We’ve Got A File On You: Judas Priest’s Rob Halford

James Hodges Photography

We’ve Got A File On You: Judas Priest’s Rob Halford

James Hodges Photography

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Thanks in no small part to his delightful Instagram presence, Rob Halford has become something like metal’s lovable grandpa over the past few years. When you double-tap his #caturday posts or his horns-up selfies in the Arizona desert, it can be easy to forget that he’s also spent much of the past five decades as an iconoclast and trailblazer.

Halford joined Judas Priest in 1973 and promptly set about inventing heavy metal. There were heavy rock bands before them, but with Halford at the helm, Priest gave metal much of its familiar iconography. Halford wore leather and studs and rode a motorcycle onstage; he was heavy metal, just as the genre was beginning to crystallize. (His well-earned nickname, The Metal God, popped up as his Zoom name when we spoke.) He was also a deeply closeted gay man struggling with addiction. He attempted suicide in 1986, and a year later, his boyfriend took his own life. Judas Priest were sued in 1990 for allegedly embedding messages in their music that encouraged two young fans to kill themselves. Halford survived all that grimness, becoming sober in 1986 and coming out as gay, live on MTV, in 1998. Today, it would be hard to name a more universally beloved figure in metal.

Invincible Shield, the follow-up to 2018’s resurgent Firepower, feels like a victory lap for the band, delivering another set of snappy, energetic songs. The Priest of today is a modernized Priest, with crisp production by Andy Sneap and relative newcomer Richie Faulkner handling much of the guitar work. (Founding guitarist Glenn Tipton is still in the band, but a Parkinson’s diagnosis makes it difficult for him to play. The other Priest founder, K.K. Downing, left in 2011 and now plays in a band called K.K.’s Priest with interim Priest singer Tim “Ripper” Owens.) Halford, now 72, still sounds incredible — and almost shockingly youthful. We talked to him about Invincible Shield, singing with Black Sabbath and Dolly Parton, his goth-industrial band 2wo, and more.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Invincible Shield (2024)

You’ve compared Firepower to Painkiller, in the sense that you needed to make a big statement to establish Judas Priest for a new era. So I was curious — you did that, and now this is the follow-up. What was the feeling going into Invincible Shield?

ROB HALFORD: I think at this point, a lot of what we do is instinctive, because the DNA of who we are as a band is so strong. But equally, it’s the joy of being in Judas Priest. As I’ve said many times, we can be your painkiller, or we can be your turbo lover. So the hours that we spend together writing new metal is fantastic, because there are no limits or obligation or formula. It’s all just as fresh as you want to try to make it.

I think you can hear that. You’re celebrating 50 years as a band, but I’m struck by how youthful this record sounds. I won’t name names, but there are bands who have been going 50 years who don’t sound like they’re having nearly this much fun. What’s the energy like for you guys when you get together in a room and play?

HALFORD: So pleased to hear you say that. That makes my knees feel better when I get out of bed in the morning. I tell you, if ever there’s an expression of believe in yourself, believing in your metal, constantly reinforcing your passion and your dedication and your obligation to the best possible creative work, it’s all in this record. It absolutely is. It’s true, the vitality in the music on every level, whether it’s the opening track [“Panic Attack”], or whether it’s “Serpent And The King,” [or] the last track, “Giants In The Sky.” You feel like, who are these guys? The way we’re expressing ourselves at this point, as you point out, is quite remarkable. It really is. There’s no other way to describe it. But we don’t question it. We’re absolutely blessed and we’re grateful, and it’s another example to throw out in the metal world of what a band should try to be about, in every aspect.

I also wanted to ask about your relationship with Richie and Glenn. This is the third record with Richie, so he’s pretty fully integrated into the band at this point. I know it’s been tougher for Glenn to play guitar as time goes by, so Richie’s been taking on a bigger share. What’s it been like to watch the two of them develop that chemistry, and navigate that together?

HALFORD: Really beautiful. [laughs] I was seeing Yoda and Luke. That’s a comical way of trying to express how I feel when I think about it, but it’s true. Richie started to call Glenn the General — because [producer] Tom Allom’s the Colonel. Richie started to call him the General, and I never questioned him, but I think that’s just a beautiful homage to Glenn’s imprint that he’s left in heavy metal, from the very first moments of [Judas Priest’s debut album] Rocka Rolla, 50 years ago, to the work that he’s placed on various parts of Invincible Shield.

