There are second acts in American life, but there are sometimes second act problems too. Dee Snider knows both those adages well. Having spent the first part of his career as vocalist and primary songwriter for Twisted Sister, he and his bandmates climbed out of New York-area club scene and into superstardom in the 1980s. They amassed multi-platinum sales and became one of the most instantly-recognizable bands in heavy metal or anywhere else.
When Twisted Sister dissolved at the end of the decade, Snider found himself in a personal and professional tailspin. Musical projects such as Widowmaker and Desperado failed to find their audiences. But the Long Island native did what he had always done: He persevered. He wrote the screenplay for the horror film Strangeland (in which he also appeared), penned a Christmas tune for Celine Dion, and, in the early 2000s, reunited with his bandmates in Twisted Sister, ultimately reclaiming the band’s rightful place in heavy metal history.
Along the way, he tried his hand at various solo musical projects, including a Broadway album, but once more seemed to struggle finding a direction that placed his reputation and talents in the proper light. Until 2018. Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta suggested that Snider record a contemporary metal album, one that included guest turns from members of Arch Enemy, Lamb of God and Light the Torch, among others. What may have been the gamble of his career paid off. The record received almost universal critical acclaim and proved that Snider still carried with him the same fire as when international audiences encountered him in the early 1980s as Twisted Sister burst onto the world stage.
Following on the success of the studio edition, he now presents a live CD/DVD package, For the Love of Metal Live, which places classics such as “We’re Not Gonna Take It” alongside newer fare such as “Tomorrow’s No Concern”. Moreover, the set shows that Snider’s vocal prowess remains intact as does his reputation as a ferocious front man. In the rarest of accomplishments, the latter-day work improves upon what has already been cemented as an integral part of music history.
Snider spoke with PopMatters ahead of the live album’s release, just as he returned to the United States after a four-month stay at his home in Belize. Speaking on a range of topics, including filmmaking, the future of live music, and his appreciation for artists such as UFO and Thin Lizzy, Snider proves game for all topics.
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Your plan was to be off the road for 2020 and this live set was a way for you to keep your feet in the live arena.
My managers think I’m Nostradamus now. In Spring 2019 I told them I wasn’t going to do any live shows in 2020. They said, “What should we do to keep you out there?” I said, “Why don’t we film shows this summer and do a live record.” As it turns out this couldn’t be a better time for a live record. I’m sure there’s a lot of people scrambling, saying, “We need to put out a live album.” But to do it right takes a lot of months and a lot of work. It’s half a year of editing and packaging and preparation.
For the Love of Metal Live celebrates the album For the Love of Metal, which Jamey Jasta pitched to you. He pitches a lot of ideas on his podcast, The Jasta Show but a lot of guys say, “Yeah, I don’t know” but you said yes when he suggested you make a contemporary metal album. Why?
I’m a truth or dare kind of guy. I tend to be very honest with my answers even if they’re detrimental to my career. I did the album before that [We Are the Ones, 2016] on a challenge, which was a more mainstream record. I was on Mancow’s show in Chicago and this pop producer said to me, off-air, “Hey, man, I think you could do a mainstream rock record.” I said, “Really? Let’s do it.”
Jamey’s was a literally a gauntlet, across the face, on the air. I said, “Who’s going to produce?” He said, “Me.” I said, “Who’s going to write the songs because whenever I write it sounds too dated.” He said, “Everybody’s gonna wanna write for you.” It went from there.
The minute we went into the studio, it worked. We knew we had something. So I said, “Is this the first time.” He said, “No.” I didn’t realize that he challenges people all the time. He told me he’s tried these things with other heritage rock stars and they weren’t prepared to do the trust fall. I did the trust fall. Jamey pitched me and I put my faith in him and allowed myself to be guided. He said that other people came and the minute they got into the studio they started muscling around and fucking with the vision that Jamey had. I was the first one that committed to it top to bottom.
Jamey’s a really talented man and I hope people are starting to realize that it goes beyond Hatebreed and Jasta and broadcasting.
What was it like putting these new songs into a set alongside the classic material? Because, to my ears, it all blends seamlessly.
Since I left Twisted in ’87, I’ve had a variety of attempts at solo bands. Solo projects. Nothing I’ve done has ever resonated with the audience. I joke about that on this record [talking about how people go to the bathroom during new songs]. It’s always been that, literally. I’ve heard Paul McCartney talk about this, I’ve heard Elton John talk about this: Fear of new music with their audience. Eyes glaze over. Paul fucking McCartney said that! [Laughs.] He goes into a new song, then has to give them some candy afterwards because they sat through a new song. It’s something we all suffer through.
