The Enduring Humanity of Rob Halford, Metal God
The iconic Judas Priest frontman sat down with us to discuss the band's cracking new album, 'Firepower,' his love for Dolly Parton, and the continuing fight for equality.
Photo by Jack Crosbie
Robert John Arthur Halford of Sutton Coldfield, UK is certainly as mere a mortal as any of us, but is also endowed with the very specific advantage of being known worldwide as the larger-than-life singer of world-class heavy metal legends Judas Priest. The 66-year-old is an icon among icons, a god among blasphemers – and, within the first ten minutes of our meeting, he makes a dick joke.
I happen to be using an oversized microphone to record our interview, and as I apologise for shoving such a big unwieldy thing into his face, he cracks, “Oh, don’t worry love, this won’t be the first time!” with a wicked grin. I’m rendered momentarily speechless, my cheeks almost certainly flushing cherry red. After all, this was Rob Fucking Halford of Judas Fucking Priest – the crème de la crème of metal royalty and one of the genre’s few remaining original patriarchs. My diamond-studded internal vision of the Birmingham expat was that of an LGBTQ hero, magnificent musician, hoary elder statesman, and implacable defender of the heavy metal faith. That’s all still true, of course. What I hadn’t accounted for was how goddamn sassy he is.
Halford has been answering to the sobriquet “the Metal God” since well before I was born in 1988, and is more than happy to lean into his own mystique. When we meet up in a small, windowless conference room at the Epic Records offices in Manhattan, he sweeps in like a Shakespearean villain, all black leather and sunglasses and gleaming pate, peering down his patrician nose at his to-do list for the day. Confronted with such an impressive figure, I was expecting to encounter a human ice sculpture once we got down to brass tacks – but instead, was greeted by a warm smile. Within the twinkle of an eye, the sunglasses came off, Halford’s rumbling Brummie accent came spilling out, and we were off to the races, tackling everything from hating Nazis to his days as a wannabe theatre kid.
Despite his divine talent, the Metal God proves to be quite down-to-earth. He’s gregarious and cheeky, a consummate professional when discussing his band and their new cracking album, Firepower (which is out March 9 via Epic Records), but also perfectly happy to go off on tangents about Game of Thrones and how much he loves Canadian jazz crooner Michael Bublé (“I love Bublé. I would love to do a duet with Bublé. Michael, are you listening? Let’s do a duet!). Overall, Halford gives off the impression of a man who is supremely comfortable with himself and with his place in the world.
That peace is something he’s won after years of struggle – first as closeted gay kid growing up in 1950s industrial Britain, then through hated Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s contentious tenure in the 80s, weathering the 90s AIDS crisis, coming out live on air during an MTV broadcast in 1998, and into the current day, when the lives of LGBTQ people remain under attack from the highest echelons of the ruling class. Rob Halford has always been a fighter, but nowadays, his most pressing message to his fans and in general is one of love, acceptance, and hope. “You’ve got to be able to talk about whatever it is you need to talk about, to rise above the discourse and the screaming,” he tells me. “It’s about leading people and teaching people a different perspective.”
That perspective is something that’s filtered into his work with Judas Priest. The band has never been an outright political entity, but Halford has certainly never been shy about his opinions, often couching societal commentary within his grandiose, big-idea lyrical schemes.
Firepower heads into enemy territory from the onset, and the band doesn’t let up for a moment throughout its 58 minutes. This is the kind of album that longtime Priest fans have been clamoring for: polished, speedy, gargantuan, and theatrical down to its very core. The cover, which was painted by Chilean/Italian artist Claudio Bergamin, is a vision of classic Priest-ly bombast, and is a perfect advertisement for what lies inside. Halford and his compatriots have always thrived on a certain kind of drama (think the Scottish Play, not Real Wives) and they’ve delivered it in spades on this new release. Firepower marks the band’s 18th full-length album since their debut single “Rocka Rolla” hit in 1974; it’s the first studio album since 1988's Ram It Down to be produced by Tom Allom, and is the band’s first go-around with co-producer Andy Sneap, who is also currently enlisted as a touring guitarist for the band following iconic lead guitarist Glenn Tipton’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s earlier in 2018.
During our interview, Halford is candid about subjects both personal and professional; he seems genuinely delighted with the way Firepower has shaped up, and if you’ve got any amount of love for Priest (and the Metal God) in your heart, you probably will be, too. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed, but as you’ll soon see, 40-odd years into his fabulous career, our man Rob still has plenty to sing about.
Noisey: When I was listening to the song “Evil Never Dies,” my immediate thought was, “Is this about Nazis?”