So, to see Richie be nurtured by Glenn, and equally, to see Glenn go, “How do you do that? I’ve never seen a guitar player do that.” Because of where Richie’s chops come from – he started playing guitar at the age of 13 in pubs in London – Richie had tenure before he even joined Priest. So, to see their relationship develop on a musical sense, as well as a personal sense, has been very profound and very moving. To the point now where there are parts of the album where Richie’s articulating what Glenn would say, because the way that Parkinson’s has brutally robbed Glenn’s articulation. The great thing is that Glenn’s all over this record. He’s there from day one, in the writing sense. We wrote all these songs together, the three of us. This two-guitar-and-singer thing seems to have worked really well for us, and still does. We start from that, and then we go through all the other obstacle courses of making a record happen, and Glenn’s there every step of the way.

Starting Judas Priest (Early 1970s)

I think if you asked Tony Iommi or Ritchie Blackmore, they’d tell you they were playing bluesy rock n’ roll, but you always said you were playing heavy metal. You drew that distinction. Why did it feel like that term fit?

HALFORD: So great that you mention Tony, and his reference to bluesy rock n’ roll, because that’s where metal comes from, as you know. The roots of metal go way, way, way back, to Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, everybody. No matter where you are in life, it comes from a root. Is that Oprah? [laughs] No, I just said that. That is a fact that right from day one, we claimed this title of Judas Priest is unashamedly a heavy metal band. I say unashamedly, because at one point, it wasn’t cool to be heavy metal. I don’t know whether you lived through that moment, where there was this pushback, where everyone was going, “It’s the end! It’s punk, it’s new wave! And blah blah blah.” No, it’s not. We’re still gonna be here. And we’re here now, stronger than ever. But the roots, definitely, are in the rock and blues area. But right from Rocka Rolla, you listen to the riffs on “Dying To Meet You” or “Never Satisfied,” those are heavy metal riffs. They may not be sounding quite as heavy as we wanted them to be, but they did on Sad Wings Of Destiny. But the pureness of Priest as a heavy metal band has been solid all of the way.

And then a little bit after you guys, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal happens, and all those bands were obviously hugely influenced by Priest. What was that moment like for you, watching that scene take off?

HALFORD: It’s funny. That’s a really cool question, because it makes me think of a time a good friend of mine who’s a journalist said that by the time the New Wave of British Heavy Metal started to take ground, Priest had already been around almost 10 years. We were the old guys. It’s crazy to think about that. However, as that New Wave of British Heavy Metal took place, suddenly British Steel arrived, which was a game-changer, and then the records after that. We didn’t get left behind. But I think it’s fair to say, as it is always the case with music, the spotlight shifted a little bit to the new things that were happening. But yeah, you’re right in terms of influence, then and even now. Priest is a strong reference point.

Filling In As Black Sabbath’s Vocalist (1992 And 2004)

We touched on Sabbath. I wanted to ask about the few times you filled in on vocals for Sabbath onstage over the years. I’m sure you’re aware, to some extent, that those are legendary now. The bootlegs of the sets are on YouTube. Could you sense when you were filling in on those Sabbath shows that they were a big deal?

HALFORD: No. I felt like…What’s that famous tightrope walker? I felt like him, walking across the Grand Canyon. You understand the importance of the moment, and you understand that every single person is listening and waiting to make sure that what you do is as close to the original thing that they have paid to come and see and hear as you possibly can. So, that’s what I did in Costa Mesa, and that’s what I did at those other opportunities. It’s a mixture of, “I can’t believe it’s happening” – because the love of my life will always be Judas Priest, and then Black Sabbath is just to the left of the frame – so there’s that joy, but then there’s this “please let me get it right, please let me do the best possible job.” Because there’s Tony Iommi. There’s Geezer Butler. I think I played with Bill [Ward] once. So, there it is, you know? Don’t fuck it up, as RuPaul says. That’s the thing that I remember about those moments. And occasionally I’ve seen clips on the Internet, and it’s like, “Who is that guy?”

It looks kind of wrong, because you’re not supposed to be next to Geezer and Tony.

HALFORD: I know, I know! It does look wrong. It’s like, “How can this be working?”

It does.

HALFORD: It just shows you how grateful the metal fans can be, given the circumstances. It’s like, “Do you want to hear something, or do you want to hear silence? There’s your choice.”

2wo’s Voyeurs (1998)

Not enough people know that there’s this goth-industrial Rob Halford album with John 5, and Dave Ogilvie producing, and Trent Reznor putting it out. What made you want to do something so far outside of your usual style at that moment?

