Rob Halford on Judas Priest's New Album, Legacy of Metal, Leather, Pushing Boundaries | Revolver

Rob Halford on Judas Priest's New Album, Legacy of Metal, Leather, Pushing Boundaries

Metal God talks 50 years of Priest, death of metal peers, inspiring younger generations with raging 'Firepower'
judas priest 2017 Shinn, Travis Shinn; grooming by Morgan Teresa
Judas Priest's Rob Halford, Phoenix, Arizona, 2018
photograph by Travis Shinn; grooming by Morgan Teresa

The Metal God arrives like a phantom, rolling up on a quiet Phoenix street corner in a black Cadillac with tinted windows and a trunk full of leather. Rob Halford is behind the wheel, in casual black T-shirt and baggy shorts, black sneakers and black socks, a lightning bolt tattooed to one side of his bald head, bat wings on the other. In his dirty blonde goatee and dark glasses, he's easily recognizable as the once and forever frontman of Judas Priest, those soldiers of the British heavy-metal movement that continues to shape and influence generations of headbangers.

judas priest 2017 Borucki, Justin Borucki
Judas Priest, (from left) Scott Travis, Ian Hill, Halford, Glenn Tipton and Richie Faulkner
photograph by Justin Borucki

Halford has been at this for nearly half a century, and it's with that history in mind that he's arrived for a Revolver photo session with a wardrobe of black leather that epitomizes the look of classic Judas Priest. Standing tall with a leather cap low over his brow, he poses with flair and bad attitude, leaning on a dragon-head cane or wielding a riding crop like a man who knows how to use one. He soon puts on a long leather coat with angel wings of tassels designed by Ray Brown, creator of the majority of Judas Priest's stage clothes for over three decades. All that's missing is the rumble of a Harley.

Spread across a table is an impressive array of his studded leather gloves and metal jewelry purchased in online shopping sprees after midnight. "Oh God, don't let me go on Amazon Prime at one in the morning 'cause I always buy something I don't need," Halford says with a laugh. "But it's just the accoutrements, isn't it? The thing about rock & roll, and the black leather biker jacket — it automatically  creates an idea about what that person might be about, about their musical taste or their attitude. That's still very much part of what we're about."

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The occasion for the day's photo shoot is a new album, Firepower — an alarmingly fiery collection of hard-edged metal, fueled on the dual guitars of Glenn Tipton and the band's newest and youngest member, Richie Faulkner. It can be heard from the first moments of the frantic title song that opens the album, as slicing riffs and a runaway beat make a powerful case for musical longevity as Halford snarls, "With weapons drawn/We claim the future/Invincible through every storm!"

A lot of the band's 18th album is like that, showing a veteran act true to its history while still fully engaged with the metal moment, even as so many of their contemporaries have recently signed off (Black Sabbath) or passed on (Motörhead). If Judas Priest are to be among the last of their generation standing, their sound and fury remains at full power in 2018, from the revving guitar roar of "Evil Never Dies" to the heavier Sabbath groove on "Children of the Sun," which has Halford delivering one of his most expansive vocal performances, shifting from threatening to mournful and vulnerable. On the sweeping ballad "Sea of Red," the singer examines the carnage of World War I, closing the album with the metaphor of red poppies growing on a battlefield to describe the sacrifices of war: "As the sun goes down/The silence is profound/For they gave so much/So we might go on and live." 

Firepower was recorded in the U.K. last year, after a period of gathering ideas for riffs and lyrics. "I'll spend the day just playing guitar, making mistakes — sometimes you make a mistake and it churns up an idea," Tipton says by phone from his home near Birmingham, where Priest's story began in 1969. "I've got hundreds of riffs on tapes all over the place. I'm sure every guitar player has. It doesn't mean to say they're good ones."

Halford, Tipton and Faulkner had enough songs in the works that at one point there was talk of making a double album, until their label, Epic Records, gently talked them back to earth. Then Halford began arguing for a tight, 10-track collection more in the tradition of the 36-minute standard set by British Steel, their 1980 commercial breakthrough. The singer eventually discarded that idea when faced with the abundance of exciting material recorded with bassist Ian Hill and drummer Scott Travis.

Priest instead pushed the envelope in their selection of producers, reuniting with Tom Allom (collaborator of choice during their 1980s zenith) and teamed him in the studio with Andy Sneap (Amon Amarth, Megadeth). It was the first joint production by Allom and Sneap. "It was a great combination of classic producer with a more contemporary metal producer working side by side," says Faulkner. Likewise, Tipton was pleased with the results, adding, "You can come up with a great riff, but that doesn't necessarily mean you've got a great song on your hands. I always find it exciting to work with other people's ideas as well. And so it just turned out right and it worked really well as a team."

