Hellbound Q&A with the Metal God: Rob Halford of Judas Priest

Metal gods require no introduction. Rob Halford took a breather from Judas Priest’s massive North American tour to discuss redemption, the PMRC, longevity, and picking out the damn setlist with our Kyle Harcott. Here’s the conversation.

Thank you for speaking to me. First off, my congratulations on the tour, Redeemer of Souls, and your recently marked thirty years of sobriety.

Thank you! I’m gonna be seeing a good friend of mine at the Vancouver show, who’s been kind of a mentor of mine over the years. And we get these little gold coins for every year of sobriety – so he’ll no doubt have my thirtieth coin to give me. Thank you for noting that. I really appreciate you mentioning that.

I noticed that on this leg of the tour, you guys have dug in the vaults and thrown a few more classics onto the setlist. When it comes to determining set changes for certain legs of the tour, is it a matter of trial and error, or do you all decide beforehand what songs have to be on a certain leg’s set?

JudasPriesttour2015The thing about Priest – every single song has its moment. We really hand-pick each song in the set to work through the dynamics of the show; it’s a bit like going to the theater. Every single performance has its little spotlight. That’s just the way we’ve been doing it in Priest for as long as I can remember. We decided, because we were coming through to do this last leg of the tour, to kick the tires to see what else we could find for songs to put in. And also, we always keep a lookout from our fans’ perspective – through social media. We’re all on the internet, and it’s cool to hear the fans mentioning tracks like “Screaming For Vengeance,” “Desert Plains,” “The Rage,” and a bunch of others – so those ones we’ve included for now.

It’s clear that despite talks of epitaphs and farewell tours a couple of years ago, Priest shows no signs of stopping, thankfully. You guys seem invigorated on Redeemer of Souls, and I’ve got to ask, how much of this is on the shoulders of Richie Faulkner’s initiation into the band?

Well, Richie’s an absolutely vital component of what we’re doing right now. Combined with the fact that when you have a new release it just keeps you in the mix of things; you’re not relying on your past all the time. Because let’s face it, when you’re in a successful band, that’s basically what put you where you are – your material from past releases. If you can have a new release that has had some impact, then I think it makes you more relevant. You’re not just going around, playing stuff from the seventies, eighties, nineties. You’re going, here we are – we’re still here, we’re still significant, we’re still laying down the metal – and here’s a brand new song that we wrote, like, twelve months ago! And, that often is important for the band – for the morale of the band, for the chemistry of the band – the mentality of the band. And also for your fans! I think your fans are really boosted by seeing you, and listening to what you’re releasing from your new material.

Over the last few records, Glenn, KK, and yourself were the primary writers of new material, and this role has now incorporated Richie in KK’s stead. After the grandiose scope of a concept album like Nostradamus, was it planned in advance to take Redeemer of Souls in a decidedly anthemic direction, or did the writing process unfold in this direction organically?

Well this was an important record, again, Kyle, for a lot of reasons, but if you boiled it all down, it was simply the fact that it had been over six years since we put out Nostradamus, which, as you know, was a kind of metal opera adventure – which we had a blast making! And we’ve got things lurking in the background, that we’re gonna display at some point, too – drawing on the adventure of what we worked on with Nostradamus a little more. But six years was a long time to wait for a studio album! And I think the studio album, again, should represent the core of what you’re about as a band. So all of these songs – “Halls of Valhalla,” “Crossfire,” “Redeemer of Souls,” “Dragonaut” – they’re all incisive monuments of what makes Priest, Priest: all of these hooks, and melodies, and characters. They’re all part of this rich history of Priest, since we’ve been making albums for four decades now. Richie will tell you, he’s a hardcore Priest fan. He knows this band; he’s been a fan of this band ever since he picked up the guitar. So – he came into this band knowing what was required, not only from his point of view but from mine, from ours as writers. We want to write Priest metal, so he was more than qualified to be able to do that. So this was the first time we’d written as a trio with Richie, and great things happened. 

Retribution and redemption seem to be recurring themes since your return to Judas Priest in 2003. So I’m a little curious about the title Redeemer of Souls. Was there ever a feeling within the group that Judas Priest needed some kind of redemption?

I love this kind of a question, because if you look through the rich history of the lyrical adventures that we’ve had in Priest – we always talk about these things. The music takes you on a journey, some kind of life journey, so Priest has always been a kind of optimistic force in the things we talk about. And I think we also can be quite provocative and evocative in the things we try to make you think about. Having said that, we’re not taking you to class, we’re basically sharing with you words and language we all believe in. So, when you talk about sin, redemption, faith, destiny… all these things are what everybody goes through in life. I don’t think we’re doing anything that differently than a lot of metal bands. Standing your ground, resilience, self-determination, being vigilant, strong, protective – all the great virtues I think are important in life. We’re just finding moments to utilize that kind of belief in the words we put into our music.