HALFORD: I’m waiting for 2wo to have its Kate Bush Stranger Things moment. That’s what happened with Kate. The TikTok generation of kids don’t care where it was made and how long ago. It’s a great song. And there are some really strong moments in that album. It was just one of those things where you meet up with people, as I did originally with Bob Marlette. These things happen in the music business. I hook up with Bob Marlette. He tells me about this guitar player that he knows called John Lowery, who’s doing some really cool things. I say to him, “Fancy seeing what we can do together?” We do that. It’s very easy, there’s no plan, it’s just, “Let’s see what we can do.” Bob Marlette had something of a vision in those early demos, which I’ve still got. The demos are amazing.

Fast forward a few weeks later, I’m in New Orleans for a Mardi Gras. I’m with a friend who’s driving me around town. He goes, “That’s Trent Reznor’s studio. Why don’t you go in and say hello?” I don’t do that thing. There’s a thing in the music business, you know? Anyway, we take a drive around town, we drive round again, and I don’t know why I did this. But here is life, here is fate, here is destiny. I say, “Drop me off. Come back in 20 minutes.”

I go to the Sharon Tate door. [Note: Trent Reznor apparently once owned the door from the mansion where Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson Family.] Knock, knock. Dave Ogilvie comes out from behind a camera and goes, “Is that you, Rob?” “Yeah, I was gonna see if Trent was here.” “No, but he’s gonna be here in a few minutes. Why don’t you come in?” So I go into the studio. I meet Dave for the first time. I know about “Rave” Dave from Skinny Puppy. And then Trent comes in, “Oh my God, it’s so good to meet you, I’m such a massive Priest fan!” We have a bit of tea, a bit of cake, we’re talking. He says, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m doing stuff with Bob Marlette and this new kid, a really good guitar player called John Lowery.” “Oh, really, have you got a cassette or anything with you?” So we go to the studio, we put the music on, the demos, and Trent seems to be getting into it. We listen to the whole album, and he says, “Could I make a copy of this, and you leave it with me?” “Yeah, you’re Trent Reznor.” We do that. A few days later, I get a call from him: “Can I get involved? Can I get Dave Ogilvie involved?” Absolutely!

A few days later, I’m up in Vancouver in Bryan Adams’ place, which was where Rave was doing a lot of his work. And I’m fascinated, because he’s with these other guys, working on computers, making sounds. “What do you think about this for this track?” It’s like being in a laboratory. He’s Mad Professor Rave. And that’s how that whole project came together. And when I got the final mixes, I was just floored, you know? It had definitely shifted from the original demos, but in a very cool, exciting way. “I Am A Pig,” “Leave Me Alone,” “Water’s Leaking,” they’re still good tunes. I’m glad that I had that opportunity. And yes, bring on the TikTok moment.

Judas Priest’s Nostradamus (2008)

On the subject of underrated, chance-taking albums, I wanted to bring up Nostradamus, because that’s one of my favorite Priest records. There’s never been anything in the metal world that quite sounds like it, I think. It’s just such a bold, ambitious thing. What was the process of putting that together? With all those interlude tracks and synths and orchestral stuff, I imagine it looked a little bit different from a typical Priest record.

HALFORD: We had lunch with [film producer and band manager] Bill Curbishley one day, and he said he had an idea for a project. He said, “You know, I did the Who’s Tommy rock opera, developed it after Pete had made it, and it was made into a movie and a musical and so forth.” We’re all sitting there, and he goes: “Nostradamus.” And in an instant, I got it. I got it from a lyrical point of view. I tried my best. I got a lot of books I’ve still got here in the Zoom room, on Nostradamus, to do my research and put together what I felt was kind of a storyline of his life. What he went through, what he achieved, and everything. It was very metal, in terms of the way he was made a pariah by the church and various authorities. “You can’t do that!” How many times has metal had the political finger waved at it, “You can’t do that!” So, he’s a remarkable man. Whether you believe in his prophecies or not is irrelevant. For the idea, for the project, as a heavy metal opera – which is what it is – I think it was too big. I think it was too big for people to fully understand what we were trying to do. This is the band who did “Living After Midnight” and “Breaking The Law” and “Turbo Lover.” What is this about? It takes a lot of time to really appreciate and consume and understand what we’re trying to do, and see, and achieve and believe in, from our perspective as a band, in the way that Nostradamus displays itself.

