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Ozzfest Special: Interview With Judas Priest Bassist Ian Hill

By Jeff Kerby, Contributor
Saturday, August 14, 2004 @ 1:11 PM

Heavy Duty: Kerby’s Exclusive

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Ian Hill has been always been—at least it seems that way.

For many metal fans, he has been there as long as there have been memories. The man has existed for thirty years onstage, primarily amidst a group of sonic luminaries named Rob, KK and Glenn. If the person in the audience doesn’t always know Ian by name, they have to know his face. He is simply the man who helps provide the musical backdrop in front of which the more notable members of Judas Priest can stand majestically performing feats of metal mastery that are rarely equaled and maybe never eclipsed. The recent thirteen-year period that found the group estranged from lead vocalist, Rob Halford, may have done little other than to show just how much the two entities need each other. This has been proven night in and night out to anyone who has been lucky enough to have seen the band perform during their current stint on Ozzfest or headlining at one of their off-night shows. These concerts serve as powerful evidence that Judas Priest is writing a blueprint for just how powerful a band at this stage of their careers can be. It’s as if the only aspect of the stage performance that has changed concerns the appearance of Rob’s clean-shaven skull. The vocals are the same, the twin guitar attack is the same, the drumming is the same…yes, Ian Hill is the same.

Almost the same at least--sure time has changed the hair and face a bit, but Ian looks remarkably well-preserved for a man who has seen as much as he has and done as much as he has done across the landscape of metal. As he sits in front of me with his daughter, who happens to be one of the most enjoyable, well-mannered kids you’d ever want to meet, he seems to get the biggest enjoyment out of just discussing the trip they took that day to one of the local Indian pueblos. In fact, there is a certain Twilight Zone quality to having a discussion about fry bread with a guy who previously existed to you and many you have known simply on posters that adorned teenage walls or as an image which adorned the inserts of various compact discs or cassettes that played endlessly in your stereo. You know him, but you don’t know him. You’ve seen him, but maybe you’ve never noticed.

The one aspect of a conversation that stands most prominently when discussing a topic with Ian is that it is definitely no accident he has managed to last in this arena for this amount of time. He’s intelligent, well spoken and extremely affable. In an age where many lesser bands possess members who believe they have a reason to separate themselves from the masses, this is a guy who plays his role within the band, never complains and seems genuinely grateful for the opportunity. There is no star attitude apparent, yet anyone who knows anything about metal would have to consider him one. The youngsters in metal and music in general would do well to take notes because the secret to long term success doesn’t come from trends or hair style--the simple fact is that it comes from playing all the time in front everyone in whatever capacity the group needs a particular musician to function.

Ian has made a life out of fitting that description, and that’s why he’s still here.

KNAC.COM: You guys are looking at being gone for quite awhile with Ozzfest, the release of Priest’s new album and the subsequent headlining tour—how does it feel to be looking at such a loaded itinerary?
HILL: We were originally going to try to finish the new album before going out on Ozzfest in early July, but that didn’t come about. We did get close to finishing though—we just have a few overdubs left to do, and then the only thing left is to just mix it and produce it. That would take just a few weeks, but then you’re talking about the middle of December, and you can’t do anything then because everyone kind of shuts down for Christmas. You sort of lose momentum. We just thought it would be better to do an extra special job on the album and get everything as perfect as we can. Then, the touring will start again in January, and the album will be coming out December 28. At that point, the tour will probably reconvene in Europe somewhere, possibly Britain.

KNAC.COM: And then a headlining tour of the U.S. during the summer?
HILL: Actually, the idea is to get in before the summer around April or May. We’d like to get the tour in before Ozzfest and all the other bands start going out. We just want to go out on our own with our own show and our own production. Obviously, by then we would be able to incorporate some of our new songs into the show as well. The show will be longer too. That being said, doing Ozzfest has just been a phenomenal chance for us, but you are restricted by how long you play. In our case that is an hour and a quarter.

KNAC.COM: So fans can look forward to about two hours or so on the headlining tour?
HILL: That’s it. When we go out on our own, we will be doing a bit more, yeah.

KNAC.COM: Do you remember the first song Judas Priest performed with Rob after he came back?
HILL: It was either “Livin’ After Midnight” or “Green Manalishi”—I can’t remember which. In fact, I think it might have been “Green Manalishi.”

