Hit The Lights: K. K. Downing: 'Judas Priest Has Pushed The Boundaries Of Metal'

artist: Judas Priest date: 03/14/2009 category: interviews
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Hit The Lights: K. K. Downing: 'Judas Priest Has Pushed The Boundaries Of Metal'
Welcome to the first installment in a series of features dubbed Hit The Lights. As previously stated, the series will publish interviews with artists just before they're due to venture onto the stage, or due to launch a string of touring dates. Some might even revisit past dates, where the artist reflects upon high profile treks, or a high profile date. At the heart of these features will be a depth and focus, presenting great, insightful interviews which'll hopefully stand the test of time. To inaugurate Hit The Lights, we talk at length with a noted axeman. And the group he belongs to? A group which arguably played an immense role in building metal's very foundations: Judas Priest. In late September 2008, it was revealed that Judas Priest, Megadeth and Testament would team together as part of a package dubbed "Priest Feast". Mirroring a lineup which toured North America in 1991, the package was slated to include a seven date United Kingdom run. One Nottingham date was cancelled however, whilst a Manchester date was moved to a smaller venue. Furthermore, two tickets for the price of one deals were offered in Birmingham and Sheffield. Issued in June 2008, Judas Priest's sixteenth studio full length "Nostradamus" concentrated upon its namesake in the sixteenth century prophet. From 2006-2007, the album was recorded at The Old Smithy Studio in Kempsey, Worcester in the UK. Guitarists K. K. Downing and Glenn Tipton produced the full length, whilst Mark Wilkinson designed its cover artwork. A double disc affair, its inaugural disc focuses upon the man's various prophecies. Its second disc, meanwhile, centres upon the man's exile, and the world's realisation about his prophecies following his actual death. During its initial week of release, "Nostradamus" sold forty-two thousand copies in the United States to land at position eleven on The Billboard 200 chart. Travelling through North America, the "Metal Masters" tour package with Motrhead, Heaven And Hell and Testament promoted the record. At the fifty-first Grammy Awards on February 8th, 2009, the tracks "Visions" and "Nostradamus" were nominated in the "Best Hard Rock Performance" and "Best Metal Performance" categories respectively. As part of the "Priest Feast" tour, Judas Priest performed in Cardiff, Wales on February 20th at the city's Cardiff International Arena. Scheduled to begin at the Hilton Hotel at 5:45pm in tour manager Jim Silvia's hotel room, Ultimate-Guitar.com spoke to guitarist K. K. Downing. UG: First of all, how are you? K. K. Downing: Good, all good (laughs). What's it like to return to Cardiff? It's always good, I would say. Cardiff is a really nice city, and as many people know, Priest have performed gigs in Wales for many, many years. Many people likely remember us from performances in Merthyr Tydfil, Barry, or Fishguard. We used to visit many areas, and perform at pubs, skittle alleys, working men's clubs and those type of venues - back in the day with a four-wheeled transit. It was always on the route of many groups at the time however, obvious groups being acts like Thin Lizzy, Strife and UFO. Nowadays though, everything seems to be streamlined down to one major venue. That's great nonetheless; it's always good to play in nice, huge venues, and have many people attend so that we can all have a good time. Some 'Priest Feast' shows were downgraded, and one was even cancelled.. What was the reason for this? The size of the venues, as the venues are all arenas with the exception of the Manchester venue. The Manchester gig was at a good old favourite of ours, the Manchester Apollo, and that venue always has a tremendous atmosphere. The other venues were arenas, though. For whatever reason, we felt that some of the venues were a little too close. We just decided to cancel the Nottingham concert, and perform in Sheffield, Birmingham, and Manchester. Would you say the promoter was too optimistic? Well, I don't know. These shows were booked at some point last year, so you can never really predict things. It's winter, we're currently going through the credit crunch, and both Metallica and AC/DC have scheduled UK performances. Hopefully, many people have still have their credit cards intact. The 'Priest Feast' tour has gone really well though, and we're all really happy with the tour. What's it like touring alongside Megadeth and Testament? We kicked off with the exact same lineup in 1991 on the 'Painkiller' tour in North America, so it feels like dj vu in some respects.

"Economically, maybe some countries are performing better than others."

