t know. I would think probably not. I’m on stage with guys who are great. I look around and I go, “These guys are great.”
Q: You mention in the documentary portion of the DVD that you have sacrificed everything for Twisted Sister.
A: We did. We sacrificed everything. It ended once before and I didn’t think it was going to come back and it did. We’ve been back for fourteen years. The original lineup was together fourteen years. It’s a life story from the time we signed with Atlantic, and then it all came crashing down. It’s been a crazy, rollercoaster life.
Q: Jay Jay, I thank you so very much. Is there anything else you’d like to include?
A: First of all thank you for appreciating the band. I personally write a column for Inc. Magazine. It’s a business column and what It’s business lessons from the prism of rock and roll. You can also follow me on Twitter. I just want to thank people. I’m in a lucky position and without the fans I don’t have any of that. We never forgot it and I hope we never will.
Twisted Sister: Metal Meltdown Track Listing:
The Kids Are Back
Shoot ‘Em Down
You Can’t Stop Rock-n-Roll
Under the Blade
I am (I’m Me)
We’re Not Gonna’ Take It
The Fire Still Burns
Burn in Hell
I Wanna Rock
Come Out and Play
Feature Image Courtesy of Loud & Proud Records
Writer: Amanda Knight