Vocalist Rob Halford needs little introduction. After more than 35 years in the rock ‘n’ roll game, his distinctive voice and uncompromising pursuit of perfection have brought him the well-deserved title of metal god. But as fans of Judas Priest and Halford’s other projects know, he is capable of far more than just screaming for vengeance. As evidenced on Priest’s latest release, Nostradamus, Halford and bandmates take listeners on a musical journey spanning more than two hours, telling the story of the famous prophet in songs both mystical and metallic, orchestral and ominous.
Halford recently spoke with CRMB about Nostradamus, his new DVD project and much more.
Where are you at today Rob?
I’m in San Diego – packing my bags about to fly off down to Mexico and South America this weekend for the next part of the Priest tour.
You’ve been all over the place this summer, haven’t you?
Pretty much, yeah. We’ve just got a few more shows left to take care of – what’s left of this year. And, of course, we’re gonna go around again in the early part of 2009 and come to some places we haven’t got to on the first leg of the world tour. So we’re going back through the U.K. and Europe and North America.
I’ve been a long-time fan, and I remember first seeing you play live back in the early ’80s down in Florida, where I used to live, at the Lakeland Civic Center. I don’t know if you remember it?
I do remember it. I remember it very vividly, yeah. Is it still there, or was it finally closed down?
I think it was expanded and renamed. But back in the day, that was the place in Florida for rock bands to play.
It was. It definitely was. You’ve still got a bunch of cool places to play down in Florida – Tampa, West Palm Beach – there’s still some real solid metal places to work down there, much like all over the United States, really. That’s the phenomenon of heavy metal no matter where you go: It’s nationwide.
I’d like to talk about the latest Priest album, Nostradamus. I think it’s the best thing the band has done.
You’ve referred to this album as a metal opera. Did you ever anticipate working on such a large-scale project?
Well, I don’t think any of us anticipated the size of the thing, that’s for sure. When we began the writing sessions – Glen and K.K. and myself – all we had as a guide was a timeline of Nostradamus’ life, you know. We wanted to try and tell the story of him from the moment he arrived and then through the significant episodes of his life to the final moment, when he passed away. I remember after some weeks of writing, we realized we were already well past the 80-minute limit that you’re given with a CD – we’d have to go into the double-CD realm – but we still had so much to say. We didn’t want to cut some corners. We kept on writing, and it ended up being an hour and 40 minutes. You might agree, I don’t know, but you can sit down and listen to everything – the time flies. It’s got this wonderful essence of speed built into it somehow. The music is just going past your ears and through your system, and before you know it you’ve got to the end section. And that’s what pleased us. We didn’t want to make it a burdensome listen; we wanted to maintain the interest and the energy and the atmosphere and the adventure without it plodding along.
I want to read a quick review of the album that was posted on Amazon.com, because I agree with it: “Intolerant metal fans will no doubt slog this double CD for its keyboards and overall melody that metal bands simply aren’t doing these days. Their loss.” I think the way you vary the mood, tempo, dynamics and arrangements across the record makes the heavier moments even more powerful.
Well thank you. I’m glad you observed that. I mean, that’s part of the tradition of the band right from the early recordings. We thrive on the melodic moments – that’s just in-built with Priest. It just comes from us very naturally. Maybe it’s just a reflection of the era and times we grew up in, but we know that a good song has to have a refrain in it, whether in the chorus or in the lead break – whatever it might be – for you to latch onto and get into it.
The reaction has been very kind of mixed and diverse – very passionate responses. There are some Priest fans that only want Painkiller, Painkiller, Painkiller, which is fine. If you want to listen to Painkiller, throw it in your CD player. But I think, in terms of achievement, this is something we’ve always wanted to do. We’ve often talked about making a concept record, but it took until now to personally have the strong structure of an idea – in Nostradamus – and secondly have enough time to disappear into the recording/writing realm through almost a two-year period. But it’s done now, and we feel very satisfied – we’re proud of what we’ve achieved – and it’s out there around the world settling into the psyche of everyone. My gut feeling tells me that in two, three, five years from now, the light will go on and people will go, “Oh yeah. I’ve got it. I understand what this is all about now.” We’re all about music. Some of it is instant; some of it takes awhile [to connect with the listener] . That’s the joy of listening to music in all the ways that we do.
