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Sermons Of The Sinner: An Exclusive Interview With Heavy Metal High Priest K.K. DOWNING

By Shelly Harris, Chicago Contributor
Monday, June 7, 2021 @ 1:49 PM

"The last thing you want to do is to present music that isn't very good to fellow musicians, you know, because they would know the difference between something pretty good and something crap."

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Let's be honest, there is only a limited - and increasingly shrinking - number of musicians qualified to release an album of Heavy Metal "sermons" - tongue-in-cheek or not - and JUDAS PRIEST's co-founder and former guitarist Ken "K.K." Downing is certainly one of them in more ways than one. Now, after a hiatus of nearly a decade, he has emerged from the firmament as a high priest of Metal to deliver the scorching new KK'S PRIEST album, Sermons Of The Sinner (due out August 20 via Explorer1 Music Group/EX1Records).

On a Zoom call from his home in the Midlands of England, Downing is self-effacing, introspective, and funny, but also proud and quietly confident. Moreover, he is cognizant of the roll he has personally played in the evolution of Heavy Metal, while - as a primary Defender of the Faith - he is also well-aware of mortality itself, not only on a personal level, or with regard to the specific brand of highly combustible, concise, and crisp Metal he has spent 50 years helping to create and define, but particularly with regard to the long-term future and legacy of the genre as a whole.

Clearly, as Downing elaborates on the new project, new album, and new tour, it is that truly "heavy" overarching mission to elevate and commemorate the genre that motivates his current work with KK'S PRIEST, on record, on the road, and beyond:

KNAC.COM: Sermons of The Sinner - that's a really great title for the first KK'S PRIEST album, because it can have more than one connotation or meaning.

DOWNING: Yes, it does.

KNAC.COM: For example, "Sinner" - it could come from the song of that name...

DOWNING: That's one thought, but there are other elements to that, really...in a deeper way. (laughs). Because of my history and everything around me, I'm quite happy to call myself a sinner = "the bad boy" - or whatever. (laughs) The sermons are the songs, and lots of people will look at the content of the songs and make that connection. But, if you think about it, as you say, it's quite open-ended, really - open to interpretation.

KNAC.COM: Yes, and it's also true if anyone has the credentials to give a "sermon" on the principles and scriptures of Heavy Metal, it would be someone like yourself! (laughs)

DOWNING: Yeah, well, I will put myself up on a pedestal a little bit as being the "high priest" with that. (smiles) ... And I'm in a good place at the moment, Shelly, I'm feeling really good with everything that has happened, and everything that has come to fruition with this record.

KNAC.COM: Uh, humm, I thought so. I know you have been working on this for awhile. It might have been nearly two years ago that Tony [Newton KK'S PRIEST bassist/recording engineer/VOODOO SIX bassist] first mentioned to me that he was working with you on some kind of new endeavor. He gave me the "heads-up" about it anyway. Can you elaborate [on how it first came about]?

DOWNING: Yes, well, I think it's probably been at least 18 months since I first sat down and thought, "I wonder if I can write a record?" And, it just came to me so fast! So, I had basically all the songs, and the contents, and the direction, and everything, within four weeks. So, that is when I really started to press buttons, and get everything into motion. At that time, I think there was an option. If we could've delivered the record up, in like, six months, then we could've gone out and done some shows. And that was what was happening back then. And we did have some offers on some shows, but the Covid thing started to dig in, and everything kind of ground to a bit of a halt. I kind of took the peddle off the metal for a little bit then, and I thought, "Okay, What's there is really good and I like it, but now - with time, manpower, and money - things could always be better," so I afforded myself the luxury of pulling back, taking stock, and just making sure that it was as good as it could be, really.

KNAC.COM: Well, I know from prior interviews we've done, and researching for this, and reading your book [the 2018 memoir, Heavy Duty], that you're ... a bit of a perfectionist. You want things just so, right?

