In Conversation With The Metal God: Rob Halford Delves Into All Things Judas Priest

By Andrew Bansal

Undisputed metal gods for over four decades, Judas Priest released their 17th studio album ‘Redeemer Of Souls’ last July and are currently on a North American headline tour with Los Angeles based comedy/parody metal group Steel Panther as support act. Recently, I had a detailed chat with singer Rob Halford about the making of the new album, the tour, Steel Panther, the early days and lots more.

First of all, the new album came out recently and you took your time with it. From what I understand, it was recorded in different periods, a few songs at a time. How did that impact your vocal performance on the album?

Well, I treat every record with the same kind of focus. Obviously, when you perform in a band you just want to try and pull out all the stops, and you want to show what your abilities are at that given moment, and this is how I’m singing in 2014. But then of course it’s more than that with me because it’s also about finding a new angle with the messages that we’re sending out, and then all the other situations like writing with Glenn and Richie and finding vocal melodies and so forth, just generally pitching in. That’s what I’ve been doing for 40 years, you know, one way or another, and so I don’t think I’ve treated this one any differently. I would say that the main point of this record is, after ‘Nostradamus’ it was a six-year vacuum musically for Priest from the studio. So, there was a determination on this record from my part to sing and just get back to some of the vocal styles and approaches that are probably more in tune with what’s expected from me as a metal singer.

The standard edition of this album has 13 tracks and it’s an hour long. Did you have any doubts or reservations about going that long with an album, specially with people’s attention spans getting shorter and shorter these days?

Yeah, I think the thing is, it’s pretty remarkable that four decades later, we still consider it very important for us to make another studio record. I think it makes us still relevant and significant. We could go out there and play music from any of the previous 16 studio records , we’d have a vast catalog of music to play and people would still be happy, but I think what this new record displays is still our genuine passion and appreciation for everything we in the band love about Priest. So, this is just another shoutout to the metal community that we’ve still got the ability to put together some really good songs, make a good record and we’re getting ready to go out and show it off to fans around the world again!

Aside from the standard edition, there are also five bonus tracks on the deluxe edition. I personally enjoy all five of these tracks as much as anything on the album itself, to be honest, and I was curious as to how the decision to make these as the bonus tracks was arrived at, and whether these songs also written at the same time as the ones on the album.

Yeah, they were all put together at the same time. We were writing for maybe two months or just under. We had enough material for a double record and we approached the label with that idea but they didn’t think it was a good idea, just because of the way things are right now. So it was their suggestion to just release a single CD and come out with a deluxe edition, which is generally the case now. So that gave us the opportunity to think about how we would present the actual concept of the ‘Redeemer Of Souls’ experience. So we just felt that the tracks running from ‘Dragonaut’ to ‘Beginning Of The End’ really told the story of where we wanted to be musically with our metal in that 13-track run. And then the five extra tracks, we could have put them in the vault and just brought them out periodically but we didn’t want to do that. In today’s world, some fans just pick and choose what they want. Some fans don’t buy CDs anymore. They just buy a song here and there. So it was important for us to make sure that our material was available for everybody. Having said that, if we had put songs like ‘Snakebite’ or ‘Creatures’ on the single CD, it wouldn’t have worked from our perspective. But I appreciate you saying that they are strong songs because they are, and they deserve to be listened to and enjoyed.

And just before the release of the album, the tour was announced. You’re touring North America through October and November to play in front of the fans here again. What is your aim with this tour? The new album is here now, so that is something you would want to present, but is it going to be more of an overall Priest show with everything off of the four decades that you’ve been playing for?

Well, we’re not bringing the kitchen sink this time, although we are bringing the Harley. We had everything on the ‘Epitaph’ tour. It was a big production, so we’re going back to basically the type of show that we’ve done consistently prior to ‘Epitaph’. Like any band, when you’ve got a new record out you’re excited and you want to show it off. It’s obviously the ‘Redeemer Of Souls’ tour, and stage-wise it will be strong, but it will be, as the expression goes, of the ‘less is more’ type. But it will look great. We’re constantly working on the production and it’s going to be strong. When you go see the Lakers you want to see them still play as good as they can play, and I think it’s the same with any band, really. It’s also about the desire of wanting to play live. Priest has always been a live band. We love playing live, probably as much as getting in the studio. But it’s important for us to be out there and show off these new tracks. They’re going to sound killer and super-heavy live, and that’s a fact.

That should be great to see, but with a band like yours, there are so many albums that you’ve done and obviously there’s a demand and an expectation when a ticket buyer goes to a show, of wanting to hear the old songs. Sometimes don’t you wish you could play more songs off of a certain album? Like I personally would love to hear more off of ‘Angel Of Retribution’, one of my favorite Priest albums.

