EXCLUSIVE! Fresh from coming off stage at Bloodstock Festival for his first live appearance in almost a decade, bona fide guitar legend K.K. Downing is in fine form. With the “sweat of the show” still on him, the metal god sits down with eonmusic, for his first chat since returning to the stage. Eager to put negative headlines and misquoting behind him, it’s an upbeat, and focused K.K. that greets us. There is, however the ‘will they / won’t they’ elephant in the room, and the small issue of next year’s Judas Priest 50th Anniversary to discuss. Heading out on the highway; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi K.K., you’ve just got off stage at Bloodstock; how are you, and how was it?
I’m good, yeah! I’ve still got the sweat on me from the show, just. It was short and sweet, but pretty incredible. I enjoyed it!
You’ve still got the chops, clearly.
Yeah, yeah, once I landed, I settled [*laughing*]. It was like I was dropped from a height. It was like I parachuted in or something… What’s that? Bungee jumping! It’s a bit like that, really. I was okay when I landed, you know?!
How did it feel hitting those first chords to ‘The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)’, looking out over that crowd after almost a decade away?
Yeah, it was pretty daunting really, I’ve got to say, especially to do it in this way. It just kind of morphed into something, from something. Originally I was going to just come and pick up an award, but rather than take up time with all of that, they said; “If you’re going to hit the stage, how about playing a couple of songs?”, and I’m going; “well, who with?”, and the suggestion was Ross the Boss, because they’re full-on metal, and they’re from a similar sort of era; the guys date back. So I got to have a chat with the guys and we said; “yeah, I’ll jump on at the end of the set and bang out a couple of songs”, and that’s what happened.
People will of course be wondering if this will lead to further live appearances from you?
Yeah, I can’t answer it because I really don’t know myself. It’s a lot of things, being in a band. It’s always a roller coaster, no different to any other career or anything; you have the highs and the lows.
Going back to the first rehearsal, and were you nervous going into it?
Yeah. I’d never met the guys, and you can make a very good plan over the telephone, but getting together, meeting for the first time, plugging into the amp and playing those songs; you don't know what’s going to happen? But it was great, and I was absolutely delighted. We had to tweak some things, and fine tune some things, but that’s what rehearsals are all about; if everything’s perfect going into a rehearsal, there’s no point carrying on rehearsing; you might as well just go to the pub!
So you were happy with how it sounded after that first rehearsal?
Yeah, I was really very pleasantly surprised. Once you’ve been together for a while, there’s an element of leniency, but when you go on a first date so to speak, you’re just a bit nervous that everything’s in order for your own part. But you’re also nervous about how she’s going to look, how she’s going to kiss, will we get on together, is she a vegetarian; can we make music at all? [*laughing*] It’s kind of feeling it out, I guess. It’s like sparring partners, really; you need to feel everything out before you know who’s got the bigger punch, type of thing.
You played four Priest songs; why did you choose those?
Well, with all the constraints and everything - people flying in; we’re not going to meet; the timescales; the schedule - I didn’t want to lay down a couple of songs like ‘Painkiller’ and ‘Rock Hard Ride Free’ or something, because they’re intricate to learn. So I’m thinking; “let’s play some songs that people know and love, and keep the energy up”. And also, I said to the guys; “we’ve got time restrictions here, so let’s really, really try and squeeze as much in as we can”. Originally it was going to be three songs, so I thought; “we’ve got to put some short songs in there” and I said; “let’s really try and squeeze another one in”.
So the song choices worked for you?
I did suggest the song choices, and I thought that would work well. But the main thing was keeping that a secret. I said to the boys; “you can’t tell people what we’re going to do!”, because we could get together and it could all change anyway! I’ve been doing this a long time, and I just thought if we could keep it a secret, it would just generate more apprehension and excitement from the fans, not knowing what they’re going to get. Also, if we announce the bloody songs, everybody would be saying; “oh no, do ‘this’, and do ‘that’!”; we’d be playing the wrong songs anyway!
“Where’s ‘Rocka Rolla’? Where’s ‘Cathedral Spires’!?”
Yeah, all the obscure things; ‘Beyond the Realms of Death’! Who knows? I just wanted to make it a kind of a pretty upbeat little thing, and I wanted to throw ‘Running Wild’ in there because I wanted to do something other than what people would expect. So I’m pleased actually, because when people are listening to what you’re doing, they’re not asking questions while you’re doing this, you’re just enjoying you doing it, hopefully.
Last time we spoke, you said you weren’t interested in playing with another group, but does it surprise you how happy people are to see you back on stage again?
Yeah, it does, and it’s very heart warming, absolutely, it really is. It’s very, very gratifying. I have been approached a lot of times in the past, but in the last couple of days, a lot of people have approached me wanting to do something, and that’s great too. But the surprise was, I saw some comments with people saying; “Jesus, this really does sound like Judas Priest!” So, I went back and had a good listen, and it really did, even with other musicians. That’s what people like more than anything else; is that even just me with some other good players deliver up something that nobody else can. I think people think that it has a substance, and a quality that people want. So I have to think about that, really.