You’ve created a soundtrack to Nostradamus’ life. His story came to life, almost visually, for me. To do that with music is a real accomplishment.
Thank you. Again, when we work together on the lyrics – that’s my job as a lyricist – but I sit down with Glenn and K.K. and we filter out all the best bits. And we utilize the instrumentation for the structure of the song, and it’s complete. You’ve got to be very picky, you know. All of us in Priest are real craftsmen at what we do. We make things that last, in terms of the quality of the material and the effort and the energy and input that goes in. We don’t accept substandard anything, from writing to recording to performing on stage. I suppose it’s the reason why we’re still here all these years later. It’s the quality of the work.
Your lyrics have always been very streamlined and precise. Are there any particular songwriters that influenced your approach?
You know, you’re the first person to ever ask me that question. Nobody has ever asked me about other lyric writers. [laughs] I suppose it’s part of my personality. There’s a famous saying in the music industry, “Don’t bore us, get us to the chorus.” But it’s true. All of the great things that have lived in music – doesn’t matter what it is: classical, jazz, blues – the things that you remember are the hook-y moments, some of the hook-y messages. I suppose, again, that’s in-built in me. I mean, I love to talk as you can tell – I can just go on all day about heavy metal; but when it comes to writing the words, I know how to get the message across in a given period of time. That comes down to practice, really, just like a guitar player or drummer. You practice, practice, practice at what you do, and you should get better the longer you’re at it.
I’ve read that you’re a frustrated guitar player. Do you ever bring riffs or chord progressions into a writing session?
[laughs] I was noodling on my little – I’ve got a couple of those little, mini-Fernandez guitars with built-in rhythm boxes. I was noodling on those last night. I have these 2, 3, 4 a.m. sessions with myself in my bedroom. [laughs] That sounds bizarre. [laughs] But, that’s what I do. It’s fun.
I’m amazed, when I’m standing on the stage watching and listening to what everyone else does, and I wonder, “How do they do it?” I have a hard enough time remembering the words. God knows how Glenn remembers all the notes to the “Painkiller” lead break. It’s absolutely mind blowing. But then, we get lost going to the gig. [laughs] We can’t figure out what street we’re supposed to be on. It’s a crazy world.
But I would like to play, and it’s silly, really, because I have every opportunity to sit down with two of the world’s greatest players and say, “How do you do this, and how do you do that?” But I’ve never done that. Maybe it’s for the best? I don’t know. But I would like to play better than I can play, that’s for sure.
What makes the songwriting team of Halford, Tipton and Downing so effective?
I think it’s the chemistry. We’ve said all along that if we had a different lineup, for whatever reason – different writers – Priest would have turned out remarkably different. It’s just the magic, whether it’s Tipton, Halford and Downing; or Young and Young, from AC/DC; or Lennon/McCartney. It just goes on and on and on – writing teams. It’s cool being in a team of writers because, apart from the wonderful things that happen, you’re constantly learning and opening yourself up to being less of an egotist. I think the great things come not from compromise, but just from having an open mind. It’s exciting, very exciting to be in a room with the three of us. It’s when the metal magic, as we call it, happens.
The great unknown. Who knows what’s going to come out, right?
That’s it. I mean, the day starts with nothing and may end with something that lives forever on a record. That’s great.
The band’s Web site has some great concert photos from your U.S. tour. Mark Wilkinson’s artwork has translated into a tremendous stage set.
Yeah. He’s a tremendous guy, and he’s got a wonderful imagination. Once we give him the guidelines of what we’re trying to achieve we just let him loose, and he’s constantly supplying us with great things. He’s a bit like Marc Sasso, who works for me on the Halford stuff. He just comes up with these wonderful artistic endeavors. I think we’ve worked with Mark going back to the Painkiller days. He’s just got a knack for capturing the essence of what we’re trying to do, and it does translate into the stage performances, the backdrops and what have you.
Has it been a challenge to take on the road? It’s kind of an old-school stage set.
