Judas Priest Co-Founder Ian Hill Wields Firepower
UK metal gods near the half-century mark
By Raoul Hernandez,
12:12AM, Thu. May 23, 2019
Reached in a hotel overlooking Central Park after the first show of a two-night New York stand, Ian Hill, 67, apologized for a cold but came in loud and clear in a lightning round phoner. Judas Priest avails the same back-to-back nights tactic at ACL Live on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 28-29, as co-led by the bassist and last remaining band founder.
Austin Chronicle: Any Austin memories or anecdotes from over the years?
Ian Hill: Oh, yeah, Austin’s a great place. As you know, we’ve been there many times. It one of those places where you love going. After all these years of visiting Austin, just a couple of years ago I actually got to go to the Capitol, which is a trip, you know [laughs]. Sitting there watching legislation go on before your very eyes. That was great. Austin’s always been a great stop-off point for us over the years. We have great memories of Texas in general, but Austin… We really love visiting and playing for you folks.
AC: For many Europeans of your era, Texas holds a lot of mythology through country music and Westerns. Did it for you?
IH: Oh well, absolutely. The movies of the day, Westerns, mostly took place in Texas. It lived up to its name the first time we visited Texas. I remember the first date we did was in Dallas. The promoter there took us out to a typical Texan bar. There was a Texan band there playing country music. I had a steak the size of your plate and then they pile everything else on top. It was a trip for someone from a working class town in Britain. Everything was larger than life and we loved the place immediately. We still do.
AC: Where are you from, specifically?
IH: Yes, I’m from a small town called West Bromwich, which is just a couple miles north of Birmingham. Very working class, very industrial – used to be very industrial, anyway. Not so much these days. Most of that industry’s been closed down. It’s in an area called the Black Country, and it’s not called that for nothing. Everything’s covered in soot [chuckles].
AC: Much has been written about Birmingham and the bands from there, especially yours and Black Sabbath. What was your experience growing up there?
IH: Kids are generally happy. It takes a helluva lot to knock a kid off course. We grew up playing on slag heaps and coal mines – things like that. We’d go ’round to the railway yards and play on there. We were always laughing. It was the same for my family and my friends. There was no sort of depression. That was your lot in life and you got on with it. Made the most of it. Everybody I met was at least content with their lot. It changed when industry started closing down. It got a bit skippy then, when people started losing jobs and whatnot.
But when I was a kid, employment was pretty much 100 percent, so everybody made a living. People kept their families housed, clothed, and fed. People were generally happy. In a rural situation, you got the same thing: not much money going around, and work is hard on the farm, but you made the most out of that, too.
AC: So the roots of Judas Priest are in your band Feight?
IH: That’s right, yeah [laughs]. That was in late 1969. Ken [K.K.] Downing, drummer John Ellis, and myself got together. The bands we were with were all pick-up, so it was a stroke of luck none of us were doing anything at the time. Really, we were just playing at each other, doing covers: Hendrix, Cream, [John] Mayall, things like that – the contemporary music of the time. Just slogging away, you know.
Toward the end of 1970, we were getting pretty good, the three of us. A band before us called [Judas] Priest had split up and their vocalist, Alan Atkins, just happened to walk past our rehearsal room and liked what he heard. He came in and asked if we needed a vocalist, which we did, because none of us could hold a tune [chortles]. And it went from there.
We tried to think of a name for the band. I mean Freight was pretty awful, so after much head scratching, Alan said, “Should I just call up the rest of the rest of the guys and see if they mind us using Judas Priest?” And they didn’t, so that’s where the name came from. That was late ’70.
When Atkins was with the band, we changed the format. We started to do a lot of our original material and began to discard some of the covers we were doing. We were ready to go by early 1971. We haven’t looked back since.
AC: When do you consider the band’s 50th anniversary?
IH: Technically, the 50th anniversary is this year [chuckles], but we weren’t called Judas Priest until 1970, so we thought we’d leave it ’til next year. There’s a few ideas in the pipeline, but nothing solid yet, apart from the fact that we will tour. We’ve got some work to do with Ozzy [Osbourne] at the beginning of next year, January-February, which is the canceled shows from this year. Ozzy got sick and wasn’t able to do those shows. After that, we’ll start with the 50-year celebrations and we’ll be around again playing… Well, we’re not sure what we’ll be playing, but it’ll be cool.
AC: Given all these decades and first your friend K.K. and then Glenn Tipton stepping down because of Parkinson’s disease, do you feel like the last man standing in Judas Priest?
IH: Em, not really, only when people mention it [laughs]. I mean Rob [Halford], obviously, and Glenn still counts as well, although he’s not doing a great deal of live work. He’s always there, and of course Scott [Travis] has been with us since 1989. And even Richie Faulker, this is his ninth year. So, it’s a fluid current, if you know what I mean. So, no, I don’t feel like the last man standing, or anything like that [laughs].