I still feel it’s a sleeping giant. I really do. In my mind, it can be created as a classical opera, with operatic performances. In my mind, there can be a symphonic instrumentation performance of Nostradamus. In my mind, [laughs] I see it done as a soundtrack with Cirque du Soleil telling the story of Nostradamus. All of these opportunities are waiting to be explored. It’s probably going to happen when I’m dead. Great, I’ll be watching. I do feel it’s a very underrated, underexposed part of Priest’s repertoire that seriously needs looking at again. And I’m really glad that you brought it up, because the album, to me personally, means a great deal. I had so much fun with the vocal performance on that record, and the playing of everybody, the arrangements, all the things that were done in production with [engineer] Attie [Bauw], at the time with Glenn and [K.K.]. It’s a masterpiece. It really is. And I rarely use that word, because I know a lot about music. But as far as where it stands in the halls of metal, it’s really an important piece of music.

All that stuff you’re talking about how it was too big, and that people didn’t take the time with it, did you have a sense while you were making it, of “Oh boy, this one’s gonna be challenging, this one’s not gonna be for everybody”?

HALFORD: No, I don’t think I think like that. I think about these questions before I answer them, and no. We didn’t. That’s the way we are as a band. When we were putting together, [sings] “I’m your turbo lover,” we didn’t think, “Oh, God, this is gonna be shit.” No, you don’t. You have to just let go of the pole that’s balancing you on the wire and just walk. You’ve got to be fearless. That’s the word. You’ve got to be fearless. Once you start putting constrictions or restrictions on your music that you’re making, and start thinking about, “Will they like this one? Will they like that one?” … who’s in control here? You should be in control as a band. You should make the music that’s pure to your heart at that time, and then, it’s in the lap of the gods, as Freddie [Mercury] says. You put your music out, and you say, “Hey, this is us. This is where we are, this is what we’re doing, and this is how we intend to carry on.” In that uncluttered way.

His Books, Confess (2020) And Biblical (2022)

Just for my own curiosity: Is the title of Confess a reference to the chorus of “Lochness”? [Note: The chorus goes “Lochness/ Confess/ Your terror of the deep.” I used to post on a message board that had an inside joke about it; I no longer remember the context.]

HALFORD: No, it’s a reference to that woman in Game Of Thrones, Cersei, who’s in a prison cell, and the Mother Superior comes in and goes, “Confess! Confess! Confess!” I’m sitting watching that show, which we all love, with [longtime partner] Thomas, and I go, “That’s the name of the book: Confess.” Because I’m looking at The Life Of Heavy Metal, The Stonehenge Life Of Rob Halford, The Metal God From The Stars, all this, you know, blech. And then, Confess. Because we’d already started the book, [cowriter] Ian [Gittins] and I, and I thought that just says it all. When you confess, you really take away all of the protective films. You take the skin off the bones. You take the webs away, you take the fog and the mist, you take everything away, and all that you’re left with after making a confession is clarity. And that was important for me, to say everything. Some of it was very painful, but it wouldn’t have been complete. Because life is painful, as well as life is joyous. You only really get the opportunity to do something like this once, and it has to come from the source rather than the outside biographies that you see. Because I live a sober life in truth and honesty, it’s how I try to live and project myself, Confess seemed to be the best way. And I liked it: Confess, Metal God, Judas Priest. It’s all in the stew.

What you’re talking about comes through in that book. It’s so frank and confessional, even for a rock memoir, I think. That living in truth and honesty thing, did it feel different when it went from how you live your life in your personal dealings, but now you’re writing this book that millions of people are gonna read? Was there any hesitation, or did it come naturally to be that open?

HALFORD: Yeah, there was hesitation. I remember vividly the day I sat down in my little kitchen in my little house in Walsall, which I bought with my first royalty check for $25,000. You could buy a house for $25,000 in those days. A little, tiny house! And I still have it. That’s my anchor. That’s my roots, and where that chapter of my life started. I had my own nest for the first time ever. But I was in the kitchen there, with Ian, and I said, “OK, before we start: You know me, I love to flap my lips. Should I pull back on anything?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, some pretty intense things have happened.” He goes, “No. Just say everything. If it’s painful, don’t talk about it, but if you can get through the pain and verbally communicate the feelings, I think that’s going to be an important part of this book. And if when we get the manuscripts back that I send you, and you don’t want this in and you don’t want that in, they’re gone. They’re edited.” I said, “OK.” So, as all this stuff was coming back and I’m reading through, there’s nothing I can take out, you know? If we take this part out, I’m not being honest. If we take this part out, I’m not being truthful. I’m leaving important factors of my life out, just because it doesn’t feel right for me. You have to tell the truest story in every possible sense, through your life experiences.

