Rob Halford has viewed his own image plenty of times on video screens through the years, but the release of Judas Priest's new concert film, Epitaph, will finally give the metal giant the opportunity to see himself as, well, a real metal giant. Ahead of with the movie's street date on DVD and Blu-ray (28 May), Epitaph is unspooling at cinemas across the world today (14 May), a first-ever event for the iconic Priest.
"I'm a heavy metal movie-screen virgin," Halford says with a laugh. "In fact, I'm about to go to the screening in New York City to see the film. The idea of a 40-foot me – I might run out of the theatre screaming. You never know."
Epitaph was filmed at London's Hammersmith Apollo in May 2012, at the final show of what is said to be Priest's last-ever world tour. "A real top moment," Halford recalls. "I'm so pleased that the film allows us to capture the larger-than-life aspect of band live, with the surround sound and everything turned to 11. I'm especially happy that the fans will see us in this new dimension."
Before hitting the theatre, Halford talked with MusicRadar about Epitaph's extensive tracklist, the beauty of Judas Priest's name, the status of the group's new album and his decision to come out in 1998's as heavy metal's first openly gay musician.
The setlist from the Apollo show, the one that's on the Epitaph DVD/Blu-ray, spans the band's entire career. Judas Priest is one of those rare groups that never has to worry about having a current hit song to draw crowds.
"That's right, and it's an incredible feeling to be able to do that, without a doubt. With Priest live, one minute you're listening to a song from the mid-'70s, something from the Rocka Rolla album; then you're hearing Judas Rising from Nostradamus, something much more current. You're getting the length and breadth of Priest's musical achievements. For true metal aficionados, it's a pretty nice display of the songs we've written over the last 40 years.
"We try to do something from every one of our studio releases. There are always options, but we have to do certain songs. If we don't play things like Breaking The Law, Living After Midnight and Painkiller, there's the potential of a heavy metal riot. [Laughs] You have to make sure you take care of the fans in all areas. It's all about dynamics, as well. When you put those great Priest hits in the company of Blood Red Sky, for example, it just makes everything stronger; everything is very connected."
Is there a literal meaning to the title Epitaph? Is this a look back or a closing of the book?
"No, I think it's just part of the mystery of Judas Priest We're not trying to play mind games or anything. The name Judas Priest is very evocative, and so is an Epitaph. In this regard, we're not putting anything to rest so much as we're building a monument. It's a testament to things that we've achieved during our metal lifetimes."
Speaking of names, most people probably think that the band came up with Judas Priest, but it's been around as a slang phrase for a while.
"That's right. I was watching an older episode of Mad Men the other day – I'm totally obsessed with that show, by the way – and somebody used it as an exclamation. The actual Americanism of that name probably came into being because people wanted another way to say, 'Oh, Jesus Christ!' I don't know if it's connected to folklore, but you know, there's the alleged connection to the Bob Dylan song The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest, where he talks about these two characters.
"I've always wondered where Dylan came up with it. Was this a real story about Frankie Lee and Judas Priest going down to wherever? Was it part of the old West, or was he making it up? It seems to be a question that can never be answered, and in some respect, that's fine – it adds a little bit of smoke and mystery. What a great name, though. Everybody in the world knows about this band based on the strength and power of those two words."
Having a great name always helps.
"It does. Absolutely. If you're in a band, have a great name." [Laughs]
Last I heard, Judas Priest was recording a new album. Is it finished, nearly done?
"We're recording right now. The bulk of the writing is done, and we've started tracking. We've got a lot of work to do, but so far it's sounding sensational. At some point, you and I will talk again about the material, but I can tell you, without giving too much away, that classic Priest fans will love it. It's an incredible metal statement and a brilliant follow-up to the epic Nostradamus concept. It's Priest being Priest."
I'm glad that you brought up Nostradamus. A few years ago, there was that superfan who listened to the album every day for a year. He even said his dog liked the album.
"I remember him, of course. [Laughs] He met the band on a tour bus, yeah. He listened to the record more than anybody else, and he became kind of a viral sensation. It was crazy."
"It's a movie and a celebration of our metal decades," Halford says of Epitaph. © Jeff Gerew/Corbis
Artists don't usually like to listen to their own records, but could you listen to an album by somebody else every day?
[Laughs] "No! No, no, I don't think so. That guy, I must admit, he must have been a little OCD. But at the same time, what an ultimate tribute from a fan, you know? He was really, really thrilled with the music. It's just one of the metal achievements that Priest has attained thus far."
Any word on what KK Downing is up to these days? Is anybody from the band in touch with him?
"No, there hasn't been much communication. We're just so thrilled with [guitarist] Richie [Faulkner], as far as how he came in at the last minute and stood on that stage, all wild and driving the fans nuts with everything that he does. Then, of course, to go into writing sessions and recording an album – we're over the moon with him. The emotions and the dynamics of the group are all at a very high level right now. Richie's a brilliant guy, and we're lucky to have him."
Rush was recently inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame –
"Yes! Yes, I'm so happy for them. I'm a huge fan and have been following those guys from day one."
Does their inclusion give you some hope that Priest could be next? It appears that the Hall is opening the doors to different types of bands – hard rock, progressive, metal…
"I hope so, sure. I think it's great. I would love to be in the Hall Of Fame. Are you kidding me? [Laughs] I think we're worthy contenders. Without standing on a soapbox, I think we meet all of the credentials. If and when that moment comes up, we'll be tremendously honored, and we'd be in the company of the world's greatest musicians from all walks of life.
"Getting into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame is out of our control, really. We won't know that it's happening till it does. But I can tell you this: if it does come about, you'll see some very happy metalheads in the UK – and worldwide, too. It would be such an affirmation for Priest and metal music."
Guitarists Richie Faulkner and Glenn Tipton
Kind of a non-musical question: When you came out, it was big news, but it seemed to be without controversy. Yet, very recently, Jason Collins from the NBA announced that he's gay, but the reaction has been quite different. Why do you think there's such disparity between heavy metal and pro sports on gay issues?
"Well, but I beg to differ with you a little bit. With me, I think that it was a controversial moment, but I also think that the biggest story is definitely in sports. What this guy did recently, the NBA player, you can't say 'good for you' enough. You know what I mean?
It's so important to go through life without hiding your true self. I know I felt that way for most of my adult life, that I had to hide. It was a big decision for me to take that step, although I was out of Priest at the time. But I was always putting the band before me. As much as I love this band more than anything else in the world, if you can't look after things in your own house, how can you look after things when you walk out the door?
"You've got to try and find some balance, some peace and calm. It's just a load off your back more than anything else, to not have to lie and to be comfortable with yourself. So I thank all of my fans across the world for accepting me. Maybe it was because of the work that I'd already created, and maybe it was – I don't really know to this day – that people were like, 'Well, we kind of figured that he was anyway.' [Laughs] I don't know. But the actual acceptance – I could never say 'thank you' to my fans enough.
"At the end of the day, and I'm just speaking straightforward, you're dealing with ignorance, whether it's people accepting your preference, the color of your skin, your religion or whatever it might be. Bigoted hatred is just mind-numbing. Nobody succeeds with negativity. Negativity is a poison. The best way is to be honest and open."