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Kerby's Exclusive Interview With Judas Priest Guitarist KK Downing

By Jeff Kerby, Contributor
Wednesday, June 29, 2005 @ 0:45 AM

Still Delivering the Goods: Ke

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These days, life is pretty damn good for K.K. Downing.

If you donít believe me, just ask him. When one thinks about it, there really isnít much to be upset about--Judas Priest, along with Motley Crue, have recently managed to resurrect moribund careers and in doing so have achieved two of the more improbable comebacks in music history. Originally scoffed at by cynics, even the staunchest detractors are now having to admit that both tours have been enormously successful and that Priestís new record, Angel of Retribution, is actually a damn sight better than anybody had a right to believe it would be--and thatís saying something.

This recent resurgence in popularity seemed extremely unlikely only a few short years ago.

At that point, it didnít seem that the mighty Priest would ever be in a position to grace sold out venues seating 15,000 again as the group was busy making quasi-nu metal with cover-band-turned-real-thing vocalist Tim ďRipperĒ Owens. As bad as times often were, in a way, the band was simply lucky to be alive. Anyone who knows anything about metal has to realize that there are probably only a handful of vocalists walking the face of the Earth with the range and wherewithal necessary to perform the majority of material in the Priest catalogue, and Owens happened to be one of them. During that era, the problem wasnít so much with Ripperís performance as much as the fact that the new material wasnít representative of the classic Judas Priest sound. When JP is inspired and in their element, the Priest can be counted on to deliver metal with a pummeling melody and chorus that somehow manages to get in your head, heart and become a part of your life. In any case, it isnít music easily walked away from or forgotten.

Thankfully enough, we donít have toÖ

There is simply no way to overstate the fact that Rob Halfordís return has simply magnified what Priest has meant not only to metal but to rock music period. Hereís hoping JP manages to record two or three more albums and that KK and company retains the stamina and desire to rock audiences for another ten years. After listening to him here, it seems a safe bet that we wonít be saying goodbye for awhile.

KNAC.COM: Can you describe the transformation that takes place when you tune up your guitar, put on your stage attire and walk out in front of a frenzied audience? At what point do you cease being Ken start being K.K.?
DOWNING: Well, itís difficult to make a comparison outside the music industry. You definitely get psyched up for it. Itís not just me putting my clothes on, you know, it is the whole band in the dressing room preparing for the onslaught. It really is a good feeling, and the adrenaline starts to flow. We are basically going into the arena, and in some ways, it isnít that much different from the days of the gladiators in Rome where they would throw you in there with some lions or something. Itís a bit like going over the top, I suppose in one way, but at least we arenít going to get beat up or anything. [Laughs] Itís that unexpected feeling of wondering just what may happen over the course of the next two hours. Is some of the lighting rig going to come down? Is a guitar going to blow up on you? Or is it just going to go absolutely perfect? In some ways it may feel like getting in a Sherman tank and plowing down a forest. I donít knowÖ maybe itís different for everybody.

KNAC.COM: When you are dealing with a situation or a lifestyle that is that specific and in many ways uncommon, isnít is frightening to know that if it were ever taken away that it would create such a void that nothing could ever replace it?
DOWNING: I imagine it would be very difficult. I really canít think of another comparison. I suppose it must be great to be an actor and just jump onstage at the theatre or something. It is different for us though because when the lights go down, and itís just usÖ itís just us. Itís just the five of us really, and it is so high adrenaline from the get go. I donít know, maybe you could compare it to NASCAR or something? That must be as similar, or maybe NASA and getting launched into the stratosphere.

KNAC.COM: How important is it to experience this element of danger or adrenaline rush with a group of guys you have spent so much of your life with?
DOWNING: Well, that is an important part of it, and this is a team. It is very comforting to know that theyíre there and that everyone is on the same wavelength and that theyíre pulling for each other.

KNAC.COM: If I had to peg one aspect of the Priest sound that you guys do better than anyone, Iíd have to say it would be the combination of hooks with a formidable, powerful sound. That being said, did you ever feel like the music you produced during the Ripper era wasnít really what you guys were about?
DOWNING: Definitely. The last thing you ever want when you go out there is to have any insecurities. I mean, we pride ourselves in Priest on giving the best show we can, and this tour is going so well for us. I wish we could have been back in the States as soon as the album is released, but we have been in Japan and Europe, and that is just sort of the way this tour was mapped out with the management and the agents. Just to let you know, after this first leg we are going to South America, but then we are going to come back to North America to a certain amount of shows again and Canada probably, too. We want to make sure we have been to all possible places before stepping back into the studio again. That is a good feeling.