Firepower is the band's second studio album with Faulkner, who joined Priest in early 2011, replacing founding guitarist K.K. Downing. On his first album with the group, 2014's Redeemer of Souls, he was openly embraced as a creative force. But Firepower comes after multiple tours and recording sessions, inevitably meaning more time for Faulkner to settle in as equal partner with a real stake in the band's legacy. "He's a very talented guitar player," says Tipton. "That's healthy competition and keeps me on my toes at my age. I might need a kick in the backside every now and again."

judas priest 2017 Shinn, Travis Shinn
photograph by Travis Shinn

The Priest audience, built over decades, also accepted the younger player, without excessive angst. "I really felt like there was a healthy skepticism because they care so much, but after 30 seconds of a live set, they were with me," says Faulkner, who, at 38, was born the year British Steel was released. "They knew it was going to be OK and the band was going to be OK."

For the longtime survivors within Judas Priest, being back at a peak moment of urgency and creativity is especially welcome as they get further down the road. "You never know what's around the corner. It's been a bad couple of years, really. People have been dropping like flies," says Tipton, who lost a good friend with the 2015 death of Lemmy Kilmister. At least the future of Priest still looks loud and open-ended. "Rob's vocals are unbelievable. I mean, he's getting on like we all are and his voice hasn't suffered at all," Tipton says. "He can still hit those high notes. His vocal abilities are second to none."

At his photo session in Phoenix, Halford is still very much the Metal God in black leather, though he never gets to raise his voice. He's soon back in a black T-shirt to talk with Revolver about the state of Judas Priest and his late-night shopping habits. Now 66, this boy from Birmingham has kept a home in Arizona since 1981. "As a kid growing up in England watching the cowboys and Indians on the TV and then suddenly you're in this beautiful oasis," Halford says. "It was my little Shangri-la. It still is."

DURING THIS PHOTO SHOOT, YOU BROUGHT TO LIFE A LOT OF ICONIC IMAGERY THAT PRIEST FIRST CREATED DECADES AGO. WHAT'S IT LIKE FOR YOU TO WATCH AS THINGS YOU INVENTED EVOLVE THROUGH THE YEARS IN OTHER BANDS?
ROB HALFORD 
The whole point of the legacy of your music is just that. Priest is holding the torch for British heavy metal and passing it on. That's exactly where we're at now as we hurtle towards our 50th anniversary in 2019. That's an extraordinary thing. "Oh my God, this band has been around since 1969!" And when you meet your fellow musicians in and out of heavy metal, they make a reference to a song that you did or a show that that person saw, and you go, "Ah, this is really cool." It's all connected. What I liked about this shoot was I was just wearing some of the original classic black leather, studs, the shades and all that. I've been doing that in Priest since I can't remember when and it stood the test of time. You're not really aware of what's happening outside of this room right now, but people are listening to "Lightning Strike" all over the world that we just dropped a few days ago. And you don't know where that's going to lead. And that's the same with the bands I went to see when I was growing up.

A LOT OF BANDS SEEM TO LOSE THEIR EDGE AND ENTHUSIASM OVER TIME. HOW DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN ALL THAT?
At two o'clock this morning I was watching South Park and it was the episode where Stan just turns 10 years old and is listening to music and his mom says, "That sounds like shit!" And he goes, "No, mom, that doesn't sound like shit — that sounds great." And his dad says to his mom, "You're acting like we did with our parents." And the whole element of the story was the cynicism that creeps into you in life as you get older: "That sounds like shit. That looks like shit. That band is shit. Their music is shit." Well, that is just a strange human idiosyncrasy that creeps in on every one of us. It just makes you more focused and more determined not to let your own game down. Priest has this wonderful, solid fan base — a lot of the fans have been with us as long as we've been around — and the newer fan base. You can't let go of the reins. You can't lift your foot off the gas pedal because everything you do is under a microscope. The moment you walk out on the stage you're being judged. It's what every musician does. In Priest, we're probably more grateful than ever to have this opportunity to do what we do. The intensity and the passion that we put into this record is probably greater than I could ever recall and that's not dismissing everything else that we've done. It's just where we're at now.

