The origin story of Tim “Ripper” Owens is legendary. The powerhouse vocalist exploded onto the music scene in 1996 as Judas Priest‘s new frontman after the departure of The Metal God, Rob Halford. His time with Judas Priest (’97-‘03) led to the creation of two powerful studio albums, “Jugulator” and “Demolition,” and a major motion picture loosely based on his life story. After parting ways amicably with the iconic metal band, Owens wasted no time exploring other opportunities via Iced Earth, Yngwie Malmsteen and an ever-evolving solo career. As one of the hardest working men in rock, Owens spent the past three decades refining his craft, exploring new musical territory and pushing himself to his creative limits. He’s living proof you can’t keep a heavy metal legend down.
The same can be said for guitarist and songwriter K.K. Downing. After departing Judas Priest, the band he co-founded and played with for 40 years, it seemed he would fade into the sunset. However, Downing was never content with etirement. After years of enjoying life away from the rigors of the road and intense studio recording, Downing emerged on stage in August 2019. His former bandmates were given the Heavy Metal Hall Of Fame award at the Wacken Open Air Festival that summer, and HMHOF board member Steve Goldby wanted to give the guitarist his award at Bloodstock. From there, the conversation led to Downing performing a few songs with Ross The Boss. The performance electrified the crowd and reinvigorated Downing. In November of that year, he put on a show in Wolverhampton, UK with former Judas Priest singer Tim “Ripper” Owens, former drummer Les Binks, Megadeth bassist David Ellefson, and Hostile guitarist A.J. Mills. Spanning Judas Priest’s catalog, this superb and successful show sent shockwaves throughout the metal world: K.K. was back and the fans were hungry for more.
Rather than rely on his past successes and go on the road performing classic Judas Priest songs, the renowned guitarist did what he has always done – make new music. Songs fans would want to hear and sing along to in concert. It was in that moment that KKs Priest was forged in fire! Downing assembled Owens, Mills, former Voodoo Six bassist Tony Newton, and DeathRiders/Cage drummer Sean Elg to create “Sermons Of The Sinner,” an album that celebrates his classic metal roots and encourages us to cherish those iconic pioneers whom we still have with us.
Downing spent four months writing and recording “Sermons Of The Sinner” and, along with new ideas, he resurrected a few archived riffs from the ‘80s. After partnering with Explorer1 Music Group, the album was originally intended for release a year ago, but with the Covid pandemic curtailing everyone’s release and touring plans, Downing pulled back and spent two more months tweaking the album. The extra time paid off. Alive, vital and metal, KK’s Priest shines like a diamond with disciples ready to receive the good word!
Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Tim “Ripper” Owens to discuss his role in KK’s Priest, the making of “Sermons of The Sinner” and his evolution as one of metal’s most captivating artists.
You’re one of the hardest working guys in rock. How did that hard work ethic and unrelenting drive end up in your DNA?
I think it comes from always wanting to do things right. That applies to everything, except for school, when I was growing up. [laughs] In school, I took a lot of choir classes, so that’s kinda what got me through it! There was also the aspect of playing sports like Little League Baseball and the structure it provides. You grow up with things like that and it becomes part of you. I’m not like that with everything but music just came naturally to me. I realized I could sing early on, so I always wanted to do it really well. That’s what I always tell new musicians — “Your job is to do really good. Your job is to blow people away when you are on stage. It’s not to do shots or worry about the afterparty. Your job is to sound good.” That’s what it has always been for me. I never sang karaoke forever because I didn’t want to not sound good because I didn’t know a song. So, I prepare myself before I take the stage. I grew up in a small Ohio town with a lower middle class upbringing. I have great parents who taught me how to do things right!
We know your backstory of joining Judas Priest. Was it difficult to find a balance when you were thrust into the spotlight and thrown to the wolves of rock ‘n’ roll?
When I made Judas Priest, I had a daughter, but I was divorced. So, I was more or less a single guy when I made it. I didn’t have to change much. I don’t know if it would have been any different, even if I was married and had more of a family. It was different from what I had experienced in the past. Suddenly you go from doing some tours on a weekend in a van and, next thing you know, you are on the tour bus traveling the world and doing tons of promo. Promo was the thing that got me the most! What we are doing now, via Zoom, is cool but back in the day we would be in a hotel room for eight hours as they shuffled people in and out. It was all day long, day in and day out, country to country. We would do that for a month to promote the record. That’s what got me! I was like, “Man, this is hard shit right here!” [laughs] I’ll tell you what made everything OK about it. The guys in Judas Priest were family guys and we became great friends from the start. I think that family vibe helped things gel with my family. Now, my family realizes this is what I do for a living, and I will be gone a lot on tour. It’s just what I do!
