Catching up with Judas Priest ahead of the San Antonio stop on its 50 Heavy Metal Years tour

click to enlarge Vocalist Rob Halford (left) and bassist Ian Hill (right) are the only original members of Judas Priest that remain in the band’s touring lineup. - SHUTTERSTOCK
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Vocalist Rob Halford (left) and bassist Ian Hill (right) are the only original members of Judas Priest that remain in the band’s touring lineup.

Nobody said logging 50 years as an iconic rock band would be easy.

English heavy metal mainstay Judas Priest's 50 Heavy Metal Years tour will thunder into San Antonio's Freeman Coliseum on Monday, March 21. But not before being sidetracked a few times.

Originally scheduled for 2020, the tour was first pushed back by the pandemic. Then the Alamo City show and two dozen other North American dates were postponed again last September when guitarist Richie Faulkner's aorta ruptured while playing onstage. He underwent life-saving surgery and months of recovery.

The band finally kicked off the rescheduled leg of its tour early this month, weeks after it endured a torrent of fan criticism for announcing the dates would only feature Faulkner on guitar, eschewing the twin-ax attack that defined its sound. Days later, it reversed course, saying touring guitarist Andy Sneap would be part of the lineup.

Meanwhile, Priest has faced repeated potshots in the media from longtime guitarist K.K. Downing, who left the band in 2011 and has complained about being left on the sidelines ever since. The band's other original guitarist, Glenn Tipton, stepped back from touring in 2018 after being diagnosed with Parkinson's but still takes part in recordings.

We caught up with Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill, who alongside singer Rob Halford, remains one of its two original touring members.

Over Zoom, we asked Hill to talk about the tour, the band's 50th-anniversary box set and its ties to San Antonio, one of the first U.S. markets where it made headway thanks to pioneering KISS-FM DJ Joe Anthony.

San Antonio was one of the first U.S. cities where Priest got radio airplay, and it was also the first U.S. city where you played as a headliner. Talk a little about what you remember from those early days in the Alamo City.

It was all down to the great Joe Anthony, wasn't it? I forget the name of the radio station he worked for. Well, I think he opened the station, actually. He was great to us, but it wasn't just us. He went out of his way to find the more obscure acts and give them a bit of a leg up. And it worked. It was really a very, very pleasant surprise to drive into San Antonio the first time and hear your songs on the radio. ... But when we got to talk to Joe, and we got to know about all the times he'd been playing our records and what have you, it wasn't surprising at all. As a result, San Antonio was one of the first places in the States that picked up on Judas Priest, so we owe him a great debt of gratitude, really. He did break us there. So, yeah, good old Joe.

How important was that support in San Antonio to helping you break big in the rest of the United States?

It did a great deal of good for us in the long run. If Joe hadn't been so great with playing our material, things might have been different in Texas, maybe elsewhere too.

Priest hails from the working-class city of Birmingham, and from Rob Halford’s autobiography, it’s clear you identify as a working-class band. San Antonio is also very blue collar. Do you think that had anything to do with audiences here latching onto Priest so early?

Yeah. I think you're right. We've always belonged to our fans really. And you're right, we're not aloof. We don't try and hide away from anybody. We'll go play anywhere. And you'll see us in the bar a couple of days beforehand. We're not one of these bands that’s about exclusivity. OK, we earned a few bob and everything, but I think working class is up here. (Touches his temple.) It's between your ears. It's not what you've got. It's your attitude. And we still have that working-class attitude. Very much so.

You guys recently released a 50-year box set, a monster retrospective that spans 42 CDs. Did going back over all that material make you consider bringing some obscurities into this tour's setlist?

We hadn't listened to some of that material for years. And, yeah, you do think, "Ah, we could really, really do a number on that one now," and what have you. But the trouble is that you can't do too many of them in a stage set, because then you'd have to start dropping people's favorites. You have a finite amount of time to fit in. You've also got new material that you're trying to get across. And there's quite a small window there for any unusual songs. There's a hell of a lot of fans favorites. And when you go mucking about, you start to piss people off.

There's been some whiplash in the media recently about what this touring lineup of Priest would look like, whether it would be a four-piece or five-piece band. What happened there? And how much of the decision to tour with Andy back on board was a result of the response from fans?

