The past few months have been eventful for Judas Priest, so we talked to the bassist about it.
In summer 2021, Judas Priest, the British heavy metal titans, embarked on their 50th anniversary tour, which had already been delayed more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While playing the Louder Than Life Festival in Kentucky on September 26, guitarist Richie Faulkner suffered an aortic aneurysm and rupture while performing “Painkiller,” the final song of the band’s set. With the torn aorta spilling blood into his chest cavity, Faulkner was rushed to a nearby hospital and endured 10-hour emergency heart surgery which saved his life.
The 50 Heavy Metal Years tour was halted to allow for Faulkner’s recovery. In January, the group revealed plans to resume the tour as a four-piece, with touring guitarist Andy Sneap sidelined for the remaining slate of shows. The announcement stunned longtime Priest fans accustomed to the band’s signature twin-guitar attack, prompting intense backlash on social media. Just days later, Priest reversed its decision, bringing Sneap – who has toured with the band since 2018 due to Glenn Tipton’s worsening Parkinson’s disease – back into the fold. Vocalist Rob Halford later took responsibility for pushing the band into the four-piece experiment, chalking it up to “a crazy idea.”
In February, the band was nominated for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022. After failing to score enough votes to make the ballot during previous nominations in 2018 and 2020, Judas Priest is hoping the third time will be the charm. (Fans can vote online until April 29 to ensure that Priest is among the acts on the final ballot.)
With Faulkner recuperated, Judas Priest is back on the road this month to continue its 50 Heavy Metal Years tour. In conjunction with the group’s milestone anniversary, Priest has also released a photography book and a box set of 42 (!) CDs.
The past two years have presented more downtime than the famously hardworking band is accustomed to. Prior to hitting the road, bassist Ian Hill spoke with The Aquarian from his home in England. Hill, who helped found the Birmingham band in 1969, expressed gratitude for being back onstage as Priest begins its 53rd year of existence. He also discussed the status of new music, reviving old gems for the setlist, and the possibility of touring with Iron Maiden.
You’re just getting back on the road to continue your 50th anniversary tour, which had to be paused last year due to Richie Faulkner’s heart scare. How excited is the band to get back out there?
It’s great to start up again. We’re itching to get back on the road. It’s been a long time. When the tour first began, we had just started winding up again after COVID. We thought if the tour came to an end, it would be some COVID-related incident. It turned out to be something much more serious than that.
Talk about the night of the incident. Onstage, did the band have any idea that something was wrong with Richie?
We knew there was something wrong, but we didn’t know how serious it was. After the last note of the last song, he grabbed his chest. We came back onstage and said our goodbyes to everybody, applauded the crowd like we always do. He went off early before anybody else. I rushed around the back of the stage to see what was going on.
In a festival situation, you’ve got the paramedics there. They had already given him oxygen the minute he came off stage. His blood pressure was off the scale. He went in the ambulance to the hospital. There’s a dedicated heart hospital four miles away. The surgeon was there at the time. He’s very lucky. He was about 10 hours under the knife and they repaired his heart. He’s made a famous recovery now and he’s bored, just itching to get on the road. He’s been with his family, the people who love him are surrounding him. It brings your mortality into focus.
I’m so glad he’s doing fine. That was a scary situation and he’s very fortunate with how things turned out.
He’s strong. If it had been me or Rob, it might have been a different outcome [Laughs].
Can fans expect changes to the setlist when the tour resumes?
It’ll probably remain very similar, if not the same, at least to start with. On a big tour, we often change up the setlist from time to time, for our own sanity as much as anything else.
On this tour, you’re doing some songs that haven’t been performed live in quite some time. How does it feel to revisit some of these deeper cuts?
Off Painkiller, we’re doing “One Shot at Glory” – we’ve never played that before, so that’s exciting. Things like “Rocka Rolla,” we hadn’t played in 40-odd years. That was the first single from the first album. “Invader” is another song we’ve never played before… or if we did, it was so long ago, nobody can remember. [Laughs] So, we’ve got some surprises in there.
It’s been great revisiting some of these old songs and trying to get them in the show. We’ve only got a finite time onstage so every new song you put in, you might have to drop an old favorite, so you have to be careful, because you don’t want to start cheesing people off.
When we were rehearsing the song “Rocka Rolla,” we all started listening to that album, and we thought, “Hey, this is a good album!” It’s just stuff we don’t think of listening to. It’s really nostalgic and it brings back memories of the things you were doing at the time.
During shows in 2009, the band performed British Steel in its entirety. Have you considered doing that with another one of your albums?
