K.K. Downing's reputation is pinned to a thin, metal rod called the whammy bar. Within notes of speed-metal bangers like “Sinner,” there's no room for doubt whose hands are working the pitch-bending piece of guitar hardware. But as signature as Downing's unleashed leads are, his ability to work in tandem with other musicians may be his most important asset. He and fellow founding Judas Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton's seamless twin-lead sound holds an ungodly amount of sway in classic heavy metal.
Judas Priest's innovation continues with Nostradamus. The double disc uses symphonic orchestration to explore the famed prophet's life and is the first concept album the decades-old band has ever attempted. In addition to the new album, Judas Priest is headlining The Masters of Metal, a hugely anticipated tour that pairs the band with metal heavyweights Mötorhead, Testament, and Heaven and Hell (Black Sabbath with Dio). The Alibi spoke with Downing about what it takes to be a rock idol just before the American leg of the tour, which includes a stop in Albuquerque on Wednesday, Aug 27.
Nostradamus is your first concept album—why do one now?
We've never done one in all the albums we've made, and Judas Priest is always looking to push the boundaries and looking to evolve. I think you have to do that artistically and musically. So we thought we would have a go at a concept album and try to put this musical together. It was something different for us, but it was good.
Have 30-plus years of changes in recording technology affected the recording process for you?
No, I don't think so, really. Even if technology had stayed the same, I think people would have found a way to evolve, maybe with their own equipment or the way they play or put stuff together. I am a firm believer that everything evolves, that you can't hold things back. It all just keeps moving forward.
Talk about your fan site, The Steel Mill, which is celebrating two years this month.
It was something that, to be honest, the fans talked me into doing. In fact, the guys who help me with it, the Millworkers, are big fans—basically guys from Finland and couple of other countries as well. ... The thing I really like about the site is that it's not totally self-indulgent and just about me. There are lots of things on other artists—anybody I can meet up with and have a chat and ask them if they want to do a little something for the site. It's kind of like a musicians' magazine, in a way. It's also very informative for the Priest fans, too.
What are your thoughts about the state of metal today?
Like I've said, things move ahead. I don't want to sound boring, but I still think we won't see the likes of the Golden Age again. [But] we are coming to the stage again, with a great lineup obviously: Priest, Mötorhead, Heaven and Hell, and Testament. I am very much looking forward to that, because I think it will give a real flavor of what we experienced in the past in the great glory days. The main difference seems to be that so many of the younger bands are doing it faster, harder, heavier and more aggressively than we ever did before.
Is there another Judas Priest album in the works after the tour?
There's no reason why there won't be. We are quite busy at the moment with the brand new record, Nostradamus, and we are hoping it has long legs and will run a long way. Obviously, Priest will do what it always does to keep the machinery rolling.
I know you have an extensive collection of guitars. Which ones you are touring with?
I have hooked up with someone from San Diego, some people from a very small company called KXK Guitars. The guy there, Rob, he made me a guitar to start the tour with and I have played it all the time every night. It's got the SpeedLoader, a trem from Floyd Rose, so it's got lots of neat things. I get to pick up a second guitar when I get to Seattle in just under two weeks, so that's my main guitar at the moment.
So, nothing out of your collection?
Actually I have two other guitars with me. I have an ESP custom-built guitar that ESP made for me that’s also got the Floyd Rose SpeedLoader on it—I had that put on there. Also, I have my favorite cherry-red Hamer Flying V, which is Floyd Rose as well. We aren't doing any acoustic parts; we do play “Angel,” a ballad from our last record [Angel of Retribution, Columbia Records, 2005], but we do that on electric guitars.
You've done some producing and co-producing. Do you like it enough to do more in the future?
Yes. There's a local band where I live, a young band, I am going to help them a little bit and maybe produce their record. They are a young, hard-hitting band called Hostile, but they are still putting the finishing touches on their songs. I do dig it, and if someone asks me, and if I have the time, I am more than willing to share my experience with them.