Thank you, Andrew! Yeah you know, when you get to this stage there are built-in prejudices and conceptions about what you’re supposed to do and what you’re not, but it’s about the passion of the fans. We’d get killed if we didn’t do ‘Breaking The Law’, ‘Living After Midnight’ and the other things that made us famous in America on the radio. We still love radio very, very much, and we think it’s an incredibly important component of the music scene over here. But yeah, I’d love to go out and play ‘Redeemer Of Souls’ from front to end if we could, as that would be spectacular and may be we will at some point. We did ‘British Steel’ a few years ago, but you can’t do that. You have to be sensible, and just try and pick and choose the tracks that are going to run together in a good live show presentation. I’d love to pull out obscure tracks from ‘Stained Class’ and ‘Sin After Sin’, but would the show then carry the same kind of momentum? I don’t know. That possibly could be another idea for a different kind of tour. I’m sure if one is a Priest fan like you are, Andrew, then yeah it could be a really cool thing. But when you see a band for the first time or when you see your favorite band once every 3 or 4 years, then naturally you want to go in a time machine and you want to go back to places. That’s the way it works in rock ‘n roll. So you try and balance it up with the past and the present, really.

You mentioned the Epitaph tour there briefly. At the time it was supposed to be the farewell tour, and I think you approached it like that with the full production and the long set list that you had. But at the back of your mind did you know at that stage that there might possibly be more touring with the release of the next album?

We got caught up in the drama of K.K. retiring. Not having our guitar player we were thinking that we’d have to cancel the Epitaph tour, and then literally with weeks to spare we find Richie Faulkner, and we’re so excited to have him with us and by all the great things he brings to the band. We should have given it some time and thought really, in retrospect, and said, look, it’s a different band with Richie and that we are feeling differently internally. But we never got that far, Andrew. So we went out, in all honesty, doing a retrospective tour. The Epitaph tour was, as we said at the time, a farewell tour of sorts, just to get away from the big 18-month trips around the planet because you get to a point in life where you like to do things at a different speed. So, we’ve constantly been trying to get the message out to our fans that it wasn’t some kind of stunt. It was just a genuine place the band was in at the time, and let’s face it, everybody should be fucking happy that we’re still together and we’re going to go out again, which I think they are (laughs).

No doubt about that. So, this Redeemer Of Souls tour starts in North America, but will it also be a world tour where you’ll play everywhere, may be even places that you’ve never played?

I hear the new prime minister of Indonesia is a metalhead. It could be fun to go out to Jakarta. There are some places in the world that we still haven’t had a chance to go to. I’m all for that. I love going to places that we’ve never been to before. So, the answer to your question is, we’ll do this two-month tour of the States and then we’ll take probably a decent break of 3 or 4 months before we consider going back out again in early 2015. Obviously we’ve got to do home and Europe, and then we’ll see about possibly going down to South America. We have a number 1 album in Japan for the first time ever, so it would be ridiculous if we didn’t go back there. So we’ll be spreading it out through 2015, and as and when we know where we’re going and what we’re doing, the information will go up on the website and the facebook. But I’ll tell you what’s pretty cool about this Nokia Live [the venue for the LA show of the North American tour] and I was thinking about it the other day, that it was the place where we premiered Richie’s worldwide debut with Priest on American Idol. So, I’m sure Richie will be feeling pretty good about that when he walks on that stage again all this time later to play his guitar. It will make the night a little bit extra special.

That’s true, I didn’t even think about that. It was indeed the same venue where you premiered him as your new guitar player.

Yeah! We got the call to come over and do that little medley with James Durbin. We flew from London to Los Angeles the next day, we did the show and then we flew back to London. So it literally was a whirlwind trip to travel that far for 3 minutes, but it was a valuable 3 minutes because it reached 30 million people in America, and it was another opportunity to spread the metal through the TV. I’m sure we turned on some Priest fans at that time.

Right, and on this tour of North America you’re taking out Steel Panther as support act. I love that band and you’ve had a history with their guitarist playing in your band when you were doing other things for a while, and even Richie and Scott Travis have jammed with Steel Panther in their shows. So it makes perfect sense but how did it materialize?

