Forming Judas Priest in the ’60s, KK Downing also set up the foundation for the newest musical landscape. Of course, he wasn’t the only one. At the same time, Downing’s guitar style certainly become recognizable – and still is. The newest “Sermons Of The Sinner” album demonstrates Downing’s talents as much as any of his previous recordings.
In the interview for XS Noize, Dan Volohov sits down with KK Downing to discuss the formation of KK's Priest and the essentials of Downing’s guitar style, the further success of Painkiller, challenges and Jimi Hendrix.
As a teenager, you saw Jimi Hendrix in a Coventry Theatre. What impression did he provide when you saw him in a live setting?
KK: I wasn’t playing the guitar at that time. I was hardly 16 years old, and I was working in a day job. But that particular concert, I think, really inspired me to go out and buy a guitar, to be fair. It was so electrifying, and It was just such a magical-magical moment to see the guy opening the set with “Foxy Lady”. And the whole audience just went crazy! The audience was so electrified, rushing the stage, wanting to get closer. And yeah, it was magical. I really wish the whole world of metal could have been there at that show because it’s literally the greatest experience I’ve ever had in my life.
While listening to the newest “Sermons Of The Sinner”, – I found myself thinking that all these songs could easily be placed in one list with “Metal Gods” or “Painkiller” or “Bullet Train” – in a sense that they still sound truly like you. But when people speak about KK Downing's guitar style, what do you think they mean? What are the essentials of your guitar style?
KK: From the very first day I was talking to the music, as we just discussed, it was an evolution because back in the day, there wasn’t really music for white people like me – working-class kids in England. So we had the black blues movement, which was fantastic for us. And we, as musicians, all grabbed that embracing it. Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page and The Rolling Stones – there were lots of stuff being taken from that blues music. But it still wasn’t really a type of music. You see, that first club I saw was the first time I really experienced heavy-metal music. Because Jimi Hendrix had that magic ingredient, but it wasn’t enough…He was the blues – with Savoy Brown, Fleetwood Mac, Blodwyn Pig, Rory Gallagher – all these great bands, who were progressive blues bands. But to me, Hendrix had the heavy-metal ingredient. We didn’t know about it then. It wasn't even mysterious because It didn’t exist.
But it was something that got a hold of me, and I always wanted more and more of it. I knew there were lots of people like me because we didn’t really have our own music. So, I went on the journey as Judas Priest – we were playing gigs and doing stuff without a version of heavy metal if you like. Then along came Black Sabbath, and suddenly we got a band. It's not exactly what I intended to do, but it was kind of on the right way. It all started evolving going along that way. And I did my very best to procure heavy metal, And suddenly someone said: “Judas Priest! You’re a heavy-metal band!” – and I went “GREAT! Fine by me!” and the rest is history, I guess. As you say with the new record – I am who I am. And is there forever in a day. Now I’m thrilled to actually play and create more music that I’m very passionate about. I hope to go playing many more concerts and play and release as many records as I can.
In the publication of “Heavy Duty: Days and Nights in Judas Priest”, You referred to how you left the band. But how much self-searching was involved in that? Were there the questions that needed to get answered for you personally?
KK: It was something I never wanted to happen. Obviously, I was very, very loyal. I’ve never done solo albums; I’ve never done my own tours. Like some of the other guys. I was all about Judas Priest. I was there from the very beginning, and I always wanted to be there in the end. But in relationships, you can have a breakdown; you can have a hiccup. It happened to Rob; he left the band for…12 years? 14 years? These things happen. But the breakdown, I guess I always thought things would turn full circle as it usually does in music: the band breaks up, and they come back together. Or one member is leaving.
And I always thought that there would be an opportunity for me to pick up the baton again and carry on where I left off. For some reason, it never happened. I certainly reached out, and I’m asked about the possibility of it happening, but it didn't. But now, this happens; the record is out. The Single “Hellfire Thunderbolt” has gone viral on YouTube. And I’d love everybody to get on there and check on the video if they hadn’t seen it.
I have to carry on. I can’t change. And I can’t just be in the future; I have to be in the present. I have to be a mixture of who I am in the past, present and future. And so our fans will be with me, with that. I don’t want to dishonour everything that I am in the past. Does it make sense? I am, KK Downing, that’s it! In respect of the name, I thought, hard and long, but I don’t want to dispense with everything – who I am and what I’ve created. I am a Priest, and I want to maintain that, and it's as simple as that.
That’s why it would be too painful for me to carry on having that affiliation with what I have worked so hard for and who I am naturally. With metal in my blood and with steel - Nothing is gonna change. I’m just gonna do what I’ve always done but with different band members, AND now I have the license to have my own way…That’s not true, obviously. I have to consider my band members because I very much appreciate them and everything they obviously bring to the band, and they bring a lot to the band. I want this to be a fully-fledged accepted band from now on. To me, there’s a freshness and newness about it. But with it, I have to say: are you a new old band or an old new band? But does it really matter as long as we keep on making music that the fans out there enjoy?
“Hellfire Thunderbolt” came out recently and already reached a huge number of people. At the same time, speaking about “Painkiller”, I noticed that it took a while for your fans to get into this record. How does it feel when you can look for a reaction right now without having too much or too little expectations?
KK: Yeah, I mean, it’s exhilarating for me and obviously for the band. Because the instant response was so far so good… We all were very pleased. We are so looking forward to the fans hearing the whole album, of course in its entirety. There’s a whole concept and storyline behind the whole thing. And KK's Priest – it’s not a version of a former band. It’s not that! KK's Priest has yet to be unveiled. We will see his face – the person that appears on the album cover. It's pretty ambiguous because it could be me and but it might not be me. But there is a face of KK's Priest, and he will come out and play a major part in everything we do on stage and the album. KK's Priest is yet to show his face. I shouldn't be saying too much because it's a secret. (Laughs)
It’s still quite authentic to have two solo guitarists in the band. But when you are in the writing process, have two roles to choose from – what guides you? Since it’s obvious that you’ve never been following a certain standardized role model as a guitarist. Namely – rhythm part here, solo here, etc. What defines the architecture of your songwriting?
