METAL FASHION GÜRU Rob Halford of Judas Priest

“An old metalhead
hurtling towards 60” talks about his new clothing line and why Christmas carols
are the original heavy metal anthems.

 

BY WILSON NEATE

 

Über metallurgists Judas Priest
have endured for four decades now, and 2009 has been a particularly busy year
for the man known to the faithful as “The Metal God” (Rob Halford to
his mum). A tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of British Steel saw Priest gigging extensively around the United
States and Europe, but Halford has also been engaged in some of his own
projects: combining the business of metal and metal as business, he’s
diversified his Metal God Entertainment brand with a new record label and,
intriguingly, a clothing line (Metal God Apparel).

 

Judas Priest set the standard for
heavy metal theatricality and laid the foundations for an S&M-inspired
aesthetic that generations of bands and fans alike have adopted to varying
degrees. Given this attention to visual style and presentation, it’s perhaps
not surprising that Halford should have developed his own metal-themed
collection of clothing, which launched this fall.

 

And also just in time for the
holiday season comes a new solo release, Halford
3: Winter Songs
, an album of festive tunes (some traditional, others
original) mostly done in vintage headbanging style. For Halford, this is no
novelty record but his own genuinely affectionate take on some timeless songs
that have always had a strong emotional pull for him.

 

BLURT dons leather chaps, straddles its Harley and goes
beyond the realms of death for a quiet chat with the charming, down-to-earth
Metal God, covering clothes, carols and the meaning of Christmas – and why you
won’t find him screaming for vengeance any time soon.

 

***

 

BLURT: I turned on
the TV the other morning and was surprised to see you on WPIX (New York City)
doing a sort of
mini-fashion show
for your Metal God Apparel shirt collection.

 

HALFORD: That nearly killed me,
that did. I had a wake-up call at four in the morning. I was staggering around my hotel room. I’d only had about three
hours’ sleep, and I was still jet-lagged because I’d just flown in from Los
Angeles the night before.

 

Going to work that
early is very un-rock, isn’t it? I mean, what happened to “Living After
Midnight”?

 

Yeah [laughs], I
sometimes say to myself, “This isn’t why I got into rock’n’roll – having
to get up in the middle of the night to go to work!” But it turned out
quite well. You know, it took about three hours to get it together for a less
than three-minute piece, but that’s the way the business works. It was well
worth the effort, but I hope I don’t have to do it again in the foreseeable
future….

 

Let’s talk about the
new clothing line, then. Obviously, Priest defined a paradigmatic metal look,
but are you actually interested in clothes and fashion?

 

Well, more in a theatrical sense than something related to
fashion per se. It’s just an
extension of what I like to do onstage. Part of what I do as a singer –
primarily in Priest, the band that leads me in my life – is dress up. I love to
dress up. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by how you can express
yourself that way. In terms of choice, with Metal God Apparel, I’m just
offering something that’s a bit different from what everybody else is offering,
or at least I’d like to think that’s what we’re doing. That’s why we worked
hard to put together some very original designs. I don’t think there’s anything
else out there like it. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much point in doing it.

 

And the apparel line
was part of a broader initiative.

 

Yeah, this was just another venture coming out of Metal God
Entertainment that we’d planned over quite a period of time: the Metal God
record label, putting out the Halford and Fight CDs and DVDs and the clothing
line. It’s still all brand new, but it’s doing quite well, which is quite an
incentive. We’re going to move ahead and try to expand it a little bit more
next year. But so far so good.

 

With the clothing,
have you been involved in the whole creative process?

 

Pretty much. In terms of the visual design, Marc Sasso is the illustrator. I suppose
I’m in the mix of the creative process inasmuch as Marc knows me really well.
He knows the music and he comes to the shows, and he knows the lyrics and all
the things that you’d utilize for inspiration and ideas for the designs. And as
he comes up with his ideas, we go into a huddle: we talk about adding things
and taking things out, and we think about what else we can do. It’s like making
a record, really. It really is a team effort.