Firstly it’s a great connection that we’ve got in the band through Russ. I haven’t met any of the rest of the guys. When you’re going out together on the road, it’s important that you not only have a musical connection but you can hang out, have some fun together and just talk about music and do all the other cool stuff. Touring is still pretty rigorous in lots of ways, so if you’ve got some nice vibes going on backstage, it helps make the whole thing even more enjoyable. So, there’s that perspective to it. The other perspective is that, why does it always have to be so fucking deadly serious in metal? Why can’t we have a situation like this where we have this really fun balance between these two spectrums? Obviously we know what Steel Panther do and what they represent, and they do it fantastically well, and then you’ve got the other end of it which is a band like Priest going it and doing it from our point of view. So I just think it’s a very, very cool way of putting the show together. There would have probably been some bands in Priest’s world that would have said, ‘Fuck no, I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to take that band on tour with me.’ Well, that’s pretty blinked thinking in my opinion. I think there’s an opportunity in many ways to have a great guest with exceptional talent like Steel Panther have got and bring it in with a different angle. The whole point about going out to see a band is to have a good time, have some drinks, have some laughs, see your favorite band and so on and so forth. So, I just love this whole package, I really do, and I think it’s going to do really well. I was looking on Ticketmaster last night and already a bunch of shows are close to selling out. A couple havesold out already. So there’s a lot of people running to see the show and I would hope that because of Steel Panther being based in Los Angeles that the Nokia should sell out. I don’t know what the capacity is at that venue, but it’s a really cool gig. I love the location of LA Live in Downtown. It’s a great place to come and see some music.

I think it holds about 7000 people if I’m not wrong, and I’m pretty sure it will sell out.

I hope so! That will be great. There’s nothing better than seeing the two words ‘Sold Out’ (laughs).

Exactly. But when this was announced, there was criticism from some circles in the media and even Priest fans that were saying Steel Panther are just a joke and Priest should take somebody else more ‘legit’. What would you say to those people?

Don’t buy a ticket, somebody else will! When we were in New York looking at all the different opportunities for opening bands and were given a list, as soon as Steel Panther was shouted out, we knew that it was totally the band we needed. It’s going to be a fucking great night out of rock ‘n roll and metal. So, this decision comes entirely from Priest. A lot of our fans have got it, some of them haven’t. So I guess they’ll pick and choose on the night whether they want to see it, but I’ll tell you what, once the first 2 or 3 shows of the tour have gone down, everybody will be running to it and the decision will be made for them because the social media will be alight. I can’t begin to consider the fun we’re going to have with each other on that social media level. I check out Steel Panther’s facebook quite often and it’s hilarious. It’s really funny stuff. And the thing is, they’re first class musicians, they’re extremely talented guys, and they’ve found a niche´, if you want to call it that. The combination of the two bands is going to be really solid.

It’s going to be great! And just following up on that opening act thing. I’ve been reading up on the tours you did back in the 70s and you opened for all kinds of bands. I was wondering whether Judas Priest was ever in a position where you were not liked by an audience or by a certain band’s fans?

In the early days, yes. When we would open up for bands like Foghat, REO Speedwagon, Molly Hatchet, Head East and 38 Special, it was remarkable. We would go out and play ‘Victim Of Changes’ and there would be a blank look of ‘what the fuck!’ (Laughs) But that was then, way back before metal took a foothold in America. It was just as exciting and challenging as I guess it is for any new band that goes out to play in today’s world. You’ve got to win over your audience. I remember when we took Pantera out on some of the European touring we did in ’91, and the audience just didn’t know what to think of what was happening. But by the end of their set, the crowd was going nuts. For the most part that’s what happened with Priest. It was a slow slog of winning people over in America. So yeah, we’ve been there, on a stage where you can’t have any light and only one spotlight (laughs). Everybody in the band would keep stepping in it. There was no dressing room, no deli tray and all that kind of stuff. “No deli tray for you!” They would tell us (laughs). But you’ve got to pay your dues, you know. Even now there’s a ritual that you have to be prepared to go through. It’s just the way it goes.

That’s interesting. And finally, I have just one more question for you. Over the years you’ve toured with pretty much every possible band but is there any band that comes to your mind that you never got a chance to tour with and you regret not having toured with them till now?

That’s a really good question. We’re one of those ‘had it all, done it all, seen it all’ type of bands and I can’t really think of any band to be honest, Andrew. We’ve had the great fortune to play with all of the greats that have become our friends over the years. So as I’m sitting here talking to you, nothing comes to my mind I’m afraid, and I suppose that’s a good thing. We’ve been very lucky to work with everybody over the 40 years that we’ve been together. But I tell you what, just off the top of my head, it’s not exactly metal but it’s the Rolling Stones. I think they’re still one of the greatest rock ‘n roll bands ever, so that would be a band, and I guess that would be a little bit of a throwback to opening for Foghat or something like that because it’s not really connected musically but there’s definitely respect there.

I knew there had to be some band. I’m actually surprised that you never opened for the Rolling Stones because I thought it would have happened at some point back in the day.

Well you never know, they’re still going and so are we (laughs).

Remaining US Tour Dates:
11/14 – Las Vegas NV @ Pearl Concert Theater
11/16 – San Jose CA @ City National Civic
11/18 – Salt Lake City UT @ Maverik Center
11/19 – Broomfield CO @ 1st Bank Center
11/21 – Boise ID @ Centurylink Arena
11/22 – Tacoma WA @ Tacoma Dome