December 13, 2010
By David Huff
Halford - 40 Years in the Making, the Metal Machine Continues
A Conversation with Metal God Rob Halford
Photos provided by www.RobHalford.com
It's no stretch to say that Rob Halford will go down in history as one of the most revered and powerful singers in rock music. There's a reason he's called a Metal God by his legion of fans, and that's taking nothing away from the vocal prowess of the late, great Ronnie James Dio. The Judas Priest front man, and current solo performer, simply embodies the spirit and soul of metal.
Case in point! Several years ago, when Judas Priest toured as special guests on Ozzfest featuring a reunited Black Sabbath, Sharon Osbourne called Rob late in the afternoon with a request. Ozzy had developed bronchitis and couldn't sing with Sabbath that night. Would he mind stepping in for him? Undaunted, Halford said yes. After the Priest set, Rob sat in his dressing room and calmly had a spot of tea. When the lights went down, he walked out on stage with Black Sabbath. He told the audience Ozzy was sick and he'd be taking his place. Instead of jeers, the assembled, sold-out crowd in Camden, New Jersey cheered wildly. They were going to witness a moment in history.
That's the type of respect Rob Halford has earned in the heavy metal community over the four decades he's been creating decibel shattering music. His latest solo effort, Made for Metal, is just another edition in his library of music. Early next year, he'll be getting together with mates Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing to write what could be the last album for Judas Priest. Afterwards, the band will be 'heading out to the highway' to close the book on their storied career.
JAM: It's pretty remarkable that both you and Ozzy are touring together this fall, especially with the incredible history both of you bring to the stage.
Rob Halford – I'm closing in on 40 years in this business for me, 43 for Ozzy. It's a great blessing, really, to be able to keep doing what we do. There comes a point in your life where you finally have figured it out. Many times the two of us will just look at each other and nod because there aren't any words that need to be said. We are blessed that so many people are coming out to see our show. The two of us have certainly followed a similar path in this business having bands we both love – Priest and Sabbath – and solo careers on top of that. Ozzy and I are on the road doing what we were born to do. The whole reason for me being on planet Earth is to go around the world making metal. That's the way it is really, for me.
JAM: Your four decades in this business has certainly given you a different perspective on life.
I feel like I'm turning into the Willie Nelson of heavy metal because I'm always on the road, I'm always at the studio or I'm writing. I love music with such a passion, I find it difficult to find anything else that interests me, or gives me pleasure. I told an interviewer recently that I haven't taken a vacation in some 30 odd years. When I stop moving, the last thing I want to do is go on a plane and fly some where to sit on a beach. That kind of thinking drives me off a cliff.
JAM: Thomas Edison was famously quoted as saying success is 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration. That may be true in the business world, but not in music. In fact, I'd turn those numbers around. It's funny how time is seemingly suspended for a musician because inspiration is the driving factor in their world, followed by the perspiration necessary to complete that creative spark.
I agree with you. What we do in this business – rock and roll – puts us in a different universe especially where time is concerned. Once you are committed to making a record, going into the studio to record it, then go out on the road to support the album's release, that's like a two or three year slot of your life taken up in terms of commitment. You multiply that factor by five, six, ten album projects, and a big chunk of your life has passed you by. Compared to the quote "real" jobs some of my friends have back in the U.K. or Phoenix, they think I'm living in some parallel universe. But hey, no complaints here; I'm going to keep doing this for as long as I can.
JAM: In all sincerity, please do. Your music, whether as a solo artist or with Judas Priest, has become the soundtrack for a generation of a people. When fans see you in concert, your older songs transport them back in time, the new music makes them appreciate the fact you're as vibrant today as you were yesterday.
I can't do what I do without the fans supporting me. To still be appreciated after all this time for your music is quite humbling. The fans have called me to the House of Blues in Dallas, so I'll be there. You and I are talking because of your love of rock and roll. We are all intertwined with each other's lives because of the way music makes us feel, and I find that fascinating. The messages of music, and the way you relate to it personally, is a shared experience for both the artist and their audience. Musicians reveal a lot of themselves emotionally when they sing their songs. It's a kind of unique relationship what we do, this observation on life we share with love and passion to our audience.
JAM: A friend once asked me why I never interviewed actors throughout the many years I have done the magazine. I told her actors play many roles in their lifetime and none of them real. Music, on the other hand, comes from the soul. Nobody remembers the first movie they ever attended, but they never forget that first concert. People don't bond over actors from films, but they do unite over musicians and the love of their music.
