Judas Priest: 'For as long as we can give a quality performance, we’ll keep going'

It’s a bright March morning, and Ian Hill is in a jovial mood. Beard trimmed neat and flyaway hair tamed, the Judas Priest bass player is admiring a small line of trophies that adorn his bookshelf behind him.
Judas Priest. Picture: James Hodges PhotographyJudas Priest. Picture: James Hodges Photography
Judas Priest. Picture: James Hodges Photography

They number at least half-a-dozen – awards, he says, from a Japanese magazine bestowed on him and his bandmates over the years. They look well-polished, though he demurs that it is him who has been buffing up the silverware.

“It’s strange,” he says with a chuckle. “They haven’t been touched since they went up there!” His laugh is warmly inviting, stretched with the brogue of his West Midlands accent. At 73, there is a relaxed twinkle in his eye and a pleasant mellowness to his conversation. For a brief moment, it seems implausible this avuncular figure could be one of the most influential bassists in rock and roll music.

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But Hill’s list of accomplishments speak loud enough for him. The longest-serving member of the British heavy metal titans – he has played on all of their albums, and is often credited for bringing Rob Halford into the fold in 1973 as lead vocalist – he has been their lynchpin through thick and thin, the recipient of a Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance and an inductee as part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022.

It has been almost a decade since the group last toured their home country in earnest though, thanks to a catalogue of unfortunate events. Having completed a run at London’s O2 Academy Brixton in 2015, plans for a further jaunt have been stymied by both the Covid-19 pandemic and an ill-fated run with Ozzy Osbourne, repeatedly postponed before an eventual cancellation due to the ex-Black Sabbath star’s ill health.

Hill is conscious that Priest themselves may be on limited time – they do have been beset by a string of setbacks, including the semi-retirement of long-time member Glenn Tipton following his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, and an aortic aneurysm on-stage for guitarist Ritchie Faulkner. But the group have no plans yet to call it quits.

“We’re not as intense as we used to be,” he acknowledges. “You go back to the seventies, and we’d be playing seven nights a week. You can do that when you’re young! But we average four these days. It’s down to Rob’s voice – without him, there’s no show. He looks after that, and it’ll keep the band on the road longer.”

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There’s no date in sight for Hill, though he acknowledges that after more than half-a-century at the forefront of their genre, there will come a moment where they will have to face the inevitable. “For as long as we can give a quality performance, we’ll keep going. But as soon as it starts to dip, it’ll be time to consider packing it in. We’re looking forward to the new tour, but we’re realistic about it.”

That tour finally brings them back to the United Kingdom – and to Leeds, for the first time since they played the then-Polytechnic in 1980. (“We just didn’t find the promoters to put us on!” he cries with a grin. “It’s nothing against Leeds!”) They arrive too with a present for their fans – Invincible Shield, their first record in six years, recorded amid the background of the pandemic.

“This album really should have been out before our fiftieth anniversary tour,” Hill acknowledges. “But Covid came along and put the scuppers on that. But we had a hell of a time to polish the songs up, put extra pieces in. I didn’t get time to record before our last tour, so I recorded my parts in hotel rooms across Europe on my day off.”

The result is among the best work the band has made since Halford returned to the fold in 2003. (When asked to pick his favourite underappreciated effort by the band, Hill does plump for Demolition, the final work they cut with Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens before then.) Its songs look set to feature heavily on the upcoming run, though that in itself presents its own difficulties.

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“Every new track you put in, you’re dropping somebody’s favourite to make way,” he notes. “That gets more difficult every time. Then, we still want to keep other new stuff. You still want to keep Firepower in there, you still want to keep Redeemer of Souls in there. A lot of the songs do pick themselves though. It is very democratic.”

The tour will reunite them with old friends Saxon and Uriah Heep too, forming a classic trio as they hit up arenas across the country. Playing with the former in particular will be a thrill for Hill. “We’ve known Saxon for decades and we’ve been pals with Biff and the lads for years. It is important, touring with people you know. It’s like a fraternity, really. There’s harmony to it all.”

Mainstays of the metal festival scene, there are no scheduled dates in the summer beyond this. But as one of the country’s most storied bands, might they perhaps find themselves away from familiar surroundings and on a farm in Somerset one day?

“Glastonbury?” Hill repeats it, and mulls the word over. “Yeah, I don’t see why not. I don’t know if we’re a Glastonbury band, as far as I know.” He looks off into the distance, then lets out one last warm chuckle. “It’d be a change to Download, I’d tell you that!”

Invincible Shield is out now. Judas Priest play at First Direct Arena, Leeds on Wednesday March 13. https://www.judaspriestinvincibleshield.com/