Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill talks to MetalTalk.net’s Jonathan Churchill about American Idol, producing Priest’s next studio album, and the music industry today.
This has been a year of headlines for Judas Priest. Initially with the announcement of their final ever world tour, then the retirement of founder-member KK Downing, and finally the exciting revelation that the band will be delivering the goods on a new studio album in 2012.
I’ve come to the Manchester Apollo on a Saturday night to speak to Ian Hill before Priest hit the stage for the latest show in their current UK tour. Ushered into the backstage area past some excited fans hovering by the security doors hoping to meet Halford or Glenn, I’m taken up to wait outside the band’s dressing room.
I’m delighted to see that in one of the many tour crates stamped with the Judas Priest logo, is the Judas Priest tumble-dryer! In a wonderfully surreal moment, I’m then shooed into the Metal God’s dressing room as it’s the only available space to speak with Ian. The room is full of studded leather clothing.
Ian is totally relaxed, friendly and really interesting to talk with. He’s exceptionally modest about his achievements and still retains his Black Country accent and down-to-earth attitude. There’s no hint of egotistical rock star, but as an original member of Judas Priest and a constant on every single Judas Priest album and tour, I’m sure there’s a lot more to him than meets the eye!
MetalTalk.net: Before I start asking about the new album, can you tell us what you thought about your surprise appearance to 40 million unsuspecting Americans on American Idol?
Ian Hill: “It was a whirlwind! The lad James – we owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing Heavy Metal to the mass media. For that reason it was something we couldn’t turn down. We weren’t just representing Judas Priest but the whole Heavy Metal family, if you like.
Because we’d had a couple of hits in the 80s in the states, people know the band name well. We’re a well-known brand. They may not necessarily associate it directly with the music but everyone knew the name so it wasn’t a cold audience. It was fun; we had a great reception!”
MetalTalk.net: Moving onto the new album, you have already publicly stated that it’s due next year and will be classic Priest. Who will produce the album?
Ian Hill: “It’s still at a very early stage but it will probably be mainly the band. Glenn will do a lot of the work. We produced ‘Nostradamus’ ourselves with the help of a great engineer in Attie (Attie Bauw).”
MetalTalk.net: In light of Accept and Megadeth’s work with Andy Sneap and Rick Rubin’s work with Slayer and Slipknot, would you consider an outside ‘super producer’?
Ian Hill: “We like to work on production ourselves, as we don’t want too much outside influence. I remember in the 80s, Stock, Aitken And Waterman approached us to do some tracks and it just didn’t work.”
MetalTalk.net: Did you actually write any songs with them or create any demos?
Ian Hill: “We may have laid out a couple of very rough ideas but it would have changed the character of the band too much if we’d gone down that route. We’ve had a long, successful career doing things our own way and so that’s how we’ll continue!”
MetalTalk.net: You did have outside influence on the ‘Defenders Of The Faith’ and ‘Screaming For Vengeance’ albums, via songwriter Bob Halligan Jr. Why was that?
Ian Hill: “We’d already done a couple of non-Priest tracks in ‘Diamonds And Rust’ and ‘The Green Manalishi’, which had worked well. It’s really something the record company pushed us to do, to get a commercial track on the radio. It’s funny because by the time we’d finish with the track it’s too heavy to release and we ended up going with one of our own! Bob Halligan’s a good songwriter but our versions were just too Heavy Metal to release!”
MetalTalk.net: You’ve produced some music in your time – including the band: ‘The New Blacks’, back in 2006. How did that come about?
Ian Hill: “Yes – something I did very cheaply for some friends I helped out. It’s a shame it didn’t work out for them. I helped with the guitar sound and pointed them in a few directions – was fun doing it. I helped out another band too – Mindfeed.”
MetalTalk.net: And is your son still in the band Hostile?
Ian Hill: “Yep, my sons still in Hostile. It’s so difficult to get on now – it’s practically impossible unless you’re on X-Factor or American Idol. The infrastructure’s not there. It took us ten years to make any money, although we did build our name. Even when we started to earn money it all went back into the band – better equipment, better van…
“The infrastructure’s not there any more. Record companies aren’t spending money on new acts. It’s as simple as that. Not unless you’re already famous. My lad’s band’s a great band and twenty years ago they’d have got on. But record companies aren’t investing money they won’t get back. As soon as a record goes on a shelf some idiot is giving it away for nothing online! That’s the problem with the internet. Because potentially it’s a marvellous channel – totally global – anyone with a computer can access it and release their music to a wide audience. But with no record company money, bands can’t make high quality recordings. They’re reduced to making records in their garage or bedroom! And even if a band gets on a tour the record company won’t put money into it because they still traditionally get money from record sales.”
