"We're All Fans": An Interview with Judas Priest's Ian Hill
Over 45 years in music, 17 studio albums and 45 million records sold. Judas Priest's only constant member talks about the band's storied history, the evolution of heavy metal, and the 30th anniversary of their seminal classic Defenders of the Faith.
Judas Priest has sold over 45 million records, pioneered and predicted new trends in heavy metal music, branched out into groove rock, speed metal and progressive rock, led the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and inspired fans worldwide. In spite of their prescience and puissance as a rock band, Judas Priest remains one of the most unconventional bands in history.
They both bucked fashion trends and created their own, both built upon metal and blazed their own trails. Further, there is no other band who sounds quite like them, even as they have constantly experimented and reinvented themselves to the point that they sound as fresh on 2014's Redeemer of Souls album as they did on 1980's British Steel (featuring the hits "Breaking the Law" and "Living After Midnight") and 1982's Screaming for Vengeance (featuring their biggest hit, "You've Got Another Thing Comin'").
Amid the chaos, only one man has borne witness to the band's many eras, throughout every change. That man is bassist Ian Hill, a founding member of the band and the only constant member to date. Hill is also responsible for bringing Rob Halford, the band's unique lead singer into the band and was even a member of Halford's family for a time (having married Halford's sister). "Family" may be a surprising word for many who know rebellious and edgy Judas Priest for their music and image, but "family" is exactly the way Hill describes the band.
I recently had a long talk with Ian Hill about the past, present, and future of Judas Priest and the 64-year-old hard rocker proved to be as jovial and friendly as he is knowledgeable and talented. Hill is proud of his band and considers himself a huge fan and is also humble, easily passing off credit to his band mates for even his biggest accomplishments.
At the time of this writing, Judas Priest is touring in support of Redeemer of Souls, their 17th studio album. With so many albums and eras under their belt, does Hill have a favorite? "Ask anybody that, I always say 'the last album'." Hill explains proudly, "Which at that moment in time it is the new album. Just because we've spent so much time on it, you know? But it is. I think Redeemer is one of, if not the best album we've really done to date with the work we put in."
This could be because Redeemer of Souls is, like Hill himself, something of a witness to every era of Judas Priest, which is no accident. "It hearkens way back, some of the songs and some of it is very modern. It's got mostly what we've been known for in the past, you know, on the fast and slow and light and shade," Hill explains.
"The last tour we did, which would be the Epitaph Tour, we tried to play something from every album. Well, we did play something from every album. And of course that means traveling back all those years and playing through each album several times to see which songs you want to play from it. And I think some of that sort of stayed in between the ears there when we were recording the latest album, Redeemers, you know? There are some songs there that hearken way back to the early days. You can see the roots in some of the songs and some of it is really modern. But there are some tasters there from times gone by."
The exercise was not merely tour research. Ian Hill is that rare musician who continues to listen to his band's albums just for the enjoyment of them, like any true fan. A fan is, of course, what Hill is. "We're all fans of the band! I think it tells in what we do. We're all fans of Judas Priest!" Nor does repeated listening and playing the same songs lead to burn out on the part of the bassist:
"Well, you know, you get off on them every time, you know? When it comes to writing a new set list for a new tour, sorting them all is a bit of a nightmare because you've got to make way for the new songs and, of course, every one you drop, you're dropping someone's favorite. But there are some songs you can't drop. You'd get stoned to death if you did! 'Breaking the Law', 'Living after Midnight', all of the old favorites, fans' favorites, and our own, really. And you think, you know, 'maybe we should drop it!' then you're feeling that way, rather, until you see the fans' response. You fire up those first few chords and they turn around and get off their butts and that's what makes it so enjoyable. You know all that feedback comes back straight back on stage. We will never tire of playing the old favorites because they're our favorites as well, at the end of the day."
Redeemer of Souls is not the only recent release by Judas Priest. The band also reissued their classic 1984 album Defenders of the Faith in a Special 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition earlier this year. However, none of the aforementioned hits of the band appear on that album. While selling well, Defenders is often forgotten or ignored by fans. What is Hill's take on the album's legacy?
"There are certain eras of the band and that was the end of that particular era, if you know what I mean. And from that Era, that is my favorite album, Defenders of the Faith." Hill explains with pride. "It's got a line there from British Steel right straight to Defenders. The albums before British Steel, we were sort of still finding our feet. Heavy metal wasn't really definitive then. It was heavy rock, it was progressive rock, and whatever, you know? 'Heavy metal' hadn't really settled, if you know what I mean. I think that started for us, at least, with British Steel. And Defenders was the last of that line. After that it was the experimental Turbo album and then after that we went really harder edged with Ram it Down and Painkiller. And yeah, it's one of my favorite albums. It stands the test of time, doesn't it?"
