Judas Priest - K.K. Downing Interview

By Elric on 11:01 PM 19 May 2008

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Jeb Wright of Classic Rock Revisited conducted an interview with Judas Priest guitarist K.K. Downing on May 6. A couple of excerpts from the chat follow.

Jeb: Do you consider Nostradamus to be a masterpiece?

KK: We said it is either a masterpiece or just a piece! It will be one or the other. Did you get to hear the record today?

Jeb: I just finished listening to it a little while ago.

KK: Can you evaluate it on one listen?

Jeb: I think so. I had heard the title track on the internet.

KK: You heard one song before and then you heard the whole record. When the song that you heard before came on did you like it more? I think melody is more meaningful when you hear it twice – that’s the rule of thumb and I will tell you why: How many times when we were kids did we hear something on the radio and go, "That sucks." Then you hear it again and again and you start to think, "That’s not a bad song" and then you realize it was the song you thought sucked. I am just curious about it because it is a lot of information to take in all at once.

Jeb: It is going to take some time to digest it as a whole but my whole focus was to listen to this album today. I got it right away. I could see that it was the chronological history of his life. It wasn’t just an album of the prophecies, instead it was more about the man.

KK: Apart from throwing "The Four Horsemen" in there — which we couldn’t resist doing those elements because there are so many dramatic elements in there. The rest of it was about the man and the roller coaster that was his life.

Jeb: How much did you know about Nostradamus?

KK: Zero. It wasn’t too difficult to learn about him. Our manager printed a few things up for us to look at. When you start seeing things like he requested to be buried standing up then it gets interesting. He wore a medallion around his neck that had a year on it. The people that dug him up, when his body was exhumed, saw the year on the medallion and freaked out because it was the year they dug him up. The second time he was dug up was by soldiers who drank wine out of his skull. They got massacred on their way home. He also dabbled in metal by mixing metals together – he probably was getting high off the fumes. I am not saying I am a believer but he had a lot of really cool metal content in his life. It was quite a journey and a challenge for us to do. The emotions are really there. We have put our emotions into our music before but this is just a lot more in depth.

Jeb: Is it different writing about him because he was a real person?

KK: I think that it has added strength because you are documenting a person with a strong personality. Whether you believe or whether you don’t, one thing is for sure and that is that he became very, very famous and he is still famous. Every now and then you get these people like Nostradamus or Einstein who stay famous forever. The more we got into his life we found that he was very relevant to the music of Judas Priest. We have delved into fantasies before like "Blood Red Skies" or "Sinner" and that is our fantasy world but with Nostradamus there is more of a substance there. I think that gives it more validity and emotion.

Jeb: Musically, Glenn Tipton and you played a lot differently that you have in the past.

KK: We have never played this much acoustic on a Judas Priest album. It was actually joyful to get our teeth into something like this from a musical point of view. We felt we had more licence to push the boundaries. We wondered if we could pull this off with mixing Classical and Metal. Rob said this, and I shuddered when I first heard him say it, he said, "Judas Priest are going to do the first, in the history of Metal, the first ever Metal opera." I am thinking, "Wow, we had better get to work."

Glenn and I had some of the very first synthesized guitars in the early ‘80's. We were able to create just about any sound we wanted by converting an analog signal to a midi signal. We pulled the old equipment out of the closet and there were a lot of pops and squeaks and we looked at each other and said, "We had better fucking go get some new gear." We have guitars now that are totally geared up and ready to go. Things moved on in the world of technology and we were able to use that technology to make choir sounds and orchestra sounds. The classical elements of Nostradamus’ time were now there.

We thought that this could give us a bit of longevity. We are all headed to our sixties, you know. We thought we would like to create a record that our fans could really sit down and listen to like we did in the old days. We wanted to give it that amount of intensity just like I did back with albums like Electric Ladyland. That album may not have been considered a concept album by a lot of people but it was sure as hell conceptual to me. It took me to another planet.

I think Glenn actually said this to me when we were in the studio. He said, "I wonder that when people create these great albums if they know it is that great when they are doing it." The chances are that I doubt they do, really. You don’t know until you put it out into the marketplace. I think timing is very important. I think some of the Judas Priest records we did were too early and some of them might have been too late. Painkiller may have been premature. Having said that it was a bit responsible for the new movement. We started touring with five tracks off that album and by the time we finished we were playing two. It was a bit of a hard sell, that album. When an album has been around for a decade then it becomes a classic. It is the same with a band. You don’t get to be a legend until you have been around for a million years. You can be an overnight success but you can’t be an overnight legend.