MetalTalk.net: What does Sony Music get out of Judas Priest these days?
Ian Hill: “Well as I mentioned, we are a global brand. We do still sell. But now all over the world, so now if we sell as many records globally as we used to do in America alone, that’s working for us. In the past though you went on tour and could break even or make a small loss – because record sales covered it. Now you make a record in order to promote your tour. This why everybody’s coming out of the woodwork! People we haven’t heard of for years are out on the road as their back catalogue’s drying up! It’s ok for us because this is what we’ve always done.”
MetalTalk.net: Was breaking the US critical in making Priest a global brand then?
Ian Hill: “We did concentrate on America – we admit it. Management and the record company wanted us to do this. But it worked. We’re a band that can tour worldwide. But we started doing what ‘Rival Sons’ are doing now, (opening the show as we recorded this) supporting – possibly REO Speedwagon, if I remember correctly. And some shows with Led Zeppelin.”
MetalTalk.net: What’s it like opening to a disinterested crowd and only getting twenty minutes?
Ian Hill: “It’s frustrating only playing six songs because you want to play more. But you get your name on the poster and it builds your name and you’re thankful for it. We were so pleased to be there in a foreign country playing in front of thousands of people. We were really thankful and you hope if you play well you’ll get an extra song – an extra spotlight – anything really!”
MetalTalk.net: Moving on to your musical contribution to Judas Priest; as a bass player when you were creating innovative fast tracks like ‘Exciter’ in the 1970s, (from the ‘Stained Class’ album) with drummer Les Binks, who specialised in double-kick work – did you have to adapt your style?
Ian Hill: “No. I just played quicker – it’s as simple as that!”
MetalTalk.net: But did you realise your songs would have such an impact after more than thirty years?
Ian Hill: “Well we’ve always done fast songs. One of the magical things about Heavy Metal – there’s fast, slow, heavy, light and commercial stuff. Music that will make you weep, or stuff that will make you shit yourself! So Priest always did fast songs – we just played quicker and it was a gradual build up to songs like ‘Painkiller’.”
MetalTalk.net: On which albums do you feel you had most influence?
Ian Hill: “Hmmm… let me think… Probably the first two albums – they have lots of bass work on them. And ‘Jugulator’, that’s got some busy bass! Because we have two lead guitarists with distorted sounds, the bass has to remain clear so I don’t use any effects. I use a pick to help me play quicker and heavier but it remains a foundation. I haven’t changed my style much over the years. The basic Judas Priest sound is just a good foundation of bass and drums and we build on top of that.
MetalTalk.net: Are there any bands influencing you at present?
Ian Hill: “To be honest not a great deal. We never try to deliberately pick up on outside influences. You do pick up a great deal subconsciously but we wouldn’t just go down the record store and see what’s selling! I don’t tend to listen to much on the tour-bus – by the time I’ve played a two hour Judas Priest set, I spend the next 22 hours recovering!
MetalTalk.net: Ian Hill – thank you very much!
Watching Ian Hill on stage that evening, nearly impossible to photograph because he won’t stand still, it strikes me how the UK press have largely ignored the exceptional worldwide achievements of Judas Priest, whose world tour will take two years to complete, playing to crowds of metal maniacs across Europe, the US, South America and Asia. It’s a staggering achievement by any standards.
But, as the recent Home Of Metal exhibition in Birmingham showcases their huge influence on music, along with 1.6million Facebook ‘likes’, an appearance on the final of American Idol and, at long last, a Grammy, despite this being the last world tour, the future’s still bright for Judas Priest.
Judas Priest headline London’s High Voltage festival on Saturday 23 July. In between you can catch them play a homecoming show at Wolverhampton Civic Hall on 21 June and Bournemouth BIC on 24 June.
For details of the fantastic UK singles box-set ‘Single Cuts – The Complete CBS/Colombia singles’, only available from Judas Priest direct, and for the full US tour dates, see www.judaspriest.com.
Ian Hill’s son plays in the UK band Hostile. Listen to them by clicking here.