Ian Hill would certainly be the man to talk about Judas Priest's eras and the "test of time". Hill founded the band that would become Judas Priest with longtime guitarist Kenneth "K.K." Downing and their childhood friend John Ellis on drums. "It was Ken, myself and a chap named John Ellis started the band that was to become Judas Priest [then called Freight] back in 1969," Hill confirms. Brought together by love of their favorite heavy bands of the age, the band looked for a singer and found a man named Al Atkins, who had recently faced the dissolution of his old band, which was called "Judas Priest".
Atkins brought his old band name with him and Freight became (the new) Judas Priest. This four-piece lineup didn't quite make it. As Hill explains "Our original vocalist, Al Atkins, his wife became pregnant. He couldn't financially continue with the band. He had to go out and get a job." Hill continues: "And for varying reasons the original band's drummer left." With Atkins and Ellis gone, Judas Priest was left as a duo.
"That's when Rob came along with John Hinch and not long after Rob, Glenn [Tipton, guitarist] came along," Hill remembers. "I think that was 1973. And that was the classic lineup of Judas Priest, two guitars, bass, drums and vocals. And all of our success, of course, came as a five-piece."
Just how did Halford enter the band? Halford is arguably responsible for Judas Priest's signature sound more than any other contribution, though every member has been a major contributor. Halford's entry into the band was also thanks to one Ian Hill himself, although the bassist is quick to defer praise. "Yeah, well, it wasn't just me. I was dating Rob's sister Sue, later married, and later, still, divorced. [laughs] But we're still great friends, mind you."
Hill remembers the actual circumstances and semi-audition well. "[Atkins] had to leave, and that's when Sue said 'Oh, well, you should see my brother, and listen to him.' So Ken and I went and met him and the rest is history, as they say. I think he was hooking harmonies to an Ella Fitzgerald song that was on the radio at the time. It was all treble harmony, you know? [laughs]" It's hard to imagine an audition song less likely to lead to Judas Priest than those by Ella Fitzgerald. But even if it had been Conway Twitty, with a voice like Halford's, the job would be his.
"He was playing with a band called Hiroshima and he brought along the drummer from that band, John Hinch, and he did the first album and we went on from there." This, of course, led to Judas Priest's almost Spinal Tap level of revolving drummers. "We've been through several drummers over the years and Scott [Travis] has been the longest serving now, since 1989."
It isn't only the percussion section that has come and gone from the band. Ian Hill remains the only original member and the only member who has never left the band (including Rob Halford), however he is quick to distance himself from any overly important or standout role in Priest. "Apart from drummers and Ken retiring a few years ago, it's been a nice family since." And a family, the band has proven to be without even Hill taking any dictatorial or elder role in the band.
"It's very much a family," confirms the bassist. "There's no 'I'll overrule you in the band if you don't obey me.' If somebody dislikes something intentionally, we won't do it or if somebody really wants to do something, we'll give it a go, you know? There's no one who says 'Oh no, we can't do this because I don't want to do it!', or vice versa. That doesn't happen with Judas Priest. I think that's sort of the secret to why we've lasted so long. It's getting along, you know? We're all a bunch of friends at the end of the day and I don't think we could work otherwise."
Surprisingly, this is extended even to the newer members of the band who are welcomed as family immediately. "They're very much an equal. They become friends very quickly. We're gregarious, you know? I mean anybody. And Richie [Faulkner, guitar], for instance, who was the last one to join, he's been with us now for about four years and he came onboard for the Epitaph Tour. I think that was beneficial doing the tour before we went into the studio because, when we started the tour he was a great guitarist and that was it. But at the end of the tour he was a great friend as well. He's got a great character and we get along with him really, really well. And age doesn't even come into it, if you know what I mean. We don't think 'Oh, yeah, that's, that's, that's young Richie!' [laughs] 'That's Richie!'"
Do the youngest and newest members of the venerable band feel like family right away, or must they be broken in? "I'm sure he does as well. Maybe sometimes he lays a joke or two upon us, we're Poppas to him, maybe, but most of it we're just a bunch of mates. We do most things together. Obviously, what we do touring, we'll go out and get drunk together. The secret is just getting along. That is the secret."
And the secret, regardless of turnover, is to still be the band you are, evolving or not. Hill makes this analogy: "I mean, you could look at Whitesnake, for instance. There's only David [Coverdale, vocalist] of the original band, but they're going out [on tour] as Whitesnake and they're doing great business and the fans like them, so it's Whitesnake to all intents and purposes." Hill is quick to add "I think it's the fans' call on that one. I think it's the fans who ascertain that more than anything."