 

So the imagery on the
shirts is connected to your lyrics?

 

Yeah, that’s why we’ve given the shirts names from the
Halford records. You just take the dynamics of certain lyrics and try to
visualize how that would look in terms of graphic illustration. That’s primarily
what Marc does in professional terms as an illustrator. He’s very talented. I’m
lucky to have him in the mix.

 

The shirts are in the
$60 range. This isn’t any old rubbish – it’s high-end stuff.

 

Yeah, right, and a lot of my friends went, “Fuck, Rob,
why are you charging us an arm and a leg?” And I said, “Well, I’m not
really because it’s no different from wherever you buy your stuff.” I
mean, these aren’t just rock’n’roll merch shirts, just banged out of a machine.
This is really good quality stuff that’ll last. And you know, I can’t put my
name to something that’s going to fall apart after a couple of washes. That’s
all part of the pitch. I think we’re competitively priced. I’m not the only
person doing this. I’m in the company of some great talent, and I think we’re in the same world financially.

 

Having your own brand
and reaching a wider audience underscores the popularization and mainstreaming
of metal that’s taken place since the ’80s. Do you see it that way?

 

Yes, very much. It’s been amazing to watch. Metal used to
get looked down upon. People used to say, “It’s not going to last because
it’s rubbish” and all that. I think we proved everybody wrong because the
essence of anything that maintains its success is the quality of the work. And
I think the vast majority of the bands that you see being successful today are
doing it on their own terms and on their own merit. It’s simple: they’re good
musicians making good songs. Coming from Brum [Birmingham], as you know, us and
Sabbath, we’re still looked upon as the originators, getting this music around
the planet. And to see where it’s at now, it’s amazing. I think what the music
does and the way it touches people, the way it expresses itself, it just fits
from one generation to the next, so it’s never really going to diminish. In
terms of the popularity and looking at all the other business aspects of it,
it’s everywhere now, crossing into the mainstream imagination, mainstream life
– with brands like Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Monster Energy Drinks.

 

And presumably you’ve
seen your fan base change considerably over the years.

 

On the Nostradamus tour, Priest went back to what was the Hammersmith Odeon in London. Standing on
the same stage we stood on 25 years earlier, it was the same vibe, but it was a
much broader based crowd: from kids barely in their teens to people from our
own generation. It was a completely different set of demographics from before.
It was great. If I’m in New York and I’m walking down the street, all kinds of
people stop and say, “Hey Rob, what’s going on?” And that’s the power
of this music. It even appeals to people you wouldn’t classify as metalheads.
There’s just something about the vibe of it, the stance, the attitude.
Everybody wants to be a metalhead, quite frankly [laughs].

 

Until the mid-’80s, really, metal was still relatively homogenous,
but it’s become an incredibly broad church. The differences between Priest and,
say, Pelican, OM or a band like Sunn 0))) are enormous. What makes them all
metal?

 

Yeah, it’s so diverse, isn’t it?
But we’re all connected. What makes them all metal is the connection with
emotion. It’s an emotionally charged feeling that strong metal gives you,
relative to where you might be in your life, as a teenager or whatever. And
it’s the testosterone, yet it’s not just for men, it’s for women too. In my
opinion, it was always meant to be that way, but, for a time, it wasn’t like
that. Now the girls are as intense as the guys. Metal’s about a musical emotion
that’s accessible to people from all walks of life. There’s gonna be no other
Sabbath, there’s gonna be no other Priest, there’s gonna be no other AC/DC:
those bands have happened, and you’re never going to see that ever, ever again,
but you’ll always have a constant supply of new talent coming through and being
successful.

 

Winter Songs is a Christmas record with some old
chestnuts like “We Three Kings” and “O Come, All Ye
Faithful” alongside new, festively themed Halford numbers. Was there any
worry that your fans would dismiss this as a novelty record?