AC: The narrative in the press has been that the two new guitarists, Richie Faulkner and now Andy Sneep, have rejuvenated Judas Priest. Do you subscribe to that?
IH: Yeah, it’s pretty true. When Richie came along – Ken had decided to retire – he’s the same age as my eldest son. So he comes along and he’s got not just youth, but enthusiasm and energy. That rubbed off on the rest of us. He breathed new life into the band. And now Andy’s come along to fill in for Glenn. He’s a fine performer as well.
Obviously things are different onstage, but musically there’s absolutely nothing missing at all. It’s just fun. We all love doing it. Little changes and things that happen along the way, they just get absorbed. The band is still recognizably Judas Priest – at least from a sound point of view, and also from a performance point of view.
AC: When people talk about guitarists, they generally mean six strings, but bass is a guitar as well. From a bassist’s perspective, what are your favorite Priest songs to play?
IH: Oh, um, anything off the new album, funnily enough. The bass lines, some of them, are pretty tricky on there. I enjoy playing the new stuff. But of the old stuff, things like “The Rage” [from 1980’s British Steel], with the bass intro, and “Love Bites” as well. The noise at the front of that is a de-tuned 8-string bass [laughs], with a lot of flange on it. Those are fun to play. I enjoy all of it, even the simpler bass lines. There’s a groove there, and the bass lines are like that for a reason.
AC: Folks have been excited about the new set-lists, but I’m actually a bit sad only four Firepower songs made the cut.
IH: Yeah, well, the thing is we’d love to go out there and play the whole album, but for every new one you pull in you have to drop somebody’s favorite. It’s a bit tricky, that. But we’ve now covered nine of the songs from the album over the last year, so we do change it around a bit and make it a little different. It’s the third time we’ve been to the States on this run. We had to change the set. Things had started to get a bit stale.
In fact, the entire set apart from the encore is different from what it was over the last two legs, so it’s a new experience, which is what we wanted. We wanted it to be fresh. It is something to come and see. It’s completely new apart from, like I say, the encore – which is irreplaceable, really. We’d probably get dragged out and lynched if we didn’t play them [laughs].
AC: Judas Priest nation proved united in its near rabid reception of the new album. What is it that caught fire during the sessions to make the album come out as good as it did?
IH: Em, it’s a number of factors, I think. To start with, the material’s strong. As long as you’ve got strong material you’re going to end up with something good. The other one is the production team. We ended up with a great production team. It’s Tom Allom [who produced British Steel, Point of Entry, Screaming for Vengeance, Defenders of the Faith, and Turbo] and Andy Sneep, who of course is covering for Glenn. And a great engineer in Mike Exeter. They all sort of jelled into a great team. Great team. And for the first time in quite a long time, we actually went in and played the songs live in the studio – Richie, myself, and Scott. Belted through them. It makes all the difference. We threw away the click track and just made it natural.
Click tracks are great. It makes things very accurate, you know, but it can also be mechanical, so we threw that away. You do get almost imperceptible rises and falls in tempo to go with the feel of the song, but it adds life and gives the song a soul. It all came together with that album. It’s genuinely my favorite album. I think it’s the best work we’ve done, ever. I mean all musicians say the new album’s their favorite, but in this case, I genuinely believe it’s the best album we’ve done.
AC: How crucial to that was producer Tom Allom?
IH: Well, Tom’s been hard at work in the background all this time. He remixed some of the anniversary albums and he’s worked on some of the live albums we’ve put out in the meantime. We’ve produced ourselves on the last three or four albums. This time, we decided to give a producer a go again, and of course with producers and Judas Priest, Tom Allom’s name pops up by default. So we offered it to Tom and he jumped at it.
And then we took on Andy as well. We didn’t know Andy, but we knew him by reputation, some of the work he’d done on contemporary bands, some of our peers, and some of the new bands coming up. Andy’s got a complete angle on the new recording techniques, and he jelled with Tom immediately, and Mike Exter.
They’re the dream team. We come and play the music, but it’s the production team that makes it sound good at the end of the day. And they did a tremendous job.
AC: I interviewed Michael Schenker a few weeks back and he mentioned his first American gig occurred with UFO at the Whiskey A Go Go when he was 18. Do you recall your first show in the States?
IH: Eh… where the hell was it? I think we were opening for Reo Speedwagon, and it was probably somewhere in Texas. It might have been Dallas. I think that was the first U.S. show. Although we were doing clubs – going out and doing side shows in bars. It might have been one of those. It’s been over 40 years ago and my memory ain’t what it used to be [laughs].