KK Downing formed one-half of the iconic guitar duo in Judas Priest that laid down the sonic blueprint of how heavy metal guitars should be played. Nearly five decades later, he stands as one of the single most influential people in the genre that we love, but his place in it has been remarkably different in the last of those.
Having left Judas Priest in 2011, a few years of appearing in more headlines than songs come to an end this year with the arrival of Sermons of the Sinner, the first album from his newly formed project KK's Priest featuring former Judas Priest comrades such as Tim "Ripper" Owens alongside new players like co-guitarist A.J. Mills. Not quite the embittered move some might tell you, KK is in jovial spirits as he finally has the vessel to channel his own style and his own musical legacy authentically at his own pace.
It's been ten years now since you were out of Judas Priest so a lot of fans will be curious as to why now is the time you're coming back to making new music.
I had been busy, when I quit Priest I went into producing several albums and guesting on albums, mentoring bands, and then somebody somehow coaxed me into doing something at Bloodstock. I was meant to receive an award there so I said I’d come along, then they asked if I would play a couple of songs. I thought, “What do you mean, I’m not Ed Sheeran, I can’t jump up there with a ukulele and bang a couple of tunes out”, and they said it would be doing a couple tunes with Ross the Boss. So I went ahead and did that, and that was great, that was fun. That was just like riding a bike and after that I had an opportunity to do a couple of songs with the Dave Ellefson band. One thing led to another, it grew and grew, somebody offered to fly Ripper over who said he’d be there, and after that Christmas in 2019 I just started wondering if I could put an album together. Christmas is pretty boring to me so I sat down and wrote and it came together really, really fast. I was inquisitive to see what I could actually do on my own. Me, Rob and Glenn were a writing trio, and so when this all came about I began to feel very confident in putting a band together around that. That was the right order to do it in, rather than putting a band together first then embarrassing yourself with writer’s block. Within four weeks I’d got some rough but comprehensive demos.
Is this the first album you’ve written like that then since Nostadramus?
Yes, and that came about pretty fast considering it was a lot of material. I would have to say that myself and Glenn really excelled on that album with the material. Because we had the license to delve into classical areas with the concept it made it easier really because we could expand musically the boundaries of what we were doing. We had rock and metal but also had the classical areas to move into.
Unsurprisingly this material has a lot of classic Priest vibes with the riffing because that's how you write, but within the spectrum of what Priest have done there are different areas like Painkiller being faster, the really old school 70s and 80s sounds, and then the records you did with Tim like Jugulator have their own sound too, so would you say there are any specific points in your musical history that this takes notes from?
I think I really just did what came naturally to me. I was obviously producing the record, I’m pretty well versed in that with how much me and Glenn did in the studio, but the music came very easily. I always had a catalogue of ideas that I delved into, and there are things on this album that come from 1982 probably or 1983. Some stuff had not been accepted into Judas Priest and I went back and thought, “That’s good”. I was more interested in making sure the drums sounded big and raw, that the guitars didn’t sound oversaturated, making sure you could hear everything that the bass does. I played more solo stuff on this record than I got to do with Priest.
Yourself and Glenn in Judas Priest formed a twin guitar sound that became so influential on metal going forward, so with this band was it an aim to be able to achieve that again or are you individually brought a lot more to the fore with maybe something to prove about your guitar skills and what you brought to Priest?
I should’ve done more in Priest because I can do more. That will be seen on the record really but obviously the guitar parts are shared. Just for people’s information, I’m on the left side as you are looking at your speakers, and A.J. is on the right, that’s how we always used to do it so you can identify who is playing what. There’s a bit of a crazy solo in Hail for the Priest where I pan all across using feedback which is pretty cool. Everything that you would expect on a traditional Priest album is there because that’s what I do. This album could have potentially came out in 80s I think, or in the mid 00s when we did Angel of Retribution, but this is me doing it my way without the collaboration of the other guys.
You've said that this band is in your words "about being in the twilight for me", which not every veteran musician would be as honest as to say. How important is it for you with this band to not pretend that you're doing something revolutionary, and how did you go about writing new material with that recognition as part of your mindset?
