Photo: Press photo of Judas Priest

“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
Defenders of the Faith [30th Anniversary Edition]

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.”

Rock Star and Rob Halford Comes Out

Losing members of that Judas Priest family can be painful and difficult, but the band soldiers on. This was true even when Rob Halford left the band from 1991 through 2003, well over a decade. This paved the way for a rather remarkable rags-to-riches story of a young American heavy metal singer named Tim “Ripper” Owens. Owens was an enormous fan of Judas Priest who took his nickname from Priest’s song “The Ripper” as heard on British Steel. “British Steel” was also the name of the Judas Priest cover band that Owens fronted before being invited to live his dreams and become the lead singer for the actual band Judas Priest.

Priest fans were also ecstatic to discover that Owens’ story was to be told in a major Hollywood movie called Metal God. Unfortunately by the time the film came out in 2001, it had been renamed Rock Star and had morphed into something of a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Anniston and Mark Wahlberg. The film was all about an iconic metal band called “Steel Dragon” who fired their lead singer and the lead singer of the Steel Dragon cover band “Blood Pollution” who is invited to join his heroes as their new vocalist.

True fans of Judas Priest know that this is far from the truth behind the scenes. Hill would know more about this than most anyone else. “Well, it was a true work of fiction, you know? When we heard about the production company were going to make a movie based, as far as we knew, about Ripper joining the band we offered our help. We said ‘If there’s anything you want to know, talk to us at the time.’ And certainly our communication was cut off and that was it and they went off on their own tangent.”

On the other hand, Hill is not exactly bitter about the experience. “I mean, I quite enjoyed the movie. [laughs] It was entertaining, you know?” Hill says with his usual positive joviality. Still he is more devoted to the truth than “entertainment.” “It had nothing to do with Rob Halford, Ripper Owens and Judas Priest, it’s got nothing to do with that, whatsoever. It was fiction. Apart from the fact that ‘Local Boy Makes Good’? That was the only true aspect of the movie.” Hill is quick to add “I watched it once. I don’t have the urge to watch it again. [laughs]”

Owens left the band in 2003 (after two studio albums, two live albums and one live DVD) to make way for the triumphant return of Rob Halford. Still, Owens is a member of the Judas Priest family and he remains, as they all are, a fan of the band. “Ripper we run into from time to time, yeah. And I think that he was glad to see Rob back in the band as well because he was a fan. A fan of all of us, you know? Even though he lost his job I think he saw the sense of it and he saw it was the right thing to do.” It sounded to me that there were really no hurt feelings with Ripper’s departure. “No, no, I don’t think so. Not now after a decade and a half, anyway.”

Of course, Rock Star was completed and released before Owens left the band, though the film does depict his big screen counterpart’s resignation (further proving Hill’s assertion that the movie was a total fiction). One of the largest sticking points for fans and purists is Rock Star‘s depiction of Halford’s filmic doppelganger who was fired for being gay. The film depicts the singer as a frolicking and flaming homosexual cliché and treats him like a completely outdated joke, like a sketch comedy show of decades past might have treated a gay character.

Rob Halford, in fact, did come out as a gay man in the 1990s, though this was a relatively well-known secret amongst music fans and other bands. Halford remains one of the toughest singers in the world and he just happens to also be gay.

That is easy to say in 2015 when attitudes and social mores have evolved considerably even since 2001. However, Halford joined Judas Priest back in the early 1970s. Was the band always so enlightened or was Halford’s sexuality something that he had to hide from his band family?

“Oh, we knew, pretty much, from day one, you know? I mean, it becomes obvious after a while,” Hill explains without derision. “Rob was open to us about it. And him coming out has always been his decision. It was no big secret in any way. If he’d wanted to come out in 1975 for instance, he could have managed it. To us, it wasn’t that big.” The band is a family, after all, and they supported their brother. “We never would have mistreated anybody with anything, you know?” Hill adds. But could this fact have impacted Judas Priest’s popularity in less open times?

“I don’t really think it would have had any difference to any of the fans either.” Hill says confidently. “It couldn’t do him any harm, so I don’t think it would have done us any harm either. [laughs] It was always Rob’s decision. Everybody’s cool on that one.”

