Rob Halford of Judas Priest: Redemption!

By Jeb Wright

Judas Priest is back with another hard-hitting Metal classic, their latest album release titled Redeemer of Souls.  The album features classic sounding Priest riffs and motifs, complete with several fantastical characters that come to life in the lyrics of the songs. 

Redeemer of Souls also sees the band blast our loud classic Priest riffs and solos making it a truly classic Judas Priest, all done without founding member and guitarist Ken “KK” Downing. 

Downing, who retired from Judas Priest, was replaced with guitarist Richie Faulkner for the band’s Epitaph tour.  Live, Richie fit right in, making the transition more seamless than the purists appreciated. 

Faulkner wore the black leather, donned long blonde hair and even played a Flying V guitar.  The true test for Richie, however, came when he went in to write the music for Redeemer of Souls with fellow axe-man Glenn Tipton and vocalist Rob Halford. 

In the interview that follows, Rob opens up about writing with Richie and Glenn, as well as how he approached the album, vocally.  We discuss some of the key songs on Redeemer of Souls and then, fitting in with the title of the album, we discuss Halford’s long term sobriety and how he overcame addiction to rejoin the band. 

The Metal God opens up in this interview making it a must-read for fans of Judas Priest. 

Jeb: Journalistic integrity aside, I love the Priest and I am glad to have you back.

Rob: I know you're a hardcore fan, Jeb.  I remember the last time we talked was during the Nostradamus interviews in New York City.  It is good to hear your voice again and catch up with all of the things that are going on in the Priest world right now. 

Jeb: You have always been a great creator of characters.  I want to know where you came up with Redeemer of Souls.

Rob:  It is part of the rich tradition of the band.  You can look clear back to the Sad Wings of Destiny album artwork all the way up to Redeemer of Souls.  We've had a lot of good experiences with the fictional fantasy characters that we make on our covers and also in our songs, especially.  I'm just doing what I've always tried to do which is to bring some fun to it all.  I am trying to shake it up and bring some variety and entertainment.  We try to bring something different each time we go out there. 

We treasure every aspect of Judas Priest.  Everything we have our name attached to we look at very closely and we put the best thing out that we can.  We've always had that kind of focus.  We love and cherish Judas Priest as much as our fans do. Forty years later we still try to maintain the same kind of quality.

Jeb:  I am a huge fan and sometimes that is bad as we pick everything apart.  It also makes it hard to be objective.  However, this album is strong.  Even if you hate Judas Priest when this album starts, you have to admit, it really rocks. 

Rob: Here's the deal, when you've had such an amazing time for forty years as Judas Priest has, its natural to have built in prejudices.  You just think, “I wonder if this will suck,” or “I wonder if it will be any good.”  That just comes with the territory.  I am just happy that we've been able to qualify a lot of things about Judas Priest on the music on Redeemer of Souls.  The main point that we were trying to make, if anything, was to make a record that really said something loud and proud in the Heavy Metal style of Judas Priest for the Metal community around the world. 

Jeb: Sonically, it sounds like a modern album done in a modern studio, but musically it reminds me of the Stained Class and Hell Bent for Leather era.  If you recorded those albums the same way, today, I think they would have this vibe. 

Rob: I think it is safe to say that when we completed the Epitaph tour, which was a tour where we tried to touch on a little of everything from the life of Priest, I am sure that kind of filtered through when Glenn [Tipton], Richie [Faulkner] and myself sat down to write and turned the amps on.  The message that Redeemer of Souls is a classic Judas Priest album is really what this album is about.  It is reaffirming and restating all of the wonderful musical aspects that Judas Priest has carried out in the world of classic Metal from the beginning clear to 2014.

Jeb:  Did you create and write the music that way on purpose...with that in mind?

Rob: Here's the deal, Jeb, we were writing things that are for two lead guitar players and a singer.  I think that has always paid dividends for us when we compose our music.  I will be sitting with Glenn and Richie, and Glenn will be riffing away and he will ask us what we think.  Richie will say, “That's really amazing.  What do you think if we did this to it?”  We bounce it back forth and it is really exciting for me to sit down and listen to what these guys do.  The writing aspect of Priest is the backbone, the anvil of a lot of things in the band.  When we get together and start playing and recording, then everything really comes to life. 

Jeb:  I saw the Epitaph tour.  My friend Kelly and I drove to Dallas to catch the show.  We drove five hours to see it.  We both are big fans of Black Label Society who played before Priest.  About three songs into your set he says, “How many bands can, by the third song, make you forget you just watched Zakk Wylde?”  I said, “One.” 

Rob: [laughter]

Jeb: Everyone was afraid Richie would not fit in after replacing KK [Downing].  He proved himself on that tour.  You didn't know how the fans would react as KK was much loved.

Rob: You never know.  It's like you can change a player on your team, like the Dallas Cowboys, or the Red Wings, or whoever and the fans go, “What the fuck is going to happen?”   That's natural.  We were very eager and excited to put Richie out onstage.  He qualified himself instantly.  Once “Rapid Fire” started and he took off and was on the edge of the stage going crazy the fans embraced him. 

Richie has been a lifesaver to this group and I don't say that lightly.  Things were very, very rocky before we kicked off the Epitaph tour, when KK retired.  We really didn't know if there was going to be any Judas Priest left.  That thought is quite profound, but then, this lead guitar player comes rolling in on his Harley, or whatever he was driving that day, and he starts wailing away.  We liked him right away.  He breathed in new life, and he re-energized our focus in a lot of ways. 

Jeb: It does not hurt that he has blonde hair and wears black leather and plays that white V.  He fits the bill.  However, that's just on stage.  You went in the studio with Richie as a writer.  That takes balls on Richie's part as well as you having to trust him. 

Rob: We were together in each others company on tour and we were hanging out for almost two years on the Epitaph tour before we ever thought about writing.  During that tour, Richie was in his dressing room with his little studio rig just jamming and riffing all the time.  He can't stop playing the guitar.  We would listen to him. 

I would come stumbling in like ten minutes before the show and I would be like, “What is that I am hearing?”  They would tell me, “It's Richie putting a riff down.”  I was like, “What is that riff?  Keep that riff.”  One of them turned into “March of the Damned.”  Another riff turned into “Dragonaut.”  All of this stuff was happening even before we really sat down to focus and to concentrate. 

He had plenty of time to really get into the world of Priest.  The story goes that when he was a teenager he would be doing air guitar in front of the mirror and he would be jamming out to Screaming for Vengeance.  That is where his heart grew from, as he was a Priest Metal-head from day one.  It was as though it was fate, or destiny, that this guy had all of the qualifications we needed.  We were very, very lucky that we found a man of Richie's caliber and talent. 

Jeb:  You walked away from Priest once.  Ken retired and he is gone.  Were there any bittersweet moments during the recent creative process, not having KK in the writing sessions?

Rob: We've always said that Priest is bigger than one person.  When I was away Ripper held the mic and sang magnificently and did an incredible job.  With KK's retirement, that means that KK will never be coming back to Priest.  The fact is that Priest is still together and we are writing and recording music and we are getting ready to play it out on stages all over the world again.  So, you forge ahead, you know.  If you think about it too much, I think you can flood yourself with negativity.  We are always carrying the torch of Metal with Priest and it was very important for us to continue on and do the things that you love. 

Jeb:  Let's talk about your vocals on this one.  You can wail; you are famous for it.  Your vocal signature is on this album in strategic places, but I think you really sang well on this album.  Do you know where I am going with this?

Rob: To be perfectly honest with you, I knew I had to prove something to myself, as a singer, at my time in life.  I had to give these great songs, the instrumentation part of these songs, the best performances I could do.  I think everyone has done that.  Scott's [Travis] drumming is phenomenal on this record, the same with the bass and Ian [Hill].  You're really hearing a bunch of guys playing their hearts out on this album.  Equally, we all knew that we had to deliver the goods, if you will allow me to quote a Judas Priest song. 

I listen back to the album and I am happy with it.  I always complain because I am a perfectionist.  I hear this, or that, and I wish I had done something differently.  That means I will have to do it again, which means there will be another Judas Priest album.  It’s challenging and there is an element of competition with yourself and with your brothers in the Metal world.  You get energized and motivated by seeing all of this amazing activity in the Metal world in 2014. 

Jeb: Tell me about the song “Halls of Valhalla.”

Rob: Here's the deal, I've written about a lot of things in my life as a lyricist and I'm always trying to go one step further and into different places.  There is a series on American TV called The Vikings.  I love that.  I loved going to Scandinavia and I love to check out the culture and the history of that place and the other places I visit.  The Norse mythology of Scandinavia and Denmark and Sweden and some of England...I think about these things and then about four o'clock in the morning I wake up wondering what I can write about to go with this great music. 

Out of the blue came this word, “Valhalla.”  I categorized that as a bullet word, and I realized that was my focus.  I write and I write and I write.  I always overwrite my lyrics.  Who knew that the Metal God would be singing about being on the North Sea and heading to Denmark or Sweden searching for Valhalla?  That’s the great adventure that we have in Priest. 

Jeb: I really like the words to “The Sword of Damocles.” 

Rob: When you hear “Breaking the Law” then you know the story about that song.  When I say “You've Got Another Thing Comin’” then you know the story about that.  The story of Damocles goes back a ways.  It’s a fable.  It talks about a guy who is a king; he's a very powerful dude.  He has all this food and all of this wine and women and everything.  His buddy comes and visits him and says, “You've got the best life.”  He tells him, “Look above me.”  The guy looks up and sees the sword, which is held together by this little thread.  He goes “That thread could break at any moment, or at any point of my life, and then all of this will be gone.”  That is the message that we're trying to relay.  You need to live the life you have the best you can every day, as it is all you've got. 

Jeb: Is “Hell and Back” autobiographical?

Rob: Yeah, you know, the leather gets scuffed up and worn.  By the end of a tour my leather is ready for the dump as it is all beat up.  When we finish a tour we are physically and mentally exhausted which means we've done a good job.  It is a little bit of that.  We throw in that we are still alive and kicking and the home of the brave and all these references.  It’s like the song “Never Forget” is a testament to our beautiful fans that have loved and supported us over the years.  There are lots of wonderful messages on Redeemer of Souls.

Jeb: “Never Forget” is on the deluxe version bonus disc.  How did that song not make the regular album?  It is one of the best on the album. 

Rob: I think that is a song with a lot of emotion and poignancy and you can still qualify it as a Metal song.  I'd love to play that live at some point, I don't know if we will or not.  While we were writing we had a day where we were being a bit retrospective and nostalgic, and Glenn had this nice little acoustic thing going which made me think of our fans and everyone who has supported us.  We wrote that song.  It is really for fans of Metal, but it is for all elements of life.  As I was writing that particular lyric, I was thinking of Priest fans and also of all of the wonderful people in our military families and all of the amazing things they do for us.  If you take Priest out of the equation and think about those words, and how they can touch you, it is quite diverse, really.  Part of it is in general terms and part of it is us saying to the Priest fans, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” 

Jeb: How many songs will make the set list from the new album?

Rob: Well, if we didn't do “Breaking the Law,” or we didn't do “Living After Midnight,” or if we didn't do “You've Got Another Thing Comin',” then we'd get thrown off the stage.  We love playing those songs.  The room lights up and it is just excitement.  It is a time machine for a lot of people to go back to the '80s.  When you play those songs then it is a really significant moment.  You will get a little bit of everything.  It will not be as in-depth as the Epitaph tour, as we are promoting our new record.  I would say we will put in at least two or three of the new tracks. 

Jeb, we are also celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Priest but it is the 30th anniversary of Defenders of the Faith with great songs like “Jawbreaker” and “Love Bites.”  When we go into rehearsals we are going to look at all of our records and just go through all of the songs and make sure we give you the best show we can. 

Jeb:  We have something in common that we have never discussed.  I have been clean and sober for 27 years...

Rob: Congratulations!  That's fantastic.  I've been clean and sober since January the 6th of 1986, so we are pretty close.  We are around one year away and that's wonderful.

Jeb:  What made you change? 

Rob: I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.  I was sick of waking up every morning and feeling like shit.  I think I came to an understanding that I wasn't giving at my full capacity.  I wasn't able to give to my full ability because it was being held in place by booze and drugs. 

Jeb:  Do you remember your first sober show?

Rob: I will always remember the first show I did clean and sober.  It was one of the most amazing shows I had ever done.  It was in New Mexico, in Albuquerque.  I literally felt elevated as everything was coming with such clarity.  I was able to really listen to, and love, and enjoy the performance of Judas Priest without having all of the other things in front of it.  Since that day it has been a miracle.

It is good that we're talking about this.  Everybody has to face things in their lives at some point.  It can not only be booze and drugs, it can be anything.  You can eat too much, or you can not exercise, or whatever.  I think the most important thing we need to be pushing in rock and roll and staying clean and sober is that you have to be a very strong person to do that.  It is not easy staying clean and sober in rock and roll.  There are temptations galore from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, especially when you're on the road.  I think we're some of the strongest people, my friends, like yourself, and my other sober brothers in Metal.  We are way stronger now than we used to be.  We are giving the best of ourselves now, more than we ever could before.  I think that is the blessing of being sober.

Jeb:  Was it a moment of redemption when you were able to come back to Priest sober?

Rob: For a lot of people in life, you just figure that maybe you want something different in life so you go down the street and turn left and see what happens.  That is what I did.  I enjoyed it and it was very fulfilling, and I still have ambitions in that respect left to complete.  However, what I did discover when I was away from Priest, was that Priest really had given me everything that I really needed and wanted as a musician.  It took a while for me to kind of make that journey back...for lots of different reasons.  When I did come back, I loved the Priest tenfold and I couldn't wait to get back in the studio with Angel of Retribution.  I couldn't wait to get back on stage with a band that I believe completes me. 

Jeb:  Last one:  When you listen back to a song like “Dragonaut” or “Hell Bent” or any of them, do you ever sit back and think, “I can't believe this is me that has done all of this...” 

Rob: Yeah, it’s like two different people.  We've known each other forever, Jeb, I change when I go on stage.  It’s the same when you suit up and go and play a game.  Things are out of your control and something takes over that you don't know how it happens.  It is a very natural transition. 

I listen to my radio all of the time.  I love my rock and roll radio.  When I hear myself on the radio it still is the biggest thrill in the world and I love it to death.  It totally rocks.