Jeff Waters of ANNIHILATOR
Interview by Shaq
Back in December I had the opportunity to spend some time talking to metal legend Jeff Waters about everything from the good ol’ days to today, from spandex to the age of the internet and everything in between. After years of no recognition in his home continent, Annihilator’s latest record, simply titled METAL, is being given a legitimate North American release.
METAL was originally released back in April worldwide but is only seeing a North American release now in January, 9 months later. Has it been tough to get it released here?
Absolutely. A record company usually sets a certain budget to spend on a band, and it’s usually better to sign a band that’s already selling records or are full of 20 year old kids and are new, fresh, young – you know, that trend, than to sign a band that’s already been around awhile. We were putting out records in North America many years ago from 89-93 and then had been away from North America, it sort of looked like we disappeared. Then coming back it’s absolutely not a sure bet for a record company so it’s been a tough thing to get our records released here, plus the fact that we haven’t done any touring here since 1993. From the one side it’s like "who are these guys, a bunch of older guys that have been around for quite awhile…didn’t they have some songs a long time ago?" On the other hand we’ve been going strong, this is our 12th record and we’ve been doing a lot of touring since 1989 and it’s a full time thing for us but you sure wouldn’t know it if you’re from North America. It’s not a thing against the United States, it’s the same with my country. I haven’t played a note live in Canada since 1993 with this band.
What are your thoughts on the metal in North America now. Do you feel that things are starting to improve enough to allow the band to have some success at home?
As a metal fan, which essentially is what I am, who happens to play guitar and have a band, since about 2002 or 2003 has been on the upswing and now it’s kicking in. There’s a lot of great bands out there and they’re not the same as the bands that I listened to. Usually when I want to listen to some metal I listen to some older stuff – the earlier Slayer, AC/DC, Priest, Exodus. The stuff I grew up on is still the stuff I like to listen to when I have the time. The new sort of generation like Bodom and Lamb of God, all the the different forms of metal that is coming out now is certainly different than in the year 2000 and in the 90’s when that kind of 80’s inspired metal was pretty much gone. I like the scene now, it’s fantastic. I can go to the record store and actually find a bunch of bands that I like and find more than one good song on every CD now. There is a choice, and with the internet you have even more choice. If you want to just check the songs out to make sure you can find them on the net instead of wasting your hard earned money on a band that writes one good song every album and does a good video for it and then you buy the CD and the rest of it is crap. This way it’s great, it weeds out the bad stuff from the good stuff.
Touching on that, do you feel that internet downloading has hurt Annihilator at all?
It’s hurt everyone, it’s got two sides to it and you’ve just got to deal with it. I could say something negative but I’m guilty too. When I check out bands and go on the internet, it’s perfect for me because I can decide what I want to pay for. I won’t download stuff and not pay for it; I want to go out to the store and have the CD and the booklet and all that but I also don’t want to get burned like I did in the 90’s. I’d see something in a video on one of those rare metal shows and see a cool video from a band, buy the CD and the rest of it is horrible. I’d feel ripped off and not want to play it again. Obviously it’s hurt people but it’s also an amazing promotion tool. It’s done nothing but help me immensely and it’s kept my name in there even if I haven’t been there to play. It’s great promotion for young bands and I wish I had that opportunity when we were starting out. You can just put a song up on a website and if ten million people want to hear it they can. On the more serious end of that, financially it can be devastating because a lot of bands or labels don’t have the finances to do the right job. Labels did not take the internet seriously in the 90’s and they’re paying for it now. Unfortunately a lot of metal bands pay for it too. It’s life, you just gotta deal with it and roll with the punches and keep doing what you love doing no matter what the cost.
About a year ago you announced joining forces with a new touring agent and mentioned the possibility of finally doing some North American dates. Has there been any progress on that?
I always look silly when I say that because it never happens. [laughs] At least I have a reasonable release in North America now. It’s not gonna put us in every metalhead’s face but it’s a start and hopefully we can follow that up with some touring in Canada and the States this time. I’ve been talking to a lot of friend’s bands that most metalhead kids know and not begging but asking "hey take us on tour, we’ve got an album coming out and we need help."
