Westfest brings a hard, fast and heavy mob to town for the summer's loudest festival. We've talked to the event's most intriguing acts, starting with heavy metal vets Judas Priest ...

Talking to a Metal God, you might think, would be a fairly one-sided conversation.

The Metal God would be loud, angry, scary, outrageous. The Metal God would fair melt the phone line with his big metal voice as he talked about all things metal.

That the Metal God, when asked about the longevity of this Metal Godliness would bark something like "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger". Then laugh a horror movie kind of laugh.

But talking to Rob Halford, self-described Metal God (also the name of his clothing line) and the frontman for Judas Priest, you do start to wonder whether you've got the right number.


For Halford is softly spoken in a sing-songy English Midlands accent. He is charming polite and more than happy to laugh at himself and the metal world ("it's very Cro-Magnon") in which he has been a figurehead in for four decades-plus.

He's also really very happy that Judas Priest - a band who helped invent heavy metal then define it on albums such as its 1980 classic British Steel - is finally coming to New Zealand.

"We've been genuinely trying to come to you guys for as long as we remember," Halford enthuses, adding his regrets that the band isn't able to play any of its own shows outside their slot at next week's Westfest.

But he's just as animated about being the heritage act on the bill alongside relative whippersnappers like Soundgarden and Faith No More. And should any Westfest punters turn up on the day in leather and studs, they have Halford and his band to thank for that.

Instigated by Halford, Judas Priest adopted the look back in the late 70s.

Halford starting riding choppers on stage too, though at a show in 1991 he collided with a drum riser shrouded in dry ice, seriously injuring himself.

That was a year after the band were unsuccessfully sued in the US by the parents of two teenage fans of the band who had shot themselves in an apparent suicide pact, the suit alleging they were inspired by subliminal messages on a song from 1978's Stained Class album.

Add the band's frequent turnover in drummers and Judas Priest have long been candidates as the band most likely to resemble heavy metal parody act Spinal Tap. But the band has survived and in recent years prospered.


"I don't know whether it's a British thing or a metal thing but it's all about resilience and determination. What's that expression? Don't let the bastards grind you down. That has never been the case with Priest. We have always pushed back."

Then there's Halford himself, a man who last year happily described himself as "the stately homo of heavy metal".

Halford came out in a MTV interview in 1998, six or so years after he had departed Judas Priest to work with other musicians in other metal sub-genres, then rejoined Judas Priest in 2003.

These days, though Halford could be forgiven for being weary of discussing being the highest profile gay man in metal, he's still happy to engage.

"I think metal has always had this alpha heterosexual dominated male type of attitude attached to it. It always will.

"You know it's no different to seeing your favourite footy team or whatever masculine based sports team you have.

"And you are not thinking for one minute there might be a gay guy playing in there or a gay guy playing in there.

"So when you are confronted with it, most rational intelligent people go 'so what? I just want to see the game, I just want to see the band.

"I've always been intrigued by the social and anthropological side of this discussion. It suddenly makes people confront themselves: 'Why do I feel negative about Rob now? Is it because he is gay? Why am I thinking that way? Have I unearthed a side of me that I am suddenly questioning that I am having to come to terms with? Am I a bigot? Am I a racist?'"

Of course, a closet full of biker caps and studded leathers might have given fans a few clues over the years.

"I think a lot of them went 'really Rob?'," he laughs.

"It was an enormous relief and I was so thrilled and relieved that the fans, well 99.9 per cent of the fans, said 'we don't care, just give us the metal'."

Formed in 1969, Judas Priest have been doing just that for quite some time, their early albums helping set the blueprint for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the 80s and influence the likes of Metallica along the way.

There was talk of a farewell tour and album a few years ago but the Judas Priest juggernaut rolls on with the band's 17th studio album, Redeemer of Souls, out last year, and there are plans for another.

"I don't see a stopping point quite frankly. Why stop when we still love what we do and when we play on stage that is a real embodiment of everything we love about Priest."

Which means for some time yet, 63-year-old Halford will roar on stage as a Metal God and still be singing songs like You Don't Have to be Old to Be Wise - a song Halford equates to The Who's My Generation - from British Steel.

"My role in Priest is a Metal God. That is a very real tangible experience I feel as I am getting dressed."

Halford says he has had back problems necessitating a surgery a few years ago - wearing heavy, heavily-studded leather stage costumes over the years hasn't helped.

"I feel it when I get up in the morning ... but I cherish it more than ever," he says of performing and the band's lengthy legacy.

"I probably reflect on that more than I used to now and it's a good thing. It fires you up it gives you more of a sense of determination to go out on that stage wherever it might be and validate everything you've done."

Who: Rob Halford, frontman of veteran British metal act Judas Priest
When and where: Westfest at Mt Smart Stadium on Tuesday

- TimeOut