KNAC.COM: For posterity, let’s go with “Green Manalishi.”
HILL: Well, I’m glad we didn’t record it. [Laughs]

KNAC.COM: So it wasn’t just like you had just played it with him yesterday?
HILL: It was… we were all just really a bit rusty after having been in the studio concentrating on new material for the past seven or eight months. Then, we just fired it up and the first song we did was “Green Manalishi.” We hadn’t played together in about thirteen years. It was a magic moment.

KNAC.COM: How did that feel for you? It had to be just a rush of emotion.
HILL: Speaking for myself, I believe I felt apprehensive to start with. Even though we had just been living with the guy and working on the new album, I was still really apprehensive going back to the old stuff and wondering how it was going to sound. After about the third bar, I was thinking this was pretty fucking great, you know? It was brilliant after that. Then, we just went through this prospective set list that we had put together, and then after that we just played through the whole thing from start to finish and everybody just kind of fell back into the routine. It was marvelous. I really enjoyed it.

KNAC.COM: Was it hard for you personally to put aside many of the negative statements that have been said over the years? Or did you find that it just all fell away when you started playing?
HILL: It did all kind of just go away although there had been a lot of mudslinging at the start. There was a lot of mudslinging and bitterness, but Rob attempted to rebuild the bridges awhile back with his mother’s golden wedding anniversary--I think that’s what it was. Since I used to be married to Rob’s sister, they wanted me to come. Then, Rob being the diplomatic guy that he is, invited the whole band. It started just that way. Even then, when he walked through the door, it just sort of all just fell away. That really was probably the start of the comeback. It was the start of the reunion.

KNAC.COM: It’s amazing that something that simple was enough to break the ice.
HILL: Yeah, just being able to break the ice was the start. The timing was absolutely perfect as well. Beforehand, we had opportunities to do it even though that isn’t to say we weren’t determined to make it in our own right with Ripper, just like Rob was determined to make it with his band. Even though that was the case, whenever it seemed like it would be possible, it always seemed like Rob was just finishing something or we were just starting something. This time around, we were just coming out with a box set, Metalogy, and we met at Rob’s house to discuss it and the packaging. That just put us all back together again which turned out to be bloody great. It just went on from there.

KNAC.COM: So, the anniversary combined with the retrospective was enough to bring four lives together again in such a dramatic way?
HILL: Yeah, that’s it. That’s all it took. It was the catalyst that we needed.

KNAC.COM: Does it seem ridiculous to you that the thirteen year separation ever took place if all it took to get you guys back together was a cd cover and a family celebration?
HILL: I don’t know. We knew that getting back together was always going to happen someplace. It was just inevitable. We were all doing things on our own, and we were all truckin’ along. In the end, people just wanted to hear Judas Priest with Rob Halford. I think Ripper always realized that, and in the end, I think it did him a perverse favor. As long as he was in this band and playing all these older songs, Ripper was always just going to be filling someone else’s shoes regardless of how good he was, and he was darn good. He is just a phenomenal vocalist and a great guy, and I’m convinced that he has a bright future ahead of him. Now he can go off and make it in his own right, with his own band, with his own lyrics, and do it himself rather than hitching a ride on the back of us.

KNAC.COM: In actuality though, wasn’t he just another person placed in a situation that he couldn’t possibly hope to win? Wasn’t it always a losing battle for both you guys and Rob to really ever hope to succeed when competing against the legacy of Judas Priest?
HILL: It’s one of those things where the whole is greater than component parts. Rob was the front man for this band for twenty years. He was the focal point—you go out on-stage, and he was the focal point. Everybody wanted to interview him, and at the photo sessions it was about Rob with the possible exception of Glenn and KK being the other two front guys in the band. That being said, you can’t just leave and expect to take that same proportion of the fans with you because at the end of the day you are a component in the whole. That sounded bad, didn’t it? You can strike that one! You know what I mean though, he was a popular cog in the machine as was myself and KK and Glenn.

”We know where the fans’ hearts are, and they are with the original band being together.”
KNAC.COM: Being the front man didn’t even mean that he was going to be more successful than the rest of the group who was able to continue along with the recognized name, right?
HILL: Musically and from a popular point of view—no.

