I address Rob Halford as “Sir,” something I’m prone to do toward figures of authority or in the presence of a hero, a legend. It’s a nervous foible.
“Are you in the queue to be knighted?” I ask, trying to break the ice.
“I’m very happy being known as a metal god,” Halford says with a laugh. “In fact I think that might carry more weight than Sir Rob.”
At 63 years old, he’s more than a survivor—he’s damn near immortal. When Judas Priest takes thestage at this year’s Rock on the Range (May 15-17), the band not only celebrates 40 years together, but also a creative rebirth on the back of 2014’s stellar Redeemer of Souls. That album’s out-of-nowhere force isn’t surprising given Priest’s penchant for trendsetting and shapeshifting. Be it speed metal or thrash, leather and stud biker rock, or Halford’s undeniable operatic range, the band’s impact on modern music is unparalleled. In those four decades, Judas Priest have been metal’s oracle, guiding where it was headed and how it evolved.
The thought of which, again, when talking with Halford, has turned me into a puddle of fanboy. Halford’s grace and eloquence during our conversation weren’t wasted on chatting up the past, even if I tried to prompt him into reminiscing. Instead Halford sounded poised to charge headlong into the future and let the world know that Priest’s “killing machine” is alive and well.
“We can’t do anything without our fans. We’re all in it to win it, basically.”
I remember the last time you toured it was dubbed the “farewell” tour, but here you are again, touring for last year’s Redeemer of Souls. What is it that continues to coax you guys out of retirement? As the story goes, the so-called “farewell” tour suddenly shifted focus. With [guitarist] K.K. [Downing] leaving and Richard [Faulkner] joining the band for that tour, we were in a very reflective state of mind. What more can you say about life? Life changes, plans change. We were just thrilled with the opportunity to keep forging ahead. There’s more excitement and more talk about the future, especially on the back of Redeemer of Souls. For a band like Priest who’ve been together for over four decades and have [had] such a fantastic response meant the world to us. We are motivated by what we do and the people who enjoy what we do. We can’t do anything without our fans. We’re all in it to win it, basically.
I suppose one of the reasons I’m such a huge Judas Priest fan is that you guys are never set in your ways. Throughout your career you were always switching gears, experimenting with different styles and aesthetics. What do you think contributed to that? It’s chemistry. It’s how you come together. In a band, it has to start with a mutual respect and an admiration for the music you’re all striving to create. It’s difficult being in a band—it’s an emotionally driven life. It’s difficult to find a balance of respect, and I think we’ve been able to maintain that in Priest.
Do you have a favorite period or album from the discography? I’ve always made reference to Sad Wings of Destiny. When you first make professional recordings and your songs go out to the public and the fan base, that music is coming from a very uncluttered source. There are none of the extraneous pressures that come with being in a band. It’s pure. I can still listen to that album now and still get the same kick out of it when we first made that record. It’s a great example of the roots of this band. There are some wonderfully significant parts to this band’s career, but I steer any new fan towards that one.
You and the band fought wars with the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) and the courts questioning the obscenity of your work. These days there doesn’t seem to be such a backlash against the negative influence of metal on our culture. Why do you think that is so? Do you think you were trailblazers in that respect? It’s a different world. All of those people who were in power and all of those people that were attacking us have moved on and we have people in various governments who know it’s a different time and have a different understanding about music and the way it works. Music is always about giving people a good time, being constructive as opposed to destructive. In the thick of the ’80s, we were caught up in some political turmoil that we had no connection to—we were sort of dragged into it. I think we efficiently explained ourselves to people who were being guided by certain bodies of authority that we were being attacked for all the wrong reasons. There are more important things in life than picking on bands these days.
I recently read an interview with you from last year where you say that now, in your 60s, you want to eventually move out of your comfort zone. Do you have any notion of what that will consist of? As long as the outcome is good and fans are attracted to it. I’m a metalhead. I’ve been a metalhead for almost 64 years. That’s where my heart’s at. But it’s all about adventure. The longer you live the more risks you can take if you want to.
So you’re not planning a “duets” album anytime soon? I don’t see why I shouldn’t. It’s on the table. Everything’s on the table.