We talk to Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford on a rare day off about the band’s farewell Epitaph tour, turning 60 and err, Tom Jones.
“The band is still together and we are going to keep making music”
Rob Halford, 59 year-old front man of heavy metal pioneers Judas Priest has a record to set straight. The announcement that the band’s current tour would be their last on a global scale was met with shock and horror by fans. Rumours abounded that the band was finally breaking up for good, a confusion which Halford himself is eager to correct. “It’s important to let the fans know that the band is not breaking up, the band is still together, the band is going to keep making music,” he says. “We’ll still do the festivals and the odd event here and there, we’re just taking a slightly different approach to the future of Judas Priest. This tour is as valuable and important as ever. We’ve been doing what we do for forty-odd years now, thanks to the love and support of the fans.” And what a fanbase. Having sold over 40 million records throughout their 42 year career, one of Birmingham’s most famous hard rock acts will be playing to thousands more fanatical followers. It’s no wonder Halford sounds slightly fatigued by the idea.
“I haven’t had a holiday for thirty odd years,” he laughs. “It’s ironic that this is the farewell tour, because things seem to be speeding up. We’ve been to seventeen countries in the last month and another six to go. There’s still a lot of places we’ve yet to visit, and we’re looking to tour our next album also. We’re fully booked for the next two plus years!” His outlook on life following the completion of the Epitaph tour is decidedly positive, though slightly bittersweet. His clear dedication to Priest’s fans exists at odds with the band’s need to “wind things down slightly.”
“Life is for living and we wanna get as much out of it with our music, so on all fronts the future looks very positive,” he says. “When time permits, I’ll be looking to continue with my solo career, as I have a very dedicated fanbase that is important to me. But Priest is this wonderful metal monster that eats up time and space, and that’s always been where my heart is first. Anything after that is extra time, and a lot of fun.”
It’s fun that has always been the key element of Priest’s live show, complete with pyrotechnics, elaborate backdrops and Halford roaring around the stage on his Harley-Davidson. This is, after all, the man who spear-headed the metal biker uniform of leather and studs, over 20 years before Kiss and Mötley Crüe glammed it up in the ‘80s. Halford’s love of aggressive theatricality, coupled with his glass-shattering six-octave plus range forged himself an the moniker of the “Metal God” (also, handily, the name of his clothing line). Yet having defined the face of heavy metal both sonically and aesthetically worldwide, he retains particular excitement about returning to the Northern venues of the UK where Judas Priest began. “When you come home it’s all the more exciting because that is where it started,” he enthuses. “It’s wonderful to come back to a place like Doncaster, that was part of our treks in the early days. Back then we played every place you could plug a 13 amp into!”
Yet despite such a long career, and droll jokes about turning 60 in August aside, the vocalist has come to terms with a lot of the demons that haunted him as a younger man. After leaving Priest for 11 years between 1992 and 2003 and struggling with alcoholism, drug abuse and depression, Halford feels closer to his bandmates than ever before, and a stronger musician. “More than ever we feel like a family in the band, I feel that now more than ever,” he ponders. “I don’t know if that’s just being sentimental, but I think it’s deeper than that. We’ve all been through a tremendous life experience for the last 40 years, and as you get older you cherish that more and more.”
Halford remains philosophical about his evolution as both a musician and a person, maintaining that past difficulties no longer weigh heavily on his mind. His long learning curve has served to inform his decisions, whilst ensuring his longevity in a genre that still holds such a special place for Judas Priest. “On a working level as a musician, I think I’m a much better singer and songwriter than when I started out,” he muses. “It is a career, and the more you have a go at it, the better you should become. I think all of us in Priest are happy with the way that that’s gone. I’m a lot more content and at peace than how I used to be.”
Performing for Rob Halford is his cathartic release, and performing never fails to exhilarate him. He bubbles over with enthusiasm when discussing the thrills of performing such cornerstones of heavy metal as ‘Painkiller’ and ‘Breaking The Law’ to crowds of thousands each evening on tour. “I still get excited, as we all do in Priest, I’m like a big kid when I’m climbing the steps to the stage, that’s the eternal part of living when you’re in a rock ‘n’ roll band. “When you walk out on that stage and play ‘Living After Midnight’ from 1980, it becomes 1980, or you play ‘Victim of Changes’ from ‘Sad Wings Of Destiny’ from 1976, suddenly, we’re living in 1976. That’s what we do with music, it’s like a time machine, and that’s the biggest thrill in the world.”
Having thrilled the world by pioneering the twin-guitar sound that has influenced everyone from Iron Maiden to Slayer, Pantera to Metallica, Halford and his band keeps a keen eye on metal’s contemporary bands to observe how the scene is evolving. Though his music may transport him back in time, his devotion to metal inspires him to constantly strive to broaden his musical tastes and influences. “In music you can never stop learning, there’s always something fresh on the horizon to listen to,” he says. “That’s why all of us in Priest have maintained a very close connection to what’s going on in the current metal scene, you’d be a fool if you ignore what’s going on around you. It’s very exciting and very inspiring.”
Halford’s lust for life is infectious, and his good fortune is clearly something he is loathe to take for granted. He and the Judas Priest collective cannot be derailed from delivering their clashing metal to the masses, despite fast approaching pension-drawing age. “Physically and mentally we’re all in great nick, and that’s a blessing, it really is. There’s a self-belief that we have that playing our music is like an elixir of life, you can see why The Stones and BB King, or Tony Bennett, or Tom Jones all go out there because it keeps us vital, it keeps us living, it keeps us fresh. That’s what we all look forward to doing as long as we can in Judas Priest.”
Long live Judas Priest, defenders of the faith, ‘British Steel’ to the core.
For more information visit the official Judas Priest website.