It was difficult when I did the audio. It was really difficult when I did the audio. But again, I don’t think some of the things in that book are extraordinarily unique to me, because we all know someone who’s been through sexual abuse or a suicide situation, or any of the mental conditions that we have to deal with. So, yeah, it was important to do all of those parts and elements of my life, and have it all laid out in one go, because now it’s done. It’s done, there’s nothing else to add. And that’s why I waited so long, Brad. I waited so long because, from my 40s onward, publishers were knocking on the door. I’ve got more life to live, you know? I’m 72 now. That book came out not too long ago. So, I think it’s a pretty good example of the vast majority of my life experiences.

Biblical comes from a slightly different angle.


It’s so practical. I feel like a young artist could read that book and learn so much about creativity and navigating the music business. Was that how you hoped people would experience it?

HALFORD: Did I say in that book about pulling your bed away from the wall in the hotel? Did I say that? I should have. Because I know it talks about the importance of getting the right management and lawyers. Kill the lawyers until you need them, all of that kind of stuff. The minefield of the recording business and the industry. It was fun. But yeah: pull your bed away from the wall of the hotel, because the wall is a soundboard that goes through the bedframe, so if someone is banging around upstairs or below or next door, you can hear them. That might seem like a stupid bit of information, but I tell you, it absolutely works!

That’s what I’m saying! So practical.

HALFORD: Practical. It’s the 101 of life in heavy metal. Compared to Confess, I called Ian up after Confess had been out for a while, and said, “I’ve got another idea for a book.” He says, “What is it?” I tell him, and he says, “This sounds fun.” Let’s go from the heavy stuff and have a bit of fun here. It’s full of practical suggestions and ideas of what it is to be a musician.

Singing With Dolly Parton (2022-2023)

There was the “Jolene” tribute at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that a lot of people saw, but then more recently, you got to do a duet with her for her rock album. When you were coming up through the circuit of the music business as a younger man, could you have ever seen collaborating with Dolly coming?

HALFORD: [laughs] I mean, my head goes off like the Fourth of July even when I even talk about it now. It’s so important to me. I’ll tell you what’s funny about that whole thing. I talk about clairvoyance in the book, on my mom’s side, and sometimes I have a little bit of intuition. When I knew that Dolly was gonna do the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame – because initially she pushed back for her own personal reasons – when she said she’s gonna do it, I had a really strong feeling I’m gonna do something with Dolly. I don’t know what it is, but something’s gonna happen at that show. Lo and behold, I get the emails from management that Dolly would like you to join onstage and do a bit of “Jolene.” “I’m in.” There’s my answer: “I’m all in. I’m in it to win it.” The day of the rehearsal, I’m standing there in my black shirt and my shorts and sneakers, and then this vision walks out across the stage looking like a million dollars at 3 in the afternoon. I think, “Oh, God, I should have put a suit on or something.” But she was so great: “Hey, Rob, it’s nice to meet you! Do you know ‘Jolene'”? I think, “Dolly’s speaking to me.” Like a completely dumbstruck kid in a candy store.

The joy of doing that was just beautiful. I loved that whole experience. There’s a lot of pushback from certain quarters about the Hall Of Fame, but if you take away all the clutter and you just live with what it represents in terms of music and artistry, it’s incredibly important to have this in existence. So I’m standing there, and there’s Pat Benatar and Simon Le Bon, and then there’s me and then there’s Sheryl Crow and then there’s P!nk and Annie Lennox, and behind me is Zac Brown. And we ran through the rehearsals, and it was great, and she was the show closer. We did the “Jolene” bit, and for some unknown reason, we came in really tight together to sing. We leaned into each other. I look at that now, and I think, “God, I was really invading her personal space.” But I think we both leaned into it because there was a chemistry. Something clicked. I can’t describe it.

We did the show, and I get a note from her a few days later: “Hey Rob, it’s Dolly, I just want to thank you so much for joining me. Good luck with everything. I hope we do something again.” And I thought, “That’s it, we’re gonna do something.” Because Rockstar was in the works. A few weeks later, I got another note from Dolly. She sends these beautiful little things with butterflies on it: “Would you consider joining me on a track?” Yes! [laughs] I’ll sing a fucking Barney the Dinosaur song with you, I just want to sing with Dolly again! When they sent me the track, I thought, “This is a great song. ‘Bygones’ is a really good song.” So there you go. I go into the studio in Phoenix, and Dolly’s in Nashville, and we’re talking to each other on the phone about how we should put it together, and I complete the song in a couple of hours. She’s screaming, “Send me the files!” I send her the files. She says, “Oh, this is great, this is gonna be so good!” I still can’t believe it.

Invincible Shield is out 3/8 on Epic.

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