EXCLUSIVE! K.K. Downing is gearing up for his first real return to the stage since he parted ways with Judas Priest almost a decade ago. For the show at his club KK’s Steel Mill in Wolverhampton, Ken has assembled a cast that includes former Priest members Les Binks (drums) and Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens (vocals), and Megadeth’s David Ellefson on bass. “I can get lasers, flame-throwing things, smoke machines – anything really – it’ll just be like a Priest set, as you’d expect it to”, he tells us as we sit down for a chat. There's also the small matter of Judas Priest's possible induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to discuss. Delivering the goods; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi K.K., welcome back to eonmusic; how are you today?
Hey, how’re you doing Buddy?! I’m good.
You’ve recently begun rehearsals for the upcoming show; how’s that been?
Well, when I did the Ross the Boss thing, I didn’t meet them until Friday, and I was on stage with them on Sunday at like 1pm, so it was too much pressures. These guys, Ripper and Ellefson are flying over, but they’ve got commitments, so we might have two, or maybe three days before the show, hopefully, but Dave said he needed to rehearse with his band to do the Megadeth stuff as well when he gets here. So I said; “I’ll get a jump start, and I’ll get Les up for a couple of days, and we’ll blow the cobwebs out”, because we haven’t played together in a long time. It’s a pretty testing set, to be fair. And with A.J. [Mills], the other guitar player I’m going to be playing with, it gives us an opportunity to get our stuff together. We had a stand in singer and a stand in bass player, and we just had a good time running through.
That does give you a good head start on things.
It does, because, really, we have to nail an awful lot of guitar parts with precision, and the drums are critical. Singers, they can practice in the bath, right? It’s remembering the words more than anything, isn’t it?
You haven’t played with Les since the ‘Killing Machine’ tour in about ’78 / ’79, is that right?
Yeah, exactly that. He’s just such a great drummer; he’s done it all his life. But that was good. There’s parts that we still need to go back and practice up on our own, so I just wanted to do that as soon as I could.
How long is the set going to be?
I think we’re down for about an hour and fifteen minutes, something like that.
How do you go about choosing a set list from such a vast catalogue?
Well, I like to think I’m pretty good at doing stuff like this, really. Obviously there’s so many songs to choose from. And that’s why I said - as I did with Ross the Boss - I said; “absolutely nobody can get wind of this set list”, for lots of different reasons. The main reason is I want the fan experience to be at its peak when the lights go down and we come on. I don’t want them knowing exactly what the set list is, because it just creates more anticipation and excitement, really. And for me up there, if they know exactly what I’m going to deliver up, it just takes the edge off, really.
This is your own show in your own club; it’s a very different beast to your appearance with Ross the Boss in the summer.
It is, completely; this is a full blown Priest set to me; I’ve got Ripper, I’ve got Les, and obviously playing all of these songs, to me, I’ll be up there doing what I’ve always done in the way that I do it. It’ll just be like I’m in Priest, and that’s it.
The ‘Jugulator’ and ‘Demolition’ era of Judas Priest is one that I don’t think anyone could have envisioned appearing on stage once more; what’s it like to be stepping into those shoes again?
It’s great. Obviously we’ll play some stuff from the Ripper years and we’ll play some stuff from the Les Binks years, and I think I’ve got one song lined up that no Priest has ever played before. And that’s not just to promote the show – it’s just a song that I’ve always wanted to play, but never had the agreement from everybody to want to play it.
You must personally, be very excited for this show?
I am! I’m really stoked about it because the Steel Mill is a big place. When you go into the main area, there’s lots of places that you don’t get to see, to the point that we’re going to be building lockups for bands, rehearsal rooms for bands, and a recording studio. There’s an in house production company there, sound and lights, and because I’m able to use that stuff that’s available to me, I can get lasers, flame-throwing things, smoke machines – anything really – it’ll just be like a Priest set, as you’d expect it to.
You’ve kept the prices low, and you’re billing this as show as giving something back to the fans.
Yeah, exactly that. I said to the guys; keep it low, because fans say to me all the time; “when are you going to play for us?”, and it’s our first year anniversary [of the opening of the club], so let’s do something different. So, as a thank you to all the fans, I said let’s just drop the ticket price, because we’re not actually a band - we don’t have a band name! So I said let’s do that, and encourage people to travel from further afield, really. That was the plan. We did release 200 VIP tickets, which was experimental really, end they sold out in just under two hours.
The fans have been waiting to see you get back up on stage, and you’ve resisted until now; was the Bloodstock appearance the catalyst for you to finally do it?
Yeah. And it’s not always easy. But it’s a Sunday night, so I said let’s make it early finish show, and promote it as that and finish at 10.15pm. Doors open at 5pm for VIP, and general admission – which is a tenner – is at 6.30pm. And I think that it’s a good thing to do because people can get the last bus, train or whatever, which is great for people travelling from further afield who’ve got to get to work, school, college or whatever the next morning. I’m not expecting whatever, but if there’s a thousand people there, I’d be very happy.
The show is a real event, with you and David doing a book signing, and a Q&A as well.
It is. It’s a night out, and I want it to be because the Steel Mill has such an atmosphere. I’ve been there and you see stalls, beer, selling this and selling that, we’ve got David’s Coffee, Motley Brew, all of that. It just creates a good atmosphere.
You’ve got the backdrop from the 1986 ‘Fuel For Life’ [‘Turbo’] tour hanging on the wall as well!
