“The one guy I always wanted to work with was Dimebag,” says singer Tim “Ripper” Owens of Judas Priest, Iced Earth and Yngwie Malmsteen fame and latterly a pretty big name in his own right. “I always thought that he was the one guitar player that my voice and his guitar playing would have worked well together. I’m pretty fortunate. I’ve worked with a lot of people.”
That certainly isn’t overstating things. Since he was plucked from relative obscurity to replace Rob Halford in Judas Priest, Owens has shared both the stage and the studio with dozens of rock and metal’s best known musicians. His 2009 solo album Play My Game featured a laundry list of luminaries that included Jeff Loomis, Dave Ellefson, Bruce Kulick, Craig Goldy, Michael Wilton, Chris Caffery, Vinnie Appice, Bobby Jarzombek and more. He tours regularly with bands like Hail and Charred Walls of the Damned – both “supergroup” type deals – and is currently Yngwie Malmsteen’s vocalist.
“Man, at this part of my life I thought I’d be golfing more,” he says with what sounds like a sigh of disbelief. “I thought when I came home from tours my kids would be at school and I’d hit the golf course and I don’t even golf anymore because I don’t have time. I can’t say no. That seems to be my problem. It’s a good thing! Next year I need to slow down a bit, but man, the friends I have now are people I love, a lot of them are people I listened to when I was growing up, so that’s kind of amazing.”
The unassuming and accomodating singer will be in Australia this month for his only trip since 2001, when he was fronting Priest on that band’s first ever tour of this country. Since then, the 44-year old has enjoyed a tumultuous career that’s seen him be replaced by the men he took over from not once but twice, which must be something of a unique achievement in any field outside of either politics or sport.
“Well, you know, we all knew that Rob [Halford] would come back eventually,” Owens says of Judas Priest. “That was a given. I love the guys in Priest, and if there’s anything where I look back and wish, “Oh man I wish it could have worked out,” that would probably be it. I was glad to see Rob come back, [but] I do wish they would play some of my material when they’re out there.”
His departure from Iced Earth he is at first reticent to say much about.
“I’m the sort of person, you don’t burn bridges, you just move along,” he begins. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, you probably shouldn’t say anything at all, really, so that’s probably why I don’t say a lot about Iced Earth!”
With a chuckle, he continues: “It is what it is. It was handled poorly, I think, the situation. It could’ve been handled good and everybody could’ve looked good in the situation. But it was handled poorly I think.”
This writer last spoke to Ripper in November 2007, the week before he was due to head to Indiana to record what was meant to be his third Iced Earth record. At the time, he was bouyant and excited to be making a start on the second half of the band’s Something Wicked saga. For those who came in late, Iced Earth leader Jon Schaffer fired Owens by email, at the same time he was announcing on the Internet that Matt Barlow was back in the band. In a radio interview he gave in January 2008, Ripper revealed that he only checked his email right before he was about to set off on the 400 kilometre drive to Schaffer’s studio because he hadn’t yet heard anything from him.
“The difference with Judas Priest is that they knew they had to get Rob back,” Ripper says. “And all the blame wasn’t on me. It’s just that they needed Rob back: Judas Priest was Rob. But Iced Earth… I started getting all the blame when things weren’t the same. Or things weren’t what Jon thought they could be. And then, of course, it all came down on me. None of the blame ever came down on Jon. I’m fine with that, but the funny thing is that nothing really changed when I left anyway. I read numbers and I talk to agents, and the crowds are the same or smaller now.”
While it wouldn’t be fair to suggest that Iced Earth’s dip in popularity was completely Ripper’s fault – reviewers typically praised his efforts on The Glorious Burden while generally panning it musically – he does offer to shoulder some of the blame.