It's cool that you pointed that out. When Judas Priest toured the 30th anniversary of British Steel, you could feel the love the people had for Priest. When we played "Living after Midnight" or "Breaking the Law", it was like we transported ourselves and the fans back in time. Rock and roll, heavy metal, it's like a time machine. I'm with you on the movie thing. That's an entirely different experience. Music is such an intrinsic part of life and our own well-being; it carries far more impact than probably anything else that we experience in life. The real power of rock and roll is the way it's enmeshed in our lives. It keeps us all close and connected.
JAM: When you said music is like a time machine, your reference to the British Steel album immediately took me back in time to 1980. Every time I hear that album title, I recall writing a blurb in the magazine that the master tapes to the record had been stolen. Do you remember that?
Yes I do. There was a real sense of panic in the band because we had already booked a tour to support the new album and we couldn't cancel it. Your master recordings, especially in the old days of reel-to-reel tapes, were like gold. Those are the things you kept in a vault hidden away in a bank. To an extent today, the hard drives that store your recordings, those are like precious jewels you keep in a safe as well. We went through a very difficult time trying to recover all of those valuable pieces of information on those tapes. Thank the Lord we were able to. It was touch and go back then. Thankfully we had a lot of luck, and with some research and other assistance, we were able to sort it all out.
JAM: There have been few vocalists in the history of heavy metal whose singing style has been as influential and instantly recognizable as your own. Do you see that as both a blessing and a curse, especially when you are trying to establish a separate identity with your music?
There's very little you can do there, and I dare say, it's that way for any musician. When a guitarist creates their own specific sound, character and style with their instrument, they carry that with them. That is their identity. It's the same way with singers. My voice, I imagine, is recognizable wherever I go. The only thing I can do is surround the voice with solid opportunities, and that involves working with solid musicians. In my solo work, I can be a bit more private, and talk about things that have happened to just me. There are things I wouldn't feel comfortable expressing in Judas Priest because that band is a whole different experience. But you know – I'm just a singer in a rock and roll band. That's all I ever wanted to be and do. The voice is what it is. I'm lucky it can do a lot of the things I want it to do. Certainly I can't sing some of the notes I did some 30 odd years ago. That's the physical thing of growing older, father time taking its toll. That doesn't bother me. In fact, I love that feeling of knowing I have to change my vocal style lsightly to accommodate the subtle changes in the voice. I actually embrace getting older. I'm not in the least bit scared of it. I am enjoying all these fantastic opportunities my fans still give me in music. Sometimes, I wonder what I'm going to be doing 10 years from now. I'll be in the business, still singing, but what it will be I just don't know what.
JAM: I'm a firm believer that music keeps you young at heart no matter how old you grow in years. You are a perfect example of that. By keeping yourself relevant, you keep your fans that way as well. That's a great testament to the career you've had in this business.
I mentioned in a humorous way, not disrespectful, that somebody like Willie Nelson, who I really admire, is always on the road performing well into his '70s. You also have Leonard Cohen, who just went out on the road and he's in his '70s as well. And then you have the Rolling Stones. I agree. As long as you can do the job right, and not be a disappointment, there's no reason to switch it off. Only you can make the decision when it's time to stop. In this business, you future is truly in your own hands. You make the choice when it's time to call it a day. For me, I can't imagine stopping. This is like water for me, my body craves it. If I can't get on a stage and sing, or be in a band to write and record songs, life would be very, very difficult for me.
JAM: I've always been curious about one thing Rob. The band wins the 1990 civil case lodged against them alleging a Judas Priest song was responsible for the self-inflicted gunshot wounds of two Utah teens. With the trial final over, did it cause you to reexamine your role in Judas Priest and perhaps push you towards a solo career outside of Priest?
No not really. I think the verdict made me feel stronger about the band itself. The tremendous support we received from fans around the world touched us all. The trial was a very difficult experience. We were alleged to have done something that was abhorrent to us. The fact someone would suggest our music was capable of causing something as horrible as suicide made us feel really, really ill both mentally and physically. What came out of that afterwards, in terms of difficulties in life, you have to straighten up and shake it off. As a band, we had to keep moving forward. I think the end result of the experience made us in Judas Priest stronger about what we wanted to do and be. As far as that having any connection to me wanting to do any solo activities, the trial didn't affect the decision. It was in the cards anyway. Looking back over the years, the band has discussed what we possibly should have done after the trial and Painkiller tour. It probably would have been a good idea to maybe take two or three years off, to go and do whatever we wanted to do as individuals, whether it involved music or anything else. But that's really a different side of the story.
JAM: First Ozzy is taken to court 1984 by parents of a depressed teenager who committed suicide. They blamed his song, "Suicide Solution" as the culprit for inciting their son to take his own life. Then you have a song by Judas Priest put on trial because parents were unwilling to shoulder any of the responsibility of their children's actions. There was more going on in these trials than the eye could see.