DOWNING: True. (laughs) I get on lots of people's nerves. I guess that's why I'm still single at my age. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Well, then, the Covid thing gave you time to perfect it even more! (laughs) And, I'm actually interested in the nuts and bolts of how you put the album together, because there's not too much information about that aspect of it out there so far. Did you write with other people?

DOWNING: Well, originally I didn't because we were spread miles apart, with the travel restrictions. But to start off, it wasn't too bad, but I didn't know what I had - or didn't have - in me. The last thing you want to do is to present music that isn't very good to fellow musicians, you know, because they would know the difference between something pretty good and something crap. So, I kind of got stuck in myself, because I felt the onus was on me in a big way. Having written so many songs previously, over so many decades, I had to kind of turn the tap on, to see what came out, if anything at all! (laughs) And it came out, and I just ran with it - but you need to embellish it, and embellish it. And so, I got the other guys together as best I could, but everything had been demoed. And we were fortunate enough to get Ripper [Owens, vocalist] and Sean [Elg, drummer], for just a space of time to complete the task, really. So, that's kind of what happened, because I do feel the material had a lot of the essential ingredients. Like you say, in my mind I kind of have this little switch for quality control, and I either like it or I hate it. It is difficult. And so, I didn't know what it would be like, either, to write with other people after being used to a songwriting trio for so many years, you know? So, I wanted to see what I could do with just myself. But, now already, the way things are, I'm working on material for the second album, and we'll be doing that together, obviously.

KNAC.COM: I have two questions that spring from that. But first of all the sound [on the album] is so explosive and concise, and it's kind of like a "back to the future" sound. It's highly anthematic, and even the titles of the songs are instant classics, too. Did you already have some of those ideas stored away previously...?

DOWNING: I had the title for the album, but I really didn't have anything else. But, what I did have ... I've always got this stockpile of song ideas. So, I did work my way through the ideas that I had that were already there and I used some of them, maybe five or ten percent. But, those ideas, they spur off other ideas. In all fairness, I did feel like I was ... pretty fresh. I must have felt mentally fresh to be able to do that over such a short period of time. And I also found that the material for the next album has come to me really quite quickly as well - in a matter of days. So, that's a good sign, isn't it? I can remember - I've had periods - and I'm sure the other guys will say the same - where you actually dry up, you know.

KNAC.COM: Yeah - writer's block!

DOWNING: Writer's block! You just dry up, and you don't know why. I know book writers have that as well sometimes. But, it's all good. I've got lots of stuff for the album.

KNAC.COM: Well, what you had is powerful stuff. And you did have a long break, so maybe your batteries are super recharged now. And, the material is being released via Explorer1 Music Group. How did that come about?

DOWNING: I think that was again from Tony [Newton]. I did a couple of shows the year before last year, and Tony came up and helped me out front with the the mix and stuff. And, I'd known Tony before - and also a mutual friend of ours, Steve Goldby [Heavy Metal Hall of Fame Board member] - and it just came up. It was a new entity and a new company that was doing things in a different way. And so, I met with Paul [Woolnough], the head of the company. In actual fact, I did a couple of shows where Steve [Harris] was playing with his band, BRITISH LION. So that was a treat, at Manchester and Nottingham, and Paul was there as well. So, we started chatting and it came about through that.

KNAC.COM: Now, as far as your band is concerned, two of the guys you've played with in JUDAS PREIEST before (Ripper Owens will be on vocals and Les Binks, an occasional "special guest" on drums), then there's Tony [Newton] again on bass, and Sean Elg (DEATH RIDERS/CAGE), but you also have another "twin" guitarist. Did he come in the fold later?

DOWNING: A.J. [Mills]? Yeah. Because we live fairly close together, and I knew him. Obviously, he's younger, but I knew his father and his uncle. I went to school with his uncle! And his uncle introduced me to A.J.'s band years ago - a very young band called HOSTILE. So, I worked and mentored those guys for a couple of albums. But, it was hard times, and they obviously didn't make it onto a label and stuff. But, it's turned out good in the end because I have been able to recruit A.J., and he's a great partner for me to work with. Kind of a younger version of me, if you like. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Well, according to your new video, which I've seen... He's dynamic, and definitely a good asset to the band, I think! He's got that youthful power going.