KNAC.COM: People want to see the group.
HILL: That’s it, and I think we have realized that.

KNAC.COM: Does that realization come with age and wisdom and being able to take a step back and appreciate exactly what it is that this band has done?
HILL: It’s gratifying. Every interview I did while Ripper was in the band at some point had questions about Rob. When’s he coming back? Is he coming back? That kind of thing. That was every single solitary one. It doesn’t really register with you until he is back and you kind of realize what the band together means to people. We’ve been able to make ourselves into an institution over the years, but we’ve been able to recapture that. We’re very lucky really to be able to do so. A lot of people still remember us and have a place in their heart for our band. That is a terrific achievement. I think we are very lucky and very honored that people have put up with what they have for the last several years and have come back. It’s a phenomenal feeling.

KNAC.COM: How do you think history is going to treat the albums with Ripper? I know on one hand you have to say that you aren’t concerned with that, but aren’t those records bound to get sort of pushed under the table?
HILL: It could possibly be, but as you’re gonna see out here, there are a lot of younger people out here as well. Obviously, a lot of them haven’t seen us at all with Rob or Tim -- either one. They will be seeing us for the first time, and out of curiosity some of those people may pick up some of those albums which may bring them to a little bit of prominence. As you say though, I can’t see them standing the test of time like Screaming for Vengeance.

KNAC.COM: Or Hell Bent For Leather.
HILL: Yeah, and it’s a shame because you put a lot of sweat and tears into those two albums.

KNAC.COM: Don’t you think that part of what made Judas Priest the important metal band that it is concerned the incredible way that it melded metal with definite, melodic hooks? Do you think that got lost on the Ripper records to an extent?
HILL: It might have been, yeah. Priest has always been a versatile band. We’ve always been known for the lighter, more subtle side of metal. Even with all of the ballads and everything, it is still metal at the end of the day. Yeah, we lost the commercial edge to things with Ripper. There was never any of that, “oh that’s a radio track.” It was all just about being as hard as we could make it--the last album there were two ballads though. They were good, but the commercial side of it just wasn’t there. It’s all part of it—metal in general at that time seemed to be about getting a lot harder or being on the faster side or the darker side or the more evil side. The rest of it sort of all got left behind.

KNAC.COM: It would be hard to find a band that has more of a wide range of music in their catalogue than Judas Priest. Any band that could go from the atmospheric pall of Sad Wings of Destiny to the unabashed pop metal of Turbo has to be incredibly diverse.
HILL: It has always been something that has just happened. We’ve never been afraid to try any bell or any whistle. We’ll give it a go. If it sounds great, then great. If it doesn’t, we can let it go. It’s a simple as that. With “Turbo,” we used these guitar synthesizers that went from a guitar and through a processor, and you could make them sound like anything. We thought, this is a great idea. We probably went a bit over the top with it. It had a lot of mixed reviews when it came out, and it may have lost us some fans, but we probably gained a few as well. I think now it is starting to be recognized as a bit of a landmark. We always get people yelling for “Turbo Lover”—it is one of the fans’ favorites, which surprised me.

KNAC.COM: Do you generally assume that most people just want to hear songs from Screaming for Vengeance, Defenders of the Faith and Hell Bent For Leather?
HILL: Yeah, and even Painkiller, too though, which shows some of the harder side of Priest. People do generally hearken back to the more classic material. They have stood the test of time. Even playing them for thirty years, being onstage, you still get a terrific buzz.

KNAC.COM: Do you really?
HILL: Absolutely.

KNAC.COM: So when you go out here tonight, and you play “Livin’ After Midnight,” will you feel it in your back and through your arms?
HILL: Oh yeah, and the crowd will go bonkers as well. The first few chords and when the drums start the crowd goes crazy when they figure out what you’re playing. The wave of sound that comes from the crowd is phenomenal. If that doesn’t do something for you, you’re either dead or very close to it.

KNAC.COM: Can you think of a better way to have spent your life than being the bassist for Judas Priest?
HILL: I can’t. No—if I had it all to do again, I’d do it all the same way. I’ve been very, very lucky to do something that I love for a living.