Has much changed since 1991? Yeah, I think. Could we call 1990-1991 a pinnacle in metal, somewhat? At that time, a strategic point in metal emerged, where there was a change over from the seventies and eighties. The nineties brought about a situation where metal became slightly harder, faster, and with a little more attitude. Things have to evolve though, and music has to move on. It was an important point for us, most likely. At that particular point, Rob (Halford, vocals) had actually left Judas Priest. It seemed to cause a change, and people thought "Well, this has gone, and that's gone. Now Priest have gone". The 'Painkiller' (1990) album that we recorded at the time even - that record was very much looked upon as not being the Priest fans knew and loved. Fans expected 'British Steel' (1980), and the likes of 'Sin After Sin' (1977), and albums of that nature. It seemed to set a precedent, as we not only toured alongside Megadeth and Testament in the States, but we also toured alongside Pantera and Annihilator in Europe. Those groups have, like I said, a Pantera type raw, harder edge. With Priest recording 'Painkiller', and the emergence of groups like Pantera, it seemed to basically catapult another new wave of metal. Did Judas Priest change during the nineties? With the emergence of acts such as Pantera, did the group feel that it was time to evolve, and update the sound? With "Ripper", and the albums we recorded then you mean? Yeah. It's somewhat weird, I think. If Rob had stayed with Judas Priest following 'Painkiller', I'm not exactly sure how we would've approached the next album. We had "Ripper" (Tim Owens) step in for Rob, and he was young blood. Even though he could sing the Priest tracks great, I still think that the Halford Priest was a Judas Priest, and the "Ripper" Priest was a different Priest. Do you know what I mean? We had license to be slightly different with "Ripper"; Priest had a brand new singer, a brand new look, and a brand new voice. The last thing we wanted was to really try to be, consciously or subconsciously, a carbon copy of what we were with Rob. By the time we sat down to record 'Jugulator' (1997), we probably thought that might've been where we would've been at anyway had Rob still been a part of the group. We've always wanted to be a heavy group though, and we've always wanted to be hard hitting. In the very, very early days, we were considered too hard and heavy to be booked. In 1970, it seemed very difficult for Priest to find gigs. Performing our own material was very different to what people wanted to hear in their clubs and pubs. As everybody knows, we stuck at it. After a period of time however, you get somewhat overtaken in the heavy area. It was just a statement, maybe. With "Ripper", we had license to just show the world that we could be as heavy as anybody. Did grunge affect Judas Priest? The nineties is viewed as a low ebb in metal. That's the other thing which happened at the time, didn't it? The Seattle sound, with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and those type of groups. Suddenly, it was somewhat pretentious to come onto the stage in leather, studs, and that type of attire. A lot of people wanted to hear groups who were more down to earth and that, though I don't know where many of those groups are now. You get these trends and fads. Last year especially, we performed at many festivals, and it was great to see groups like Priest come to the festivals again, and still be at the festivals being Priest, the group that we are. It was great to see Kiss headlining major places, and going down a storm. It defies the rule somewhat, the rule being no more pretense. People want a show. How is the credit crunch affecting Judas Priest, and live metal music generally? It's very difficult to say, as each country is different. Last year, we performed at huge venues, and performed before many people. Also, we went to many places that we've never been to before. We went to Istanbul, and performed before twelve thousand people. We also went to Bogot in Colombia, and eleven to twelve thousand people attended that show. In Korea, roughly seven or eight thousand people attended. For new territory, this is all fantastic business. In a week's time, we'll be at the Globe in Stockholm, and fifteen thousand people will attend that show - the venue will be jam packed. Economically, maybe some countries are performing better than others. Some countries aren't so much into things as other people are. Some people's main source of entertainment is TV, games, and things of that nature, not to mention whatever else you can do with a computer. In other countries though, people's record collections are still very much their prize. What type of set list will Judas Priest perform tonight in Cardiff? Last year, we began in Europe, and just performed at festivals. We performed a handful of concerts other than festival shows, but predominantly, it was a festival tour. Much of the time, we were only allowed to play for a limited duration anyway. When we headlined, we were obviously allowed to play longer, but that wasn't always the case. Sometimes we had a much shorter set. We've decided to return to Europe, and as opposed to playing one UK show like we did last year, we've decided to come to Cardiff, Belfast, and Glasgow. We've taken the show to the people, and performed a full concert. Predominantly, we're performing pretty much the same set list, but it's always apt to change along the way.. People say things like "Well, you played this song in Sydney. Why did you play that in Australia, and not play "Dissident Aggressor""? When you make an addition to the set list, a track has to be removed. People are always quick to say "Why didn't you play this song"? If you ask people which song we should take out though... We have to stick to a curfew obviously, and we have to give the support groups a good slice of performance time. They're great bands, and they deserve it. It's quite difficult to sit down, and compose a set list? It's very difficult. People have said our current set list is our greatest set list ever, or at least for a couple of decades. How is 'Nostradamus''s material being received by fans attending shows? Well, you'll see for yourself tonight. You'll be at the show right (laughs)?