Rob Halford: Well, sadly, yeah. I’ve lived a fairly long life and when I was a kid growing up, I would see all these things going on around the world that were obviously upsetting. You would often wonder, is this the way it’s always going to be? Sadly, that’s just the flaw in humanity, and call it timely or a coincidence but this particular track references the fact that this terrible flaw still exists in the world. The fact is that evil never does die. But I think it’s always important to consider every aspect of the world in that respect, so “Evil Never Dies” kind of puts the spotlight on that side..
On the flip side, you’ve got “No Surrender,” which is a much more of an inspiring, “Fuck you, I’m going to do me” kind of song.
You know, the great thing about Priest in all the years that we've been making heavy metal music is that we’ve always kind of carried this metal flag, if you will – this beacon of hope that, no matter what you may be going through in life, there’s always a sense of overcoming difficulties, a sense of winning, a sense of coming out on top. We’ve always tried to push this kind of positive experience in the songs that we make. So “No Surrender,” it’s a statement. It’s a simple fact that, from our perspective, no matter what you’re up against, the greatest thing you can ever do is face that challenge. Overcome it, and win, and never surrender.
That will to overcome and conquer has certainly served you well as perhaps the most famous out gay man in heavy metal. You’ve been pretty outspoken about that for many years, and that’s been really important and helpful for a lot of heavy metal kids, especially now when things still don’t seem like they are that much better than they were in the 80s or the 90s.
When you’re a musician, one of the things that comes to you in the beginning that is quite unexpected is the reaction from your fans, and to the way your music plays an important part in their life, in figuring things out. That’s what happened to me. The moment I came out as a gay man, I never really thought of the consequences. Of course, the proverbial happened, it hits the newswires and it’s this big, big thing. As a result of that, you then get these beautiful messages back from your fans around the world saying that because you’re able to step forward and proclaim your sexuality in a strong way, in a proud way, that that’s helped them in life, and you go, “Wow.” So as a gay guy in metal, I welcome this opportunity to reinforce that statement. These difficult times for a lot of us. In this matter of sexuality, you’ve got to be able to talk. When the terrible scourge of the AIDs epidemic hit the world, up until that point, the gay community didn’t really have much of a strong voice. There was an organisation in London called ACT UP [who] were very vocal. They went storming into Parliament, held these big demonstrations, and had a simple slogan— ‘silence equals death.’ That simple statement was very profound.
The battle goes on for me; as a gay man. I shall not be happy until I see equality across the board. That’s vital. I don’t think it’s right that there’s one set of rules for one individual and another set of rules and laws for another individual. That’s not the way the world should work.
As someone who has had a front row seat in the way metal has changed in the last 40 years, how do you see attitudes toward people who aren’t just straight cisgender white men change? It’s gotten a lot more colorful.
Yeah, from my perspective, particularly among different generations to my own, there is this great acceptance and this great world view that everybody's the same regardless of their background, their ethnicity, their religion. Whatever it might be, the younger generation has a broad capacity to appreciate that. You know, I’m an old metalhead, but I have my Instagram and I have my Facebook and various social platforms, so I get interaction from people of all generations. A lot of my followers are younger metalheads, and it’s so refreshing to be in the company of people that are more loving, more caring, and more open, and have a much better worldview and have a much better capacity for acceptance than a lot of people in the world do.
It’s got to be quite a lot different from what you went through growing up in the Midlands during the Thatcher era.
Yeah, I used to go on my Pride marches in London, going past 10 Downing Street shouting, ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out!’ It was a very difficult time. If you look at the history of the LGBTQ community, from my perspective growing up as I did in the UK in the 50s, there was just terrible, terrible discrimination you know? It was extremely difficult to live your life as you should have been allowed to do. Progressively, over the decades, I’ve seen major changes, like same-sex marriage, which is wonderful, to still terrible hate crimes that happen. We lose people in very violent ways. That’s just that flaw again of humanity again. Still a long way to go, but faith and optimism always rule the day in my world.
People don’t usually think of Judas Priest as a political band, but you’ve never been quiet about how you feel. For example, the message behind “Traitor’s Gate,” totally reminded me of “Dissident Aggressor.”
Life is a beautiful thing, but a lot of it it kind of replicates itself. Humanity on a general level, instinctively, we all go through the same things; it doesn’t matter where you are from or where you live, and so about that as a lyricist in the band. we’ve always tried to convey these strong messages of strength, and power, and doing good in the world, and at the same time, to not be afraid to look at the difficulties that we experience. This one track that you’re referencing, “Traitor’s Gate,” is about that. It talks about somebody that literally is prepared to put their life on the line for the sake of rebellion so that the greater good can go forward and win. We kind of wrapped that up in a crazy story about a guy going to the Traitor’s Gate in London in 16th or 17th century. We paint these visuals with the words and the way the music works to convey the message of the song. It’s an important one. We’ve never been afraid what’s on our mind, far from it, but we’re not a politically motivated band. That’s never been the angle of Priest. We’ve always had one foot in reality and one foot the fantasy world with the songs we make, and we know our fans.