KNAC.COM: With that being your sentiment, could you have really ever asked for this to have gone any better than it has?
DOWNING: No, I really donít think so. I think that we made a decision to put Queensryche on the bill, and we think itís a good one. We looked at various third acts, but all that would have done was to deplete the time that Priest and Queensryche would be playing. During this tour, weíve been playing a two-hour set which has been demanded of us by a lot of people. We are always getting fans coming up and saying, ďWhy didnít you play this or something off of Defenders

KNAC.COM: Iím sure last summerís Ozzfest only exacerbated that problem.
DOWNING: Yeah, that one-hour set left some people pretty frustrated.

KNAC.COM: It had to be pretty frustrating for you as well, wasnít it? I mean, having Rob back in the band and only getting to play for sixty minutes had to seem like having a sports car and only being able to drive it for a couple of miles.
DOWNING: It kinda was a bit, but we accepted the fact that Sabbath was headlining. We could have gone on and played for hours and hours though, and people know that. [Laughs] In the end though, I think most people know what to expect from Ozzfest in that they arenít going to get full-length sets from everybody.

KNAC.COM: How is Priest dealing with the increase in press and the amount of people interested in your personal lives? Is it more or less difficult to come to terms with at this stage of your career?
DOWNING: Yeah, I think weíd be complaining a lot more if we had never achieved the success that we have. There is a price to pay for everything really, isnít there? Being away from family, friends and pets is difficult. I mean, Iím 53, and Iíve never been married or had kids or whatever, and I guess it is a sacrifice that Iíve made to do what I do. The other guys have said that they regret not being around to watch their kids grow up and all that. I can understand that. I guess I always figured it was like I could do this or do that, you know? My choice was to do this. [Laughs] Even at that, there are still family commitments with parents, brothers and sisters or whatever. I just havenít been in the same situation they have been in because Iíve been with a long term girlfriend, so I know what Iím talking about---thatís some of my money too, dude! [Laughs]

KNAC.COM: How spry is the guitarist for Judas Priest supposed to be at 53 years old? There is no script for this, so that being the case, are there two or three more records left in the band?
DOWNING: Fortunately for us we are all fit and healthy and take really good care of ourselves most of the days of the week. [Laughs] As long as you feel that you look pretty good and can go out there and play and performÖ I certainly donít want to do this when I look pretty decrepit. I want a full head of hair and to look like Iím in pretty good shape, really.

KNAC.COM: Yeah, butÖ címon, couldnít the guitarist from Judas Priest be bald and about fifty pounds overweight and still pull in some chicks?

KNAC.COM: [Laughs] Thank you for the honesty! I appreciate that.
DOWNING: Címon, I just said I donít have a wife or kids--I have to stay on top of the game! I have to make the most of my opportunities. Really though, it is about our fans and everyone, you know, they are getting older along with us. Donít get me wrong, even sometimes if you can save your hair, you canít always save your face. Itís kind or rough though--I live on birdseed. The other night, I stayed up watching the Claptonís Crossroads Festival, and I saw Joe Walsh playing, and I hadnít seen him in awhile. He was absolutely playing fantastic. Sure, he may have looked older, but when he sang, he sang like he was 20 years old again. It was the same as it was. People just grow with you, and itís a vanity thing in some people, I suppose.

KNAC.COM: Are there bands of the day that you used to view as competition but that now you look over and just find comfort in the fact that they are still going at it and that you arenít alone?
DOWNING: Yeah, I am very, very proud of bands like AC/DC, who have just gone out there and stayed together. They have just kept on doing what they do. We would have gone on carrying the flag and doing that if Rob hadnít left for all those years. At least weíre back now, and with Priest and Crue back, there are things happening. The good thing about us is that Iíve gone on a couple of websites where people say, ďPriest went out and they played and it was just like it always is and nothingís changed.Ē If anything, I think weíre a bit more energized now. Maybe it is the absence that has given us the exuberance to go out and prove how mighty the Priest still is, you know?

KNAC.COM: What is it that you believe Priest and Crue provide the audiences that newer acts arenít? The New York press or more mainstream publications always want to downgrade metal bands and use them as a punch line, but the success you guys have had seems to suggest that thereís something going on--what do you think that is?
DOWNING: The first thing we had to do is go out and make an album like Angel of Retribution. That is very important across the board whether Priest made that record or not. It was an album that needed to be made at this time. If an album can have that type of effect, it may change what people are doing right now. Maybe it will show the younger bands that it isnít always about having your head down and aggression and attitude. People want to hear a good mixture of memorable songs. They want to hear the variety and the flair of the musicianship from everybody in the band and that includes the rhythm section as well. Just create some music that we can sing along to and rock out to--I think thatís extremely important, and I think thatís whatís been missing for a long time.

KNAC.COM: All things considered, life really couldnít be any better for KK Downing of Judas Priest right now, could it?
DOWNING: Absolutely notÖ well, I suppose there could be a babe on my lap while weíre doing this interview. [Laughs]

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