 

No, I think you have to be fearless as a musician. You can’t
sit around wondering what this person or that person is going to think. What’s
the point? No matter what you do, whether you’re writing a song, making a
movie, writing a book or whatever, you’re just driven by your own ideas and
fantasies and dreams, aren’t you? You can’t stop it. And when you release it
and you’re off out into the world with it, it’s in the lap of the gods. You
never know where it’s going to take you. It never crossed my mind that the
album was a risk. It never crossed my mind that it might blow up in my face
just because I was relating to the music in a really sincere, genuine way. You
have to empathize with the lyrics of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and
“We Three Kings” – you’ve got to believe in what you’re singing. And
as long as it’s coming from the right place when you’re performing it, that’s
all that matters.

 

Listening to the
record, it struck me that Christmas carols like “O Come, All Ye
Faithful” are actually ready-made metal anthems – they already have a big,
epic quality.

 

I was out on the road with Priest for the last 18 months,
almost two years, so I just left [guitarist] Roy Z. and the rest of the guys
from the Halford band to get on with it. And when they presented me with the
arrangement for “O Come, All Ye Faithful” – before I put my vocals on
it – the first thing I thought of when I heard it was,
“God, this sounds like the Band of the Coldstream
Guards
at Buckingham Palace!” I could just hear a British military band
– with all those big bass drums and the military snares and the big cymbals. It
would be fun to do a video like that, actually…. But every track on the album
is a bit different.

 

Most of the Winter Songs material inevitably has a religious resonance. Do you take some ironic
pleasure in that, given the demonization of metal, particularly by Christian
fundamentalists?

 

I have to be perfectly honest, until you brought that up….
I’ve spoken to so many journalists in the past few weeks, and you’re the first
person to mention that. It’s a valuable view. Yes…. I imagine some of those
people might think, “Fucking hell, he’s made us look like the idiots we
are.” But if you know me well enough, you know that that’s not part of my
nature. Do I believe in revenge? I think revenge is a pretty negative thing.
But however people want to take this album, fine…. In terms of any message, people
have asked me if I think metalheads will be a bit turned off by this, and I think, no, not really. I mean, these songs are
around us all the time, and they were around me when I was a kid growing up. I
think that whether you believe in the religious message or not is irrelevant,
quite frankly. They’re just great songs, aren’t they? They’re wonderful songs, and that’s all that really matters. On a personal
level, they do mean a lot to me. That’s just the way I am.

 

Did you sing carols
as a kid?

 

Oh yeah. The funny thing is that, ironically enough, when I
was a little kid at school I actually sang “We Three Kings” in a
Christmas nativity play – dressed up as one of the kings. Is that bizarre or
what? I didn’t even think about it until after I’d recorded it and my sister
Sue reminded me. I showed her a list of the songs we’d done and she said,
“You’ve done ‘We Three Kings’? You did that one 50 years ago!” And I
thought, “Oh my God, history’s repeating itself.”

 

Since we’re talking
about Christmas, how does the Metal God celebrate?

 

I’ll be back in the UK with my mum and dad, God bless ’em –
they’re in their ’80s, still alive and kicking. And my brother, my sisters and
friends and relatives will be coming in and out of the house on Christmas Eve,
Christmas Day and Boxing Day. It’ll be great. I think most of us look forward
to that moment. We’ve just had Thanksgiving, which I don’t celebrate. It’s a
big deal here so, with Christmas, Americans get to celebrate twice. We’ve just
got Christmas and that’s good enough for us Brits, isn’t it? So I’m looking
forward to being home.

 

Is there anything
special you want for Christmas?

 

I’m an old metalhead hurtling towards 60, and I’m just happy and thankful to have all my
parts working! As you become an older man your body has a tendency to go off in
a direction you don’t want it to [laughs]. But I count my blessings. I’m a
lucky guy. I’m just looking forward to being with my family and enjoying it.

 

Leave a Reply