"We have to give the support groups a good slice of performance time."

I'll be at the show, yeah. People used to ask us the same questions when we recorded the likes of 'Turbo', and 'Point of Entry'. When you actually see Judas Priest onstage, and see us perform "Out in the Cold", "Turbo Lover", or whatever track it might be, it all fits in as a part of the show. As you'll see tonight, the 'Nostradamus' material will fit straight into the set list as though they're tracks that could've been on any of our albums. Judas Priest was recently nominated for Grammies in the 'Best Metal Performance' and 'Best Hard Rock' categories respectively. Sadly, the group didn't win either. What's your reaction to losing? It's great to be nominated, but it's not devastating not to win. We've been nominated before; we got nominated once for the track "Bullet Train" from 'Jugulator', and the other nomination was for 'Painkiller', the album itself. Some big guns were also nominated, such as the Metallica's of the world. It's tough competition, though it's nice just to have some recognition. Do you merely view the nominations for "Best Metal Performance", see the name "Metallica", and just think; "They've given the award to them already. There's no point in even thinking about winning". They win that award nearly all the time, don't they? Yeah (laughs). No matter how good or bad the music Metallica has written is, they usually win. I think I would be lying if I said there wasn't a bit of that happening. Do you feel that the Grammy Awards ceremony is US-centric? Let's face it: at the end of the day, it's show business. It's a bit of entertainment, isn't it? If they left it open to the fans to vote, then Metallica would win anyway (laughs). They're such a worldwide, universal group. It's no big shame though. It'd just be nice to say "Hey, mom. Look what I've got. We've won", as opposed to "We didn't win". Other than that though, it isn't really an important thing in the world of Priest. Obviously, we've spoken about Metallica. In April, the group will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Black Sabbath are previous inductees. Alongside Black Sabbath, Judas Priest are considered to have created metal's foundations really. In light of that, do you feel that Judas Priest deserve to be inducted? Yeah. I don't think we've been inducted yet, have we? No. It's just a matter of time, I guess. I don't know what you have to do to be inducted really, or who the people are who decide. You have to kiss some backside, I think (laughs). I think so, yeah (laughs). So you feel that Judas Priest deserve to be inducted? Absolutely, yeah. Let's face it: if a game show contestant is asked the question "Name three heavy metal groups" in twenty, fifty or a hundred years from now, then Priest would be one of the three named. Awhile back, it was reported that Judas Priest is in the midst of having an official biography written. Can you provide a progress report? I can't, actually. We hooked up with one writer, and we thought that was going to go ahead, but it just about changed. We're on the case, and we'd very much like to issue an official biography. It'll be a more difficult task, given the fact that some pretty good material has already been unofficially issued. Is there any unofficial material you're referring to specifically? I look at the pictures, to be honest. I don't really read the words. At the end of the day, photographs are important. Sometimes, it's a bit scary when you open a book like Martin Popoff's (2007's 'Heavy Metal Painkillers'), and you see photographs which you've never ever seen before. Martin Popoff is quite good at obtaining previously unseen photographs, isn't he? Yeah. These people are professional people, and are very intent on doing a good job. That's why we have to be very selective, and make sure that our biography is really, really good. Has a contract been signed with a publisher? Not at the moment, no. Some very good writers have come forward, and said they really really want to write our official biography. It's just a case of us choosing one writer. We've certainly decided that we want to issue an official biography, and we did select a writer. However, that didn't quite work out. Was that Garry Sharpe-Young? Garry is a fantastic writer, but he moved, and lives in New Zealand now. Garry is a fantastic writer, and is very very knowledgeable. I would have to speak to the office, and find out what the situation is. Working with somebody and conducting everything through telephone isn't the most convenient or greatest situation. It's just the distance that's the problem with Garry really, given that he lives in New Zealand. We've got to do something so special, I think; we really want to sit down, and discuss Judas Priest in-depth and in detail. Sit down like you and me are at present, and discuss Judas Priest over the course of several interviews? Exactly. We just want to talk about the group. You really need someone who will get all these things out of your head, and really draw them out.