You don’t seem to slow down when it comes to touring.
Well, I’d like to slow down but the paychecks would have to get bigger! [laughs] People ask me if I enjoy it and I tell them, “Well, it’s my job. Do I enjoy it? Yes, but when I go on tour it’s like I’m going to work.” I don’t go up and drink beer and go to parties. I go from my room to the gig and back to my room. It’s a job and it’s just what I do.
You shine when you hit the stage. When did you come into your own as a performer?
Thank you, but ya know, there are people out there who STILL don’t think I even sing like myself! [laughs] I still get people saying, “He sounds like Rob Halford!” I don’t sound like Rob Halford, and I’ve been making records for over 30 years now! Come on, give me a freakin’ break! [laughs] I think I came into my own early on. Occasionally, I will watch old videos of performances I did way back when and I see myself doing a lot of the same stufI do today. It goes both ways though. From time to time, you’ll watch yourself do something on one of these tapes and think, “Oh, man. Why did I do that?” But yeah, I think I truly came into my own back then with Priest, but you always change. I’m sure you can relate. You do something like this, and you look to get better, evolve, and do different things.
That approach paid off as you’ve been blazing your own trail ever since. What are some lessons you learned early on that continue to resonate over the course of your career?
When I made Priest, I was in a band called Seattle. I was doing stuff from Soundgarden and Alice In Chains. You could drink and do whatever you wanted when you were doing that stuff because that’s how they acted. They were drunk, doing drugs, and staggering around. [laughs] Then I made Judas Priest and it’s like “OK, no drinking now!” If I totally didn’t act that way and take the job so seriously, who knows if I would have been able to make a living out of doing it. Judas Priest made me realize how seriously I had to approach it. It’s so important to take it seriously. It’s not a vacation. I’ve gotta be honest, I’m not a big drinker but I’ll have a beer. When I was in Judas Priest and even after Iced Earth, I never drank before or during a show ever. Now, I’m older and it’s my own stuff, so I can do whatever the hell I want to, so I will get a beer and cheers the crowd, but I don’t over-indulge. If you go on stage and suck — don’t have anything to blame it on! Ya know what I mean? [laughs] That’s what I learned. You go, “Oh, that’s because I was out last night.” If you suck, make sure it’s because you were sick or lost your voice! It happens. I learned that early on. I never wanted someone to ever say, “Tim was drunk and he sounds like shit.” You have to do everything you can to sound good for each particular show.
You dedicated your life to the music you love. I’m sure you’ve been asked about influences countless times, so I wanted to switch it up. What albums had the biggest impact on you at key points in your life?
“Screaming for Vengeance” had a big impact on me, specifically “Electric Eye.” Then probably, “Heaven and Hell” by Black Sabbath and Metal Church’s self-titled album. Savatage’s “Hall of The Mountain King” was another big one. Even as I got older, Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger” was next level because Chris Cornell’s vocals were so incredibly raw and crazy. The next one might surprise you and it’s not even a particular record — David Bowie! You’ll hear it a lot! I’ve been doing some singing on this band called PYRAMID‘s record and writing quite a bit. That’s what I’ve been up to in my studio; I’m working on songs all the time for people. I know people might not hear David Bowie in a lot of my other stuff, but they will hear it more in the stuff I’ve been working on because I will write with that in mind. If there is a part I would point to, it’s a lot of the lower stuff he would do. You can hear some of it for Spirits of Fire, which I recorded with Chris Caffery. There is one song, “Alone in the Darkness,” and there are a lot of David Bowie sounding things in that one. So, I will channel things in; things that changed me. I grew up with Bachman Turner Overdrive, KISS, Rolling Stones and Aerosmith. Then I got REO Speedwagon when my brother got Judas Priest “Screaming for Vengeance.” When I heard “Electric Eye,” I knew that song was badass! There is something about the way Rob changed his voice. That is how I sang but I was afraid to do things, so I just kinda sang like AC/DC or whatever. When I heard “Electric Eye,” that showed me that I could sing any way that I wanted to sing! That’s when I fell in love with Ronnie James Dio. Through him, I learned I could sing pretty, I could sing evil, I could sing high or sing low. It was a real eye opener to discover I could sing whatever way I wanted to!
You always have irons in the fire. What do you look for in the projects you take on at this point in your career?