I’ve been waiting a long time so that would be great.
Me too! My memories of the States and Canada, which is funny because I live in Canada, started in 1989 when Testament was doing PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH, one of their best records and we did what a lot of people thought was our best record called ALICE IN HELL. We went out and toured for 2 months in North America and it was an amazing way to see the States. Even as messed up from partying as I was, I was sober enough at times to realize just how amazing the different states are; you wake up in one country and then you’re in another, each state is a different country. It was incredible to see. Good and bad, it’s a great place. From a vacationer point of view it’s something I’d love to get back to doing, but I’d love to get back to playing the States and Canada. It just seems a little wrong that we haven’t been able to do it, but that’s life.
One of the tracks on the new album, called "Army of One", seems to be a bit of an homage to classic bands that are still flying the metal flag today. You even mentioned Metallica who are often criticized by metalheads for major changes in their style. Having gone through a lot of changes yourself, where do you feel Annihilator stands with regards to these other bands?
All of the bands are different and have their different situations. You hear the good and bad about Metallica and even my band. Changes are bad, a lot of people say. Then there’s the other side which is that Metallica sell a lot more records than Annihilator. I won’t say we’re bigger than ever but we’re pretty darn popular overseas and we have been ever since we started. Trivium, for example, who we toured with for a couple of months over in Europe earlier this year gets slammed because Matt sang in a more heavy and modern style on the first Roadrunner release and then on the last album he’s singing now. People are criticizing the change and saying it’s more of a Metallica style. While I agree that yeah, sure there’s a bit of Metallica style in there and they are going in that direction, they’ve also got Testament in there. They’ve got Iron Maiden, and even my band hidden away in some of their stuff. They’ve got all these other metal influences from the 80’s that can only be a good thing. When you’ve got a 16 year old kid who doesn’t know who Exodus is, and a band like Trivium is playing for them and reads the interviews of their favorite guitar player Corey Beaulieu and finds out that these are Corey’s favorite guitar players. The kid goes and looks up who these people are and finds Iron Maiden or Slayer or Exodus and goes and buys an Exodus record. That’s the best thing that can happen right now and a lot of people don’t realize that, that these bands are trying to do a really good thing for the bands that they like. There’s other bands too, you take AC/DC or Slayer for example, two of my favorite bands that don’t do a lot of changing. Essentially for most of their career they’ve had the same type of sound, same style, a lot of the same riffing, subject matter and it works perfect for them and most of us love these bands. They’re an example of staying the same, whereas you take somebody like Annihilator and you’ve got tons of changes. I’m lucky because I’ve never had the pressure of selling millions of records and having to write in a certain style to hit the radio or do as good as the last record. I’ve always just been thrown a small amount of money and told "hey go do a record and call us when you’re done." That’s the most amazing way to do this from an artistic point of view, to just grab a coffee and go in your own studio to do what you want to do. You’re gonna end up with some really good songs and some not so good songs. You’re gonna have some albums that hit bigger that people like and have albums that people don’t. Look at my examples of Slayer and AC/DC, I don’t like every single song that those guys have done but I like most of them. I like BACK IN BLACK more than I like HIGH VOLTAGE, you know? Same with Slayer, I could give you examples of some albums I like and some I don’t but I’m still buying their albums, still buying their concert tickets and I’m still a big fan. If you’re changing for the wrong reasons and to try and sell more records, like if I tried to get Corey from Slipknot, Ville Vallo from HIM, KK Downing, maybe even Halford, or Chad Kroeger from Nickelback [laughs] and tried to think of the biggest names I could possibly get to put on my record to sell records so all the fans of these bands might want to check it out. My record sales might go up but the reality is the fans I have already will look at me and wonder what the hell I just did. It’s not an honest thing and it’s not a smart thing…but I’m just gonna ramble because I’ve had too much coffee and you better cut me off and ask another question. [laughs]
[laughs] Alright, alright. When you go to write a new album do you have a hard time ignoring that there’s always gonna be that group of old school fans that want to hear you rewrite ALICE IN HELL or NEVER, NEVERLAND?