FIREPOWER BEGINS WITH A LOT OF URGENCY, STARTING WITH THE TITLE TRACK.
I remember sitting with Glenn and Richie and talking about what we wanted this record to have in it. And we wanted to make the heaviest, most classic-feeling record that we could possibly do for 2018, representing Priest as a band that's been around for four decades, but at the same time, bring something fresh. The first three tracks — "Firepower," "Lightning Strike," "Evil Never Dies" — they're absolutely vital because there's that built-in expectation. When we were writing, I said, "We're doing 10 tracks. British Steel... came in at 35 minutes. One of the greatest fucking records we've ever made. 10 tracks. 10 tracks. 10 tracks." I kept pushing, pushing, pushing and Glenn would look at me and shake his head: "It's going to be more than 10." I said, "It's going to be 10. It's going to be 10." And then of course, when we finished all the mixes, and I was back here in Phoenix, lying in my bed, I would listen to every track going, "What are we gonna do with this one? What are we gonna do with that one?" These 14 tracks really work. They really embody everything that we were expecting of ourselves for Firepower.

THE ALBUM CLOSES WITH AN EPIC BALLAD, "SEA OF RED." WHERE DID THAT COME FROM?
When I write lyrics for Priest, I'm writing them for Priest, I'm not writing them for me. And we go through lyrics together and if one of us isn't happy, we'll make an adjustment. You've got to be able to compromise in a band, otherwise somebody's more important than the next guy and that's never been the case in Priest.  So when I was thinking about "Sea of Red," it was basically from World War I in France. There's an area called Flanders and after World War I, there was still a lot of destruction and the landscape was torn apart, but then these flowers would grow ... red poppies. So "Sea of Red" was about the poppies in the wind and creating this kind of sea of red, referencing the blood of people that fell. And how do you get a message like that across that's elevating you and not depressing you, that's engaging you to think good about horrible events? It's a personal thing, so it has an element of spirituality in it and this belief that I've got about afterlife. I like to put my mind into different things like physics and quantum physics and science and all this stuff — Einstein believing in God and believing in an afterlife, all these incredibly genius minds all reference that they think there's something more than what we have in the physical world. How do you put that in a song? It's just a metaphor really, but it's telling the story that there is something more than what we have at this place. And how do you make that convincing and heavy fucking metal? You're really rolling the dice there, aren't you, because there's always a threat of rejection if you become too personal, if you're in a heavy-metal band. There's this big alpha male tough macho thing. How do you make such a sensitive piece of music connect? And I'll be very interested to look and hear what our fans say about that track.

judas priest 2017 Shinn, Travis Shinn
photograph by Travis Shinn

THE SONG "NEVER THE HEROES" IS A SORT OF ROUSING CLASSIC PRIEST SING-ALONG ANTHEM, WITH A DEEPER MESSAGE. IS THAT WHAT YOU IMAGINE AS YOU'RE WRITING IT?
"Never the Heroes" is just the flipside of "Sea of Red." It was about people that don't have any choice. They're put into a situation that's really out of their control and not being accepted and respected because they're not going with the general flow of whatever is in society. It's like what's going off in Iran at the moment — to watch the protesters, they're all heroes. Anywhere where you're pushing back against a rigid dictatorship that encroaches on your human rights of freedom and liberty, it's all important. Who knew there's all these statements on this record? When you're in the zone, you're not really thinking about it beyond that moment of putting the words together, making the sound right and getting the melody right and the phrasing. But now when I listen to these songs like "Evil Never Dies" and "Lightning Strike," it just felt that those are the right words at the right time when we were making the music. And then people go, "You know, 'Lightning Strike' is very in the groove of what's happening here in America right now, the political thing." I'm like, "Is it? I don't know." I wasn't thinking about that when I was putting the words down.

YOU JUST SHOT A VIDEO WITH REVOLVER WHERE YOU DESCRIBE THE BACKGROUND OF "LIGHTNING STRIKE," AND YOU'RE REALLY GETTING INTO IT. IT REALLY SAYS SOMETHING ABOUT HOW DEEPLY YOU THINK ABOUY THESE THINGS.
I think that's all of us in Priest. We all take a great deal of care. I get more of a kick out of hearing the bassline that Ian's putting down than anything else. I do think about a lot of stuff. That's just the way I am. I never was a tits and ass guy. [Laughs] If you know what I mean by that: "Yeah, baby let's go out to lunch. Show me your tits and wag that ass," you know. There's nothing wrong with that, but that's not Rob. That's not the Metal God.

ARE YOU SOMEONE WHO ABSORBS A LOT OF NEWS AND INFORMATION IN THE MEDIA?
Too much. I may be more curious now as an older guy than I was when I was a younger guy just because you change, don't you? I wasn't as interested as I am now about politics and the world economy and climate change and everything else.

