It’s 2pm in Phoenix, Arizona, when we call Rob Halford, longterm singer of heavy metal greats Judas Priest.
Halford joined the West Bromwich band in 1973, fronted the group as they tore through an unparalleled run of classic albums throughout the ’80s (the best known of which, sixth record, British Steel, turns 40 next year), before leaving the group in 1992 and reinventing himself as an industrial metal solo artist. He reunited with Priest 11 years later, and has remained there ever since. Rob Halford is a man his fans call ‘The Metal God’ with no irony whatsoever – it’s a justified moniker.
“I’ve got to head down to London this Christmas,” says the 68-year-old, when we inform him where NME is calling from. “I’ve got to go to the American Embassy to renew my visa.” He laughs. “I hate getting my visa renewed. Last time I was at the Embassy I was waiting for three hours. Everyone came and went until I was the only person left in the room. I’m sat there for ages holding my ticket like I’m in bloody Argos or something, and then I realise that nobody else is there. This woman comes over and says, ‘What are you doing here? We’re closed now.’ They’d totally forgotten I was there. It got sorted out, but what a carry on…”
Was there not a part of you that thought, ‘This is no way to treat The Metal God?’ we ask. He laughs again.
“I didn’t feel much like The Metal God waiting in that room…”
Earlier this month, Halford released an album called ‘Celestial’, his second Christmas-themed record (the first being 2009’s ‘Winter Songs’), which features heavy metal arrangements of the likes of ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’, ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘Deck The Halls’, as well as four new original songs (of which the song ‘Donner And Blitzen’ is an absolute jam). It’s a true family affair. Halford’s brother Nigel plays drums, nephew Alex (son of Judas Priest’s Ian Hill) the bass, while his sister Sue plays the sleigh bells. Guitars come courtesy of Robert Jones and Jon Blakely. And why? Because Rob Halford is The Metal God, that’s why. But also because – as we’ll learn – the iconic singer thinks Christmas in the modern age can teach the world a host of valuable lessons.
But first, some heavy metal home improvement…
Hello Rob. What are you up to today?
“I’m at the house in Phoenix. I’m trying to get some work done on the house, but I’ve just learned about the existence of ‘the hillside committee’. I don’t know who these people are, but there I was working, and some people came round and said, ‘You need to stop’. I asked why, and they said, ‘what you’re doing hasn’t been approved by the hillside committee’. I mean, who the fucking hell are the hillside committee?”
They sound like some kind of resident’s collective?
“I think so. I live in an area of Phoenix called Paradise Valley and they’re a bit funny around here. It’s certainly not the kind of place where you’ll pop around to your neighbours to borrow a cup of sugar. I’m drowning in bureaucracy! I own the house. I own the land. And still I can’t do what I want to do. I’ve lived here since 1984. It’s not like I’m trying to build a great big fucking pink palace. I’m just trying to plan for floods because we get these great big monsoons. I’m not sure “I’m The Metal God” would wash around here. Everyone here is a bit, “don’t you know who I am?” What can I say? I’m from the Midlands. We don’t think like that and we certainly don’t say it.”
I hope you resolve your differences with the hillside committee. Right, let’s talk about Christmas…
“Oh, I love Christmas. I look forward to that time of year all year. The older I get, the more it means to me. I think there’s probably a bit of mortality creeping in there, but I just think it’s a fantastic time to reflect about what really matters to you. I love Christmas trees. I fucking love them! I’ve got far too many. I just like dressing them up – and there’s a great heavy metal soundtrack to do it to. There’s my friend Ronnie [James Dio and his 2008 cover of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’], Lemmy [and his cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Run Run Rudolph’]… This Christmas I’ll be spoiling my grandniece to death. She’s only one, but I’ll be getting her a bazillion Christmas gifts.”
“I love Christmas trees. I fucking love them!”
– Rob Halford
Have you started on your Christmas shopping yet?
“I’m a procrastinator. I always leave these things until the last minute. Basically, although I gave up drinking and drugs a long time ago now, I’m always on the hunt for new addictions. Mine is currently Amazon Prime. I’ll be on my phone at two in the morning when I can’t sleep just buying shit I don’t need. I’ll be like, ‘Oooh, I need a new pair of scissors!’ Stuff turns up a few days later and I’ve always forgotten what I’ve bought. I’m always confused about why there are so many boxes…”
I read about how religion became a part of your life after you got clean and sober in 1986. How important is the religious aspect of Christmas to you?
“I’m just into the basics really. Try to be a good person, treat others as you’d like to be treated – that stuff was instilled in me as a kid. I’m not much for labels, but I think there’s a big difference between religion and spirituality. I think this time of year is especially important because of what’s happening in the world right now. I think music, more than anything really, is a respite – it’s one of the reasons why I got my friends and family together to make ‘Celestial’. The shit that’s going down in America right now is ridiculous, not that it’s much better at home with Brexit. The world is so complicated right now.”
If you don’t mind me asking, what’s it like being a famous gay man living in America as the country seemingly lunges further and further towards the conservative right?
“I’m so pleased you’ve asked me that question, because today [October 11th] is National Coming Out Day here in the States. I mean, I didn’t know that until I logged into my Instagram this morning and everyone was telling me that. There was a thing on my Instagram feed from the MTV Studios in 1998 where I said for the first time that I was a gay guy. Obviously I nicked it and re-edited it a bit and put it on my own feed… It was wonderful watching the comments coming in. Anyone with social media has to be prepared for negative comments, but some of the stuff people were saying was so beautiful. There was real love and understanding there…”
“But don’t get me started on the Christian right pushing the LGBTQ community under the bus. They’re passing laws here where if you’re gay you can lose your job, based on whether the people who run a company follow a religion that doesn’t accept people like us. It’s horrible. America is supposed to be the world’s leading superpower and some of this stuff is medieval. It’s not a country where you feel especially safe, and I do think I feel less safe now. You are aware that by walking down the supermarket you might get shot. But I try not to let that stuff intrude on my life. The politicians, the media, they want you to be scared and I refuse to be.”
“Metal will always be there. We’ll always be loud! We’ll always be proud!”
– Rob Halford
Isn’t it ironic that for all the shit heavy metal has got over the years – accusations of Satanism and the corruption of youth and so on – that here’s one of the most famous names in heavy metal talking about peace and love while the world burns all around him?
“Oh, totally! The metal community has always been inclusive and yet we’ve been kicked around like a football over the years. It just makes us stronger though. I genuinely believe that metal is the strongest component of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s still growing – only today I was listening to a new band I really like from my old stomping ground in the Midlands; they’re called Wolf Jaw and they’re great. Metal will always be there. We’ll always be loud! We’ll always be proud!”
You announced last year that you’re writing an autobiography. How is that coming on?
“It’s going great. I’m having a good time with it and I’m working with some good people who are helping draw the stories out of me. That’s the thing with being clean and sober and being open about your sexuality. It’s all laid out. There’s nothing to be afraid of…”
Damn straight. To wrap things up, how is your old mate Ozzy doing? He hasn’t been well and the tour that Judas Priest are doing with him keeps getting put back…
“I only know what the world knows. Sharon [Osbourne] rang our office recently and told us how hard everyone was working to support him and help him get better. But we’re totally committed to doing these shows when he is. I think that tour is going to be really important when it happens. Ozzy is a UK national treasure and between the two of us we were at the beginning of this thing we love called heavy metal. He just needs to get well. Can you tell everyone reading this piece that they need to send Ozzy their love?”
‘Celestial’ by Rob Halford With Family & Friends is out now