Interview with Guitar God and Heavy Metal Hero K.K. Downing (former Judas Priest)
COSMICK VIEW: Hello, K.K.! Welcome to The Cosmick View. Thank you for taking some time out of your day to chat with me, it's greatly appreciated.
K.K. Downing: How you doing there, Mick? No problem at all mate!
K.K. Downing: How you doing there, Mick? No problem at all mate!
CV: In your experience, is it possible to recreate one's self musically as an artist or is it essentially just a new play on an old hat so to say?
KK: That's a very good question. Who knows…probably a combination of the both…I haven’t really thought about it too much. But I think the answer possibly could be yes to both.
CV: We have seen a lot of artists and bands from the 80s in the past ten years or so making a comeback. Are they trying something new reinventing themselves, or are they just kind of redoing what they did before with the hopes touching a new audience?
KK: It's a difficult one really. I guess if you are going to attempt to come back, you need to learn from your mistakes and get everything right the second time around.
KK: Yeah, basically David was coming to the UK just to do a small tour that he does every year with his bass story band. And I'm involved with a venue in Wolverhampton in the Midlands, about five miles from Birmingham. And I said “would you like to maybe put in extra show there?” He said “yeah…will you come up on stage and play a couple of the songs” and I said okay. He said “well great, if you will I'll bring Ripper over.” And then I said “well, if you bring Ripper over maybe I’ll give Les Binks a shout and maybe we can do something a bit more than just a jam, you know” And one thing led to another and we decided to put together a full on set of Priest songs and so that's what we did.
CV: Any chance we will see this line up write and record an all original album or even hit the road for more shows?
KK: Yes… well I think to start with, playing live shows would be a better option because everybody, after this show that we did, is really eager to do it again, Mick. And rather than lock ourselves away in the studio for a year or two song writing and recording, we are actually speaking to a lot of people about going forward…especially for myself, if that’s the options that are open to me…it’s not a bad option at all really.
CV: Your book, "Heavy Duty: Days and Nights in Judas Priest," gives a telling narrative of your personal journey in one of the most influential Metal bands in history. You touched upon many things in the book. Were there certain things, however, you were a bit hesitant or struggled to include in the book?
KK: Yeah I think if everyone sat down to write their life story and go and make it public access for everyone, I guess there are a lot of things you have to think about carefully. Because sometimes you want to be very truthful but you know at the same time you don't want to hurt people… it can happen you know. So you have to be pretty selective but to try to be most truthful and honest as you possibly can be without hurting people. It's a fine line. I think what I did with the book is pretty good really… I'm quite happy with that. You know it takes a lot of thinking about it.
CV: Though most would consider an artist's autobiography to be a tell all account of their life and career, were there some topics or memories you purposely did not include or even avoided all together out respect or to possibly protect both the innocent and guilty?
KK: Yeah, I think some things you just leave covered. The main thing is as long as I could put together a really good book...I think it's all about the motivation for doing a book in the first place, Mick. Because you know, I thought about it, why would I do a book…and I'm thinking, well I'm getting to an age where I better do it now you know, while I can really…while my memory's still not too bad (laughs), while I’m still around.
And then I thought; well a lot of fans and people know of me but not many people can say that they know me. And so I thought through the book I would try to expose myself a little bit more and give more access to people to get to know me a little bit better…and I think that that was a good reason. And of course a lot of things I did with the band through a lifetime and I thought I would want to share quite a lot of that with the fans…and also bring about the best conclusions I could as to why I decided to make my departure from something that was my creation and my life…my legacy and my pension and everything… I just thought I wanted to try to give as best explanation I possibly could.
CV: K.K., after reading your book, do you think fans were surprised to find out the personal turmoil you experienced while you were with Judas Priest? It seemed to be a well kept secret.
KK: Yeah I think that it's like any relationship long term, you know…the gremlins are going to come out and it's hard to make relationships work. I mean, even now, all of us are in relationships with our family, with our friends, with our wives, girlfriends and in the workplace. I think relationships, to be fair, are probably responsible for making our lives a bloody misery, (laughs)…well, more so than a happy place.
Just thinking in general, as kids we had relationships at school with friends and teachers…it was always more of an angry place to be than a place of euphoria I think. So, I won’t be the first to make the statement that relationships in life are probably responsible for most of our unhappiness rather than happiness…maybe (laughs).
CV: Besides the obvious challenges bands face within the industry: record deals, label disputes, writing hit singles, having successful albums and tours, what do you see as the main reason bands often fail internally?
KK: Well I think that when we were young, when bands are young, they go through the motions and aspiring to do what they want to do, you know, become rock stars and to play on the world's big stages and everything, and you're doing that together…you know everything's great because everybody's got no money, usually (laughs) and so we're all the same. We're all as one. The drummer, the bass player, the singer…we are all equal. And we go forward because we're fighting in the trenches for the same thing. We are able to earn money to earn success and stuff like that and adoration. And then when it comes about that's when I think probably the divide starts to happen…you know, the so-called pecking order starts to implement itself. Inevitably you get stronger characters, weaker characters and then the divide starts to happen I think.
