“We’ve been there from the beginning” boasts legendary frontman Rob Halford of Judas Priest’s 40 year career in Heavy Metal, “and to see it grow to the extent that it is now, so diverse and globally dominant- it’s amazing!”
Halford’s pride is not without good reason. Formed in Birmingham in 1969, Judas Priest have gone on to sell more than 35 million albums worldwide, are credited with creating the “Metal Look” and have inspired generations of acts from Metallica to Slipknot. It comes as no surprise then that a recent MTV poll saw them voted as the second greatest Metal band in history, just behind Black Sabbath.
Ahead of their show at the Doncaster Dome on July 17, part of the epic Epitaph World Tour (dubbed their farewell tour) - Mark Lankester spoke to Rob Halford, the “Metal God”, for a surprisingly down to earth chat about fans, fallouts, an iconic past and an uncertain future.
So you’ve just kicked off the tour in Scandinavia. How have the first few shows gone?
Unbelievable, you know. We flew back last night from a massive festival in northern Finland. Land of the midnight sun- we were on stage in bright daylight! It was bizarre but brilliant!
I suppose because Priest haven’t been out for a couple of years you definitely feel it more as well. You feel as though you never want to let this thing go, and realise after being away from the fans for so long how important it is that you reconnect like this. It takes a while to get back into road shape, but the band sounds great and looks great.
This is exactly what it’s all about and the reason why we do what we do. We’re three in and about one-hundred-and-something to go, and of course it makes us even more excited now to be coming back to our home, the UK.
You’re playing The Dome in Doncaster on July 17. Have you played it before?
We haven’t but we were there recently for a big rehearsal for three of four days enjoying the Doncaster life! It’s been a very long time since we’ve played in the actual Doncaster area, so that’s going to be another treat for us.
Do you have anything special lined up for Yorkshire to look forward to?
Just the set list you know. Then fans are going mental for it. We’re doing some stuff that we’ve never done live before but it still does the business. We’re actually doing Blood Red Skies which is a really powerful piece and we really push the boat out for that one because you want to capture the spirit of the song on the record.
Visually as well we’ve just gone over the top with this show. It’s almost a “greatest hits” set-list, but you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If we did everything the fans wanted we’d be onstage for a week!
We’re trying to stay faithful to the idea of doing something from every one of our records. You are actually getting like a history of the band. It’s about 2hours and 15minutes, it’s a long one!
You’ve called it the Epitaph Tour and it’s the last time Judas Priest will play on this scale. Is there anything that’s prompted that decision?
I suppose just using the word “Epitaph” is kind of metally isn’t it? Some of the elements of metal have that kind of dark, slightly sinister side to it. You don’t want it to sound morbid, but it’s got a little bit of class. It kind of fit the bill.
So it’s just a name? There’s no sign of Priest hanging up the leather trousers yet?
It’s not a goodbye! There’s still a bit of confusion out there and some people still think this is the end of the band. The fact is we will be doing some more shows but we certainly won’t be doing them as intensely as this.
We’re just going to pull back a little bit. I mean we’ll pop up every now and again to do some festivals but it is a genuine thing you know. For now we just want to enjoy ourselves and go out there night after night and give 100%.
Founding guitarist K.K. Downing recently announced his split from the band. That must have been a huge blow?
It’s been very difficult; we’ve all been very honest about that. We genuinely thought this was going to be the end of everything.
Then lo and behold, Richie Faulkner was discovered like he was waiting in the wings. We had been kind of surreptitiously looking and the door was always open for K. K. to return, but in reality the clock was ticking and the tour was looming.
How has Richie settled in? Has he stepped up to the challenge?
He’s just made for it! He loves his metal, he loves Priest. He’s dealing with it like a pro, he really is. You can’t jump into these massive world tours from nowhere, you’ve got to have a little bit of seasoning and Richie’s got that.
He was literally thrown in at the deep end and he couldn’t believe it when we called him up- he thought it was a joke and he kept putting the phone down like “Is this a wind up!?”
But he’s a fantastic guitarist and the fans have really grown to thoroughly appreciate that if he wasn’t there, we wouldn’t be.
Judas Priest are recognised as legendary pioneers of the Metal genre. How do you deal with that kind of attention and do you believe it yourself?
I think we appreciate our value more than probably ever before. But it’s this Midlands thing, you don’t put yourself on a pedestal, you don’t do that, we’re not those kinds of guys.
Fortunately I think everything that we’ve achieved has been done through a very slow and steady slug. I don’t mean that in a disgruntled way, but we’re genuinely grateful for the recognition.
So do you feel that there’s still a place for Priest? Or has music evolved too much?
We were thinking about this. The kind of music that bands like Priest play- it’s a dying breed. Once we’re gone there’s nothing else to carry on. There are no other bands playing this type of music. You’ll always have the records, but it’s important for the fans to understand that if we come to certain parts of the world, there’s a very good chance we may not be going back.
Will there ever be another Judas Priest?
I think we’re in this long line of Metal connectivity. All the younger bands we meet, we’re on their list you know, “When I was growing up I came to see you and I bought this record and that t-shirt.” And so you pass the metal flame on from one band to the next.
In terms of popularity and success, I think the sky is the limit for any band. Think big, go for your dreams and be prepared to put the work in. If it comes fast, it will go fast. If it comes slow and steady you should have a secure life in Rock and Roll.
It’s not as hard work as getting down a coal mine in Sheffield, but as far as what you have to do in a band to maintain success, it certainly isn’t easy. You have to fight for it.
After four decades in Metal, is there anything you would have done differently?
In all honesty... no. I think that things happen for a reason whether you’re in control of them or not. If you accept that if mistakes are made or there’s some discordance it’s just part of what life’s about you know. I love that- I mean I’d much rather have a bumpy road and feel like I’m living life than have a smooth ride. It makes it more real. It’s epic in its own kind of way.