Money. [laughs] No! I’m always looking for opportunities to sing. Listen, I’m pretty lucky that I get to do that. This PYRAMID record is heavy prog and I’ve never done anything like that before. Hell, just for me to sing on the right beat is always hard enough! [laughs] One of my favorite records that I’ve ever done is A New Revenge. It’s a straightforward hard rock record and I freakin’ absolutely love it! It’s just such a catchy record. It’s one of those that you just drive down the street and play. But yeah, I just look for opportunities to be able to sing. I love singing and I’m lucky I get to make a living through singing. I always hear people say, “You should be in one band.” I can’t afford to be in just one band. If I was just in one band, I’d have to get a regular job to support myself and my family. I love to sing, and I get all these things sent to me. Some of them are really raw and some of them need some help but I just love to sing, so whatever they throw at me, I’m ready for! It’s a broad range. One song might sound like its death metal or power metal and the next song sounds like it’s from the ‘80s mellow rock scene. It’s just so much fun to do. I just love to sing!
I love that about your work. You keep us guessing and aren’t afraid to explore. Variety is the spice of life! Will you explore any other new territory when it comes to music as we move forward?
People send me stuff all the time. As long as I sing like me, I’m willing to give anything a shot. I’m working on something called THE LEVIATHAN PROJECT and it’s kind of straight forward hard rock stuff. With PYRAMID, I was just going to do one song but nine songs later, we ended up with a whole record! [laughs] Now, I’ve done almost another whole record because he had a bunch of songs that were instrumentals and he asked me to sing on those. These songs I’ve been doing lately are fun because there are no repeating parts in the song; it just keeps changing because it’s an instrumental. Basically, I’m telling a story over the course of the song. To your original question, as long as I’m singing metal and hard rock, I’m happy. I don’t even care if it’s other stuff! Like I said, I’m a singer. I’m a hard rock singer but I’m a singer first and foremost. I did that song from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ called “Gethsemane.” People should check that sucker out, man! That thing is unbelievable!
Your latest project, KK’s Priest, has been in the works for some time. It’s great to have two like-minded guys doing what they love and making kickass music together. What spoke to you about this project and what went into bringing it to life?
Ken and I did a show together in 2019 with David Ellefson, Les Binks on drums and A.J. Mills on guitar. It was really a no-brainer after we did it! It was like, “Man, this thing rocks!” When Ken knew he wasn’t doing the 50th anniversary of Judas Priest, it was like, “Let’s do it!” When I initially heard the songs, I said, “This is exactly what it needs to be!” It’s got light and shade. He came to the table with perfect stuff. Listen, it’s songs KK Downing wrote and he’s not trying to write to please any other types of fans. He’s trying to please himself and KK Downing fans. KK has only known Judas Priest for his whole life. It’s the only band he’s been in, and this is the only kind of stuff he has ever written. This album is going to have that edge because that’s how he writes! It’s so good because it’s got that aggressiveness and everything else that he brings to it. Like I said, when I heard it, I knew this is exactly what it needed to be. It’s not trying to be anything else. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel. You’re just doing what you know how to do and that’s heavy metal! You know, there’s gonna be a little cheese to some stuff because that’s what metal does. There’s a little bit of it in the new video, “Sermons of the Sinner.” There’s like 5% of that cheese and 95% of the other stuff and that’s what makes metal so good. The songs on this record are great!
Tell us about the recording process for KK’s Priest. I know you brought your own spin to it. How did things evolve when you two got in the studio?
Yeah! We went to Cannes in The Midlands. Ken said we could go to this one big studio in London to record or we could record at his house, and I could stay up the street in this cottage. I said, “Yeah, I’ll do that!” I just wanted to chill and if I wasn’t singing, well, I could lay back and watch some TV or something. We did it that way and it was great. I went to his house and recorded my vocals there in the studio. It was pretty easy because A.J. had already laid down some guide vocals. What people need to realize is that the album and its vocals were written for me to sing. It wasn’t like KK wrote these with anything else in mind. He said, “OK, Ripper’s gonna sing and this is what I need you to do.” I have to say, A.J. is amazing at singing! I was like, “Holy shit, dude! You’re a youngster and I’m old. You gotta slow down a little bit there, young fella! That’s some really good stuff!” [laughs] His voice is just unbelievable! So, I would take that and try to change it up a little bit or I might phrase something a little bit differently. I might use a different type of voice. Depending on the song, I might use a raspier voice or a cleaner style of voice. It was a great experience and we got it right before Covid hit. We were so excited for it to come out and had planned on touring. We just made it back before we got locked down. It was crazy!
You’ve known KK Downing for ages at this point. What are some of your early memories of him? He comes across as one of those larger-than-life characters who makes a big impression?!