HAVE YOU BEEN SATISFIED BY HOW MUCH THE WORLD HAS OPENED UP TO  DIFFERENT LIFESTYLES AND POINTS OF VIEW?
In my role as an openly gay metalhead, we've still got a long way to go. From my perspective there's still not equality. I hate this thing of boxes and labels. It's ridiculous. You go somewhere like the Netherlands, I've had a flat over there forever. They don't even talk about that. It's a non-existent discussion in terms of everybody and who they are and why are we even talking about that's a gay guy and that's a lesbian, that's a black guy and that's a Muslim? It's peculiar with all this new territory we haven't really advanced that much. It's crazy.

BEFORE BLACK SABBATH FINALLY RECORDED A NEW STUDIO ALBUM WITH 13, OZZY OFTEN WORRIED ABOUT LIVING UP TO THE WEIGHT OF WHAT THEY HAD ACCOMPLISHED. HAVE YOU EVER FELT OVERWHELMED BY YOUR OWN HISTORY?
We have such a great time being together as a band still and the writing process. It's important to say that Richie's input has been vital to take us to some different places. We just love playing, we just love writing metal and we're like a bunch of kids. We're in the studio and the riffs are going and we're headbanging. I mean, me and Glenn are the AARP metalheads — banging our heads with Richie and it's great. It feels absolutely fantastic. And this thing about feeling a bit jaded and cynical? That's never really entered into our mindset. All of us feel the same way. We don't have to say to one of us, "Make a bit more of an effort," because it's always there. It's always this genuine love of putting out this new metal that we could make. It's important that metal really send out a strong message and I really hope that's what Priest is able to do for metal in 2018, not just for us. It rises everything up. Everybody gets buzzed about the metal scene, the metal community.

THIS IS THE SECOND STUDIO ALBUM WITH RICHIE FAULKNER ON GUITAR. WAS THE EXPERIENCE DIFFERENT THIS TIME?
When he came in like he did, it was like stepping into some big boots and he will always acknowledge his respect and admiration for what K.K. still means to certain songs of Priest. He came in on the Epitaph tour. He was just flung into the thick of it, went out there night after night and people are going, "Who's this new guy?" And by the end of every show, he paid his dues. "Look up there. That's Richie Faulkner. He's in Judas Priest." We get to know each other. We're in each other's company, 20 hours a day in the bus, on the stage, backstage, so all of that is important. And Richie's really shone through on this album and his writing contributions. He said in the Redeemer of Souls writing sessions, "I don't want to do too much. I've got all these ideas." I go, "Let's hear the ideas. Richie, you're not the  hired gun. You're in this band." And so by the time we went into the Firepower writing, he just felt more settled, more cemented into being in Priest and that's showing itself with his skill on Firepower.

DID YOU HELP RICHIE FILL UP HIS CLOSET WITH LEATHER AFTER HE JOINED?
He loves that side of it. All of us do to some extent. That's just part of the Priest puzzle: "What's he gonna be wearing?" And I love it, you know. It's like being a kid. And from the perspective of the fans, just give me something to see and talk about and remember.

A LOT OF BANDS HAVE GONE THROUGH SOMEBODY LEAVING, AND THEN HARDCORE FANS SOMETIMES NOT ACCEPTING THE NEW PERSON. MY IMPRESSION IS RICHIE DIDN'T FACE A LOT OF THAT.
That's true. I mean, there was some kickback, naturally. There was kickback when I was away and [Tim] Ripper [Owens] was holding the mic, you know. It's just there in front of your face if you want to turn the computer on and see what people are saying, thinking or feeling, can't you? But I will say, on that side of this social platform music scene, we are treated really nice. I have friends in bands that recently are doing really, really well. And they just get tore apart on Blabbermouth or this site or that site. It's very sad, but Priest has been really well looked after. We've never gone for controversy. We've never done a stunt. It's always just been the music. The music's there first, so whenever those changes came around, they were for a specific important reason. Our fans understood and so it has been with the way Richie's been embraced, as he should have been.

DO YOU THINK THAT ATTITUDE WAS AFFECTED BY THE FACT THAT IT WASN'T AN OVERNIGHT SENSATION FOR JUDAS PRIEST? IT TOOK A WHILE TO CATCH ON AND FIND YOUR VOICE.
Yeah, I think so. I vaguely remember the guy who came to see us play the Greyhound pub to get us our first deal in London and how excited we were and thinking, "Oh this is gonna be great. We're gonna be top of the charts next week!" [Laughs] That kind of youthful enthusiasm. And then by the end of that second album, you have to leave the label because they won't give you five pounds a week to live on. So it's that slow and steady thing. I don't know if it's a British thing or what, but for the most part, when people do start to get some recognition and success, a lot of the bands have gone through a 10-year existence [playing] the clubs and every dive bar in the States.