So Hill’s claims of Judas Priest being a family are proven again. This makes sense, in part, because it is Hill’s family and blood that led him to become a musician in the first place. Hill is one of the most dynamic, steady and driving bassists in all of rock and this talent was apparently inherited from his father. “Yeah, he played double bass in dance bands and jazz bands, even folk bands he played in. Dad never earned any money out of it. [laughs] It was only ever a bit of pocket money, and that was all he ever earned, you know? But he showed me the moves on a double bass, all those years ago. I think I just learned a C-Major scale, ha ha! And then he died, you know, he died of cancer. He was only 46.”

This tragic end led to quite a legacy for Ian Hill who has made quite a bit more than “pocket money” from his renowned career. Luckily Hill has a recording of two songs by his father to keep the memory alive. “He had a decent voice as well and he was playing bass and sang ‘Country Boy’ and some song called ‘Railroad Doom’, I suppose it was, recorded by my uncle. And that’s the only one. I mean he was working in the ’60s era when the only recording device you had in those days is old reel to reel things. I think my uncle had one, ’cause my uncle played guitar and they’d get together from time to time and put a couple of songs together. You could hear the railroad in the background and the diesel revving, you know? [laughs] I have to say, though, it was really magical listening to it.” The recording of dear old dad is one gift that Hill has been able to pass on to his children in addition to the decades of recordings he has made with Judas Priest.

Although the elder Hill gave Ian the bass fundamentals and perhaps a genetic propensity toward music, his father’s styles “didn’t really influence” the Judas Priest bassist. “I do enjoy listening to jazz from time to time. It really is a great music, very informal music.” Hill asserts. jazz isn’t quite the music that one might expect to hear coming out of the headphones of one of metal’s best known bassists. “I’m quite eclectic when it comes to music.” he says. “I listen to it, depending on what mood I’m in. I can listen to jazz, classical, you know? I very rarely listen to country or operas, two kinds of music I’m not too fond of, but anything else I can listen to. Including, like you, the stuff I was listening to 30 or 40 years ago, I’m still listening to it today. There’s a lot of things that stand the test of time and I listen to a lot of the early stuff.”

This same eclecticism and complexity has always gone into Judas Priest’s music from the early stuff to the present. “It can be very involved.” Hill explains. “Going back in the beginning we always took the philosophy that whatever we do, try and do it the best we possibly can and if possible, move forward. And it’s been the philosophy that’s been in the band right from the very early days, right up until today. If there’s anything that we can put in that’s relevant, we’ll do so and, of course, if there’s something there that isn’t relevant, we’ll omit it. But we’ll just try and do the best job we possibly can with each particular song.”

Even without a writing credit in many years on a Priest song, Hill remains integral to the creation of the songs. “The process is generally Richie, Glenn and Rob will have ideas, riffs and chord sequences and lyrics and what have you and they’ll get together and it goes around for a bit and get basic songs, a copy of which I’ll get and Scott will get and I’ll put my basslines and Scott will put his drum patterns to it, you know, and then we’ll get together and kick it around in the studio and then get it put down.”

This camaraderie and creative sharing has helped Judas Priest to not only evolve throughout the eras but to also predict the next metal wave time and time again. Judas Priest practically introduced progressive rock elements to heavy metal, then brought speed metal to a new audience, ensuring they were never considered “has beens” even after decades. Hill explains the evolution of the music thusly, “Well, it’s where we were at the time, you know? We’ve always done what comes naturally. We’ve had very, very few suggestions from anybody in management or record companies or whatever. We’ve always done what we felt and that’s been the same throughout the band’s history. Like I said, there’s been very little outside influence.”

As for the changing face of Metal, Hill has an additionally unique insider’s viewpoint. “It’s something that happened in the later 80s, early 90s, wasn’t it? Heavy metal fragmented, really. All the aspects of heavy metal was there, it covered most things that we’d done over the years, I mean, it’s not just all the heavy and the fast, as I said, the light and the shade.”

Hill even credits the more commercial songs as important milestones. “We formed [the hits] so that everybody could have a look at us. Without those it wouldn’t have the fan base it’s got today. And I’m not just talking about Judas Priest, I’m talking about metal in general. You get good radio play and it makes all the world of difference. Suddenly your fan base gets wider and wider and of course once they’ve listened to that, they’ll come and see you live and they’ll get off on the heavy aspects of heavy metal as well. But it sort of fragmented didn’t it, in the late 80s, early 90s. You’re a speed band or a death band or a grunge band or a goth band and that’s all you did, you didn’t do any of the other things. There’s nothing wrong with that, you know, people love that sort of thing. But metal in general, it’s been sort of versatile, you know?”