That’s true and he’s exactly the same today as he was when I first met him. The most memorable thing about walking in and meeting the guys from Judas Priest back in the day was that everybody was so nice and normal. The vibe right away was very friendly and not like you were an employee. It was never like, “OK, you are the new singer and you’re not part of it.” It wasn’t like that. Ken and I got along so well. I got along well with all of them. But yeah, Ken is exactly the same as when you see him in his interviews or backstage. When I would tour solo, I would come through his neck of the woods probably 3 or 4 times through the years. He would drive 2 hours to come see me and he would always bring a couple cases of beer to give to the band! When I recorded at Glenn [Tipton]’s house, back in the day, I would often stay at Ken’s house. I would always drink Carling when I was over there, and people would always laugh at me because they say it’s like piss water! I liked it a lot, so he would always bring two cases of Carling to the band. I’m not a big drinker but if you’re gonna give me something, give me something I like! [laughs] KK is exactly what he’s always been. He’s easy and fun!
What did you take from your time working with him in a creative sense?
Whatever Ken is going to say or do, I’m always there. The difference is, now, I’ve been at it for a really long time but I’m always trying to learn new things. I think the biggest thing about doing it again was that he came prepared, and he came with a game plan! He’s sticking to a game plan, whether I or anyone else thinks it’s right. People have different ways of doing things, old school, new school or somewhere in the middle. I love everything he’s done and is doing! I admire the love and attention he’s put into the songs and the cover art. I’ve learned from KK Downing that maybe I should be a little more serious with the stuff I do sometimes. Like I’ve said, I’ve done it for so long I’m like, “OK, I’ve gotta tour? OK. You guys rehearse and I’ll show up at soundcheck.” I say that because I know. Now, I’m thinking, “Man, maybe I should start rehearsing!” [laughs]
You mentioned KK’s game plan for KK’s Priest. Is it safe to say you guys are in this for the long haul?
Oh yeah! The plan is to tour and do whatever we can to push this record, tour the world, hit the big stages, and then do another record. I don’t ever go into anything thinking it’s a one-off. Sometimes it’s just probably going to be because you just can’t tour with it. However, with KK’s Priest, I am full-on with this! I’ve got a new Three Tremors record that is going to be coming out this year that sounds kickass and I have the PYRAMID record coming out as well, but KK’s Priest has my full attention. I have one show scheduled locally for July, but I haven’t booked anything else, so let’s do this! When I signed up for this, I told them I am 100% in!
Did you face challenges when it came to bringing the songs for KK’s Priest to life? Which came easier and which were the hardest to nail down?
That’s a good question. Ya know, any new songs that you’ve never really sang or rehearsed can be difficult. Songs like “Sermons of The Sinner” are funny because people are probably going to think it was a hard one, but it actually came out pretty easily. That was one of the ones that we actually changed. When I did it over there in the studio, the vocal was a little bit raspier. The verses were sung a lot raspier. When Covid hit, that gave Ken a little more time to look things over. He called me up and said, “Maybe you should try the verses cleaner; a cleaner high note. Not so raspy.” So, right here in my studio, I went through and did it. I pretty much did it straight through in one take. There is always going to be the challenge where you do the first one and the next one is going to be the one you put more feeling into. When you get to be my age, a lot of things become more challenging than it used to be! [laughs] If I’ve been singing for a couple of hours, I know when to call it quits. “Tea break!” [laughs]
Your voice sounds as strong as it’s ever been. You hear so many vocalists begin to struggle when they get older. Your voice is your livelihood. What goes into taking care of your instrument?
Everybody has a different approach. I have this doctorVOX device that I use. I’ve gotta give them a plug. It looks like a bong! [laughs] You put water into the device, you blow, and you get resistance from the weight of the water. The idea behind it is that it strengthens your muscles. Jamie Vendetta, who is a vocal teacher, got me hooked on it. I’ve gotta be honest, I just pray that I’ll be able to sing well! Ya know, I go to the gym every day in the morning, hopefully that helps my voice as well, and I drink a lot of water. It’s tough man because as you get older things change! Ya know, my voice hurts a little today from doing all these interviews. I don’t have a voice like Ronnie Dio. He was like, “I ain’t doing no stinking exercises before the show. Anybody who uses a teleprompter for the show shouldn’t be singing.” Ronnie would be drinking beer before the show with everybody and then go up on stage and kill it! I was like, “How do you even do that?” Before my show, I’m all huddled down like this with my hat pulled low and thinking, “Don’t talk to me, anybody!” [laughs] I definitely don’t have the chops that I had 20 years ago but I think I have a better voice then I had 20 years ago because I know how to use it. My voice today is raspier and a little more soulful than it was in the past.
How have you most evolved over the course of your career?