Yeah, it definitely has a retro, ‘80’s vibe to it. It’s a nightmare because it costs an enormous amount of money. I mean, God! We could simplify things – just walk out with a drum riser and a few lights – but, you know, that’s not what Priest is about. We’re famous for putting on these stage shows and giving the fans a memorable night out, of metal. But it is, it’s expensive to make and carry around and ship in these big containers and put on trucks. That’s why we’re always encouraging the fans to support what we do, and to avoid, still this evil, illegal downloading environment. It costs almost $100,000 a day to keep Priest on the road, and we’re not an expensive band compared to somebody like Metallica. We’ve got a pretty straightforward crew and with all the other dimensions that we do. All of the money that we get back from everything that we put out there, we put back into taking our shows out on the road.
But it looks great – at the end of the day, it looks great. And that’s all that really matters. We do it for ourselves, we do it for the fans. We all have a good time with it.
Let’s shift to your new DVD, Resurrection World Tour/Live At Rock In Rio III. Can you talk about the importance of the Resurrection album and tour with you getting back to your metal roots.
For a lot of people, including myself, it was kind of a welcoming home party. I just found myself to be at that place in my career. I’d had my fun with the Fight band, the experimentation with 2, and Trent [Reznor] and John Lowery. Some people have basically suggested that because everything else was a commercial disaster, you just run back clinging to the lifeline, but that’s not the reason. I did the things that were important to me as a musician, to do that soul searching. I found myself in the company of Roy Z for the first time, and discussing where I might go and do next in music. The result of that was finding all the great talent we connected to, which led to the Resurrection album. It’s just a great record, you know. Standing outside of it and listening in myself, as a critique of music, I love the songs. It’s got a great sound. It’s got a very special vibe to it, the whole recording, and I’m really proud of it. It’s fun to be able to re-present it again, remastered and remixed, and with a couple of new songs from the sessions that we didn’t use. And we wanted to include that with the Rock In Rio DVD visual. It’s a whole package, really, and kind of reflective of that whole period of time – the Resurrection year.
Commercial success aside, the Fight and Halford projects were well received by the fans, but it wasn’t really a great time for hard rock music in general.
You’re right. Everything was in transition at that time. I remember the first time I heard “Man In The Box” by Alice In Chains. I thought, “Oh God, this is going to shake things up.” And then Nirvana and Pearl Jam and everybody else. It was great for the music system. I love it when exciting, fresh, revolutionary things happen, because it’s just a springboard that launches many wonderful things. But yeah, it’s true, around that time – the early and mid-90s, everything was in a state of flux. But there’s that spine of metal, if you want to call it that, that is hardcore and refuses to give and bend and break. That’s the world that I’m related to. That’s why they call me the metal god, I guess.
How would compare playing Rock In Rio to Live Aid?
Of course, the Live Aid audience was a very mixed crowd. It was a wonderful event, the charity purpose, and all the incredible talent that played over the two shows. It was really exciting and a tremendous memory. We’ve seen those type of shows in many shapes and forms since it happened.
The Rock In Rio – it’s all metalheads. And there was a ¼ of a million of them there. By the standard of how many were at JFK [for Live aid] , it was an audience three times as big. I mean, you can’t relate. You look from the stage, and it’s just like an ant field. [laughs] “Are those swarms of ants?” [laughs] The stage is as big as a football pitch, and you just have to put your head down and focus and play your music, and I think that’s what happened that night. And now you can feel that vibe when you watch and listen to the DVD.
I noticed that when you came out on stage, you looked so composed. Were you nervous?
No, I wasn’t actually, and I don’t know why. I never walk out on stage completely placid – there’s always some kind of adrenaline. I think I walk out there, that’s just generally what I do. Some people go out there jumping and screaming and leaping about like Sebastian Bach, God bless him. He’s a great friend of mine. That’s his style, like a bottle of champagne about to explode, even before he leaves the dressing room. But for me, it’s just a mental process. You know what you’ve got to do; you’re focused on your work, and you just walk out there and let it flow.
The audience participation on “Breaking The Law” is incredible. You just hold the mike, while they sing the entire song.
