Judas Priest’s Ian Hill talks 50 years of heavy metal ahead of Detroit stop

Rocka rolla man

Oct 19, 2022 at 12:22 pm
click to enlarge Judas Priest performs at the Masonic Temple on Saturday. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Judas Priest performs at the Masonic Temple on Saturday.

Judas Priest hasn’t stopped running wild since 1969. The heavy metal band set off on the fall trek of its North American “50 Heavy Metal Years” tour earlier this month, making a stop at Detroit’s Masonic Temple on Saturday.

At 71, Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill has zero intention of slowing down, but Priest has been a victim of changes over the years, as its 1976 track goes. Hill is the band’s only remaining original member. Longtime guitarist K.K. Downing left in 2011 citing “personal and professional differences,” and was replaced by Richie Faulkner. Then, longstanding guitarist Glenn Tipton stopped touring with the band after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2018. Following that, Downing thought he could rejoin Priest, but has since trashed his former bandmates when the invitation wasn’t extended to him.

This is also, technically, Priest’s second “50 Heavy Metal Years” tour. The first go round in 2021 was cut short when Faulkner suffered an aortic aneurysm on stage at Kentucky’s Louder Than Life festival and had to undergo emergency open-heart surgery. The band had just played Detroit’s Fox Theatre a week earlier.

Despite it all, Priest triumphantly returned to complete the U.S. run in March of this year before touring in Europe and circling back to the states in October. And after nearly 50 years, they’re finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We sat down with Priest bassist Ian Hill via Zoom to chat about the tour. The conversion has been edited for length.

Metro Times: Did you ever imagine, back in 1974 when Rocka Rolla came out, that you would still be making music and touring this many years later?

Ian Hill: No, not at all. The thing is, way back then, the concept of someone our age still playing popular music didn’t exist. Even the old crooners, you know, the [Frank] Sinatras, the [Bing] Crosbys, they were just in their 50s and 60s. The old rock ’n’ rollers, the Bill Haleys and the Elvises, were in their 40s. There was nobody in their 70s still trying to rock around. I mean, in those days we were living from day to day anyway, you know, just surviving the day to get up the next day.

MT: How different is it touring now compared to back then?

Hill: Well, we’re way less stupid than we used to be. We’re a bit milder these days. Age does that to you. You tend to mature. You do your damnedest not to, but you do all the same. We do have to look after ourselves a little bit more than we used to. It’s not, you know, partying every night after the show. I mean, that has been known to happen, but not anymore. Well, not for a long time anyway.

MT: Priest has always struck this interesting balance between these hard-hitting songs and tracks that are more commercially accessible and catchy. What’s the songwriting process like for you guys and do you go into it with an idea for the type of song you want to write that session?

Hill: Yeah, it’s funny because there’s no blueprint really. We’ve always just done what comes from within basically, and then put it down and hope everyone likes it. We’ve been lucky up until now. When we started, heavy metal didn’t exist, really. It wasn’t until about 1980 with British Steel that we became a bonafide heavy metal band. But coming back to the more commercial things, they played a very important role. And you can sort of blame the record companies to a certain extent, because they always wanted the radio-friendly track. [The radio] isn’t going to play, “Pain and Pleasure,” are they? They’re going to want something nice and happy, or at least upbeat. But the thing is it got heavy metal across to all of these people that wouldn’t necessarily have been turned on to it at all.

I come back to our song, “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming.” I mean, that’s a perfect example. We were doing all right at that point in 1982. We were playing sort of 5,000-seater town halls and the Fox Theatres and things. And AM radio … picked up on that song and played the hell out of it! … It sort of got people interested in us, in particular, and in general gave the whole heavy metal movement a huge boost. And not just that record, but similar things from other bands as well. Those commercial radio-friendly tracks are not to be ridiculed at all. They’re popular for a reason. You get a good groove going to them, bang your head, you can dance to them, which you can’t to most heavy metal songs.

It's a very versatile genre because of that. If you look at what happened towards the end of the ’80s, early ’90s, you’ve got bands like ourselves, and [Iron] Maiden, and Def Leppard … All of us have played songs that will make you weep all the way to songs that’ll make you scared and everything in between. And then it got more specific, so you became a grunge band, you became a speed band, you became a goth band, or a death band, and it’s all part of the same thing. All those different little avenues that became available all had its roots in “Breaking the Law,” you know, or whatever. That’s what started everything up.