Jeb: The songs "Nostradamus" and "The Future of Mankind" really see the band playing heavy.

KK: They are the last two songs and we wanted to go out with a bang – or maybe a bang, bang [laughter].

Jeb: After three plus decades of writing solos with Glenn how are you able to keep it fresh, keep it for the song and keep from repeating yourself?

KK: That is a very good question. I think every song within itself has a uniqueness about it. The vibe is kind of different so you have to just let yourself go creatively and put something that you think is right for that piece. Hopefully, you end with something that is just right for that song.

Jeb: On "Future of Mankind" you go into harmony and you drop out and you go back in. Are you so well versed with each other’s playing that it comes easy?

KK: Personally, I just love that sort of stuff. Like you say, it was nice to do some classical stuff without being classical virtuosos. We were more virtuosos on the fast solos. We used a lot of harmonic minor scales for the classical stuff and it was nice to be able to use those scales. When you rip it up in the fast solos, you are using natural minors and blues scales. It was nice to use different, darker sounding scales on the classic moments.

Jeb: The song "Alone" should be a single.

KK: That is the dilemma. What do you release? We would like to get people to go from buying the single to buying the entire record. When I was a kid, I remember it was frustrating waiting for your favorite bands to make a new record. You would be the first in the Que and you would grab it and run home. The record was much more joyous. It was a treasure. Now people go, "Priest’s new album is out. I will sit down at the computer and download it and check it out." That defuses the whole fucking thing.

We have the artwork and what you have seen is just a portion of it. We are doing a forty-eight-page booklet on one of the versions that is available. The lyrics are all laid out on what looks like parchment. I used to love double gatefold albums. You would look at the live shots and imagine them standing there playing them. You would read back to front on the entire album. We have done that sort of thing with this artwork. You will regress back several centuries back into the world of Nostradamus when you see it.

Lots of people put out an album and hit you right between the eyes with each song. They want you to get it and they want to pound it into your head. I call it music to break glass to. Look at all the artists on these walls. [KK points to a photo of Jessica Simpson but does not recognize her]. That is music to get a stiffy to [laughter]. There is music to get high to and music to drive fast to and music to make love to and music to jerk off to. There is also music to rock out to. When you are in the car, you put something on that will get you through four hundred miles. You might choose some Ozzy, Priest and ZZ Top. There is music to go to sleep to and music to wake up to and music to get into the shower to.

Jeb: What kind of music is this music?

KK: Some off the songs, individually can be good driving songs or whatever, but the entire piece is something to drift off to and go into another world. The listening experience can get you as high as you can get without actually smoking something.

Jeb: On Angel of Retribution, Priest tried something different with the song "Lochness". Some said, "Brilliant!" and some said, "What the fuck is this?" Was there any thought when doing Nostradamus that if you didn’t get this fucking right then it would be horrible for Priest?

KK: Sure, that enters your mind. People often talk about our younger fans and that we should do something that is more modern. We have a lot of younger fans but we have a lot of older fans as well. It is a great consideration as far as I am concerned. The older fans, I am talking about me and lots of other people, will say, "Thank fuck somebody has made a record that has a lot of meaning for me." If you make a movie then you want all the ingredients leading up to a great ending. You watch it in its entirety and you don’t dissect it. Someone might think that the beginning was the best because some guy got his throat slit or they drop a guy off of a building but that is not the whole movie.

It will be a great day in hell, or heaven, when we are able to go out and play this think in its entirety. Rob can play Nostradamus and we can be in character as well. I think it would take this experience to a different plateau. We have been very innovative and versatile in our career but we still have a ways to go. It is still going to be down to the fans acceptance. This album is fucking full of melody. We are telling the fans that it is okay to be melodic.

Jeb: I told Rob that it is great that a Metal band has made such a musically valid album.

KK: That is exactly what we needed to do. That is the big reward for us, successful or not. One thing is for sure, I don’t think anybody has done anything like this. It has got it’s own life. Nostradamus, as intriguing, mysterious and as metal as he was, is the vehicle we chose to deliver this musical piece to the world. We could have used a total fictional character of our own making but it does not have the same substance. You can go to the library and actually look up this man and decide for yourself about his legend.

Jeb: Last one: You are going to have Tony Iommi on stage with Heaven and Hell playing before you every night. Does that make you nervous?

KK: That is another one of the rewards you get in life. Make no bones about it, I feel that Priest and Sabbath Tony and I are riff mongers from Birmingham. We certainly have written some riffs between us. It is going to be an honor and it is going to be great. It will be a full on Metal evening.

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