And then when the money starts to come in, then maybe somebody thinks well I deserve more of that money than the rest of the guys. So you get all of that thrown in bagging itself. I would say to bands that everyone needs to set their stall out to start with. But then again having said all that nobody earns anything unless you start to learn the business because that's what happened with us. I don't think we started to earn money until we started to have a reasonable knowledge of the business and how it works. And that's what needs to happen…you know because it's very easy to get taken advantage of. There's absolutely no doubt about that. And most bands in existence today could probably confess to that, yes, we thought and trusted people and we were wrong to do that.
CV: Though personality conflicts can often tear a band apart in the end, from your experience, do you feel that such tension and discord can also produce a level of music that is creatively unmatched otherwise when it comes to songwriting and emotional content? Can a band be dysfunctional and still be masterfully creative?
KK: Yes…yes I do think so…yeah. But it depends on the level of dysfunctionality really. You know if you're ready to kill each other and strangle each other (laughs) and there’s fistfights every night, it’s probably not going to work, but if you get over certain hurdles and you get past that, you know again like any other relationship, you can kind of make it work because everybody knows the boundaries and parameters in which they can actually be vocal, or physical (laughs) with band members. I guess there's no doubt that there was an element in Judas Priest
CV: Is it possible for a band to overcome such internal strife and focus on what matters the most; the music?
KK: Yeah, I think we did you know…at one point Rob couldn't make it work so he left the band for 14 years and then later on you know in 2011 the same thing happened to me where, you know, that's the last straw that breaks the camel's back and you just can't go on.
CV: In 2011 you made the decision to finally leave Judas Priest. What was it like for you immediately following your departure…over the first six to 12 months. What was your state of mind as you began processing the decision you made; being such a giant change going from being in this band for all these years and then you weren’t. How did you get back to normal life?
KK: Yeah. I think that while we remain optimistic of course, none of us have crystal balls…we really can’t see into the future. But personally I would just like everything about the industry to be the same as it was in the 70s and the 80s, more so you know, the golden decades, when everything was great and everything was new and fresh and you enjoy it… Put it this way, when young bands ask me for advice I always say to them “guys, I think the way to the future is you need to look to the past”…and I do believe that the answer to the future lies in the past because we've all grown older together. But we've got so many people on the planet with so many cherished memories of so many concerts and albums they'd bought…and vinyls and the whole thing…and it seems to be fading away along with a lot of the personnel sadly. But you know let's hang on to what we've got for as long as we can. And in some way, I will be there to be a part of that with everyone…all the dedicated fans supporting not just me and Judas Priest, but the genre that’s been created in general over those wonderful years that we've shared together.
CV: K.K., is being resilient an essential trait to possess as an artist to weather change in the business? Do you see your safe as a resilient artist?
KK: Yeah I think I am but I don't have to rely and depend on a lot of things that a lot of musicians have to. For example, if you're a 20 year old musician now, it's different for you because you don't have that heritage and legacy that someone like myself has, that I've been a part of, that I’ve been speaking about. So there will always be fans in the market for what I can truly create and deliver up and recreate by going out there and playing. For newer artists, I think they have to look for, as you said Mick, the industry and everything changing for the better you know, and it's a nervous time for a lot of artists. Like I said because they don't date back and luckily for them, and I'm jealous, that they are young (laughs). But so I say, I do have something in the archives that I can draw on and utilize and go forward as a lot of these people don't. But good luck to them. I hope the industry does do a u-turn and bring back to new artists what a lot of us had the benefit of years gone by.
CV: Do you believe a light at the end of the tunnel always exists for those artists who stay true to the course regardless of situations or circumstances?
KK: I wish I could say hand on heart that yes it will happen, but I think it's a bit of a lottery really. I think it's a bit of a guessing game. I hope something happens. But how it's going to be, what it's going to be I honestly can't say…I can't visualize it but I hope I'm wrong and it does exist and it does happen.
CV: Though the band has been eligible since 1999, how do you feel about Judas Priest being nominated again, a second time, for induction into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame? Is such recognition a sort of crowning jewel for you given the level of impact you have had in both the music world and with the fans...or is the fan support and loyalty over the years recognition enough?