KK: Well, all-encompassing, really. And I would have to say – I’ve been doing it for so long and wasn’t successful for a long time. So I guess, when it comes to putting an album together, I have to confirm with the other guys. But now, I can actually be with people who like and accept the style I have. I’ve been able to put that together on the record. It’s meaningful, as I mentioned before. All the songs have stories. “Hellfire Thunderbolt” I can explain what that’s that's about. And “Sermons of The Sinner” as well. “Metal Though And Though” and “Raise Your Fist” – all the songs. They have great meaning to me, the message, and the connection between the band and fans. Because we in the band are fans. We go to concerts, and we enjoy concerts. And we enjoy that side very-very much. So it’s all about us connecting with the audience becoming one. Because when we hit the stage, I will do my best to explain the connection with everything to do with the album.
And there's thanks yous in there and rejoicing in there. We are all metal, through, and through. Not just the band but the fans as well. So, we all appreciate that. Because, obviously, without the audience and the fans, there is no band. It’s just a big message there, throughout the whole concept of the album, really—the ultimate message. And we’re really out for people to enjoy everything that we’re trying to do. I’m at a certain age now for however long it lasts. I want to enjoy the rest of the youth that I have doing what I love best.
It’s possible to divide “Sermons Of The Sinner” into two parts. One of them reflects classical elements of your guitar play. The second one is darker – lyrically, musically. How did you come up with this concept of dichotomy within the record?
KK: Why I did that? Let’s turn back to the ’60s or 70’s – it was very, very difficult. The audience then was tiny. So as the years went on, consciously or subconsciously, we were writing songs we thought would broaden our horizons and be more attractive to more and more people. So, you had quite an extreme metal – like “Victim Of Changes” and “Under Blood Red Skies”. Quite a dark side of metal - a visual landscape with escapism. The contrast between the songs I mentioned and, let’s say…” Living After Midnight”, “Breaking The Law”, “Another Thing Coming” – that’s another spectrum of metal we also enjoyed as well. And everything in between. That’s why with this record, it’s the same thing.
You can have “Return To The Sentinel” and “Sermons Of The Sinner”, but you can also have “Raise Your Fists” and “Brothers On The Road” – that kind of contrast is still there. That’s me, and that’s the style, and the statement is still there. It’s metal, It’s rock, and It’s heavy rock. Because of the evolution, I traverse through decades, from blues to progressive blues to rock, to heavy metal…There’s an evolutionary scale we, musically, traverse, and it’s quite a broad spectrum. And I think that’s really healthy. And it's within a lot of bands as well, like Ozzy, who has a dark side and a light side. I think all the bands do - even Black Sabbath. There’s a big difference from “Caravan” to “Iron Man” (laughter). But we had that early on. I remember hearing that record and thinking: “I could see the contrast! The light and shade! The light and darkness!” – it’s good. Within the name “Judas Priest”, you have Judas and Priest – a big contrast there. So maybe, it’s a part of everything we became and what we do. But that’s still there now.
Previously, in the past, you made the wrong decision to release some albums too soon. What makes it right for “Sermons Of The Sinner” to get released now?
KK: That is an excellent question. It's really important. So many bands released so many albums too soon. And certainly, bands released so many albums too late. It has a big factor as you mentioned before – when we did “Painkiller”…Was it a bit too soon or too late? Because it wasn’t really successful release at the time of release as we hoped for. But now it’s become the benchmark of metal when you mention Judas Priest. It’s probably the almanac of metal. But it was tough at that time.
We went on tour with Megadeth and Testament. I think it started in Canada. We were playing five songs from the “Painkiller” album. But after a couple of weeks, we were down to two. So was the album too soon or a bit too late? Because the timing obviously wasn’t quite right. Now it’s a very-very successful album. So it was maybe…A bit too soon. Fans weren’t ready for Judas Priest of that kind of heavy metal. The timing was right for “British Steel” – I think, was probably, pretty much on the mark. And also, for “Screaming For Vengeance”, I think the time was pretty right for that album. Other albums, I’m not too sure.
One of the things I always credited you for is – you’ve always been a brilliant collaborator working with artists like The Reaper or King Diamond. How does it feel not to be the principal songwriter having this opportunity to interpret your idea differently? Is it challenging?
KK: I’m so lucky now with the people in the band I’m with that It didn’t come together randomly. Fortunately, I worked with them before, and I know that we work together really, really well. And I know that The Reaper goes out there every night and gives a 100% even if there are any problems with his voice or anything. When we did the show in England the year before last, because Reaper had been doing many shows, he didn’t have much voice left. But if you’d listen to his performance at those shows – you won’t be able to tell. We’d come together, and we had the opportunity to know that we were all on the same page, all thinking the same, wanting to bring what we brought together to the world with this music. Cause we’ve been together for two years, working together…If there would be any signs of anything that’s gonna be a problem – then, we would have to have made adjustments along the way. So it’s been pretty easy for me, to be honest. But it had to be that way this time.
My mind had just had to be free of anything that was going to be contentious in any shape or form. And I think it shows, really shows in the music and on the record. I mean, you, Dan, have heard several of the songs, and you can see – there’s a lot of energy. A lot of excitement and freshness. We’re very much in a good space and not too long now before the release of another video. We’re really, really excited about that.