Versatility is definitely encapsulated in Judas Priest who still serve as an icon and template for metal. Hill ensures that he continues to use the best tools he can for the precision he requires. This includes the use of the Ian Hill Signature Bass from Spector, based on the Spector NS-2. “They’re built like a tank!” Hill exclaims with pride. “My basses take a hell of a lot of [punishment]. In the course of a tour, they get thrown around onstage and they’re thrown huge distances. I had a couple of NS-2s and I had them for years and years and years. They’re as tough as boots, but they do start to deteriorate. They do start to get cracks in the seams and things like that, so I had to replace them.”

So how did the Signature model come to be? “I got in touch with Stuart Spector and they had just opened the factory in Czechoslovakia and my bass is basically, the wood work is done in Czechoslovakia which is then shipped to the USA and in the USA electronics are put in it. It just sort of makes more sense for stage work, you know? In the studio I still use the original NS-2s.” Brand loyalty is admirable, especially when one associates so closely with a company, but Hill never forgets his favorites, regardless of the brand. “For this last album I even used the old Fender Jazz model on some songs,” he says with a laugh.

One thing that I can describe Ian Hill as is grateful for his band and for the fans, whom he consistently defers to as the true influences behind the band and the reason that Priest makes the decisions they do. This respect to the fans a family relationship with his band mates and consistent devotion to the band that has kept Judas Priest together. As Hill puts it, “We’ve remained constant for a long time.”

Thankfully Hill’s predictions have been correct and the fans never have turned their backs on the band. Halford remains an outspoken member of the gay community and is also open and candid about having been raised in a Christian home and that his spiritual foundation remains important to him. This may seem to be an odd mix for an icon of heavy metal, but listening to Hill, everything makes sense.

“We’re not a religious band at all.” Hill tells me, and indicates that such things are personal for each member. Morality and values are a different story. Hill’s values are as eclectic as his musical tastes and are not specific to any one “faith.” “I think that most people live by Christian ideals and they might be called something else in other religions, but the ideals pretty much remain the same. Basically humanism, being human to one another. That’s the main thing.”

In short, for all of the wild, foot-stomping, headbanging, hard driving, loud and screaming heavy metal, Judas Priest are actually all a bunch of friendly nice guys and there really is no dichotomy there.

With going over 45 years in the music business, Ian Hill has recently turned 64 years of age. Anyone who has heard Redeemer of Souls knows that the band is far from slowing down. As for Hill, Priest’s only constant member, he has no intention of changing that fact. He has no plans for any solo albums or retirement. “I can’t really see any point, you know? I like what I’m doing with Judas Priest.” he says. “I’m fulfilled with that, you know? I can’t love two loves. When we actually hang our coats up, you know, I might try a few things, but at this time, I’m just with the band.” And, again, this is a band that he is a fan of.

Even when exhaustion sets in, Hill looks forward to the next project. “At the end of a very long tour you think ‘Oh God! Time off!’ But after a month or so you get back on your feet again and you just want to get out and do it all over again. Not being able to do it still terrifies me and probably the rest of the band as well. So we will continue. There’s no reason not to. You know, we’re all well able to do it.” Terrified or not, Hill leaves the fate of the band up to the fans. “The people still want to come see us, which is the main thing, really, at the end of the day. So we’ll continue as long as we can. Whether that involves a new album or whether it just involves touring from now on, we don’t know yet. We’ve got a long way to go on this tour and so we’ll see how we feel at the end of it.”

“The end of it” still seems to be quite far off. Judas Priest has hardly calmed down and is, in fact, heavier than ever, but talking to Ian Hill there seems to be a much deeper layer than that. Hill knows the secret to keeping a band going and keeping them together throughout changes in lineup, social mores, time and musical styles. Ian Hill has no intention of leaving or slowing down with Judas Priest. After all, giving up on Judas Priest would be tantamount to giving up on his brothers. Together they will be Screaming for Vengeance, Breaking the Law, Defending the Faith and Redeeming Souls for years to come.