There are select bands still releasing albums after 40+ years, and even fewer outfits who’ve remained crushingly heavy and consistent in their sound. Judas Priest are one of the rare bands, though, who can keep churning out LPs that live up to their substantial legacy. No, we’re not saying their latest album, Firepower, is about to become your favorite Priest album of all time, but the LP readily lives up to its title, demonstrating their knack for sick riffage, pounding percussion and peerless vocal acrobatics from frontman Rob Halford, whose voice has remained shockingly unchanged over the years.
Ahead of the album’s release today (March 9), Billboard sat down with Halford, drummer Scott Travis and guitarist Richie Faulkner to discuss how the band’s creative process has (and hasn’t) changed over the years, their “Beatles moment,” that Simpsons “death metal” gaffe and what it’s like for Halford to be an out artist in metal.
[Note: Billboard spoke to Priest before the band’s announcement that longtime guitarist Glenn Tipton would sit out the band’s upcoming tour due to his struggle with Parkinson’s, and as such the interview doesn’t address that.]
I have to say on the new album Firepower, your voice still sounds insanely good. It’s barely changed over the years. Do you have tricks or a vocal regimen?
Rob Halford: Not really, no, I don’t think it’s any different from the way Scott or Richie practices. It’s an instrument and you learn how to use it. It’s hours and hours of practice. The only difference is that it’s a physical thing. If Richie busts a string or Scott busts a skin they can change it. You don’t know what’s going to happen, honestly, regardless of where you are in life. I’m just very lucky; a lot of my friends have had challenges with throat nodes…but for me, no, there’s no lotions, potions or incantations.
Richie Faulkner: I’ve followed him around before shows and tried to figure out what he does to warm his voice up but I’ve never seen —
Halford: I have a nice cup of tea. It’s luck of the draw, like Pavarotti. One of my idols is Pavarotti and when he was in his sixties, he gave some of his best performances. And that’s probably where I’m at.
There are 14 songs on Firepower. Are all of them new, or were some kicking around from your last album Redeemer of Souls or even earlier?
Faulkner: Some riffs and melodies go back years. Some of them are from a couple years ago, you forget you have them on a hard drive somewhere or whatever. So it goes from then to right up until that day, walking into the studio, Rob will say “I got this idea for a melody.” It’s interesting when you get an idea in your kitchen or living room that turns into a demo, and the demo turns into a record, and that turns into someone’s day, listening to a CD in a car. It goes from a flash of an idea to part of someone’s good time. It’s an amazing thing.
Halford: Particularly with a band like Priest, you become the fabric of people’s lives. You hear these phrases “the soundtrack of my life.” A good portion of our fans have been with us for as long as the band. Priest can be a time machine for a lot of our fans that takes them back to the ’80s or ’90s. There are certain songs that mean a lot to you — the day you got a job, left school, or got a girlfriend or boyfriend. That’s the joy of the way music can instill itself into your life. And that’s part of this big machine called Judas Priest.
Does that put pressure on you guys for new albums? You have so many classics, songs people cite as their favorites of all time. Does that weigh on you in the studio when working on new stuff?
Scott Travis: Not in a negative way. We feel we have to keep the level of expertise and quality to produce music we think is great. We have the greatest fan base and they stick with us, and they like what we do so far. The longtime Priest fan will enjoy this because they’ll hear little bits of older stuff they remember from British Steel to Sin After Sin.
Has the band’s writing process changed much over the years? How different is now from the ’70s or ’80s?
Faulkner: One of the main differences is you can send vocal ideas through the phone. We came off the tour, we go separate ways, and I get a text message from Rob with a voice memo, and it would be a melody or rhythm or phrasing. And that didn’t go on in the ’70s. We can send ideas to people instantly. So by the time you get into the studio, there’s ideas already floating around because of the technology.
Halford: The instant connectivity is the main difference. You utilize it. We come from a time before the Internet, satellite TV and fax machines. There’s that side of it in the writing process, but the core of what we do is when the writing team gets together in studio. That’s when the real magic starts between Richie and Glenn [Tipton] and myself. Sitting with guitars, bouncing off ideas, taking a riff from maybe two years ago — everything has its place. It’s like a good book or a painting – if it was good 5-10 years ago, it’s still good now. And you need direction. We gave ourselves direction that we wanted a really heavy sounding Priest vibe album. Not in a retrospective way, but just to have that as the focus; that was the touchstone. This is what we come back to – make sure it has those qualities. But it’s just free, it’s loose. Once you start to control it too much you restrict yourself. We’ve always been very open. A try anything attitude. More than anything it was a real joy to write this record, and in terms of looking at the metal treasure trail behind us – you know you have work to do. You’ve heard the album. How did you feel by the end of it?
It’s a heavy album for sure, but exciting. No filler. “Traitors Gate” left me feeling invigorated.
