Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider talks about how to feel confident when pitching, how to grab an audience’s attention and keep it, and what he learned from Donald Trump about branding:
You’re frequently cited as one of rock music’s greatest frontmen. What’s your philosophy on how to connect with an audience?
You let them know you are large and in charge. It’s the way you stand, the way you carry yourself. Being a frontman is less about your voice than your ability to connect with a crowd. A frontman is a salesman. Steve Jobs was a frontman. Wozniak was the great songwriter, but he couldn’t sell the thing he created. He needed the cock rocker Jobs to say, “Pay attention to this!” I wasn’t always confident, but confidence is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It starts as false bravado—you’re acting like you’re cool and confident even when you’re not—but if you’re convincing enough, people start to believe it. Then you start to believe it and then it’s the reality.
So it’s basically “never let ’em see you sweat,” combined with “fake it till you make it”?
That was definitely the case when I testified in front of Congress [against music censorship]. I walked in there cocky as all get out. It’s not that I wasn’t secretly nervous. I looked up at all of those senators and I got the shakes, but I just snapped out of it.
You are probably still the only person ever to testify at a senate hearing wearing an denim vest. Even in the heyday of big hair and eyeliner, you had a very distinct look. How important was that to your success?
Extremely. Even back then, I understood branding. The other guys in the band would always change their look from night to night—different hair, different makeup. I did the same face every night —the makeup, the suit. So much of branding is repetition: Repeat, repeat, repeat. I understood why they wanted to change it up, but they didn’t understand why I didn’t. My face became the face. I carry the legend of Twisted Sister. Nobody knows who the other guys are.
You have said that when grunge hit, it was like being a doctor specializing in a disease they just found a cure for. What did you learn when music trends shifted?
When I was in Twisted Sister, I put all my eggs in one basket. I was myopic in my vision. I never thought it would end, and then one day I woke up and I was in my 30s, married with three children, and I’d lost everything. Double bankruptcy. Grunge came, and I still needed to feed my family. My formula for success isn’t necessarily what people want to hear. It’s 10% inspiration and 90% desperation.
Now you’ve created a bunch of new opportunities, including writing your own Christmas musical. What’s your best advice on the topic of professional reinvention?
You need to say yes to opportunities as they arise and figure things out as you go. I wasn’t always able to do that in the past. The analogy I use is, while I was getting ready to watch the parade, it passed me by. Now I say yes—I jump in before I have the chance to talk myself out of it. That’s how I ended up on Broadway in Rock of Ages, and how I ended up writing my Christmas musical. In the ’80s, my fortune came from this one thing. Now I’m doing better than ever doing a variety of things. I started doing a radio show and somebody said to me, ‘You’ve got a great voice, you should be doing voice-over work.’ I hit the pavement and I started auditioning. Now I have a six-figure voice-over career. I’ve done documentaries, commercials, I was the voice of MSNBC for a year. I was the one saying, “Hardball with Chris Matthews, tonight at 8 on MSNBC.”
You also said yes to Celebrity Apprentice. What skills from your rock-star life helped you in The Trumpster’s boardroom?
Everything. That’s why it seems that musicians and comedians tend to win more than actors and athletes. Actors are given a script and then they do their part and they leave. Athletes have a playbook. We are entertainers who are forced to do everything for ourselves.
You have spent a lot of time with The Donald. What have you learned from him?
What I learned from him: Take credit for everything and put your name on it. It’s Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale, The House of Hair with Dee Snider, Dee Snider’s Strangeland.
Do you think an inflated ego is an asset or a detriment to success?
Ego is the only thing you have, especially when you’re starting out. Who’s cheering you on other than the voice in your head? Mind you, that same ego caused me to crash and burn. The ego got me to where I was going. Once I was successful, I wouldn’t listen to anybody. I didn’t want anybody else’s opinions.
Trump has been using the Twisted Sister hit ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ as his musical battle cry. I assume you approve?
He called and he asked, which I appreciated. I said, ‘Look, we don’t see eye to eye on everything—there are definitely issues that we’re far apart on.’ But thinking back to when I wrote the song and what the song is about, it’s about rebellion, speaking your mind and fighting the system. If anybody’s doing that, he sure is. Trump and Bernie Sanders are the two extremes. They’re raising holy hell and shaking everything up. That’s what ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ is about. And we’re friends. I have spent time with Donald and his family. I don’t think either of us expected that we would like each other, but you know, Donald Trump is a pretty chill guy. He’s a frontman. When that camera goes on, he furls his brow, he does his thing. Off-camera he’s very self-deprecating. He makes jokes about being too orange and about his hair.
Speaking of hair—any plans to chop your own locks?
When I get on stage, it’s like Samson—I’ve gotta have the mane. I’m proud of my career, I have no regrets, but at the same time, I’m 60 and people still think I carry a boa around. Twisted Sister is doing a farewell tour next year. After that, I think it might be time to get rid of it.
Dee Snider’s Rock & Roll Christmas Tale is on stage at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto from Nov. 17 to Jan. 3.
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