The real element of this trial most important to Judas Priest, and our fans, was to let the world see this had nothing to do with music. Ozzy would tell you the same thing. In our case, this was a sad situation those boys were living their lives in. The verdict vindicating us reinforced the fact that nobody is responsible for your kids but yourself. As parents, you can only do as much as you can do. It's not about pointing the finger of blame. The real issue of that trial was addiction to drugs and booze, which is a world I know quite well. Those addictions have been in my life, and it's the reason I wrote the song "Twenty-Five Years" on my solo record, Made of Metal. That's what the song is about. I know what destructive things addiction can do to a person. Looking back, the trial was a very powerful experience, and we became stronger people because of it.
JAM: When I read you wrote most the music yourself on Made for Metal, my first thought was, "Wow. Rob Halford actually made an album for Rob Halford." Did this album exorcise demons that had been gnawing at you from the inside?
Yes, and I think that's one of the great purposes of music. The material on my solo work wouldn't fit Judas Priest. There was a part of me, a part of my life I expressed on this album, I needed to get out. It was my producer, Roy Z, who pushed me to explore parts of myself I had previously shut in. I love him not only because he is a dear friend, great musician and fantastic producer, he just knows me really well. Roy was the guy who kept urging me to write autobiographical experiences. There are like seven or eight tracks on Made of Metal that are exactly that. The rest are collaborations with Roy and the rest of the boys
JAM: Was this album necessary for you to make before returning to Judas Priest?
What really pushed me to get this album out were the shows I already had committed to play with Ozzy this fall and the solo dates. I wasn't going to tour on material that was several years old. Fans want to hear what you're doing now, as well as familiar songs from your past.
JAM: Over the years I've been observing music, here's the one thing I don't understand. When a group of musicians get together to build a band, to create a name for themselves with their songs, and then succeed, why is there an urge by the singer to break away and start something brand new? No matter where that person goes, or what songs they sing, their past identity stays with them no matter what. Was Fight really a necessary thing for you to do in the early '90s?
Honestly, it was a compulsion within me to explore. Think of yourself sitting in a library and reading just one book. That's what Judas Priest had become to me. We had written several chapters together and I felt it was time for me to write a different book. Part of my make-up has always been this sense of adventure I have within me when it comes to music. I've always been curious about the opportunities music can bring when you open yourself up to work with different musicians and producers. One part of me was always satisfied, to a certain extent, with all the things I love about Judas Priest. On the other hand, I was always wondering what would happen if I hooked up with this player or that player. The possibilities that come out of collaborations with other artists, that sense of exploring outside the comfort zone, that to me is what music's really all about.
JAM: Good point.
If you look at all the great rock and roll bands that have been lucky enough to make a long life in this business, a lot of us have gone from our established bands to embark on some solo experiences. It is just something that drives you. Like I mentioned earlier, you really want to see what's on the next page. I think it's a really good thing actually. Win or lose, so what? You don't know what you are missing until you try it. Life is a gift. It's about getting this much out, and putting as much into it as you possible can with no regrets. As a musician that is very important to me.
JAM: Had you reached the point with Priest where you felt consumed by your own creation and you needed to step outside the framework in order to come back with a renewed spirit?
Honestly, I don't think that much about the past. I am more concerned about the now. I am always thinking about what to do next. Once I have written a song, created a record then toured, it's gone for me. I will cherish the memories that particular sequence of events brought me, but it's gone. When I recreate those moments down the road, like "Breaking the Law" during a solo show, it's an incredibly valuable experience. But beyond that, what drives me is the sense of the unknown. That's the great adventure in rock and roll music. It's the position I find myself in now. In this business, at some point you have to step outside your comfort zone, you have too! Some people grow up and want to live in the same house they were born in. If that's all you want out of life, that's great. The creative process always gets me excited. That sense of urgency, more than anything else, is what really drives me. I'm always up for the search, the musical journey, to take me places I haven't been before. It's all powerful and very compelling.
JAM: How aware, and how difficult is it for you, to walk that fine line between your own past, and what you are trying to create in the present?
It's not difficult at all, and I'll tell you why. I try not to think about it that much. It's easy to kill the soul and spirit of what we do. If you lie awake at night thinking about stuff like that, maybe you should be doing something else. It's okay to ponder the possibilities just to get the greatness out of it. But if you feel you're on a tight wire, and afraid you're going to fall off, that's not such a bad thing. Rock and roll is supposed to be a little bit dangerous, and thrilling, at the same time. I'm still getting the biggest thrill out of what I do, probably more so now than before.