2015 marks not only the 25th anniversary of the Judas Priest’s subliminal-message trial in Reno, Nevada – but also the 30th anniversary of the PMRC Senate Committee “Filthy Fifteen List” [upon which Priest’s “eat Me Alive” was included] Hearings. After reading your recent piece in Rolling Stone, I was struck by your empathy towards the families of the boys who killed themselves – it was clear these poor people who were in a great deal of pain were having their actions directed by outside forces with strong political agendas. And that said – certainly not to detract from that empathy – I wonder if you had any words in hindsight on the sheer absurdity of the situation your band was involved in with both the trial, as well as being named on the PMRC’s list, and to a larger extent, the satanic-panic hysteria of the late 1980s?

Some days you want to push all that away and not talk about it anymore. And there are other days when you think, hang on, this is very important, an important experience that we all gained knowledge from. Not just us in Priest but everybody. When I say you want to push it away, it’s because both were very unpleasant experiences, there was nothing cool about it. It was really tough. We still look back with great sadness to those two young metalheads who lost their lives through the circumstances in which they were living. Those boys loved their metal – it was their life. It was the other things that were going on around them that were creating all the destructive elements.

And then the PMRC thing was definitely a combination of political agenda and the establishment, especially in America, taking a look at what was going on around them, and feeling so detached, and feeling so alienated by all of this crazy stuff, that they had no impression, no idea of the great things happening in heavy metal, and the joy and pleasure it was bringing to people. So, much like a lot of politicians, when you don’t agree with something, or you don’t understand something – you start attacking it. Because you have no defense, because you don’t have the knowledge, you don’t know what to say, so you have to kind of take it on in a very aggressive manner. At the heart of the PMRC was a simple equation, there are certain things being said – it wasn’t music, this was language! There were certain things being said that they felt needed to be policed. Needed to be guarded against. Which of course… I mean, I’m not an American, but I know what the First Amendment stands for.

So out of the whole PMRC thing came the stickers on the records for language content. Now, I’m okay with guidance, but I’m certainly against censorship. So if you wanna say, this album has what might be deemed offensive language to you, this is a head’s-up – like when you go to the movies. Anyway, out of all that PMRC thing came this kind of, guarded structure, but it was more than that. I think the end result was kind of a deflated attempt on their part to say “Well, this is what we had in mind in the first place. We wanted to make sure that people had some direction.” Which is rubbish because at the heart of it, the political establishments at that time hated heavy metal; they hated the music, they hated the volume, they hated the stories, they hated the gory artwork on certain albums. It freaked me out, because this was basically a democratically led charge! It didn’t come from the extreme right wing! It just came from a very strange place from my perspective.

Having said that, you do what you need to do – you go to court, and you stand up for yourself, and you tell the truth – which is what we did in Reno. And at the same point when my friend Dee Snider went to the senate hearing, he did what any of us would have done, which is told the truth. This is what we are. This is rock and roll. You’re treating us like kids were being treated in the Fifties, like when Elvis was on TV, and they would only film him from the waist down. It was a really, really, really unusual and frustrating set of circumstances to go through – but as ever, rock and roll prevails. You can’t kill rock roll. Who said that? It’s true. So there’s my very long-winded answer to you.

My understanding is that you guys have some material left over from the Redeemer writing sessions for the next record. So, will it be similar in vein to Redeemer of Souls?

I don’t really know, Kyle – we’ll have to wait and see. I think another, kind of classic-vibe tradition, like what we did on Redeemer is what this band is all about. I don’t think it’ll be Redeemer, Mark II, but it’ll be another bunch of songs that basically reinforce and anchor down everything that the band is about even more than the experience on Redeemer. That’s what I love about writing, you never know – so I’m excited to see what we come up with.

Are you guys right back into the studio after this tour?

I think we’ll take a break and just decompress from running around with suitcases, and jumping on planes for awhile. We have to do that – kind of, say goodbye to each other for a while and step away from everything. You know, gain some perspective for what we need to do next.

To what do you credit the longevity of Judas Priest and the band’s ability to renew itself and continue to create timeless music?

First and foremost, you can’t do a thing without the fans. I think every band should bow down to their fans because I wouldn’t be staying in this hotel, on the phone, talking to you in Vancouver – without the fans. Our fans are out there supporting us, buying the records, coming to the shows – they give us this life! You can’t sustain without that kind of connection. Our fans primarily are the major ingredient, because they stimulate us to be musical, and to put on these tours, and get in the studio and start writing. Of course, harnessing that whole respect, we still want to do it! We still love doing what we do! It never feels finished! You’ve got to have the passion, the energy to keep doing this kind of work – especially this far on in the story, forty years later. So, when I say at the end of the show, “Priest will be back!” that’s absolutely damn right, because we WILL be back.

Mr. Halford, I thank you for your time. It’s been an honour speaking to you.

Alright, Kyle – I really appreciate it. Those were some very cool questions. Thank you and see you in Vancouver!



Vocals @ Hexripper | Curmudgeonly, freelance-hack shit-talker of all things metal