"I would like to give a huge thanks to everybody who's stayed with the Priest over the years."

Is there a specific writer who you'd like to write Judas Priest's official biography? Judging by what you've said, the writer would have to be based in the United Kingdom. Well yeah. It'd have to be a little bit more convenient, as it wouldn't just be one interview session really. It'd be a case of someone arriving, us getting in the car, and then driving around the old neighbourhood. Hopefully, they'll bring things out in all the group members that they've long since locked away. Will Judas Priest's official biography be a warts and all account? Will it deal with the happier times, and the darker times as well? Yeah. I think you have to do that nowadays. If you don't deal with both, then someone else somewhere will do so anyway. When will this official biography be released? 2009? 2010? I'd like to think that we can get the biography completed this year, definitely. We'll try to find out more about the project. We've been pretty busy just rocking around the world really, and with a million other things to do. As mentioned, Judas Priest toured North America alongside Megadeth and Testament in 1991. Within Judas Priest, how would you say the chemistry differs in 2009 compared to 1991? The rapport, members' personalities, and so on. Not a lot changes. You go through life, and only feel that you've changed on the outside. To many people, a lifetime - eighty years of living a life - can seem a long time, but in your own mind, most things just seem like yesterday. What is eighty years? In our minds, eighty years could literally be eighty days when you think about it, couldn't it? Most things which happen in your life are insignificant. It's only the significant things which happen that you basically take with you through life, and actually remember. How do you look back on Judas Priest's career? It could've been a lot better. Everybody in Judas Priest will say that we consider ourselves to be really, really fortunate, and we've always maintained a fantastic fanbase. Just because you're the most successful or the most notorised group, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're the most credible group. Whilst Judas Priest were active during the early days, specifically the early seventies, did you think you'd be talking to people about Judas Priest in 2009? Oh no, definitely not. No. It was all a gamble. If Judas Priest had ended at any point, I think we would've all been grateful for the experiences we'd had, and what we'd achieved up until that point. Do you think Judas Priest is like a fine wine, in that the group becomes better with age? Yeah. You always gain experience over time, and you always learn from your mistakes. In terms of musical compositions and what Judas Priest actually means to the metal world, a lot of other groups would be hard pushed to say that they've brought more to the table than we have, and that's the main thing. Judas Priest has certainly pushed the boundaries of metal, and achieved a wider audience throughout the world. That's been our goal - to bring more people into the metal fanbase. Of Judas Priest's catalogue, do you have a favourite and least favourite album? Not really. I'll have to quote the great Yngwie Malmsteen, and say "They're all my babies. How can I denounce any one of them (laughs)?" I understand that.. Even if you record an album, and it isn't as great as the last album or the next album, it's an important part of you, and an important part of a certain time. At that time, your life might not have been as good as you wanted it to be. I think that every album is significant, and every one has an importance. Judas Priest has existed for roughly four decades. Where do you see the group's career venturing from here? That's a very good question. I wish I could answer that, but I can't. The only thing I could touch upon is Priest's live performance; given the right opportunities, it would be great to see the golden years of the eighties again, where we were able to put on shows that were literally larger than life. That would be pretty cool. For now though, we're quite content. 'Nostradamus' was an epic album anyway, and it still remains to be seen exactly what possibilities lie with that album, or how much of the future lies with that album. Anybody that wanted to place a bet with the bookmakers would say "Well, this group will probably do another metal album in the next couple of years". That's what people would say, maybe. You're 57 now, yeah? Yeah. I hope I don't come across as rude, though do you see Judas Priest actually performing in twenty years time? No, I couldn't see that. I don't wish to place you on the spot, though how many years do you think Judas Priest has left? It's difficult to say. We''ll just keep an eye on The Rolling Stones; as long as they can keep performing, we'll certainly be able to keep performing I'm sure. Do you have a message for the fans of Judas Priest, and readers at Ultimate-Guitar.com? Absolutely. From me and all of the members, I would just like to give a huge thanks to everybody who's stayed with the Priest over the years. Keep practising hard, as I'm a firm believer that anybody can make it. I'd just like to ask people to try and attend any show that you possibly can to see the Priest, as we'd love to have you along. Keep an eye on us in the future, as you never know what's going to happen next. Interview by Robert Gray Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2009
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