Halford: We went back and forth on how many tracks to release. We had an enormous amount of material and when we heard the final pieces, before they were thoroughly mixed, I went from my usual thing – which is “it’s gonna be a 10 track album” – to “we have to release everything because it’s so good.” With that in mind, you’re faced with the fact that you don’t want to give your fans a chore. You don’t want them to get halfway through and think “I’m gonna get up and put the kettle on.” The hope is that the end of listening to all of it they’re like “oh I have to put it on again” not “oh my god that was a struggle.”
You’ve got 17 albums behind you – do you ever look back and think “we should’ve shortened that one?”
Halford: I don’t think we’ve ever done that quite frankly. There’s never been a record where I’ve done that thing with the teeth [cringes and pulls air in]. We do take a tremendous amount of care and attention to everything we release to our fans. It’s important we don’t stumble.
Also, I think metal fans are willing to take longer albums, they’re not expecting 30 minute albums.
Halford: We did that almost with British Steel, which came in at 35 minutes and change. It’s almost over before you know it. That’s fantastic blueprint for metal writers enjoying that genre. And it was a wonderful experience for us because we started recording, mixed, mastered that whole record in 30 days. Which seems inconceivable. As a result of that you get these little gems like “Living After Midnight” and “Breaking the Law”; that to me is our Beatles moment, where you write a really good strong song with all the right components. We’ve been there, we’ve done that, and then we’ve done [2008’s] Nostradamus, which was like, two weeks long, was it? (Laughs) But I still think it’s the most fabulous piece of work we’ve ever done, personally, because I’m the flamboyant one. I love the drama and the journey and the big movie vibe it projects. It’s good to feel the work we’ve released has never been tedious.
Richie – you were born right around the time of British Steel. What’s it like to play classic songs released the year you were born?
Faulkner: Well it’s a huge honor first of all, obviously, to be accepted by the fans. Because if you’re born the same year British Steel was written, it could be seen that you don’t have the authority to be there. But both the fans and band have been so accepting. And both metal fans and Priest fans are fiercely loyal, and anyone stepping into that world that shouldn’t be there, they let you know pretty quickly. But they’ve been great and welcoming. And as Scott says, we’ve got that track record. So there’s a standard to keep up—there’s a great bar to be working to. As a fan and now member of the band, it’s a huge honor to continue with the creativeness. Everyone’s gonna say the new one is better than the last one, but it really is [with Firepower].
Rob, you came out in 1998. For me, a queer person who’s also into metal, that’s a powerful thing. Was there any weirdness or trouble being a gay man in metal before that, in the ’70s or ’80s?
Halford: No. Quickly, it’s been a real joy and privilege to get this far regardless of the label we’re attached with. I was thinking about this at 4 o’clock in the morning, laying in bed thinking of the same-sex thing. I hate that fucking phrase: same-sex. It’s terrible. It should be, let everybody get married if they want to and love each other. It’s this horrible little statement.
Travis: It’s another fucking label that people want to put on shit.
Halford: If you go to Holland, there’s none of that. It’s just people getting married. They don’t put “same sex.” It sounds weird doesn’t it? As far as the other part of me, I’ve always considered that – and to an extent I still do now – that’s just my life. That’s not me in Judas Priest. The moment I decided to proclaim myself was very much an off the cuff thing, and I was away from Priest at the time. The thing about that was, there were many instances I felt like I wanted to step forward, but I always put the band first. Which is a shitty thing to try to do – because you live your life on your own terms, you don’t do it for other people.
When I did make the announcement I was away from Priest, so when I returned, it was whatever — it was what it was. I do understand the importance and value of where I am and what I represent, and I’ve never gone on a soapbox and done all my proclamations for the cause. Which is very important [to do], but I’ll leave that to more articulate people that really commit to that type of thing. I’m just glad I can walk onto certain stages in the world, like St. Petersburg, where if you say anything gay, it’s “I’m going to throw you in jail.” To me it’s a victory just standing there. You can achieve a lot by saying nothing. That’s the way I see myself. Connected with Priest, there’s no real connection. It is what it is. It’s difficult for me to fully explain the emotions of it. More than anything, I was thrilled the way the fan base were like “we knew” or “we don’t care, it’s irrelevant.” That to me says a lot about our fans. They’re an incredible mixture of humanity. Yes, some of them have problems with it, it’s a whole big debate on many levels, but to me the joy was the love and acceptance of the fan base. Life went on, life carried on.
It’s part of you, but not a defining characteristic.
Halford: Exactly. But I know how important it is. There shouldn’t be labels, we should all be living our lives.
I also wanted to ask you about your 2014 Simpsons cameo, where the show referred to you as “death metal.” Did you guys facepalm when you saw that?
Travis: We were all so thrilled to be on it. When you’re on a show like that, you’ve made it. I do remember the death metal comment but hey, at least we were on it.
Halford: The sweet thing about it was on the next episode they had Bart writing on the blackboard [“Judas Priest is not death metal”]. That was class. They needn’t have done that. That shows you how much they cared about us, they put things right. So we got two boosts, which is brilliant.
Anything else you want to add?
Halford: We’re excited, we’re ready to launch and very much looking forward to seeing all our fans again out on the road.