This had to be one of the toughest interviews on record. Well, maybe the topic is. For those of us brought up in the Great White North, there's a reason why they call it white. And we certainly don't want to talk about the white stuff until it's absolutely necessary. We're talkin' winter here. Although I've been on skates since I was three, I'd rather be walking in sand than doing battle with snow. And talk of Christmas or any of it's images, music or ads makes one shiver at the thought when you are shivering in the cold and crave to be far away from such predictable precipitation. Hence not really wanting to talk about it before December 1st. Even if it's with the Metal God. But we must.
"Yes we must," JUDAS PRIEST singer ROB HALFORD agrees. And of course, why would he disagree when he's trying to promote the Halford band reunion with Winter Songs, a full CD of heart-warming tunes for the season, even if that season doesn't sit too well for those of us in chillier climates.
"I think that now that the festive displays are going up around here, at least in the stores, and the first of the TV commercials are going in that direction, what better time? It’s like, 'Oh my god, is it almost Christmas again?' You know, this year has just flown by, literally. I mean, I wonder what, I’d like to, I’d like to see what I’ve done this year, you’re probably better at that than me, ‘cause I know you follow what we do more closely, ‘cause we just get on with it, you know. Where have we been since January, what have we done? You know, I mean, I can’t even hesitate to think I know where to start."
2009 has been quite the journey for you and Priest.
"Yeah, it’s been a wonderful year and lots of things have happened in the metal world, and what a great way to round it all off, with some Christmas metal cheer from the Metal God."
And you are back with some old comrades.
"I have to say again, uh, well two things. Just to thank the band for being so supportive while I’ve been back with the mighty Priest, the band that leads me with everything that I do. They’ve stuck with me. You know, I mean admittedly they’ve all got their different solo endeavours and projects in their own worlds, but they could have just as easily said, you know, 'seven years, you’ve gotta be kidding me?' But they’ve been wonderful, so it’s a joy to be back in their company again. What a great job they’ve done on the musical instrumentation side of these songs, absolutely first class stuff. It really is very powerful and very entertaining, very entertaining."
I must say that the band are all slick n' pretty, looking their festival best in the artwork. It appears you're getting ready for Christmas dinner at gramma’s house.
"Let me have a look, let me have a look at that. (takes a second to look at the album cover.) Yeah, they do. And yeah, that’s not Photoshop (laughs). I think that everybody at the office in Phoenix did a great job in terms of the packaging for the artwork and the booklet and everything else. Hopefully it’s just another example of the good things that we can do at Metal God Records. And now of course we’ve opened the doors for everybody to start sending submissions, you know. Other bands can send in their CDs and DVDs, what have you, and you know, we’ll slowly sift through it all and see what we’re gonna do next."
Let’s focus on the business at hand for a couple moments here and talk about this Christmas record and why. The big question - I’m sure a lot of fans are asking - why bring the Halford band together for a seasonal album?
"Well, it was a pretty simple idea on the basics of the whole thing and it was very much from my own personal desires and wishes, and I wasn’t sure how Metal Mike (Chlasciak - guitar) and Roy Z (guitar) and Bobby (Jarzombek - drums) and Mike (Davis - bass) would take it. But do you remember I did that song for radio many years ago called 'Christmas Ride'? And then, I forget what year that was, it was around the time that we were making Crucible (actually 1994). But prior to that in the FIGHT band, around the first Fight record, I made a handful of CDs of a song called 'Silent Night' just for family and friends. So both of those experiences had been kind of locked away in the metal memory banks but never really disappeared. So each time successive Christmases would come along I would say, 'oh, God, I’ve done this again.' I really wanted to try and get something out this year, you know, and again for the obvious reasons of being immersed with all the metal around me, I just didn’t have the time or the window or the opportunity to make it all happen. But anyway, the decision was made a long time ago. What do you think about this? Do you think it’s cool? Are you up for it? Do you believe in it? What do you think we’re gonna do? And everybody ran to the idea and once it got the thumbs up, then the slow piecing process bit by bit started to come together over a couple of years. And you know, when you say a couple of years, that wasn’t like two years of intensity, that was just really the guys finding time in their own schedules, their own busy schedules, to put all of these ideas together as a band.