For the first time in many, many records that I’ve done, I played new music and it immediately connected with the audience. Immediately. They were engaged. That was exciting. By the time we got to year two, when we were filming [the shows], people knew the music, had digested it, were anxious for it, were singing along. That was amazing.
The challenge for me is … See, I know the connection between this new music and where I came from but a lot of people just listening on the surface to “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock” think it’s like night and day. Twisted was a metal band, so I chose “Under the Blade”, “Burn in Hell”, “Fire Still Burns”, “Can’t Stop Rock ‘n’ Roll”, the more metallic Twisted stuff. When you detune it and tell the band to lean into it and give them room to add [sings contemporary metal rhythms], it works.
When performing I didn’t notice it because it felt right but then when I was listening back in the studio, I’d say, “Hey, that part wasn’t there before!” That helped connect the dots. But everybody has said the same thing: It all worked together. That was important to me, saying, “This is who I am, it’s always been there. This isn’t a transformation; this is just part of the journey.”
When do you think this shift of audiences not wanting to hear new music happened? I used to go see Rush in the late ’80s/early ’90s and they would play probably four songs from their new album. My friends and I would freak out. “Hey, they’re playing a new song! We’re hearing it live for the first time.” Do you think that this was an extension of classic rock radio and a reluctance to break new records?
I would disagree. I’m not being argumentative, Jedd. My brother’s a Rush fan, too. I think you Rush fans are a rare breed.
You’re like Dave Matthews fans. “Oh, a new song! Awesome!” I saw Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden on the Physical Graffiti tour. The album was delayed. It hadn’t come out yet and they were already touring it. When they went into “Kashmir” half of the audience went to the bathroom. “This is a new one off the record called ‘Kashmir.'” Then they go into a seven-minute-long moosh.
“Kashmir”, when you don’t know the song, at Madison Square Garden? Sounds like this: [Random noises.] “You want a beer? I’m getting a beer! I gotta take a piss!” “Kashmir”, what some would consider their best song pretty much. But cold? Listening to it in a concert environment with shitty acoustics? People just left the room. I think it’s just the Rush thing, man. [Laughs.]
Photo: John Raptis / Courtesy of Napalm Records
I love that you kept the stage patter in. There are albums that I love, like UFO’s Strangers in the Night where that stuff gets left on and you have no idea what the hell the singer is talking about but you wanna figure it out. Tell me about the decision to keep that stuff in on this album instead of just having songs segue one into the other.
My dear, departed friend Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead, who was one of the most seasoned rockers ever, he saw the Beatles at the Cavern Club, he saw the Stones at the Marquee when they first started, he was a roadie for Hendrix, this guy knew rock. He said to me, the year before he passed, “Dee, you’re one of the three best front men I’ve ever seen. You’re the best at talking to an audience that I’ve ever experienced.”
My wife famously said to me, “It’s my favorite part of the show when you stop playing and talk.” [Laughs.]
I’m a front man and a lot of people don’t realize what that designation means. It’s a specific type of performer. There are singers: Ronnie Dio is a singer. Bon Scott was a singer. Robert Plant was a singer. They stand there and they sing. They’re amazing and you’re happy. “They’re singing. Keep fucking singing, it’s great!”
Then there are entertainers like Alice Cooper and Michael Jackson. They do a show. “Holy shit! Look at this show! It’s amazing.” But they don’t really engage the audience.
Then there are front men. David Lee Roth’s a front man. I’m a front man, Bruce Dickinson’s a front man. Freddie Mercury was a front man. You engage the audience verbally. You bring them in. You bridge the gap. It’s really becoming a lost art. It’s one of the things I’m proudest of, actually, is my ability to walk out on stage and engage a crowd.
In the course of a show, I think it’s my job to bring people through a range of emotions. With metal you have your angry songs like “Become the Storm”: You’re just raging, and people are raging with you. There are fun moments: “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, “I Wanna Rock”, then there are moments of levity: People are actually laughing. You don’t hear it on this record, but I’ll do “The Price” and I’ll run through a video montage of lost rockers. People are crying. You see all the icons that are gone: There’s a picture of the original Motörhead lineup and now they’re all dead. I just got a chill right now. Holy fuck. That’s gone forever.
To me, that’s part of the front man experience. I wanted to try and capture some of that with the live record.
But Strangers in the Night? I just listened to that recently. Fucking amazing record. But Phil [Mogg]’s not a really good front man. He’s really cryptic. “They want me to fill in. What does that mean? Should I tell a joke?” He doesn’t fill in. He just talks about filling in. At one point he talks about giving away pieces of the PA. He’s obviously angry about the sound because they lose a mic at one point, so he tells people to take parts of the PA with them. It’s interesting stuff but it’s cryptic.