MT: With the wide range of material Priest has, when you guys are putting together the setlist, do you have any preference as far as which songs really get you going or that you prefer to play live?

Hill: I’m in my music room at the moment and I’m going through the setlist for the new tour, and we always try and put a whole mixture of songs — our old ones and new ones, fans favorites, and some you haven’t heard for a long time — and I’m getting off on all of it, you know? Even the old songs that we’ve played on every tour ever since they were recorded, and you think to yourself, “Oh god we’ve got to play that again?” And then you get up on stage and you see the fans’ reaction to it. You think ‘Yeah, that’s why we played it again.’ I don’t have any real preference apart from the mood I’m in. If I’m feeling melancholy I’ll listen to “Beyond the Realms of Death” or something like that. If I’m feeling crazy, it’s “Painkiller” or “Firepower.”

MT: You guys were recently inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Rob [Halford] wasn’t too thrilled about it. What are your thoughts on it? And why did it take so long?

Hill: Yeah, I think we’re all on the same page there. I mean, we’ve been in the game now for 50 years, and I think heavy metal is like the Cinderella genre. It’s a little bit overlooked because it’s not in your face every day. Obviously pop music and rap music, country music, it’s like every day you get in your car, you drive to work and you’re getting the same 40 songs thrown in your face all the time. Heavy metal, on the other hand, you have to go look for it … And I don’t think there's any malice there. I think it’s more, and this is in the nicest way, a little bit of ignorance, and that’s why we’ve been overlooked over the years.

But who knows. [Black] Sabbath are there now, and Metallica, and ourselves. So maybe it'll be the start of a new movement to get more [metal] bands inducted.

MT: Do you think there’s any chance of ever reconciling with K.K. Downing and him rejoining the band? We know he’s been doing his own thing with KK’s Priest.

Hill: I think time is not on our side for that, you know? Never say never, put it like that. [Downing’s] gonna be there at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame anyway. He’s gonna get up and play some songs with us there. It might kickstart something, I don’t know. On the other hand, he might pull us all apart. [Laughs.]

MT: Who’s filling in for Glenn Tipton this time around? What’s it been like moving forward and playing shows without him since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease?

Hill: Andy [Sneap] is going to be standing in for Glenn again. You know, I can’t even begin to understand what Glenn’s going through. Playing music is the one thing that he loves more than anything else and he can’t do it anymore and it’s terrible. But he’s determined to come out and try to take part in some shows, like two or three songs on the encore. He’s been doing that for the whole of this tour. But I don’t want anybody going out and buying a ticket on the strength of that because chances are that he won’t be there. He’s planning on coming out to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about the beginning of November, so maybe he’ll join some dates around that if he’s up for it.

It’s one of those things where you see him one day and he’s perfectly normal. He’s walking around, lucid, totally normal Glenn who we’ve known for all these years. Other days, he is a completely different person. The nature of [Parkinson’s disease] is like that, you know?

MT: Do you have any specific memories of playing in Detroit?

Hill: I remember thinking at one point we hadn't played in Detroit for a long time for some reason. We were under the impression that we weren’t very popular there but then we actually did a show at one of the stadiums there. I think it was an ice hockey stadium. Anyway, 11,000 people showed up and we thought, “Well, why haven't we been playing here for the past five, six years?” I always remember that because we were playing smaller places anyway at that time and then we come to Detroit and play this enormous dome [laughs] and it was great. And I’m a car freak anyway, so I love Detroit. I’m a total motorhead, you know.

MT: What’s the status of the new album you guys are working on?

Hill: The record’s practically finished. The music part of things … all the guitars, the drums, and the bass is down now. There’s Rob … He’s obviously been resting his voice for a while for the upcoming tour. You know, he doesn’t want to screw his voice up for that. … Now, obviously, we won't be able to get home until Christmas. And there’s a possibility of an OzzFest in Europe in spring, so we’ll have to let the dust settle from that as well before we can release it. So, yeah, it’s looking like late winter, early spring 2023, 2024.

Judas Priest plays Detroit on Saturday, Oct. 22 at the Masonic Temple; 500 Temple St; themasonic.com. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $45.

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