And you seem to focus on the serious, more traditional material, rather than the upbeat 'Frosty The Snowman' type of celebrations.
"Yeah, I think there’s a couple of lighter moments, like the two songs that we wrote: 'I Don’t Care For Christmas', which is really a take on that great movie, you know, Planes, Trains And Automobiles with Steve Martin and John Candy.
Love the movie!
"I love it, too, So I talked about that with Z and he goes, 'Well, I’ve got this kind of idea in my back pocket, musically, do you want to check it out?' And he played it and I said, 'that’s perfect.' It’s got that kind of CHUCK BERRY vibe about it, you know, and the attitude and just the way that the vocal sits on it. And we just quickly put together the - we were just having a laugh in the studio, it was so much fun putting the lyrics together. We have some video as well, I’m sure that’ll surface in years to come. You know, cracking up about jogging to the truck stop. Could you put that phrase into a song, 'jogging to the truck stop.' But that’s Z, that was one of Z’s lines. We had so much fun putting the lyrics together for that track. So there’s that one, and then there’s that Top Of The Pops vibe with 'Christmas Is For Everyone'. So those are the two lighter moments in terms of attitude and atmosphere. But I agree, the rest of it’s pretty strong, you know, it’s quite intense, some of the tracks are."
Now, what are your expectations from Winter Songs?
"I don’t know, I haven’t got a clue. You’re either gonna hate it or think, hey, this is cool. Nice one, Rob. Some music for us at this time of the year that there’s not a lot of going around, you know. I don’t know, Tim, I really don’t know. But the good news is that the feedback from people like yourself and my other friends that I value in terms of their opinion tends to filter into the public domain, so if Tim likes it, I think a number of the metalheads will like it."
I must mention, kind of tongue-in-cheek, that Christ makes up the word Christmas and it’s a very Christian holiday for the most part, so fans may wonder why Judas the Priest - the disciple that betrayed Jesus - is promoting these Christmas ideals?
"Well, you know, here’s the thing. You and I have talked many times about why does Rob step away from Priest? Why does Bruce (Dickinson) step away from MAIDEN? Why does Vince (Neil) step away from CRÜE? All of us, I think, are looking for opportunities to do things that we wouldn’t feel the right in the bands where we come from, the bands where we at the end of the day genuinely need to be, and need to belong at. So, all of us tend to talk about things and express ourselves in a personal, private way, and this is my offering on that side of my life. That side of my life is important to me, quite frankly, and I use it ever day. The fact that I’m still clean and sober over two decades later. You can’t do something like that by yourself. That whole system is based on this belief in some kind of higher power, whatever it might be. So I understand that I need that in my life, and it’s important to me, and it gets results. So that’s tied into just this belief system that I’ve got. And again, which I believe many metalheads and rockheads have got as well. It’s just something we don’t talk about that much. I think that I’m offering some music here that covers those feelings that we probably don’t want to talk about but we’re very happy to listen to the music that talks about it."
Well, getting back to the actual music, it must have been a challenge to balance the metal vibe with this style of music without making a mess of it.
"Yes, and again it’s all due to what the band did instrumentally. I mean, you take a song like 'We Three Kings' and you listen to the church organ arrangement and the MORMON TABERNACLE CHOIR arrangement and all of these other beautiful arrangements and you go, well what can we do with it? The simple matter is, again, if it’s a great song, it’ll take any kind of treatment, won’t it. Who’d have thought that JOAN BAEZ and an acoustic guitar with 'Diamonds And Rust' would turn into a metal rock classic. So there’s your foundation, there’s the guts of all the songs that we’ve covered. They’re just wonderfully well made or crafted pieces of music, and it’s just your turn to dive in and put your moniker on it and give it your own stamp.
Let’s get personal just for a moment and talk about some of the Christmas memories that you have going back to your childhood in the UK. Whether it be food or gifts or family, or certain traditions and celebrations, and the excitement of actually getting into December and the glee and the happiness. Can you talk about that with us?