That was in one of the farm buildings where I used to live! There’s the smaller ‘Jugulator’ one as well, but I think that that’s a bit trashed, but yeah, that’s hanging up somewhere. Yeah, there’s Judas Priest flight cases knocking around too.
Do you still have things like a lot of gold discs?
It’s difficult as you get older. I’m 68 this month, and it gets difficult if you have an estate and if you’ve got bits and pieces that people don’t know the value of. I’m quite happy to sell stuff and liquidate the cash, because if something happens to me, that’s easy to deal with. But I mean, I’ve still got, oh, I don’t know how many guitars I’ve got still, but I must have 30 or more, but my family wouldn’t have the heart so sell them if something happened to me. It would be tough for them, so I’m just taking charge of managing things.
You did sell quite a few guitars at auction in late 2018.
Yeah, it’s a difficult one because, if I died, the things probably would be worth more, but there’s a massive market out there at the moment for these things. I mean, that one guitar I sold [K.K’s 1967 Gibson Flying V which sold for £150,000] made the Guinness Book of Records; it’s the highest amount paid for a guitar in my genre of music, Bonham’s [auction house] told me.
Was it a difficult decision to let go of that guitar at all?
Not really. I hadn’t played that guitar since probably 1982 or 1093. That was the last time I played that guitar anywhere. But it kind of makes sense really, so I think slowly, I’ll just consolidate everything. That’s what people have advised me to do, as opposed to having stuff all over the place. I mean, if you keep a couple of tokens for the family like a Grammy or a few platinum discs; it’s something they can look at, but they don’t need boxes full, do they, from a shed, and not know what to do with them?!
Richie Faulkner has recently said; “I wish, personally, it had been a different outcome and everyone was getting on fine and Ken could come back and everyone was friends and we could do it for the last tour”; what’s your take on that?
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Richie was thinking that way because he’s a guitar player, and he knows me, and Riche said some complimentary things about my performance at Bloodstock; that I looked good and played good. Richie spent a lot of time learning my guitar parts and my solos, so he knows my capabilities as a guitar player. And as a perfomer, he’s watched the videos and he’s heard me play, and he must be thinking “we would be an absolutely kick-ass guitar duo”. And I kind of think that that would be the case, to be fair.
You’ve recently been nominated for induction with Judas Priest into the 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; how does it feel to get the nod again?
Yeah, it’s great, because it’s some accolade, really. The Hall of Fame, it’s not easy to get in there. It’s difficult, and it takes even giant bands a lifetime even to be nominated. I don’t think Black Sabbath were too fast, so I guess you have to be of an age.
You were last nominated in 2018; is it nice to get a second bite at the cherry?
Yeah. Well, it is a fact that we’re 50 years old, and the last time we didn’t get in. We’re not all here, obviously; Dave Holland [drummer 1979 – 1989, who died in 2018] has gone, and he wasn’t a young man when he went, really. But I think sometimes you have to ask yourself; “what do you have to do?” I think that there’s a bit of a divide as well, between State side an European side. To me as a fan, the other bands that have been nominated, like Motörhead, they’re just giants and a part of my life, and part of a lot of people’s life. There’s also a lot of European bands like The Scorpions.
It sounds like the nomination actually does mean something to you.
Yeah, I think it does really, because in years to come, when you look back at your career and everything, I think it’s like anybody in certain walks of life, in the world of sports or film; you can always look at your trophy cabinet. I think it comes down to the trophies that you’ve got really. It’s not an easy gig to get really, getting in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and not everybody makes it, and a lot of great artists don’t.
The question has to be asked about the possibility of your playing with Judas Priest, should the induction happen.
Yeah, that’s an interesting one really. I don’t know what the deal is, if a nominated person like me or Les Binks gets in, are we entitled to play? I don’t know how that all works, but I guess we’ll fathom that all out. I would imagine for one day that people can sensibly think; “well, it doesn’t matter. Nothing else matters; what matters is that we’ve achieved this”. Collectively, we have played our part, and it should be a moment of splendour really, and enjoyment, and something that we can be pretty grateful of. And it doesn’t hurt, you know? It’s often said that funerals bring people together – that’s not to say that getting in the Hall of Fame’s a funeral! – but this could maybe have an effect that it just gives us the opportunity to get together and get on the stage and just enjoy the moment, really.
Judas Priest are in the top 5 currently, in the fan vote; you must be pretty positive about the band's chances of getting in this time around?
Yeah, absolutely. I know there was a lot of disappointment last time we didn't make it, and I can't speak for everyone, but I would imagine that everyone is thinking that yeah, this could be the one. And I hope that it is, because I think it would be a fitting, and a good thing to do, and I'm happy with it. I would like us to be together and enjoy this moment before it's too late and we may not be around to enjoy it. It's sad that Dave Holland is no longer with us, and I think I would feel pretty remorseful. Memories live on, and I think that I would like that opportunity to be over at that ceremony, and to be able to quite rightfully remind people. Obviously, Dave's name would be mentioned, we'd be playing songs probably that he played on, and that would be a nice moment, I think.
Have you a message for those who are thinking of voting?
Yeah, I would like people to vote for us. I mean, it's a tricky situation for me, because good friends and superstars in their own right are also nominated. There's no doubt in my mind that Motörhead must get in there at some point, and Thin Lizzy must as well. I mean, I knew Lemmy quite well, and we went back a long way. And I can remember supporting Lizzy quite a few times in the early '70s. But everybody's day will come, I guess.
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K.K. Downing with Les Binks, David Ellefson and Ripper Owens play KK's Steel Mill on Sun 3rd Nov 2019. For tickets, click here.