KK: Yeah I would have to say why wouldn't anybody really appreciate being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's not easy to get in there. I would be lying if I said it wasn't an accolade that I would like to have on my mantle piece in the last years of my life really. It was fantastic to win a Grammy. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a statement of acknowledgement for what we've done. There are lots of great artists there and not in there and probably never will be in there and that's where it gets a bit contentious really. The ultimate icon of a musician in one person’s eyes might not be an icon in the majority of people's eyes, which doesn't mean to say that musician isn't a fantastic icon. And that's where I say it gets to be kind of strange. For example, to me, Lemmy from Motorhead should be because he's a character and what he did and what he achieved in the imagery and everything. You know for a lot of people on the planet yes he should be in a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because he's a great icon to many people. But for the majority of people that may not be the case…and I said that's where it gets a bit contentious.
All I can say is that Motorhead has been nominated…so as much I say to everybody vote for Priest, I also say vote for Motorhead as well (laughs) because those guys are worthy and great music icons to so many people including myself.
CV: Does such recognition change or affect how you view yourself and your career at all?
KK: Yes. I think that we were fine and in a happy place…the way the industry and everything was, before it did change. But I think that, yeah, it affects every band, where now the emphasis for bands is on playing live and touring because that's the livelihood and where the money is as opposed to recording…where before it was kind of an equal split you know. So it's not great that people think, well I'm going to carry on playing and not bother recording anymore albums…and that's not good for anybody, you know, including the fans.
So I suppose that is the biggest change. Therefore we're seeing ticket prices go through the roof. So yeah, I think that's probably the worst thing along with the fact that younger artists are not getting the supportive machinery anymore because bands are not getting signed as they did and don’t get the support financially and everything else, the machinery is not regularly there…available to them like it potentially was in the old days.
KK: Well, I can only say to stick in there you know…keep working hard, practicing hard, playing hard…hone your skills and try to carve out something that is unique as best you can. I think I mentioned before, try to learn something about the business, there’s lots of info there on the Internet now. If you do get that chance to make some money, make sure that you are getting what you deserve. So if you are looking to sign a merchandise deal, what is the standard? If you are looking to sign a management deal or an agency deal, just try to find out from as many people as you can or the internet, to find out what the standard is. Try to draw down a standard contract…they’re out there on the Internet…sample contracts and deals. And try not to make the mistakes that lots of us did make in the past by just quickly and regularly grabbing a dinner because it's there or the only one that you have. Do your homework.
And again, try to choose your band mates carefully (laughs) because you’re gonna have to actually spend an awful lot of time with them. That relationship can get very old and rocky quite quickly. So try to draw that compatibility and try to make everything as democratic as you possibly can. I think that's about all I can really offer.
CV: Does playing guitar still hold the same magic for you as it did all those years ago, like when you first seen Jimi Hendrix in ’67…do you still feel the thrill and power from it?
KK: Yeah it does…when the lights go down and the curtains go up and you go out there…it's still the same, it never changes. But for me it's all about being in the band that gives 100 percent as number one. And the second number one is connecting with the audience and sharing the experience with them, making them feel a part of the performance…as much as the band needs to feel an affinity and to be a part of the audience, it's the same. If you can make the audience feel as much a part of the band then it's a win, win situation…and that's what I'm all about really. It's about keeping the live performance real for me as much as you absolutely, possibly can.
CV: What's next for you? What can fans expect to see coming up?
KK: Well, I'm going to be out there doing it in and one way or another. That's a fact. And, I think that since doing the couple gigs I did, I've been approached by lots of people; managers, record companies and agents. In fact I've got a list on my desk here since we did the gig. We've had booking agents contact me even without management or agents or anything. They've come through my website, kkdowning.net…people from Brazil, promoters from France, Ireland, Japan, Spain, Italy, the Baltics, Finland and Latin America…so that's the list I’ve got so far (laughs) for gigs…which is very, very encouraging…extremely encouraging. So stay tuned and see what comes from K.K. and the guys from here on in.
CV: Thank you again K.K. for spending some time talking and sharing with
our readers. It was an honor. I wish you all the best and continued success.
KK: That’s brilliant, Mick. Thanks a lot for taking the time out as well and also giving me opportunity to communicate and reach out to the fans, and certainly, I hope to see you guys because I can guarantee you this, if the show comes to the States we'll be ready and it will be good and we will be very, very much looking forward to being out there, and again, connecting with fans as I mentioned previously.
CV: Thank you again Sir. Enjoy the Holiday Season and my best for the New Year!
KK: All the same to you, Mick. Hope to see you soon mate. Take care buddy.
KK: All the same to you, Mick. Hope to see you soon mate. Take care buddy.
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My name is Mick Michaels...I'm an artist, music fan, songwriter, producer, dreamer and guitarist for the traditional Heavy Metal band Corners of Sanctuary. Writing has always been a creative outlet for me; what I couldn't say in speech, I was able to do with the written word. Writing has given me a voice and a way for me to create on a multitude of platforms including music and song, articles, independent screenplays, books and now, artist interviews. The Cosmick View is an opportunity to raise the bar and showcase artists in a positive and inspirational light. For me, it's another out-of-this-world adventure.