"Yeah, I can, and to be honest I think it’s pretty much a straightforward story that everybody relates to. I mean, however, growing up in the UK in the early ‘50s as a kid is certainly a lot different now to kids growing up in today’s world, it’s a different world entirely. However, I was born in 1951, so the remnants of World War II were still really heavily visible all over the country. So the country was rebuilding itself, but there was this great sense of relief and optimism and hope for the future. So I remember feeling that atmosphere, even as a kid as some of my earliest memories. And again, it’s typical. As a kid, all you want to know is how many presents are you gonna get. How many are gonna be under the tree. You totally believe in Father Christmas a hundred percent. You lay awake all night, you can’t sleep. You’re awake, you might doze off for a couple of hours but you’re wide awake and it’s still pitch black outside. And you’ve been forewarned not to go downstairs, because Father Christmas might be there and you’ll piss him off. And so it’s this wonderful combination of, you know, different feelings and excitement and anticipation and that’s that. And then the day comes and you rip all your gifts open and you go crazy playing with what you’ve got, and then you have your Christmas dinner and you’re with your family and your relatives and friends, and it’s just a really good vibe. And most of us recreate that year to year to year, don’t we? And I think that was the essence of the lyric and the song that I wrote for 'Christmas For Everyone'. I thought about that, and thought about those memories, those early memories, when I put the lyrics together for that track, so I think that I’ve probably conveyed some of those feelings into that song with those metal memories."
Is there any gift that sticks out that you were given as a child that was larger than life?
"(Laughs) I think it was a monkey on a piece of elastic band. Like, a monkey made out of chalk. I’m being serious. Was that a Christmas gift? I think it was. Me and my sister had one. There’s a very very famous photo of us holding hands together, I think we were about four, three or four years of age and we’re holding hands together and we’ve got, we’ve both got these monkeys that are made out of chalk on a rubber band, covered in fake fur, probably illegal fake fur from a dead cat or something from China (laughs). I remember we played with them and then I realized it was chalk, so I could write with it, so when I knew that I just smashed its head in to draw on the pavement. An evil child."
Do you go back to England at this time of the year, around Christmas, to spend time with any friends or family.
"I always do, yeah. More so than ever now, ‘cause my mom and dad are getting on in age and I think you treasure and value your immediate family more the longer they live and the longer you live, you know. I think that you can’t help but getting more sentimental. I mean, what’s wrong with that? Makes you know that you’ve got a heart in your bag of bones. So yes, that’s what I’ll be doing this Christmas. And I’m usually the soundtrack guy, so I’m always collecting Christmas music and it’s always playing in the background, even your stuff, even some of the heavier stuff to kind of balance it."
Were you fond of any of the famous Christmas cartoons?
"Oh, yeah, Frosty The Snowman and The Grinch, yeah. Both the animation one with Boris Karloff’s voice and the Jim Carrey one, the movie. And whatever else there is, you know, there’s just a handful of classics that you just, you know, again, you’re not really watching them, you know, because you’re with family and friends, but they’re on the telly in the corner."
And we must touch on what may be for some, the highlight of Christmas - the food!
"I’m just a pig. I’m a metal pig. I just love it all and at my time of life you’ve gotta be really careful, you know, with the middle-age spread. So I have to really watch what I eat. I think we all do in the band. (laughs) That’s a good thing because you stay healthy and you want to be able to get on the bus get on the plane and go out on these world treks and that must be difficult to do if you’re not in the best of shape, so at least at Christmas time I just say, “fuck it. I’m going to eat everything in sight.” And that’s what I do, so I’ll be pigging out, regretting it the next couple of days, and then having to go not on a diet but, uh, smaller servings please, that type of thing."
You’ve seen the best of both Christmas worlds; the US south and the UK vibe. Explain the differences...
"It’s peculiar, Phoenix at Christmas is a little strange. It does get quite chilly down there at Christmas time. But you know, to see the cactus plants wrapped up in Christmas lights is always a treat, that’s kind of fun. Of course, the sun’s blazing hot on Christmas day, but as I’ve been doing in recent years, my Christmas day will be back home in the U.K., so it’ll probably be pissing down with rain. (laughs) It’ll be a very Birmingham Metal Christmas, with rain and wind and you know, the metal storms going on outside while you’re locked up in the warmth and comfort of your little abode. I kind of miss the seasons that happen in the UK and I know that you get the seasons in Toronto, so it’s just nice to get back around that time of year just to feel cold and have to put some gloves on (laughs)."