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KK Downing on quitting Priest, the trouble with Priest, and KK's Priest

KK Downing holding a guitar
(Image credit: Will Ireland)

A co-founder of the second configuration of Judas Priest, from 1970 onwards KK Downing was with the Midlands-based band for 41 years, making 17 albums with them that wrote the template for heavy metal as we know it. 

However, behind the scenes tension brewed within the creative nucleus of Downing, guitarist Glenn Tipton and lead singer Rob Halford, and the latter opted to leave following a world tour supporting their 1990 album Painkiller

To replace Halford, Downing, Tipton, bassist Ian Hill and drummer Scott Travis brought in Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, the American frontman with Judas Priest tribute act British Steel. 

Despite re-establishing Priest as a live act, the band’s two albums with Owens – Jugulator and Demolition – flopped, and in 2003 Priest bowed to fan pressure and reunited with Halford. Downing’s explosive memoir Heavy Duty: Days And Nights In Judas Priest later lifted the lid on tensions that had festered within the band and their backroom team, and in 2010 he announced his retirement from the group. 

In 2019 a pre-planned Special Guest spot with former Manowar guitarist Ross The Boss at the Bloodstock Festival served as the catalyst to the launch his band KK’s Priest, with a line-up that was intended to include two of his former Priest bandmates: Owens and drummer Les Binks. 

Later in 2019 the trio, augmented by Megadeth bassist David Ellefson and Hostile guitarist AJ Mills, played a set of Priest songs at the Steel Mill, the Wolverhampton venue owned by Downing. Debut albums Sermons Of The Sinner is out now. 

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Did you seriously consider yourself retired when you quit Priest in 2011? 

No, not at all. 

There was always a chance you’d return? 

Absolutely. By 2010 things reached a boiling point and I had a bit of a breakdown, I think. I just couldn’t do it any more. Too many elements were no longer right. Rob had done two studio albums within about a year, and done a tour with his own band playing Priest songs. We did the Ozzfest and went to Peru, and that wasn’t very good. Then they asked me to do a five-track EP to support the farewell tour, which we had all agreed would be the end of the band, and I said no. I told them fuck it all, basically, and I sent my so-called retirement letter. 

I tried to keep things amicable, but I was relying on those guys to make sure I received what I was entitled to [financially]. And then, three months later, I started to change my mind. I spoke to Ian [Hill] about doing the tour and asked to see the set-list, which I really liked. I had expected Glenn [Tipton] to have his own way, but it was a great set-list. 

The next morning they released the press release [saying he was retiring]. That was deflating. So I sat in the wings, expecting an opportunity [to rejoin]. Then when Glenn retired [due to contracting Parkinson’s disease, in 2018 Tipton ceased touring] I totally thought they’d call me. When they didn’t I was despondent, completely gutted. Since then I’ve written a couple of times, but come to the conclusion the door is closed. So I’ve moved on.

When the golf course you owned went into administration, you sold your royalties to 136 Judas Priest songs. 

Lots of things happen in life. I’d had the golf course five years before I quit the band. It was managed by a professional company. It’s just what the guys were telling the world – that’d I’d retired. I submitted my retirement letter in December 2010, and they put out the press release. 

You were unhappy with the way your side of the story was presented? 

That’s why the second letter said: “Ignore everything – these are the real reasons.” I told them I was planning to sell the golf course, but they didn’t reveal that. It suited them to tell the world I had retired. I had to carry that cross with the fans who thought I was neglecting them for rubbish reasons.

You’ve still got the music venue in Wolverhampton, KK’s Steel Mill

I’m so proud of that. Cheap Trick are coming up. So is Michael Schenker. It’s even bigger now, the new capacity is three and a half thousand.

What happened to former Judas Priest drummer Les Binks, who is no longer part of KK’s Priest? 

I sent the demos, and when Les didn’t get straight back to me I thought something was afoot. He had a wrist injury – and this stuff is very demanding to play. So, graciously, he backed out and we got Sean [Elg], who had played in Ripper’s band [the Three Tremors]. He can play Painkiller fantastically, but with Les it just wasn’t to be. 

Les Binks would like to make guest appearances on tour. Are you open to that? 

That was my suggestion, actually. This is KK’s Priest, and we’re all of an age now where we need to enjoy everything. There has been speculation that now bassist David Ellefson is no longer with Megadeth he might join KK’s Priest. No. Because we’ve been together for a year and a half and Tony [Newton, of Voodoo Six] has done such a great job, not only as a band member but also handling the production and engineering. He also gets involved in the videos. He’s a great all-rounder. 

Did you consider any singers other than Ripper Owens? 

No, no. I was really hopeful that Ripper would want the gig. I don’t know what we’d have done had he said no. 

With him having been ‘let go’ to bring Rob Halford back, was it a difficult conversation? 