That was amazing that night. I could feel it even before the song went into the singing section, I could sense that the crowd was ready. You just hand it over to them. It was remarkable. Everybody was singing in English [laughs] – that still amazes me, because, obviously, Portuguese is the language of the Brazilian people. And I’m sure most of them don’t speak English, but they know all the words to sing “Breaking The Law.” It’s unique; it’s remarkable – it’s sort of the same in Japan, you know. You get the same type of vibe there, people singing every word. It’s a magic moment in the DVD. There’s a lot of cool bits: the documentary bits, the bit with me and Bruce [Dickinson], that killer little bit of [drummer] Bobby [Jarzombek] doing his audition tape. There’s all sorts of little gems that we wanted to include.
Speaking of your performance with Bruce Dickinson. What other vocalists do you admire?
Oh yeah, obviously Priest went out recently on the Metal Masters tour, and Ronnie James Dio is a great friend of mine. I love his voice… Klaus Meine, David Coverdale, Robert Plant, David Bowie, Maynard from Tool, obviously Bruce – there’s a ton of them. I do like a good singer, someone who can hold a note and get a melody across.
Coverdale released a new and very good Whitesnake album this year. Both of your voices sound stronger than ever, without any apparent loss of range.
I don’t know what that is. Obviously, the voice is an instrument and you have to learn how to use it. It’s like learning to play guitar or drums. Once you’ve got your style down and know what your voice is capable of doing, you find that level of confidence. But you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’m sure David would say the same thing. You know instinctively what you’ve got to do, without your brain telling you what to do. But your voice can go in totally unexpected places [laughs] because it’s a physical part of your body. It’s like running down the basketball court and your legs give out. You ask, “Why? What happened?” You’re never really quite sure, but it’s great. I appreciate your observation on that. We’re at the prime, and we’re having a great time doing what we do.
Do you sing better live or in the studio?
Oooh. It’s definitely two different performances. In the studio you really have to…it’s a strange world in the studio. I’ve always said that if you think too much about what you’re doing in the studio, then it will sound that way when you listen to the recorded event. If you can just let yourself go and not think about it, then it comes from the soul, and again you can sense it. And that’s always been difficult for me, because I’m such a fucking perfectionist. I drive myself crazy. I’ll keep going over it and over it and over it, again and again and again. On the Nostradamus release, we did hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of vocal tracks, just because I wanted to get it right. And there was a lot of multi-tracking involved. But it’s a different dimension when you’re onstage; onstage is a lot more fun. It’s a different vibe, different atmosphere. You know you’re there to serve a purpose, which can be sometimes people have waited two, three, four, five years for you to come and play for them again. And you better deliver. At the same time, you’re having a blast because there’s nothing better or more exciting than being in a band and performing live for an audience.
You know how your own voice sounds different to you than others, and, obviously, you’re hearing your voice the way we hear it after recording.
Yeah. I can’t stand the sound of my own voice.
Really? Does your voice do anything that surprises you when you record?
I’m thinking beyond that. All I’m concerned about is getting the notes right, getting the inflection right, the right range and the tone. That’s more important to me than what my voice sounds like. I’m more clinically critical of everything that I do, and everybody that I’ve worked with has that same attitude. I think that’s just professionalism, whether it’s Glenn or K.K., or Roy Z or Bobby or Scott – we’re absolutely mad and manic about getting it right. But that’s professionalism isn’t it. In whatever walk of life, you’ve got to put the effort into it to get the best result. It can take a week to do one song. It can take longer than that.
How does the metal altar of 2008 compare with 1978 or ‘88?
Well, obviously, there’s just been an explosion of different styles and genres of metal, and we’re thrilled to be able to observe that. And I’m excited to valuable and relevant and important in the big smorgasbord of the heavy metal world. It’s just terrific. At my time of life, it’s really heartwarming to see the constant display of new metal talent that’s being created. As we speak now, there’s probably a band jamming away that we haven’t heard of. But in a year from now – five years from now – could be a global phenomenon. That’s a really exciting thing to consider.
So, the fact that metal is strong and proud and worldwide and still there and important, is what makes you feel good, as a grandfather of metal. [laughs] It’s wonderful.
(photo courtesy of Chipster Entertainment Inc.)