People look for escape in your music, in the heroic epics and grand fantasies. Sometimes people need that.
You absolutely do. Music is a great healer. It always will be a great healer, and will always convey positive feelings and positive feedback. There’s very little music that has been used to any other effect, you know? You only have to look at some of the horrible incidents that have happened recently, sadly at music events, and instantly people turn to music to help heal and overcome the difficulties of that time. You go out to a show. You’re there to have a few drinks and see your friends, bang your head, throw the horns up, and sing along with the band. You get lost in the moment. Sometimes you go in a time machine with Judas Priest that will take you back to the 80s or whatever. Essentially, it is escape.
What do you listen to when you’re upset?
Oh, I’m all over the place [laughs]. Alexa keeps a list of what I listen to. In the last week, I’ve been everywhere – Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Pavarotti, Barbra Streisand, Beethoven, Michael Bublé, the Eagles. I could go on and on and on because for me, music is a banquet. I know we all have our favourites, like I’m a metalhead, but at the same time, and mostly because I’m a singer, I love to hear people sing and I love to hear different interpretations of what the voice can do with different kinds of music. I’m always jumping from one artist to the next to see what can inspire me, give me ideas for songs, or just simply for the pleasure of listening to that performance.
Could I ask if you were a theatre kid?
Yeah, I’m a heavy metal ham. As a kid growing up, I was always watching movies on the TV or going to see movies and various shows ,and just enjoying the human capacity in drama and in expressionism and thinking about the way these other great people would give their performances, so that’s kind of instinctive for me now, you know? Before I left school, one of the things [I had to decide] was did I want to go to drama school, or did I want to continue as a singer? I went for what makes me feel good, and that’s singing. Singing is a gift. It doesn’t matter whether you’re singing in tune or out of tune, there’s nothing better than singing in the shower in the in car along with your favourite band. It’s the best feeling in the world, singing. You don’t have to learn how to play guitar or the drums or whatever. Singing, to me, is one of the most purest form of expression. It’s a beautiful thing. Even now, I always feel the most complete as a person when I’m singing a song – mostly metal.
I’m so happy that the Metal God is so open-minded, and that you so openly love artists like Pavarotti and Michael Bublé.
What we were saying earlier with music, it’s such a beautiful, extraordinary, varied experience. Music is such a passionate expression and a passionate experience. You may be so devoted to a certain type of song or a certain type or style that is difficult to pull you away from that, and that’s great if you’re committed to being that one kind of music fan. That’s beautiful. But for me, [I like to] just try it all. Listen to everything. See what’s out there because there’s so many things you could potentially be missing that could give you a lot of pleasure.
I have to ask. When is your black metal project coming out? I was thinking about that as I was listening to this record, because the intro to “Necromancer” has the kind of cold, spooky vibe...
The black metal project! It keeps being about to lift the launchpad, but it never quite gets anywhere. I met Nergal from Behemoth recently, and I said to Nergal, ‘You know I love your kind of music. I would love to kind of put my toe into the water and see what would happen.’ So now I’ve got these two very nebulous but I hope at some point very real opportunities to do something with Nergal and still something to with Ihsahn. Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, that’s my big Emperor album. Both of them are incredible – they just have this real mastery of their world.
It kind of comes back to what you do personally, too – you’re always looking for the biggest, loudest, most theatrical, dramatic sound. Nothing is ever big enough for Priest.
It’s just the potential for experimentation, and also the fact that there’s always something bigger and grander and louder to do. A lot of the music on the Firepower album contains that kind of thought process, you know? We simply wanted to make a very heavy classic bunch of songs, that really was the only direction we had. When you listen, one of the biggest tracks on this album is “Rising from the Ruins,” which is just this massive landscape of sound that really elevates you and takes you to a different place. I’m just drawn to that because it’s terribly expressive and evocative, but on the other hand, you can go to the last track of on album, “Sea of Red,” which starts as a very poignant ballad and is very very delicate, but even that ends up in a big arena. The ending is gigantic, you know? That’s generally what the Priest world is about.
The whole record feels quite dark. What was your headspace like when you were writing the lyrics for Firepower?
It was all over the place. I’m aware of what’s going on in the world because I’m a bit of a news hound, so I take those messages and I wrap them up in a way that is relevant for Priest. It’s taking the darker elements with the lighter elements, and just kind of mixing it up and giving you an across the board set of emotions and perspectives. The great thing about music when you’re creating it that something could come out in the day that you never really expected. From day one to day seven, the difference in the vibe could be huge. It’s pure in that respect, and I think that’s something you always have to remember from a listening perspective. The credibility of your music has to be very significant – you can’t slack off, you can’t let go of the reins. You’ve really got to make sure of the conviction in your work, so when it comes out of the speakers, you can go, ‘Yeah that was the intent that I meant,’ and it’s happening because beyond you and the band, you going to go out and share it with your fans around the world and make sure they understand.The challenge, is how do we make this one different from that one that we wrote in 1981, you know?