“I think it was also me wandering a bit, knowing that Iced Earth was kind of like a solo project. It’s really Schaffer’s band, and I knew that. And I started having my own: I started doing Beyond Fear, and pushing Beyond Fear when probably I should have been talking about Iced Earth,” he admits. “I think Jon read a lot of that and he read into it that my heart and soul wasn’t into Iced Earth. I have nothing against what happened. I think it should have happened. Matt [Barlow] and I are friends. Matt and I are talking about maybe doing something together. He just left a message on my Facebook saying that he should come out to my restaurant and hang out.”
He’s eager to point out that, in hindsight, it probably was time for him to move on.
“To be honest, I didn’t want to be in Iced Earth any longer. It’s almost like in Judas Priest. At that time, I didn’t want to be there anymore. I wasn’t making the money, in either one of the bands, that I thought I could have been making on my own. Creatively, I wasn’t able to do things. Now, whether people like my music or not, they get it because I’m doing it.”
Along with his solo release, Owens has made two albums with the aforementioned Charred Walls of the Damned, a band that includes other former Iced Earth members drummer Richard Christy and journeyman bassist Steve DiGiorgio, and guitarist/producer Jason Suecof. He’s also been with Yngwie Malmsteen since 2008.
“I’ve naught but good things to say about him, the way he treats me,” Owens says. “We get along. He’s definitely the most talented guitar player that I’ve been with and he’s the most passionate guitar player I’ve been with. That’s cool. He loves to play guitar. Yngwie and I love working together. He’s a funny guy. When I worked in the studio with him, it was a great, great time. Touring with him is great.”
The Swedish guitarist’s volatility is legendary and he’s left a long and impressive string of vocalists behind, Jeff Scott Soto and Joe Lynn Turner among them. But Ripper claims that if he parts company with Malmsteen it will because he simply can’t devote the time to him any more.
“I’m touring so much this year solo, and I have the show Dio’s Disciples, and a show with Charred Walls of the Damned. I’m probably doing 60 solo shows this year. More. If I stop doing Yngwie, that would be the reason.”
Getting back to the solo shows, Ripper promises it will be a metalhead’s delight.
“It’s gonna be a great set list,” he vows. “There are songs I’m going to be doing that I haven’t sang in a long time. Judas Priest – my era and classic Judas Priest songs like “Victim of Changes” – and I have my solo stuff, Beyond Fear stuff, and I might throw in an Iced Earth tune and an Yngwie tune, a Dio, Sabbath, Maiden… I always look at set lists and try to give people variety so they’ll have fun.”
With so much to choose from, there’s bound to be stuff that misses out, and Ripper chuckles as he discovers an online interview has asked him if he’ll be doing any Charred Walls songs while he’s here.
“When I made the setlist up, I forgot about putting a song in there from them,” he says. “Sometimes you never know if you can get the CDs there, or if they’ve gotten it, and that [album] actually got the best response that I’ve got in a long time. But it’s also a little more technical. This band that I have, the members I have, on this Australian run, they can do it! We’re gonna have a few days rehearsal too, so I probably should have picked one of them out.”
In spite of all the ups and downs, Ripper Owens couldn’t be happier with his life. After all, there aren’t too many people who go from virtual obscurity to super stardom overnight at the relatively late age of 29, inspire a Hollywood film and subsequently end up on the world’s largest stages singing with one’s heroes.
“I think of who I have worked with, and who I still work with. Every day it’s somebody wanting to get a hold of me to work on something. It’s kinda crazy, being able to do this thing. Doing the Dio Disciples thing and celebrating Dio and his legacy and his music and doing that every night with Rudy Sarzo and Simon Wright and Craig Goldy and Scott Warren… it’s amazing you know.”
Tim “Ripper” Owens is playing in Australia at the following shows:
17/5: HiFi Bar, Melbourne VIC
18/5: Brisbane Hotel, Hobart TAS
19/5: HiFi Bar, Brisbane QLD
20/5: Fowlers Live, Adelaide SA (A/A)
24/5: Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle NSW
25/5: The Basement, Canberra ACT
26/5: HiFi Bar, Sydney NSW
27/5: Cabbage Tree Hotel, Wollongong NSW