Interview with vocalist Rob Halford | By Nicholas Senior
Can you imagine doing something—anything—for nearly 50 years? How would you maintain any sort of competitive edge, let alone aim to outdo what you were originally famous for decades in the past?
Ask Judas Priest.
This is not to say that the fabled British metal gods have topped their classic records with their 18th release, Firepower—out March 9 via Epic Records—but it’s a credit to their long-lasting success that few can agree on which is their best album. Now, the group’s latest chapter in the metal history books—books they helped to write—will further fan the flame of debate as only the best heavy metal can. There’s something special at play here: a classic emphasis on big riffs, bigger melodies, and some glorious Rob Halford vocal lines, all coming together to make Firepower feel like a vital period in the band’s legacy.
Halford credits a rather unique setup for the record’s success, one that feels more in line with the athletic arena than the recording studio. “I immediately jump into the world of production here, because there’s no doubt that [producer] Tom Allom and [co-producer] Andy Sneap and [engineer] Mike Exeter—you know, when you get a bunch of guys who have been around for a long time,” the vocalist quips, “and you’re doing your vocal take, and they go, ‘Do it again,” and you go, ‘I’ve just done it. What’s wrong with it?’ ‘It’s not right. Do it again.’ It’s a bit like a coach. You know how a coach can get the best out of an athlete when the athlete doesn’t really know it’s there? I’m convinced that this is what’s happening here. I know the platform is the material, but it’s the actual performance that makes it really live, you know?”
“All of those nice things you said about the energy, the youthfulness, and the vitality, it’s all been drug out of us by Tom and Andy,” Halford laughs. “However, the intent and commitment were always there. It’s that they were able to get to the places that a production team will get to. We’ll never be able to thank those guys enough, in that respect.”
Allom worked with Judas Priest on some of their most iconic albums in the ‘80s, and Halford acknowledges that the reunion was reassuring. However, his role was, assuredly, not to make the band comfortable. “Yeah, there was some reassurance there,” Halford allows. “There’s always a good feeling there. I think that can work for and against you, to some extent, with respect to the production side of things. Bands are peculiar animals, and they know how to—not take advantage of a situation. You know what I’m trying to say? ‘Let’s ease back a bit, guys. We’re getting there.’ It’s easy to fall into that trap, but Tom’s presence, just being in the room, was tremendously powerful, and his work, from my side of things, was just vital for this.”
“Andy’s real hardcore repetition—‘Do it again! Do it again!’—it was great,” he adds. “This balance, almost like old-school [meets] new-school production, worked really well. I don’t know of any other band that’s done this. Maybe we’ll start a trend—we’ll see. It was a great team.”
It’s safe to say Judas Priest know a little something about kick-starting trends.
One must wonder, with his wealth of experience and metal expertise, has Halford ever wanted to shout out, “I’m Rob fucking Halford, and it’s good enough for me” during a heated critique session? “No, I could never do that,” he asserts. “I think that’s another trap, because I’ve seen it happen around me—I’m not going to name names. In Britain, we say, ‘Once you get up your own ass, things can get really crazy.’ This whole thing about ego can be a very explosive set of circumstances. I think, because of our background and age, where we’re from, how we were raised, all those kinds of things have kept us very much in check when it comes to making those kinds of mistakes. Confidence in yourself is important, obviously, but again, if you’re not aware that there’re opportunities afforded you by people who are outside of the bubble, then you have problems.”
Perhaps this humility also stems, in part, from Halford’s understanding of music’s ability to lift people up—himself included. “We have a song on this record called ‘Rising From Ruins,’ and that can be anything in life,” he shares. “Personally, I’ve used music to get me through life’s difficulties. It creates strength, support, solace, and comfort. It’s empowering. Music will always do that for people. That’s how important music is to me in getting through life.”
“Then, really, it’s just about finding your own strength and power to get to the place you need to get to,” he continues. “You have to work hard at it, don’t you? It’s like trying to stay sober. You have to fucking work hard for it. It’s not just going to come to you on a plate. It’s easy to quit; it’s simplest thing in the world to quit. You’ve just got to dig deep and find that drive. It’s got to come from you, but there’s definitely support around you. Most of us don’t realize that, but there’s definitely support around you, and you should be grateful for that. I like that idea that there’s no end to the journey.”
“Didn’t I say that in a song once? ‘The journey never ends,’” he laughs. “Whatever value my words have, coming from living 66 years, it’s all embellished with wisdom and life’s ups and downs.”
The personal and sonic power synonymous with the band’s best work is still every bit as alive on Firepower. Songs like “Necromancer” and the title track feel like essential tomes in the Judas Priest canon. So, what were their goals for this, their 18th record? “You’re just going from one song to the next,” Halford chuckles. “That sounds very simple to say, doesn’t it? I think, really, it’s focus more than anything else. It’s working with this attitude of direction, of trying to make the most classic-sounding, heavy-sounding Priest album that we can make. That kept us dialed in. This is a band that can be your turbo lover, and then, we can be the painkiller, so the discipline involved, again, is vital.”
“We caught ourselves a few times—I would have a melody, and the guys would go, ‘That’s pretty good, but it’s not as powerful as it needs to be,’” he adds. “Then, I would make a reference to something that [guitarist] Glenn [Tipton] was doing, saying, ‘It’s great, but it’s not for this record.’ We were very much on each other’s case every step of the way.”
“You know that there are certain components to every album: dynamics and tempo, the adventure that you want to take everybody on,” he explains. “There are some set pieces that need to be in play. It’s like writing a book or making a movie. You expect that of yourself, and your fans are expecting that from you. Each song grows as it goes on. That was the thrill for us. We’re still finding these things; every day, it’s happening. We haven’t hit the proverbial wall. It’s just constantly flowing. It was a very consistent, enjoyable couple of months we had, the three of us, to make this music. The time flew by. It’s a tremendous place to be at for Judas Priest, in the creative sense.”
It all comes back to that hunger, right? “Yes, you’ve got to be hungry. You’ve got to be,” Halford emphatically states. “I know all about resting on your laurels. When we go out to tour, as we are now, Priest has always gone out to support new music. There’s no way we could still tour on [2014’s] Redeemer of Souls without any new songs under our belt. We’re a working heavy metal band, as I’ve said before.”
The act of embracing the grind is what makes Judas Priest so innovative and special. It all circles back to the athletic angle: the Olympics have nothing on the musician’s grind of writing, recording, and touring. It’s all preparation for the live spectacle. It’s a cycle, but you have to put the work in. “You’re just nailing it each time. That’s exactly what it’s about,” Halford concurs. “It’s a heavy metal Olympics starring Judas Priest, and we’re always going for the fucking gold,” he laughs. “That attitude is absolutely right. If we’re all not pulling our weight, we’re going to fall off the crazy train. Thankfully, we are grateful to be where we are. You owe it to yourself and your fans to give it your best each time.”
Luckily for their fans, Firepower is decidedly not the result of a legendary band resting on their laurels. Halford’s melodies are fantastic, the twin guitar attack is as feisty and powerful as ever, and there’s the sense that Firepower was a personal challenge: to make a record that could stand abso-fucking-lutely on its own, not leaning on past success. Judas Priest’s latest certainly achieves that goal—and then some.
Photos by Alan Snodgrass