No. We had remained in touch. What happened [to end his spell with Priest] was just an unfortunate set of circumstances. He’s such a great vocalist, and fans know that there’s usually one voice associated with one band: Klaus [Meine] is the voice of Scorpions, just as Bruce [Dickinson] is the voice of Maiden, and Dave [Lee Roth] will always be the voice of Van Halen because I saw them with him first. That [association] is what happened with Priest. We did a couple of albums with Ripper, and maybe if we had written a different type of material things might not have turned out the way they did.

KK’s Priest’s debut album, Sermons Of The Sinner, is a screaming dizbuster of a heavy metal album, no apologies offered nor required. It’s almost a caricature of the genre

That’s what comes out of me. And what I liked about making it is that there was no need to confer with other people. 

You’re the sole writer of it

Completely, yeah. If the ideas hadn’t come I’d have looked bloody stupid, but I’m extremely happy with it, though going forward from here everyone will be getting stuck in.

What does Sermons Of The Sinner have that the Jugulator and Demolition albums didn’t? 

It has elements of classic Judas Priest. When we brought in Ripper, the writing took a different turn. Those albums were different to anything before or after. Sermons is me going back to what Judas Priest does best. 

Return Of The Sentinel is a nine-minute sequel to the track from Priest’s 1984 album Defenders Of The Faith

Like I say, I can’t change who I am. I mean that musically, emotionally or as a person. I’m devoted to Judas Priest. I was never the guy that went away and played with other bands or had my own website and sold my own T-shirt. This album presents a statement: This is KK Downing. I won’t be around forever, and I want younger bands to hear it and think: “This is great.” Wouldn’t it be great if we had a young version of Deep Purple or the Scorpions? Are Greta Van Fleet another Led Zeppelin? The answer is probably yes. 

The album’s press release claims that KK’s Priest are inspired by those we have lost – people like Lemmy and Ronnie James Dio – and says fans should savour the music while we are all on the right side of the turf

That’s it exactly. Enjoy and appreciate it all. It [this genre] is coming to an end unless we can get some new blood. Otherwise it just becomes a page in a history book. 

Amid the maelstrom on the album, Metal Through And Through is an epic, eight-minute ballad – with keyboards

Yeah, there are keys in the melodic part. With this album I wanted to try every element that could work. I am metal through and through and the fans are metal through and through. When we play live we can rejoice in the fact that we’re all metal through and through, unashamedly.

Obviously, Judas Priest still exists. Some detractors have labelled KK’s Priest as a tribute band

As a twenty-five-per-cent director of the Judas Priest company, and a shareholder, why wouldn’t they allow me to come back out of retirement? I believe that I, justifiably, have an entitlement [to continue the name]. 

Rob Halford’s autobiography, Confess, is a great read, but he handled your Priest exit in a lightweight manner

When all is said and done, Rob knows I was the guy that brought him back into Priest [in 2003]. Glenn [Tipton] wasn’t happy about it, and I understood that, because after he left Rob said a few things about the band – a lot more than I ever did. Given a choice, I think Rob would have had me back in the band. We had fought so many battles together and travelled so many miles. 

Did you ever really forgive Halford for leaving Priest? Around the time of Demolition, you told me: “Everybody in this band categorically believes that Rob Halford should never sing with us again [because] he doesn’t deserve it.” 

Well, it all got proper ugly – Rob’s first album [with Fight] was called War Of Words. It was an ugly affair. Look, artists have difficult temperaments. There’s good, bad and ugly within us all and we get fired up about things. How many times have you broken up with a girlfriend and said never again, and a year later she’s back? Shit happens in life. Rob is a great performer, everybody knows that. But he’s sensitive. I can’t guarantee to say all of the right things in an interview, because everybody’s human. 

One of the main reasons people like you is that you say what’s on your mind. For example, in your own autobiography you revealed that you told Tipton and Priest manager Jayne Andrews that you had “hated” them both “since 1985”. When I read the book, I had to read that paragraph again. 

[Laughs darkly] Like I said, I had been on the phone to Ian about doing the farewell tour and [after he was snubbed by the band] I was angry. Glenn had formed a relationship with Jayne from day one, and it felt a bit like a John and Yoko situation. I didn’t like that. 

You have already spoken of your astonishment that Priest didn’t ask you to rejoin when Tipton opted to stop touring. Given those comments in the book, were you really surprised? 

[After some moments of silence] Yes, I was. Isn’t everyone allowed a moment when they throw their toys out of the pram? Back then my head was all over the place, and I really considered it the logical move. 

Finally, how much of this is about revenge? 

No. That’s completely the wrong word. Now I know that I can do this without Glenn, Rob, or Ian, it’s an absolute pleasure and a treat. I wasn’t sure about doing the book. The fans know me, but only as part of a team. And I am a team player. But one of the reasons for doing the book and making this album is that I wanted the fans to get to know me, as me. That’s what KK’s Priest is about. I would say three things to the fans: enjoy it, let me know what you think, and let’s rock out.

Sermons Of The Sinner is out now via Explorer1 Music Group.