I think it's [doing a four-piece lineup] is something that's been bubbling in Rob's head for a while. When it became apparent that Glenn wasn't going to be able to do the Firepower Tour, the first thing Rob says is, "Oh, we'll carry on as a four piece. We started out as a four piece. We can do it. We've done it before." And we all thought, "Yeah. OK, we can do it." But I think with what we'd just done with Firepower, you needed the two guitars anyway. So, we decided to include Andy. He was the perfect choice. He was there: a right-on-the-doorstep thing. He'd just produced the new record, so he was familiar with the material. And he's a fan of the band and he knew all the old material as well. So, he was a perfect choice.

So, going out on this 50th anniversary thing, obviously Glenn can't make it, and Ken's not there for well-documented reasons. Then Rob just thought, "Well, let's give it a go again." And he called Andy up and explained it to him. Andy understood. Andy's a fan of the band, like everybody else. But after that, we put our thinking caps on and thought, well, maybe it's not the way to go. The vast majority — in fact, all — of our success really was gained as a five piece, regardless of how it all started out. We never recorded anything as a four piece. So, we decided to pull the plug on that one and do a U-turn — a screeching, handbrake turn there.

Had Rob let you know he was going to have that conversation with Andy beforehand? Or did that come as a surprise?

It was very much a surprise. I know that he was talking about it. My thought was maybe, get the 50-year thing out of the way and then do it. But I'm a pragmatist, so I can see positives in most things. And Rob came along [with the idea], and I said, "Yeah, I can see it working." But like I say, we had a rethink on it and changed course.

Do you think it's likely that the next album is going to be recorded as a four piece then?

I doubt that.

Has it been heartening that despite Glenn Tipton’s ailment, he's been able to contribute to recordings and show up and do some gigs?

Absolutely. He's going through hell, really. One of the greatest things he loves to do — ever loved to do — and his body is telling him he can't do it. Glenn's a fighter, though. He's always been a fighter. And if there's anybody who can pull out of this, it’s going to be him. But medical science being what it is, it's making advances every day. So, who knows, there may be a cure on the horizon, the not- too-distant future. Hopefully while the rest of us are still at it.

click to enlarge Priest’s San Antonio show was delayed after guitarist Richie Faulkner suffered a ruptured aorta onstage and required lifesaving surgery. - SHUTTERSTOCK
Shutterstock
Priest’s San Antonio show was delayed after guitarist Richie Faulkner suffered a ruptured aorta onstage and required lifesaving surgery.

When you hit the half century mark, did it force any conversations about how much longer you're going to be able to continue doing Priest? If either you or Rob retreats to the sidelines, would it still be Priest at that point?

I think it'd probably grind to a halt, especially if it was Rob. You can't replace Rob. So, for the rest of us to carry on at Priest, it wouldn't make any sense at all. But hey, we're realists, and we know the clock's ticking. And we're just going to try and get as much in as we can, while we can. If you can still go out there and give a quality performance, there's no reason not to do it. But if you're going out there and you're faking it, well no. And that's going to be the time I think, when, it's probably going to be Rob or myself, when one of us breaks down. So, we'll play it by ear. And like I say, we'll continue for as long as we can. For as long as it's sensible to do so, shall we say?

On that note, it was a little surprising to see that Richie, as the relative youngster in the band, was the one who had the most recent health crisis. Could you talk a little bit about how serious that was and how frightening it was?

At the time, we didn't know just how serious it was. So many stars lined up for him on that night. It's unbelievable, really. We were special guesting with Metallica for a start. So, we got an early set. It was a short set. We got two days off after that. And we were flying on to Denver that night, and we were going to spend the two days off in Denver. And Richie's wife was there, and he was going to go home for two days. He only lived an hour or so down the road. And it was the last chord of the last song, and he sort of grabbed his chest like that. (Clutches chest.) So, we all bowed around the stage. We did the bows and what have you. And by the time he's at the side of the stage, he already had a paramedic there putting a face mask on him, the oxygen going in.