It’s got to be like muscle memory by now, but I’m sure it wasn’t always like that.
No, it’s experience in life. No matter what you do. If you love what you do and you have the joy and pleasure that we’ve had in Priest from our wonderful fans that have supported us for so long and given us a life in metal, there’s a phrase – you have to do 10,000 hours of something before you become close to being the best you can be. With my role in Priest as a lyricist, I’m constantly evolving and growing. I internally map it out in my head. I can hear it before you can actually see it, which might sound crazy but that’s the way it works for me.
Do you read a lot?
Not as much as I used to. I seem to have kind of pulled back on that and I don’t know what that’s happened. I used to devour books and in the last five years or so, something has happened. I think what it might be is that I’m finding now that I seem to be going through a cycle. I just watched the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie on the flight over from the west coast to New York and it’s basically the same movie as the first one. You know what I’m saying? So I’m trying to find something that would stimulate me to pick up a book. I’m getting the new one by Philip Pullman and Ken Follett – he had this trilogy recently called Century, and you couldn’t put the book down. It’s a great idea to have three books going through different decades with different families and seeing how they connect. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. Whether it’s a painting or a book or a piece of sculpture, it always has to be dramatic.
Even the books you like to read are epics! And that’s kind of old-school attitude too. Remember, when you were little, you would go to the record store and if a record looked cool, that’s the one you were going to spend your pocket money on.
Even now, when you see Rihanna with a Priest shirt on, that’s because the shirt looks cool. We’ve always thought about that. We love our fans dearly, and the fact you put down your hard-earned money to see a Priest show, we want to give you the best show we possibly can, and that’s everything, including what we put on on our backs. Whether it’s a simple battle jacket with denim and patches, or to some of the more extravagant stuff Ray Brown and I concoct together. It’s a lot of fun.
How long does it take for you to get ready before you hit the stage?
Well, it’s a fine art now. I can get ready in about 20 minutes, which is pushing it if I have to rush.
That’s exactly how long Dolly Parton told me it takes for her to get ready.
Is that right? There you go. Me and Dolly got something. Bless you, Dolly. She’s a living legend icon. Wonderful human being. Somebody else I would like to do a duet with – Michael Bublé and Dolly Parton.
She’s super involved in philanthropy, too, which is really wonderful. Since we’re wrapping up, is there any particular cause that you’re involved in that you’d like to highlight here.
There’s nothing really now; I just lend my voice to whole element of awareness and acceptance really. As we said earlier, you can’t stop talking enough about those types of important virtues in life for everybody across the board, but particularly for people such as myself in the LGBTQ community. I’d like to think that sometimes your message is being carried for you in your music, which I’ve done in a lot of my work with Priest. When I’m talking about overcoming struggles and so forth in life, it’s not just for the straight community, it’s for everybody. That’s important to know. I’m there for you guys; whatever you need me to try and do, I’ll do it for you.
Catch Judas Priest on the Firepower tour with Saxon and Black Star Riders:
3-13-18 in Wilkes-Barre, PA at Mohegan Sun Arena
3-15-18 in Youngstown, OH at Covelli Centre
3-17-18 in Uniondale, NY at Nassau Coliseum
3-18-18 in Washington, DC at Anthem
3-20-18 in Newark, NN at Prudential Center
3-22-18 in Uncasville, CT at Mohegan Sun Arena
3-25-18 in Ottawa, Can at The Arena - Td Place
3-27-18 in London, Can at Budweiser Gardens
3-28-18 in Oshawa, Can at Tribute Communications Centre
3-31-18 in Detroit, MI at Dtroit Masonic Temple
4-03-18 in Milwaukee, WI at Riverside Theater
4-05-18 in Green Bay, WI at Resch Center
4-06-18 in Hammond, IN at The Horshoe Casino
4-08-18 in Bloomington, IL at Grossinger Motors Arena
4-10-18 in Casper, WY at Casper Events Center
4-11-18 in Loveland, CO at Budweiser Events Center
4-15-18 in Kent, WA at Snoware Center
4-17-18 in Portland, OR at Veterans Memorial Coliseum
4-19-18 in San Francisco, CA at The Warfield
4-22-18 in Los Angeles, CA at Microsoft Theater
4-24-18 in Phoenix, AZ at Comerica Theater
4-26-18 in Tulsa, OK at Bok Center
4-28-18 in Dallas, TX at Bomb Factory
4-29-18 in Sugar Land,TX at Smart Financial Center
5-01-18 in San Antonio, TX at Freeman Coliseum
Kim Kelly is acting up and screaming for vengeance on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.