Were there any bands whose live albums served as an introduction to their music for you?
Grand Funk Railroad’s Live Album, but I was already into them. Humble Pie’s Performance Rockin’ the Fillmore. I wasn’t into Humble Pie before that. Hearing “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and “Hallelujah I Love Her So” live, I thought, “Holy fuck! Listen to this guy sing!” Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous is one of my desert island albums. UFO’s Strangers in the Night is an amazing live record. The first Kiss Alive! record. I was already following Kiss but it was, like, “Holy shit! They captured Kiss!” Between the picture on the cover and the album itself they communicated what it must have been like to see Kiss. I hadn’t seen them yet.
You’ve made the bulk of your living as a live performer and there was the recent article suggesting that live performance won’t return on any large scale until 2022. What do you make of all of this?
It’s scary on many, many levels. As far as the live concert experience, who knows when that will get back to normal. But I’m a spoiled old dude. [There are] those shared moments that were why I went to concerts, why I wanted to be onstage, those moments where we are one, the song, the band, the audience, is joined together. It can be 90,000 people, when it’s on, it’s a shared experience that’s like no other. It cannot happen with social distancing, it cannot happen with people literally being afraid of screaming, “Rock!” for fear of spraying COVID on the person next to them.
My biggest fear is the long-term ramifications of what impact this is having on creativity and the industry. Not just music but art, filmmaking, painting, any kind of art. It’s killing the alternative, independent scene, which is where everything begins. Where new ideas come from. Independent labels, independent studios, independent venues, independent producers, all the people with no money. That’s being destroyed. The ones who will survive this are the corporate entities. The idea of having our art decided upon and provided by the corporate world, to me, is terrifying.
I don’t think it will kill it. I think it will be in basements, bedrooms, and garages. But right now the places that bring it out of the basements and into the local venue or the local gallery [is being hurt].
I was supposed to start directing my first feature film in May. It’s an indie film. Who’s going to insure the movie? Netflix can afford to self-insure, Disney can afford to self-insure, they can survive a 100 million dollar loss. Independent filmmakers can’t afford a one million dollar loss. Those are my real concerns for art in general post-COVID.
There are those places, those tiny rooms where people pack in and soak up the new acts. I fear them going away.
If there was COVID pre-1970 something there would be no CBGB. If CBGB didn’t happen where would these bands like the Talking Heads, the Police, Blondie, the Ramones, the Dictators, gone? That was the only place they could play. That place couldn’t survive. That’s what I’m talking about, the loss of these places. How could they survive this?
But I also believe that you can’t stop rock ‘n’ roll. So, one venue might shut down but somehow, they’ll scrape together money for another hole in the wall and then they’ll piece it together and make it happen again once the dust settles. In the meantime, it’s going to be a really, really difficult transition period.
How are you occupying your time, knowing that your film probably won’t go into production for a while?
I was in Belize for four months and I’d wake up every day and say, “I don’t have enough time!” I wrote my first novel, which is out being shopped right now, 56,000 words. I started on a second one. I had my movie that was supposed to go into production and there are certain business aspects of that that even now are still slowly moving forward because there are certain things that you can still put in place. You can still slowly work through production elements and everything.
I’ve also been asked to write a reimagining of another classic ’80s horror film that I can’t mention by name. I was working on the treatment for that. That’s been greenlit, so they’re putting together deals with that and I’ll start writing the screenplay, even though we don’t think we’re going to get to start until 2021. That’s going to eat up 2021 for me. Hopefully my book will be released then. I don’t see recording any new music until 2022.
Have you given any consideration to a follow-up to Shup Up and Give Me the Mic?
I’m living that right now. The second half includes becoming a director. I’ve got people who think I’m the next Rob Zombie, the rock star-turned-horror writer/director/creator. That’s why they’re funding me for these two movies and their plan is to turn me into that. I am ready to be turned into that. This is a place that I’ve been dabbling in and writing in for many, many years. With my screenplay writing I’m now firing on all cylinders. That’s a very major part. It seems to me that it’s going to be the final chapter.
Oh my god! I’m talking about the final chapter. [Mimics crying.]
“And in the end, he was director/writer.” I really like that part of not being onstage, not being in front of the camera, not being out in front, just being the creative force behind because it’s so liberating to me. As long as I can create it on the page and an actor/actress can represent it convincingly, I can be anybody. I’m so free to be any age, any color, any sex with the written word. It’s something I’m really striving toward. I don’t plan on being on stage performing for the rest of my days.