KNAC.COM: In an age where most people are lucky to keep a job for a few years, how does it feel to have a working relationship with a core group of people like Glenn, KK and Rob that spans decades and touches so many?
HILL: I think we’ve been successful because we are all fans of the band ourselves. We love being in this band, and we love what we do. Ken, Glenn and Rob are all great writers and make a great writing team. They get along terrifically. I think we’re all very proud of what we do, and it shows. On top of that, we are also fortunate to be friends as well. We’re all very different characters. We’ve always been able to keep that friendship though which I think is imperative to any sort of longevity.

KNAC.COM: At its worst, how hard was it to keep considering Rob a friend or how hard is it sometimes dealing with someone else in the band you may not be getting along with at a particular time? Thirty years is a quite awhile.
HILL: Sometimes you could quite easily throttle somebody. It’s like with any friendship—sometimes you’re best buddies, and sometimes you may not talk for a few weeks.

KNAC.COM: Everyone knows where the “back off” point is though?
HILL: Absolutely. You know how everyone is going to respond to certain things. You know when you’re pushing the wrong button and when it’s time to take your finger off a bit.

KNAC.COM: Is being in Judas Priest more like being married or being in a family?
HILL: It’s like a family, and when Rob returned it was like a prodigal had come back. It was just like a brother had come home from service overseas or something like that. It was just like that, and we are all very fond of one another. When he did come back, the emotions did show. There were a few bear hugs and things like that—girly stuff. It was very heartfelt and sincere though. It was great to have him back. The negativity pales in comparison to the positives.

KNAC.COM: Was more made of the movie Rock Star and its parallels to the Judas Priest story than there should have been?
HILL: Parts of it are quite accurate. I mean, the part about the local kid making it with his favorite band is the truthful part. The rest is fabrication. The first we heard of this came through the Internet, and people were saying that it was the story of Judas Priest. It’s not that. It might be the story of Judas Priest and Ripper Owens or Ripper Owens and Judas Priest.

KNAC.COM: What happened when they wanted to title the movie “Metal God”?
HILL: Yeah, we had to put a stop on that. Rob would have gone through the roof if that would have happened. We called up the production company and said, “Look, if you’re going to do a movie about this, then we’re here. Anytime you want to call or know something, we’ll give insight into the situation. If you’re gonna have people portraying people, it might be worth you coming and meeting us.”

KNAC.COM: So the band was cooperative?
HILL: Absolutely. It turned out though that it wasn’t the story of Judas Priest—it was just some generic guy with a generic band based on the Ripper Owens story. It was a great story. There was a big piece in the New York Times about it, and it was big news. Then this big production company bought the rights to that story. When people started shouting “Judas Priest” from the rooftops though, we thought we’d better get involved. If they were going to portray us as a bunch of axe murdering psychopaths or something like that we felt that the truth should be out there. It was just like, “if you want to meet us, come along and we’ll explain.” They didn’t want that though. I think they wanted artistic license to do whatever they want, which is fine, but if they did, they weren’t going to get the name of the band.

KNAC.COM: Did you think they wanted to play off the salacious side to the story with regard to Rob’s departure and make a big deal out of his lifestyle? Was it a determining factor in the initial split?
HILL: It wasn’t that much of an issue at the end of it. Rob had left, and this came along years after the actual split. The way the actual split happened was that we had just finished a tour and went our separate ways… only Rob never came back. There ended up being a lot of mudslinging, but that was basically all it was. I don’t think there was any desire on Rob’s part to quit the band at the time. It just happened that way. I think all Rob wanted to do at the time was to go out and do a solo record. We were just saying that we were exhausted from being out on the road doing record, tour, record that we wanted some time off because we were burned out. We just thought we’d take a little time off before doing anything. I think Rob just thought, that he would take the opportunity. He didn’t have any wife or kids, and he decided that he wanted to have a go at an album. Unfortunately, the solo album turned into a solo career. The mudslinging that happened afterwards was unfortunate and got kind of out of hand.

KNAC.COM: It has to look in retrospect like you were arguing with a brother or something. It probably seems pretty insignificant to you now, but how many times out of a hundred does having your lead singer do a solo record ever turn into a plus for the band?
HILL: Very rarely, I think. All you have to do though is look out and see all the people who come to see us all together versus those who came to see us while we were apart. We know where the fans’ hearts are, and they are with the original band being together.

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