DOWNING: I think most of the ladies with think that! (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Yeah. (laughs)

DOWNING: Yeah, I remember back in the day! (laughs) Yeah, he's there for his ability to play and perform, and in a way that I think works really well for him and the band...and whatever he does in his down time, that's down to him. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Like I said earlier, I've read your book - and, by the way, that was an important book to be written for several reasons. But, one thing is that I think you really captured what the music - Heavy Metal - is about, and what inspired it, and what inspired you. With your background - and you had an even tougher background than most people, even within the same socioeconomics of that time and place, as post-war blue-collar Boomers, growing up in the shadow of the steel mills, and all that - but, you really captured what's at the heart of it. And you said that it [Heavy Metal music] all boils down to empowerment, and freedom, really.

DOWNING: Yeah, it's a unique story, really. That's why I say I feel fortunate to be born exactly when I was. Just when it was all happening, I was around that age - 12, 13, 14 - so I was there for the evolution of everything [in Rock 'n' Roll], you know. So, it became so important to me; I'm a part of it, and it's a part of me. And I do feel totally dedicated, because, as I say in the book, Shelly, it basically saved me from being whatever else I might have been - some kind of mad criminal delinquent, or whatever! Music is my salvation, so I owe it a lot, and it owes a lot to a lot of other people just like me - the fans of the music that we love. And it's a wonderful story. And that is the whole - not hidden meaning - but it's the subject and meaning behind Sermons Of The Sinner. The title song is about that ... It says in the song, "Time is running out for us - things may never be the same, but the sermons of the sinner, they can help us rise again." In other words, the music that we know from that time span, say from the mid-sixties to 1990, for example, that short window, and even further ... I just mentioned 1990 because metal itself changed into different genres of metal - but the classic decades that we know and love so well, we'll never see the likes of again. So, it's kind of like a heads up, because some of us - us - we're losing friends now on a too-often basis, and I guess that will accelerate at some point to extinction. But, while I'm here, and we're here, we can still produce and keep this music alive. That's what this album is all about. I know that's a huge, massive statement - isn't it really? But, I feel duty-bound to give a heads-up and say, "Hey guys, whatever's left, it's still there, enjoy it and be a part of it....Heed the warning."

KNAC.COM: Well, I know that you are highly aware that all you are talking about, including the new album, is your legacy for posterity. Along with that, you are a survivor in more ways than one, and your book illustrated where you got your grit and your motivation. And, you're still at it now! But, you haven't toured extensively for a decade. Do you have any kind of trepidation about going out there and doing it again - or, are you looking forward to it?

DOWNING: Absolutely! We're all ready to go - we're chomping at the bit! Obviously, we really want to get out there. But, we know when we do, we know that it's going to be fantastic, so we're very much looking forward to that.

KNAC.COM: Well, things are really opening up! Where are you planning on starting?

DOWNING: That's a good question. Anywhere that will have us, where we don't have to be kept in a cage, you know! (laughs) Because, obviously, it's not just about the band, it's about the whole crew, so all these restrictions, we've got to make sure we can complete the task, so that there won't be any disappointments at all, and to make sure that everyone gets a full dose of the metal that we can produce.

KNAC.COM: Well, a lot of people will be looking forward to it, of course. But I just wondered if you would be starting in UK, Europe, or over here in the US - and Chicago, of course! (laughs)

DOWNING: I miss the world, because the world is my home, obviously having toured, and having had the pleasure of being in so many places, so many times. America was certainly my second home, for sure. I spent long periods of time in Arizona and Florida, and there's lots of treasured memories. So, we're very much looking forward to getting out there and bringing the show to the people.

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