I don’t have to always listen to people, like with this record for example. You hear people say, “On Sermons of the Sinner, Tim’s singing like Rob Halford.” Then someone else says, “I’ve never heard Tim sing high like that. Why is he singing like that?” Have you even listened to anything from my career? [laughs] I’ve been singing for 30 years and doing all this stuff but you’re telling me that I’m trying to sound like something. Listen, you can say I sound like Rob Halford, even though I don’t. I don’t sound anything like Rob Halford in my opinion, but we have the same style of singing. I also have the same style of singing as Ronnie James Dio. I have all of this mixed into my voice. When people attack me on things like that, it can be frustrating. I pride myself on learning things over the course of my career when it comes to singing. With that said, I need to watch those people more instead of getting pissed off at them because they’ve obviously not followed my career and don’t really know. I’ve never sung a song like “Sermons of the Sinner”? I mean, “Scream Machine” is very close to the same type of song as “Sermons of The Sinner.” That’s the big thing with me — I can sing however I want! I put out that A New Revenge record. Like I said, that’s a straightforward hard rock record. I can do whatever I want! You don’t have to like it but I’m always going to be heavy metal in some kind of way. That record, A New Revenge, still sounds like Ripper Owens singing. People say, “I’ve never heard you sing like that.” I sing like that all the time, it’s just that the melodies are different, the hooks are different and it’s a different type of music, but my vocals are the same. I think that’s what I’ve learned about myself over the course of my career. It’s hard, man. People bust your balls on social media. When they tell you to start singing like yourself, it’s hard to not be like, “What the hell are you talking about?” [laughs] I mean, a chef doesn’t become a chef and have someone say, “Hey, can you start cooking like yourself?” Know what I mean?
Yeah, I do and, honestly, it’s borderline absurd because you’re an artist who’s continuing to take chances and isn’t out there resting on their laurels.
Yeah, but it’s always in the same kind of genre and vein. That’s the difference. I will always sing like myself, and I’ll add different things. That’s the difference of having a voice like mine. I can do almost anything. I can sing death metal, hardcore or heavy metal. I remember sitting in with Sepultura and having people say, “Holy, shit! You sound just like Sepultura!” I’m able to do all this different stuff, so I am enjoying doing different things. When you listen to the “Jugulator” record, there is all kinds of death metal stuff underneath it. I’ve always said this, I became a singer because I like to sing in characters. I can use my voice and make characters out of it, so it’s really awesome!
You amassed a tremendous body of work over the course of your career. There are younger metal fans just tapping into it. Where is the best place for them to dig in?
Iced Earth’s “Framing Armageddon” is a really great record and I love that album. If I’m pointing them in a particular direction, I’d say to go listen to the Judas Priest stuff with me. “Beyond Fear” was the first record that I put out where I also wrote most of the music as well. People don’t realize that and ask me, “Do you play guitar?” I wrote “Save Me,” “My Last Words” and so many songs on that record. If it’s an older person, I would tell them to listen to A New Revenge. If it’s a younger person or anyone for that matter, I don’t know, I think it’s always nice to go back to those Judas Priest records. Go listen to “Demolition” — It’s a good one!
Those two albums you did were great and a great era for the band. I wish it got a little more recognition.
Yeah, no one was getting recognition in that era. That’s the problem!
What are the keys to longevity when it comes to sustaining a career in the music business and how can we help support you and your art?
The big thing is that I work hard, and I continue to do so. You don’t have to burn bridges with people along the way. I get along with Yngwie [Malmsteen] and I get along with Iced Earth, well probably not now because I don’t know if I’ll ever even see them again. I gotta be honest, that’s the only band that I didn’t have contact with after I left, just because it was a pretty bad falling out. I try not to burn bridges with anybody, and I try to move on. Most importantly, I try to stay busy. That’s the only way to do it. People say I do too much but that’s how I make my living. It goes back to what I was saying earlier. If I only did one thing, I’d be working a regular job and people would really hate me if I was delivering their UberEATS! [laughs] So, I stay busy. I also don’t try to act like some type of rockstar by saying, “OK, this is what you’ve gotta pay me.” I’m more like, “Listen, let’s work things out in the music industry and let’s do it over and over again!” That’s what my motto has ended up being.
Thank you for your time today, Tim. I appreciate it and can’t wait until KK’s Priest hits the road. I’m sure we will cross paths again soon!
I hope so, Jason! I look forward to seeing you out at the shows soon! Take care!
For all the lastest news and dates for Tm “Ripper” Owens, visit his official website at www.timripperowens.com. Connect with him on all social media platforms via Linktree. Visit the official website for KK’s Preist at www.kkspriest.com.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.