It was brilliant that they were there on the case right away. They had the ECG image machine in the ambulance. And they said, "We suggest you go get your blood pressure checked, because it's off the charts." So, he comes back, he gets in the dressing room, he gets changed. He's still going — his aorta has burst, and it's leaking inside him — and he said, "I think I feel all right now, I think I'll come with you guys. I think I'll go back home." And the tour manager said, "You're going to get your flipping heart checked if I have to drag you there."

So, off he went. It was just, "See you, Richie. See you in a couple of days." And of course, we get to Denver, we land and everybody's phone lights up. That's when we figured out what had happened to him. Because nobody knew at that point. It's amazing there was a dedicated heart hospital just four miles down the road. And the surgeon was there. An hour from when we left, he was in the operating theater with his chest open, people working on him. And I think it took about 13 hours — something like that — of surgery to put him back together again.

But yeah, very, very lucky man. If any one of those things hadn't have happened. If it had been a longer set, or if it would've happened halfway way through the set and he'd have carried on. Knowing Richie, he'd have carried on. "Oh, I'll be OK." He would've carried on to the end of the set, just to die, you know? Those things all lined up for him. Really, I think he's used up his lifetime supply of luck. No point in doing the lottery anymore.

Sounds like he’s made an amazing recovery.

Right, we're starting up again, as you know, in just over a week's time, two weeks’ time. And we booked extra rehearsal time just to make sure he is going to be OK. He's made a famous recovery. ... He's still the young one in the band, and he's bored, and he can't wait to get cracking again. Which is a great sign.

About guitarists, former member K.K. Downing continues to vent publicly about his exodus from the band. Has there been any attempt to talk to him, sit down with him, put things at rest?

Look, all those years ago when he left, nobody wanted him to leave, OK? On the evening — the very, very evening — as we were announcing Richie as his replacement, I called Ken up and I said, “Look, if you're going to make a move to get back in the band, do it now.” Didn't get anything back from him.

So, as far as we were concerned, that was it. And as far he was concerned, that was it. And all he had to do was pick the phone up, and that's still the case today. But he won't do it.

Why do you think he's been so eager to voice his grievances in the press?

I don't know. Ken's always been stubborn, and I think it's just a bit of that. If a couple of years ago, when it became evident that we would be reaching 50 years on the road, he could have called up any of us. Could have just picked the phone up and called us and felt us out. And he still hasn't done it, you know? Taking potshots in the press, it isn't the way to go.

Has that 50-year anniversary given you thought about why Priest's music stood the test of time?

I don't think it's just that our music. I think it's heavy rock or heavy metal — whatever you want to call it — in general. I think it's an alternative to getting Top 40 stuff rammed down your throat every day. You get the same 40 songs for months on end. In fact, I'm still hearing the same 40 songs when I get in the car that were playing 40 years ago. You're still getting the Eagles. ... There seems to have been no replacement for it.

You've got your Lady Gagas and your top-quality pop acts. And they're way up there in the stratosphere. But I think there are always people who don't really want that, that want something maybe more music-based rather than lyric-based, which I think heavy rock has always been.

It's there. It's still there for them. And that’s why you see the different generations embracing it. It appeals to people in a different way. You have to think about a little bit more when you listen to it. Rather than just switching it on while you're doing the washing up or eating dinner. It’s something where you have to concentrate a bit and listen to it, get involved a bit more with it. I think that's why it has that appeal. Not for everyone, obviously, but for some of us.

Where are you living these days?

I'm living, oh, about 30 miles from where I was born, in rural Staffordshire in England. A little place called Lichfield. One of the smallest cities in the country. I’ve still got my old chums. We still see each other occasionally.

With other members of the band now residing in the U.S., why Lichfield?

I think it's family more than anything. Family and friends. I did live in the States. I lived there for two or three years in the ’80s. My ex-wife's family was from Albuquerque. So, even when we weren't living there, we did spend a hell of lot of time there. Of course, we’ve lived other places, lived in Spain as well. But maybe it's the working class coming out of me. You go back to your roots. My family's still here. Not just my immediate family, but my extended family's here as well. And I'm still in contact with some of my old chums from way back when as well. So, it made sense. And like I say, things are going to come to an end pretty soon. This is probably where I was going to end up anyway.

$49-$129, Monday, March 21, 8 p.m., Freeman Coliseum, 3201 E. Houston St., (210) 226-1177, freemancoliseum.com.

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