Given that you’ve been away from the stage for almost a decade; did you think that maybe you might not ever return to it?
I didn’t really think that I would, but I’m the type of guy that can get talked into virtually anything over a pint. But that’s a good thing! It was just a suggestion, and I’m thinking maybe now, the time is right. I was apprehensive about doing it, but you know, meeting the guys, Ross and the band; they’re good players and doing that, that’s what it’s all about. It was essentially a jam, but I’m very pleased, and what’s become apparent to me is I think guitar tones, and certain people, the way that they play; here’s a fact; only a couple of times did Glenn [Tipton] plug into my guitar rig and play, but it sounded like Glenn Tipton, and I know if Eddie Van Halen for example, plugged into my rig, it would sound like Eddie Van Halen. If I plugged into his rig, I would sound like K.K. Downing.
You have our own club now - KK’s Steel Mill - has any of the bands that have played there asked you about getting up to jam with them, or would you consider that, going forward?
Yeah, absolutely; everybody that comes through, really. I think the venue’s becoming a lot more established now, and a lot more people are coming through, and being the host of the venue, I think it’s something that I probably will do. I will do that, and it has been talked about, but the only reason I haven’t before is because I think that people have just dropped it on me; “Oh Kenny, jump up with us tonight and play a couple of songs”, and I’m probably not that confident a guy that I can just jump up. I like to be reasonably well rehearsed, to at least know that we’re all playing the same parts at the same time! But I think I’d be quite delighted to be able to do that. Like I say, I’m the host of the venue, and it would be quite fitting, really.
Moving on, and next year is Judas Priest’s 50th anniversary; what do you think about the idea of doing something like Metallica did; with Judas Priest performing with former members including you, Al Atkins, and Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens?
Yeah, lots of things could happen, but I think the main thing is, lots of people are saying to me; “Will you be included? Are the band talking to you about the 50th anniversary?”, because obviously, it’s a pivotal point, that anniversary. I mean, I was there fifty years ago; Al Atkins was the singer fifty years ago; Ian was there, and so; “Are you going to be included?” Well the answer is; I don’t know. It’s the other guys that need to be asked as it's obviously their decision. Many people are asking me what might happen, when only those guys can say, but people do want to know.
You seem, recently, to be making the same sort of noises that Rob Halford was back before he rejoined Judas Priest; that you’d be well up for a reunion.
Well, how can I explain; I was okay, really, throughout the years that I hadn’t been in the band. I was just hoping that I would automatically, naturally [rejoin], because, there wasn’t any rifts or anything really. We were hard-working and long-time mates, you know? I mean, I went through infant school and stuff like that with Ian [Hill, bass guitarist]. I’ve never had an argument with Ian, ever, or the other guys, really. I always thought that I would get the respect, and get what I was entitled to, because we’ve all worked in a band for years.
For me, it was forty years or more, and you work towards a pension and everything, but things started to go not right, and I wasn’t particularly happy about that. I was fine to be left alone, and to leave them alone, but I wasn’t getting the respect that I deserved, and so I’m thinking well, maybe, if I’m not going to rejoin the band, maybe it’s time for me to play with some other guys. I wanted to research that, so I’m here now!
I don’t wish to push you on that, because I’m sure you’re sick of being misquoted and reading the headlines.
Yeah, I mean, I try to answer questions with good guys like yourself, who I have good relationships with, and I want to keep the relationships. I don’t want to say; “no, I’m not answering those questions”, and I don’t want to lie to those questions; I want to try to answer honestly.
You have been misquoted a lot in the last few years.
I have! I’m fine, but the thing is, the guys in the band [Judas Priest] will probably make a statement for the fans at some point as to give their assessment of the situation so that it kind of puts everything to rest. Whatever they decide, The thing is, I’m doing interviews because I want to; I want to connect with the fans and the media because I’m in the industry, and that’s what I do; I write a book, I played a show today, so I’m doing things that people out there are interested to find out about.
Back to today, and it’s just great to see you back on stage once again.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s good, and for me, I’ve never really played with anybody else. I’ve never played live with any other musicians like that, and these guys are good players, and it sounded good up there.
Finally, the big question is what’s happening going forward for you; any plans to follow up the book with another?
Well, I think, for the moment, I have been asked to do another book, and I think potentially, it would be in the pipeline, but then, I’m not sure, because I think chapters are still unfolding in real life for me, and I think the next few months are going to be very important for me.
But going back to Bloodstock, and there are some things about it that I really did miss. I mean, the festival atmosphere is great; you’re backstage, you’re meeting all these people you haven’t seen for ages, you get to do a fan signing, and see a lot of familiar faces. I used to go to a lot of festivals as a fan, so I’ve been on both sides of the security guards, and it’s fantastic on both sides. I would have to say that I really miss being out there as a fan as well! So, it’s good, and I got a taste for it again the other day, which puts me in awkward position with next year’s situation, really. I think, as we were saying, I think it would be great if the fans and the media had an insight into what plans the band do have or don’t have for next year.
Like this interview? Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for regular updates & more of the same.
K.K. Downing's 'Heavy Duty - Days And Nights In Judas Priest' is out now.