British Steel was a landmark album, really. It was the album where everything sort of gelled – the musical direction, the feel and the image of the band. It all sort of came together with British Steel. That was a special album but it was only 35 minutes long, so we had plenty of time to do other songs when we played the whole thing. If we played another complete album, you might have to start dropping people’s favorites. It’s a different call to do, say, Painkiller from start to finish. You’re going to have to drop a hell of a lot of favorites to do that and you’re putting in songs that maybe a large number of people aren’t familiar with. You’re treading on eggshells, really.
Rob Halford has said he envisions the band doing a Las Vegas residency someday.
Yeah, I could see us doing something like that. I don’t know how successful it would be but staying in the same place for two weeks is attractive in itself – to get rid of the travel. It’s something that we’d consider, definitely.
For years, there have been rumors floating around about a co-headlining tour with Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. I don’t know how realistic those rumors are. As great as it would be for fans, I’m sure it’s tough to put together a tour like that.
We get asked about that all the time. We’d love to, you know. I’m sure the Maiden lads would love to do it, as well. With schedules, everybody is doing something all the time. Trying to get a gap where people are available is tough, but it’s a really attractive prospect. Two big British heavy metal bands on the same stage… it would be a great thing.
Judas Priest shocked fans in January when it was announced you would continue the tour as a four-piece, yet you quickly reversed that decision. What was your thinking behind that and was it mostly the criticism from fans that made you change your minds?
When it became apparent that Glenn Tipton wasn’t going to be able to do the Firepower tour [in 2018], the first thing that Rob said was, “Well, we’ll carry on as a four-piece. We started out as a four-piece, so we can do it again.” I’m a pragmatist, I see positives in most things, so at first I thought, “Yeah, it’ll work.” Then, when you start to think, you’re like, “No. Really, all of our success is gained from the two guitars.” We decided to get Andy Sneap involved for that tour. Andy was the perfect choice. He had just produced Firepower, so he knew all the new songs we’d be playing. He was a fan of the band, as well, so he knew all the old stuff. He was the perfect choice.
Then suddenly, Rob gets the idea to do the four-piece thing again. He rang Andy up and told him. Andy was fine about it. But then we thought, “There’s been some [fan] comments and if we do it at all, this probably isn’t the time.” So, we had a quick U-turn and asked Andy if he’d do it again. Thank goodness he said yes!
When this tour is over, do you plan to work on a new record? Is anything already written?
There’s material ready to go, yes. We finish the tour in America about two weeks into April, then we have a summer tour in Europe which takes us to August. We’ll need to let the dust settle a little bit before we do a new record, but there’s material ready to go.
Did the pandemic downtime give the band more of a chance to work on songs?
It had been worked on before the pandemic. Ritchie is prolific anyway, and so is Rob, and they’re always coming up with ideas. But the pandemic did give Richie some time to polish up his ideas and Rob to help him with it. We should get around to putting the tracks down for real in the not-too-distant future.
Speaking of pandemic downtime, how did you keep yourself busy during quarantine?
Every chore in the house has been done [Laughs]. There’s nothing left to do. I have four adult kids and they take up a lot of time. I have some great friends and neighbors and we were supporting each other. It’s only a small village where I live. I kept busy and kept playing through bits and bobs of music.
You helped found Judas Priest and you’re the only member to serve continuously in the band since day one. When you started the group, could you ever imagine you’d still be doing this half a century later?
When we started out, people like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, the old crooners, they were in their forties and fifties. The concept of somebody doing it into theirseventies just didn’t exist at the time. I was convinced I was going to die an early death anyway, because most of my family did. I thought I’d live until 40 or 50 and anything after that was a bonus. You live from day to day, anyway. I’m just happy to wake up in the morning and carry on. [Laughs] To do anything for 50 years is a milestone and to still enjoy it is really something else.
If you had to attribute Priest’s longevity to one thing, what would it be?
Friendship, I think. We started out as friends and I think that’s the main thing. There’s no massive egos in the band. Rob is the focal point, but as a person, he’s just Rob to me. There’s no hierarchy. With day-to-day things, you say what you feel, what you think, and everybody respects each other’s opinions. It helps to have success, as well. We didn’t have meteoric success. We steadily grew over a number of years.
It seems as though Richie Faulkner brought new life to the band and, in some ways, has helped keep Priest going for the past decade.
He did. He brought boundless enthusiasm. He’s 20 or 30 years younger than the rest of us. The first tour he did was Epitaph and we were supposed to be slowing down then. We thought we were going to be taking it easy and not going on the road for two years at a stretch, but he brought such enthusiasm to the band and excellent ideas that it rubbed off on the rest of us and gave us a new lease on life. We’ve done two excellent albums with Richie, and the next one will be excellent, as well.
JUDAS PRIEST WILL BRING THEIR 50 HEAVY METAL YEARS TOUR TO THE MET IN PHILADELPHIA ON MARCH 29 AND TO PRUDENTIAL CENTER IN NEWARK ON MARCH 30! FOR TICKETS AND INFORMATION, CLICK HERE!