ON THE NEW ALBUM, YOU WORKED WITH PRODUCERS TOM ALLOM AND ANDY SNEAP. ALLOM WORKED ON A LOT OF YOUR CLASSIC RECORDS.
Without Tom and without Andy this record wouldn't have turned out anywhere near as good. Leaving the music in their hands with the confidence and trust that we have in these guys was really important because individually each of us go off into a room and really focus on whatever it is we have to put down that day or the next day, getting it right, getting it as great as it should be. Glenn for the most part has always been in the room when I do my vocals. This time he wasn't there. I'm still kind of an insecure vocalist. I always have to have somebody else: "Am I doing it right? Is that good enough? Is it OK?" Glenn has more tenacity for detail than anybody in Priest. So he was out of the room and it was generally just me and Andy and Tom — in the hands of somebody that's qualified and somebody that you trust.

judas priest 2017 Shinn, Travis Shinn
photograph by Travis Shinn

YOU'VE BEEN BASED IN PHOENIX, ARIZONA, AT LEAST PART OF THE TIME, SINCE 1981. IT'S A PRETTY DRAMATIC DIFFERENCE FROM WHERE YOU'RE FROM.
That's probably why I live here. I'll be going home back to the U.K. to my little town, which is just a million lightyears away geographically and visually. But one of the joys of being in a band and traveling the world as much as we do is you really see how small the world is. I feel just as comfortable in Rome or Rio or Sydney or Japan as I am sitting here in Phoenix. People are exactly the same. Everybody's got a mortgage. Everybody's trying to figure out what we're going to have for dinner tonight. Everybody leaves to go to the store. From my angle, it's just hopefully made me get a better understanding of life in terms of we're all the same. We are all the same.

BEFORE HE DIED, LEMMY SOMETIMES WORRIED ABOUT WHO WOULD CARRY THE FLAG FOR ROCK & ROLL. ARE YOU EVER CONCERNED?
There'll always be a rock & roll band of some nature. It doesn't have to be a band that plays Madison Square Garden. It could just be a great band that plays a club. I think the legacy of what Lemmy's left is huge — Motörhead and what three guys can do, the simple experience of three guys making that kind of sound in rock & roll, in metal. There will always be something of that nature. I mean, Royal Blood is two guys, right? And before that was Jack White, the White Stripes. The good thing about the turmoil that's going on in the world today is that it does reverberate in music. Through the Sixties the important core bands, like the Doors or the Jefferson Airplane — those really early experiences of pushing back against what was going on around you went into the music. With Lemmy it was like "Eat the Rich," you know, "Ace of Spades." It's a different world, but I don't think there's anything to worry about. Rock & roll will never die. This is as true now as it ever was.

AND YOUR HOMETOWN HEROES BLACK SABBATH JUST STOPPED.
They did stop, for the time being. I hope they'll come back and twang a few more strings. It's interesting, because once they retired that kind of leaves Priest as being one of the longest active working metal bands in the world right now. But right now you're still surrounded by some giants in metal — Metallica and Maiden. In hard rock, you've got Guns N' Roses, AC/DC, KISS, Aerosmith. There's still a backbone of these vintage — if you want to call them that — types of experiences that are still very, very important. And it's always cool to contemplate that when Priest goes out on this next world tour, there'll be some kid who goes, "Oh, I gotta get a guitar like Glenn's doing," you know. It's like a passing-the-flame thing.

YOU SANG WITH SABBATH FOR A COUPLE OF SHOWS IN 1992 AND AGAIN IN 2004. WAS THAT A WEIRD EXPERIENCE?
It was kind of surreal, because you're literally relying on your own chops. It's precarious, and Ozzy's got a very unique way of singing and phrasing. I know every Sabbath song that's been done. It was just a case of trying to do the best you can and fit in the spot. I was fucking shitting myself. [Laughs]

I KNOW THAT YOU WERE HOPING THAT THIS WOULD BE THE YEAR FOR PRIEST TO GET INTO THE ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME.
Yeah. And it wasn't. [Laughs] But maybe it will be the next year or the year after that. You know, I've been saying more than anything else, get some more metal in there. Let's get some more riffs banging around the halls. Allegedly, I said we deserve it and there is some truth to that.

FANS DO GET UPSET: WHY ISN'T KISS IN? WHY NOT RUSH? THEY WERE ALWAYS GOING TO GET IN. JUDAS PRIEST IS GOING TO GET IN.
I just hope we get in when we're alive. [Laughs] Because I think one of the thrills is to perform, isn't it? You can't go and play baseball when you get into the Baseball Hall of Fame or NBA or anything like that. With rock & roll, you actually get the opportunity to play and I really hope that happens when we can still do it.