K.K. Downing’s New Band KK’s Priest + ‘Sermons of the Sinner’ Helps Bring Sense of Closure [Interview]
A full decade after announcing he was leaving Judas Priest, the pioneering heavy metal band he co-founded in 1970, guitar legend K.K. Downing is back with a new band, KK's Priest, which most notably finds him linking back up with former Priest singer Tim 'Ripper' Owens, for the debut album, Sermons of the Sinner.
For any faithful metal fan, Downing's return has been long-awaited and despite creeping up on 70 years old, he hasn't mellowed with age in the slightest — or at least his riffs haven't on this 10-track record loaded with nods to a lifetime spent shaping and defining metal with Judas Priest.
With guitarist A.J. Mills, bassist Tony Newton and drummer Sean Elg (more on the drummer bit later), Sermons of the Sinner isn't just vintage fanfare. Together, the band presents elements that easily stand apart from Priest as Downing aims to make a forceful impact, understanding that it could potentially be the last album he ever releases.
Nothing in life is certain, other than one day we will all meet our end. As other rock and metal heroes occupy their seat at the table in the great hall at Valhalla, that notion is especially in focus for Downing, who, in our interview over Zoom, expressed he got quite emotional when crafting the very end to the album, but, most of all, still possesses the fire to get back out onstage, returning to what he's always done best.
In the chat below, we revisit the pivotal moment that served as the catalyst to Downing's return to the stage and, later, the studio as well as how he paid tribute to his own legacy on the closing track "Return of the Sentinel" and discuss the more recent generations of guitar greats, namely the late Alexi Laiho of Children of Bodom.
You returned to the stage before you returned to the studio. Your first live show was back with Ross the Boss and it was one-off show. How long had you been plotting a return to the stage or was this very spontaneous?
A U.K. journalist wanted to present me with an award at the Bloodstock Open Air festival because I was meant to get the award in a Wacken Festival in Germany, but that didn't happen.
I thought it could be fun to go to check out some bands — Twisted Sister were on there and lots of people I knew. Getting up and just playing a couple of songs... I'm not Ed Sheeran and I can't just jump up there and play a couple of songs on my hour.
They suggested playing songs with Ross the Boss because I was good friends with him. I don't know why I consented and I didn't get to meet the rest of the guys until the day before the gig. We pulled it together and those guys were fantastic. The fans were really good, too.
I went up in civilian clothes — jeans and a T-shirt — and just jumped out and just did it. I could have stayed out there all night. It was just like riding a bike. Once I went out there, I wasn't nervous, but people ask me, "Are you nervous?" I am only nervous in case if I fall over myself or my guitar goes stupidly out of tune and all of the other things that can happen like somebody throws up.
So, it was good then I thought to put a band together and that's what happened.
K.K. Downing Plays Judas Priest Songs With Ross the Boss — Bloodstock 2019
Who was the first person you got in touch with when you started to put together this new band?
That's a good question. I had an idea for all of the guys, so [I got in touch] probably more or less around the same time.
Obviously, I played with Ripper and know he's good guy. We never had any fallout and we always got on really well together. He is a great singer and we can play some of the classic [Judas Priest songs] if we want to and get some stuff that's really demanding.
That title is clearly a nod to "Sinner" with Judas Priest, but in your book you had discussed potentially releasing a Priest compilation called Burnings Sermons, which was proposed to collect the fastest songs the band wrote. Since it never materialized, was this you finally taking that idea of using the word 'sermon'?
That was a great concept and I thought the Sermons of the Sinner title is pretty poignant. You can think about it in a lot of ways because I am a sinner myself, and obviously the sermons are the songs.
We’re not going to be around forever and the "Sermons of the Sinner" song is about that. It's about me I was young, running across the planet doing what we did, but time is running out for us and things will never be the same, but this can help us rise again.
While I'm still around on the planet, I hope people say that this music is still valid, want more of it while we let the young bands unashamedly do what I did.
We've got Greta Van Fleet, which people draw comparisons to Led Zeppelin... I'm all for that! Let's have another young Judas Priest doing that, or young [Black] Sabbath, or whatever. Let's take this music and let's keep it going through these important next decades.
Let's keep everything going rather than just putting on Bark at the Moon or Screaming for Vengeance. Let's keep producing this music and that's what this Sermons of the Sinner and this band is all about.
K.K.'s Priest, "Hellfire Thunderbolt" Music Video
One song that I think is special for everybody is going to be special for everybody is "Return of the Sentinel." We ranked "The Sentinel" as the No. 1 Judas Priest song and people were actually very supportive of that decision. What special connection do you have with that song and of all the Judas Priest songs, why write a sequel to that one?
I want to be in the present, I want to be in the future, but I also want elements of the past, because the ingredients in this album must relive everything that I've done in my life because I'm so proud of that.
There have been so many things created in Judas Priest — the Painkiller, the Jugulator... so, to do this sequel, it's quite epic. I think it's 10 minutes long, I don't want to give away the ending to everybody, but if I don't get to do anything else [in my life] or if something happens to me, I thought that would be a nice way to be remembered and go out. I got really emotional recording that. It's very poignant and there are a lot of hidden sentiments in the record which a lot of people will be listening for.
There's more here than just nods to Priest, too. You've got the gloomy songs and ones that are a bit more laid back and celebratory.
Some of the songs, such as "Call for the Priest," are a bit darker and there are quite a few songs that are more rebellious.
"Metal Through and Through" is all about playing a live show and I need that in my life at the moment. There's been far too big of a break [from music], and I want to experience that with the fans again.
Although former Judas Priest drummer Les Binks joined you onstage with Ross the Boss, he didn't play on this album as intended. Instead, Sean Elg plays drums, which I assume was a connection through Ripper since Elg (also in Cage) was in The Three Tremors with him?
When Les was unable to do it, it was very disappointing. But needless to say, we're going to have Les onstage. I insist! I'm going to drag him out with us when we when we play!
We had some good choices [for other drummers] and Ripper said, "Look, I actually play with Sean." The result is great because he really powers those drums. He's a young, good, strong, nice, lovely guy.
Another member of your band, bassist Tony Newton really stands out on here, too.
Tony brought a lot to the table. I really encouraged him to just get out there and be heard and take the lead role in a few places. I like the bass player to be heard. I'm very pleased with how the record sounds.
Even in just the process of trying to narrow down who else could have potentially been in the lineup, you had to have come across so many incredible players. Everywhere you look, especially on YouTube, there's an insane amount of truly impressive talent.
We also lost a later generation hero in Children of Bodom's Alexi Laiho recently and is there anyone else newer who has caught your ear and blown you away?
There's so many people that can do what I can't do. They are so good.
I'm always trying to improve myself, but you're always looking for what they're going to do next and it's just so strange.
Alexi, his technique and the way that he played with so much precision and with such unique timing changes and stuff like that, it was absolutely fantastic. He obviously has inspired a lot of young players.
What I'm looking for myself with this band though is not the people that are so fantastic technically — we're just looking for some good music out there and to form a great guitar duo. I think that's what I've tried to say on this album because some of the stuff in there is just melodic harmony stuff.
There's lots of variety in the record, not just [music that sounds like] Priest. You'll hear lots of stuff going on.
I definitely have powerhouse band, and I totally miss the stage everywhere. We've all got good rest, we've all got a good buildup of wax as horrible as that sounds, but we are out there, ready to absorb the power and the frequencies.
Goodbye COVID, bring on metal!
Thanks to K.K. Downing for the interview. 'Sermons of the Sinner,' the debut album by KK's Priest, will be out Aug. 20 on EX1 Records. Pre-order your copy here and follow the band on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Spotify.