I’ve spoke about it before that so many younger bands and newer bands since the 90s really, where we even got caught up in it with the Ripper years, everything had to sound different to what it did in the 70s and 80s. People felt that they had to move on with different brands of metal and different detuning, then bands like Linkin Park having these different idealisations, and that’s great but for me I have to do traditionally what I like. If you’re a chef and you’ve got a restaurant, you need to put on the menu what you feel comfortable cooking. I’m really in the comfort zone on this record. Having said that, there are so many emotions and sentimental feelings on this record that if you look for them they are there, in the artwork for example. It’s all-encompassing, where everything that is inside of me is on this record. There’s rejoicing about how far we’ve come, and that this music is still here, that we don’t care that people might say it’s old-fashioned. It’s a part of us and we’re a part of it, and we can’t deny that. There’s a song like Metal Through and Through which is saying I’m on the stage, and you’re in the audience this time, but the roles revolve. I’m a fan too and I go to concerts. This genre of metal didn’t exist when I was growing up. 1965 was the first time that my ears heard something that was built for them. So many people who like me were white kids growing up in poor areas of the country heard Clapton and Jimmy Page and some guys who were just a year or so older than me, we latched onto the black blues and that was fantastic and was what we had. We weren’t subjected to the same oppression that that music came from but we had our own deprivation in our areas, and so we embraced it and then wanted to expand it. I’ve witnessed the evolution of heavy metal as we know it today, from blues to progressive blues, rock, hard rock, heavy metal, I saw it and became a part of it. This album recognises that story and looks back over that history.
Do you have any thoughts on metal's place in popular culture at the moment in terms of not having the same position in the mainstream as it did during Judas Priest’s commercial peak in the 1980s, and how younger bands might break through and make it?
It’s the hardest thing in the world to try and slot in. When you think of all of the great bands that came up through the 60s, 70s and 80s, it just ran its course through to the end of that commercially. That was when Rob Halford left Judas Priest, Bruce left Maiden, and I think a lot of other bands were coming through trying to make their niche with the Panteras and lots of bands who were heavier than us. There was a turnaround where people felt they had to be more modern and new, so the so-called classic and true metal went underground for a while. A big part of the message of this album Sermons of the Sinner is that we have to be careful that this particular genre doesn’t end up as a page in the history books. Through this album I’m saying that I’m here, we can still create this and it can still be alive and well, with an awareness that the dinosaurs will fade out at some point. Let’s have the awareness that while it’s around let’s enjoy and appreciate it. I look at other bands and artists who are still around who are a similar age to me, and while they’re still there doing that, appreciate that and go see them. If UFO or Scorpions or anyone like that came to near me, I would be there in a millisecond, even if there was only one or two members still there I would enjoy seeing the songs performed and just enjoy those moments.
Is that part of why with this new band, you have included other musicians you have played with before such as Tim Owens and Les Binks, but alongside newer younger musicians to have that mix of old and new blood?
Exactly. Apart from the guys being my ideal choice, the age difference says that. There’s no reason why albums and bands like this shouldn’t be around. If a young band of twenty year-olds arrived like a new Deep Purple, I’d welcome that. Without trying to reinvent the wheel, you can present your own particular interpretation, where we have that young Zeppelin-style band with Greta Van Fleet and they do it fantastically well. You can’t say that the resemblance is not there but it’s new material and very valid. Hopefully we can inspire lots of new musicians to take something from what we’re doing.
Going back to the new material, there's the track Return of the Sentinel which obviously is a sequel to the original Sentinel track and is a much longer song than even Priest tended to do very often. Was that a welcome challenge in flexing your compositional muscles and why The Sentinel story of everything Priest did to follow up on?
A friend of mine suggested it a long time ago and it kinda went over my head, but the more I thought about it, it’s nice and rewarding for me to take just a little bit of my heritage and look at that again. It’s kind of comforting and I had the storyline for it, and if this album ends up being a part of my epitaph then it is a great befitting look back. It’s quite emotional and when I get to a certain point in the album with that, it’s really quite a journey for me taking it all in. If for whatever reason I wasn’t able to do anything else, I would be extremely happy to be able to deliver this record the way that it is. We are pushing on, I have written enough for a second album already, though we won’t be turning to that until everything is done with the promotion of this record.
When live shows arrive as part of that, have you considered bringing out some Judas Priest songs that maybe you favour that didn't get into the old Priest setlists very much now that you've got full say on the matter?
Absolutely, yes. There is some stuff that we never played that I would particularly like to play. Obviously we’ll be playing stuff from the new album, from the Ripper era, and I would like to revisit some songs that I would like to perform. Having said that, we probably will be inviting fans to take part in helping shape that but people have so many different ideas about that of course with their favourites.
With this record, after the last few years of being more vocal about your time in Priest and your exit from Priest, do you feel like its release can provide some sense of tying it all up and having something to show for this period that you can let do the talking?
I think so. I was delighted that I was able to quite quickly and efficiently be able to do all of this. The same with the videos as well. Irrespective of what anybody thinks, this whole band will have its identity and is bound to because when I start working with the other guys more on the next record and we have a combination of people’s input, it will develop. I’m very much looking forward to really consolidating the whole being of KK’s Priest because I know that some of the fans are thinking that I’m just doing my version of a band that already exists. It’s not that, but at the same time I have to be true and loyal to myself. I can’t change. Older people don’t, we just carry on the same. We are who we are, and I’m fine with that.