Dee Snider wants to rock – just not like he used to. “I have a new no headbanging policy,” says the 61-year-old Twisted Sister singer about his debut solo album, We Are the Ones, out today. Hearing the man who used to pop into detention halls and principal’s offices wearing drag and brandishing the sign of the devil swear off one of heavy metal’s core practices feels wrong. But during a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Snider, wearing sunglasses even though it’s 10 a.m. and raining outside, makes his case. Fans will probably hate his new music, he says, but they won’t call it “boring.”
“Look, I hadn’t written anything new in decades,” Snider levels. “I know that my marketplace – Eighties heavy metal fans – are not interested in new music. I’m not going to kid myself.” He self-deprecatingly recalls the time he asked his pal Alice Cooper when people switched from being scared of them on the street to being happy to see them. As for his acolytes leaning into the gentle-rocker thing and going country? “It’s sad,” he says. “I don’t know why they do it, but fair enough – I’ve done Dee Does Broadway.” (He was tickled by Catherine Zeta-Jones’ rendition of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” in the Broadway play–turned-movie Rock of Ages.)
Snider is less enthused about that particular song’s use in Donald Trump’s campaign this year, which he initially approved. But a damning video clip recently surfaced online showing the rocker performing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” onstage flanked by various Trump offspring. Snider considers himself a libertarian and says he doesn’t have a problem with politicians on either side using his music. But after Trump’s “Muslim ban and wall comments,” Snider asked the Republican presidential nominee to stop. “Some of my band members were very freaked out,” Snider says. “We were getting hate mail.”
Ever since Snider’s frizzy blond mane blasted onto MTV in 1984, “We Not Gonna Take It,” has been God’s gift to politicians – particularly conservative ones – because unlike Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” or Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin’ (in the Free World),” “We’re Not Gonna Take It” steers clear of politics all together. “I think a really well-crafted song isn’t so specific about what it’s talking about,” Snider says. “It has to have enough vagueness for people to weave their own meanings into the song.” The only time Snider thought the song was seriously misappropriated was in 2009, when Sen. Paul Ryan used the Twisted Sister anthem for his pro-life campaign. “What doesn’t he understand about ‘You’ve got the right to choose it,'” Snider says, quoting the song in disbelief.
“I’m about having choice,” says the singer, who happens to be wearing a T-shirt (that he designed) featuring the text of the First Amendment with the word “censored” cynically splayed across it. “I’m pro-gun, pro-choice, pro–all amendments. But ultimately, it all comes down to Supreme Court. That’s the real damage a president does or doesn’t do. The Supreme Court will ultimately affect the laws that will affect our lives – women’s lives.”
Snider hasn’t hid his prior friendship with Donald Trump. He calls the GOP candidate a “classy guy” for asking permission to use his songs. But Snider also clarifies that this was before Trump made his political platforms known. “[Trump’s] a WWE guy, he’s a carnival, a showman, he knows how to work the room, but if you’re representing [the alt-right] – I don’t care what he truly believes or doesn’t believe – if he’s allowing the alt-right to have a voice, that’s unacceptable. Put up a wall? Mass deportation? No, that’s unacceptable.
“I’m terrified by the people coming out of the shadows of the extreme right, these racist people who harbor ill-will,” Snider says, audibly frustrated. “As long as [Trump] doesn’t win, I think he’s done us a favor. Because we were lulled into a false sense of security with a black president, thinking, ‘Oh, now racism is gone.’ And look what’s happening today.”
“I’m terrified by the people coming out of the shadows of the extreme right.”
Snider wrote We Are the Ones with what he calls “the vast middle” in mind. (“Both [political] extremes are bullying minorities,” he says). Musically, he aimed for the Foo Fighters. “I own all of [their] records,” he says. “I love them; I just never thought I could ever do something like that.” He even covers Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 hit “Head Like a Hole.” When Snider sneers the verse, “Bow down before the one you serve/You’re going to get what you deserve,” the song – for the first time in its existence – sounds like Trent Reznor could’ve written it in tribute to Twisted Sister.
The veteran hair-metal band is still on the road playing select shows, but not for much longer. Its aptly titled 40 and Fuck It Tour is winding down. The band would’ve ended sooner if it weren’t for the sudden death of original drummer A.J. Pero in 2015. “I was angry at him, because I was closer with him than anyone in the band,” Snider says. “Anger came rather than the tears because he was such a good guy – the rest of us were scumbags. When the band broke up, A.J. was the only person who was able to reconnect us by putting everyone back in touch.” Pero was 55 when he suffered a fatal heart attack, leaving behind three ex-wives with small children, a boatload of fiscal responsibilities and zero estate planning. “He was apparently just living show-to-show,” Snider explains. “So for the last 18 months we’ve been doing shows to provide some kind of income stream to his family.”
The realist in Snider knows that the schoolyard-fence-rattling message of Twisted Sister and its crown jewel “We’re Not Gonna Take It” has been diluted by karaoke bars, commercials and sports arenas – and yes, a certain Broadway musical. It wasn’t until he met pop producer Damon Ranger (Haim, Kanye West) that he even entertained staying in music. “Damon said, ‘Dee, your voice is still powerful and with the right songs, you can reach people again.'”
That’s how come Snider is spending his off hours hanging out backstage at the Warped Tour, listening to Black Veil Brides. And so far, to his surprise, his new solo venture has taken off. Last summer, Snider recorded a stark rendition of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” as a piano ballad. He gave the song to his friend, Las Vegas magician Criss Angel, to promote his children’s cancer charity fund. No one – least of all Snider – anticipated what happened next. The windswept, Angel-directed video went viral. It’s racked up nearly 400k views to date – an excitement Snider says he hasn’t experienced in more than 25 years. “It’s not a perfect performance,” the singer says. “But it’s genuine.”
Watch Dee Snider discuss how his onetime stalker days inspired his new album: