The Rob Halford Interview
The feedback loop is one of my favorite phenomena, and Judas Priest is one of its masters. On a basic level, it occurs when the output of a system is piped back into its input. Circuit designers utilize feedback loops to build amplifiers, air-conditioning systems use them to set the perfect temperature, and humans even learn from mistakes via internal feedback systems.
Judas Priest is the rare band to actively maintain and nurture their own feedback loop since their first sign of commercial success in 1978. It’s become a hallmark of their career. Since the release of Killing Machine, Judas Priest has consistently acted upon the results of their immediately preceding record: sometimes correcting their missteps, and other times diving too far in a questionable direction. With one or two exceptions, this mentality has resulted in a rare type of band that simultaneously looks forward and backward with each release.
Their upcoming album Firepower, releasing Friday, follows the pattern nicely. It corrects its predecessor Redeemer of Souls’s (2014) problematic production with Andy Sneap and Tom Allom’s beefy and forceful work; it also harnesses that record’s classic metal spirit and injects it with a jolt of focus and power. The triplet march of “Lightning Strike,” for example, barrels forward with an intensity that Redeemer of Souls’s title track lacked. “Rising from Ruins” even sees Judas Priest diving back to their progressive roots. And Rob Halford takes command on “Sea of Red” with an authority that was traded for content resignation on its Redeemer of Souls counterpart “Beginning of the End.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Halford about Firepower. The longtime voice of Judas Priest explained its origins, his darker lyrical turn on the record, and even guitarist Glenn Tipton’s struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.
I want to start with the birth of Firepower. When did the songwriting sessions for this album begin?
You’ve caught me off guard because I can’t really remember!
Well, I do know that we got an enormous amount of work done in about two months of writing. And when I mean two months, I mean like, Monday through Friday with the weekends off, you know, putting in five or six hours a day. I mean, when you’re writing music, you just don’t know from one day to the next how much is going to come out of your fingers or your head. But I do remember that it was very, very productive and exciting, and there was a lot of positive vibes going on day to day between Glenn and Richie [Faulkner, guitars] and myself through the writing sessions that we had. So much so that we have a cut-off point because we have to prepare for the following phase when you make sense of all the material that you’ve got, and we had a tremendous amount of songs. We were able to whittle down to 14 tracks. There’s still quite a bit left over, but these 14 tracks really represent the embodiment of what we were trying to create with the Firepower album as a whole.
Now tell me exactly what was that? What were you trying to create with the Firepower album as a whole? This has got to be the most varied Judas Priest album I’ve heard in so long. Like, before Angel of Retribution, before Jugulator, even.
You know, if we had a plan at all, it was just to get to the real hardcore point and feel of what really represents Judas Priest. And what I mean by that is… we’ve already made a few statements with that, but for us, it’s really the embodiment of the classic heavy metal side of what Judas Priest represents. So there’s a lot of that and just really an accumulation of the writing wisdom that you can only achieve if you’ve put as much time into it as we have. And that can kind of work for or against you, because you know what you’re trying to do with the components that you have, but if you control it too much, you lose the sense of adventure, and its soul and spirit, and it becomes very calculated. So, you really have to keep it coming from the heart, so to speak.
So that was just the plan, if you want to say I had a plan. Keep it focused, keep this direction going of the classic heavy metal spirit of what Judas Priest is all about. And that’s all you really need then, and then you’re constantly pulling yourself back on track if you veer off a little to the left or to the right, because there’s just so many different expressions of metal over four-plus decades, but we can go anywhere with our music. But yeah, keeping it focused this way was the best way to get the best results.
On this album, you and the band played live in the studio for the first time since Painkiller.
What made you guys want to do that for the first time in so long?
Well, we’ve always had a little bit of that going on, but not as a complete-band-in-the-room type of thing. It was Tom and Andy, really — they were pulling for that, saying that the best results of tracking can be when you’re looking at each other in the eye and you’re all feeling the music at the same time. There’s a definitive proof of that kind of work. You can hear it in the performance of every track; it feels very, very real — just because of the human element that you get in recording when you’re all playing together in the same room at the same moment. Laying down the first few tracks was tremendously exciting because we could feel and hear through what was coming back through playback that this was a really good choice.
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Now Firepower — at least from what I’ve noticed from when I’ve listened to the album — lyrically, it’s a much darker record than Redeemer of Souls or even Angel of Retribution. You know, you have “Evil Never Dies,” you have “Never Forget,” “Sea of Red,” “Children of the Sun.” There’s a lot of death happening on Firepower.
You know, all of what you said didn’t really come and manifest itself until we got all of the pieces in place. I mean, I write lyrically to fit each song as it’s being completed instrumentally, and I just go off with my bullet points and my agreed kind of definition of a song by a title. I sit there with Glenn and with Richie, and we look over all of these different ideas that I’ve got, you know, different possibilities, and they go: “‘Firepower,’ this song feels like ‘Firepower,’ this song feels like ‘Children of the Sun,’ this song feels like ‘Sea of Red.'” That’s all I need, and then I go off with my pencil and paper because I still do it that way. And then I just get lost in the opportunity of putting down thoughts and feelings and ideas that are, again, pertinent and relative to the song in question.
Where am I at? I don’t know, I’m a 66 year-old metalhead and, you know, I think there’s still some angst and youth in some of my lyrics because age is definitely still just a number from a mental point of view. And so I’m just tuned in more than ever to what’s going on around me in the world and filtering that through actually on a subconscious level, and it’s going into these songs, and the result is something quite different to the lyrics that I’ve been putting together in recent years. It’s just turned out that way in that feel, in that vibe, Avinash. There was no, “Oh, I’ll write a song about so and so,” you know. The reason I wrote that was just from the way I was feeling, which I think is the best way to express yourself.
The band’s been talking a lot about Andy Sneap and Tom Allom’s contribution to this album, but I also wanted to ask about Mike Exeter, because he worked with you on Redeemer of Souls as well as this album. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about his role on Firepower?
Well, that’s good of you to reference Mike, because he’s part of the production team and his contribution was tremendously valuable. We couldn’t have gone anywhere to a lot of the places without Mike. He worked a lot with Glenn, with getting Glenn’s pieces together. He worked with great value in the engineering side of things. Just a very, very proficient, very efficient kind of guy to have in the studio, in the production sense. We just felt that Mike’s input would be very important to this release and it definitely was. Even though Tom and Andy had kind of pushed a little bit ahead, as they should, Mike’s work is invaluable.
The members of Judas Priest themselves — and Glenn in particular — you all have acted as your own producers in a big way on many recent albums. Why go to an outside producer this time or rather, two outside producers?
You know, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a musician, you’ve got to understand and appreciate the value of great production. Because producers are a bit like coaches, really, in sports. A good producer will sense what you’re able to do, or sense something inside of you, but as a producer, with their skill and their techniques, they’re able to pull that out of you. And so I think if you look at the history of some of the most proficient bands and accomplished bands, they still have producers in house because that’s still the best way to get the best results. So, we’ve never worked with Andy before, but we knew of his production skills, and it made absolute sense to attempt to get this really cool balance of old-school/new-school in the metal sense and see if it would work and it did. It was just a great success.
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One of the things that really caught my ear on this album was that short song “Guardians” which leads into “Rising from Ruins.” Besides Nostradamus, I couldn’t remember the last time I heard piano on a Judas Priest album. What was the thinking behind those two songs, “Guardians” and “Rising from Ruins”?
Well, the piano I remember we discussed… there’s a piece on the Sad Wings of Destiny album called “Epitaph,” which is the name of one of our tours. It’s Glenn playing the piano and me singing along with it. So, it’s always been there over the years. It pushed forward quite a lot in Nostradamus. It’s just got a great tone to it, it just feels right. And to wrap it up with those guitars again, you know, not too far away from “The Hellion” experience from Screaming for Vengeance. It’s just an instrument that has a great sound and it just has a place as in when it’s called for. So it leads up into this tremendous statement of “Rising from Ruins” which again I think runs through the backbone of the heavy metal community. It’s about what all life is really about.
We just had that horrible disaster in Florida, but people will rise from it, you know. You have to rise from these terrible things. You know, life is all about hope and dreams, and dealing with all of the twists and curves that get thrown at you. How you choose to deal with them is what it’s all about, and for us in Priest, as we’ve just experienced with Glenn and his Parkinson’s challenge, it’s all about forging ahead no matter how difficult the moment might be, finding a way into the light, finding a way into a place where you can move forward as difficult as it may be. So that’s what that song is all about, I think it’s beautiful. It’s quite a grand piece but again, you know, it has its roots in some of the songs that we’ve previously visited.
That one, “Rising from Ruins,” and “Traitors Gate,” those two songs have that intense spirit of adventure that you alluded to earlier when talking about the songwriting. It reminds me of Sin After Sin in that it sounds youthful and unbridled in a way.
Well, thank you. That’s great that you referenced Sin After Sin. I listened to “Traitors Gate” today for the first time in months actually, and it is quite expressive on many levels, and it’s good now. I’m slowly pulling away from being over-critical with the music on Firepower because I’m always like that for the first few months. I can’t listen to it without critiquing it, especially my own work. So I was listening to “Traitors Gate” a few hours ago, and, you know, just listening to that energy and that vitality and that exuberance, it’s just so infectious. It just makes you feel great when you listen to it, there’s a tremendous sense of adventure, and some of the instrumentation and time rhythms are quite complex. So it’s great. It’s just another display of that style of Priest that’s very secure in our writing abilities and recording abilities.
Earlier you also brought up Glenn and his Parkinson’s diagnosis. By the way I’m very, very sorry to hear that… but I wanted to know how has the band had to adjust since he became diagnosed? How did that affect Nostradamus, Redeemer of Souls, and ultimately Firepower?
Well, as we said in the statement, Glenn has been living with that condition for ten years, and it’s just remarkable. I mean, the medication has advanced so strongly now that individuals that are dealing with Parkinson’s are able to find a better kind of balance to live with that condition. So Glenn has been having very effective treatment, and it’s still very effective. It’s just that Glenn finds it a little bit more challenging now after ten years to cover certain songs in the Priest repertoire that are kind of important for us to play out live. So we’re still digesting it. It’s a big thing, isn’t it, man? We’re just all digesting it here.
I mean, we’re family in Priest, but with what Glenn has been through and is still going through, it’s just a tremendous display of heroics from our perspective. And I think he’s sending a really strong message of resilience through this episode in his life. So you know, we’re in a place now where again, I was just referencing “Rising from Ruins.” That’s probably the wrong expression, but it’s certainly about rising from a challenge, and Glenn wants us to go out and play, Glenn wants the band to perform, Glenn wants the Firepower tour to happen. So his heart is in exactly the right place for sending that message out not only to Priest, but to our fans around the world, you know. This is as much about Glenn as it’s ever been. This is a tremendous reference to Glenn, the whole Firepower record, and this tour that we’re about to do is a real testimony to the strength and bravery of Glenn for the next steps.
I only got one final question for you before I let you go. One thing that I wanted to mention is that you and the band have been around since the birth of heavy metal. Your peers like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and even the Scorpions and Motorhead, they were reluctant to be called heavy metal. They denied it, but Judas Priest didn’t. You accepted and embraced heavy metal and you embraced becoming The Metal Gods. What made you so willing and eager to welcome heavy metal with open arms?
Yeah, and, again, that’s a really cool piece to reference that, because we’ve always, in all of its complexities, we’ve tried to keep it simple, and that’s all we’ve ever wanted to be as a band, Judas Priest, the heavy metal band from the West Midlands in the U.K., and that’s it in a nutshell, you know? And definitely, we’ve been through some moments where there was significant pushback against the heavy metal scene in the early days, in the 1980s, in the 1990s. But it’s still here, isn’t it? That just shows you how important it is, how valuable it is not only to bands, but to the millions and millions of heavy metal fans around the world, heavy metal has always had substance, you know. It’s always had an important thing to say in the big picture of rock ‘n’ roll.
So yeah, that’s us, Judas Priest — Heavy Metal.
Firepower is out on March 9th via Sony/Epic Records. You can order the album here.