I’m kind of lucky because most of the European and Asian following that we have that have supported us, they know that every album is going to be different and they’re actually kind of interested. They know that if they don’t like one record that comes out they’re still gonna check out the next one because it might be a little switch in the direction that they like. North America is a little different. It’s all still metal, in my mind I go in to write a record and I don’t even think about what direction or what I’m doing. The only question is usually if I’m going to put a ballad on there or an instrumental, but that’s about the only decision I ever make on a record. There is no pressure, I haven’t stayed with one thing that works and went with it because as an artist I’d get bored of that. Maybe I wouldn’t if I was selling a million records, touring the big arenas and making a pile of money…I’m sure that could be a good lure but I’ve never had that so I don’t care about it. [laughs]
When you look back at the old material, how do you feel about it? Is there anything you particularly like or even something you don’t like or don’t relate to anymore?
After 12 records I need you define for me what "old" is, is it albums one through six? One through two? [laughs]
In my head I’m thinking the first few albums, that era.
The Roadrunner years for us in North America were great years because Roadrunner was not the big company it is today but it was still a really good company. They signed King Diamond and Mercyful Fate, Obituary, Sepultura. The first two albums went through the roof and it was just ridiculous. Then metal changed, as you remember. Back in 1993 we did an album called SET THE WORLD ON FIRE, that was the only album I ever did where I sat down and targeted what I was gonna do. The target was being a little more melodic, a little more commercial, put the ballads on there and try to sell some more records. That was the only time I’d ever actually done that and it sold big but not in North America. That was pretty much the end of Annihilator in North America, in 93, because maybe maybe it wasn’t the greatest album for North America, but unless you were changing your style to the Pantera or hardcore metal of Biohazard or Sepultura style, you were done and you lost your deal. I lost my deal because I wanted to do this old 80’s metal stuff. I had just gotten into it and started it, why would I want to stop and change it? Then there’s smart guys business-wise like Rob of Machine Head. He was in Vio-lence, and must have gotten that ultimatum that everything was changing. I think that’s when he started Machine Head and went a different way that Vio-lence was going. I just decided not to do that and keep doing what I was doing. I was never in it for the money, I was always just in it to have a blast playing this kind of music. I’ll be 70 and still be listening to "Screaming For Vengeance", "Raining Blood" and probably "Sacrament" from Lamb of God and some of the new Children of Bodom. As long as it’s still got its roots in the old 80’s stuff, like on the new Arch Enemy there’s some really cool 80’s guitar riffing on that record and some amazing solos by the Amott brothers there.
As you mentioned before, as the tides began to change in the metal world, Roadrunner started dumping out the old bands that refused to changed and these days you can see them picking up the big name bands again as it comes back up like Dream Theater, Opeth, Megadeth. Do you think that if it peaks and starts heading back the other way, they’re going to jump ship again?
I remember reading something about how Chuck from Death foresaw this whole thing of how it would change, and he really knew what was gonna happen. You can’t fault Roadrunner because, what were they supposed to do, stick with the same bands that would sell less and less albums very fast and go under? You have to remember that in 1993, no agencies would book metal. Most companies in the radio and press in the mainstream didn’t want it at all if you used the word metal in connection with any of your bands. It was time for a change, all the glam hair bands came out which is ironic because if you look at early Slayer, early Annihilator, TURBO by Priest, you go through the whole list, tell me we weren’t all hair bands at one time with the spandex striped pants! [laughs]
Well look at how Pantera started with their first couple albums.
Yep, and you probably just hit the perfect example right there with Pantera and POWER METAL. There’s nothing wrong with that. Back then, if you were into real "true" metal you were into Slayer and you were not allowed to like Ratt or Dokken or LA Guns, right? I think too much of the hair and the image stuff got in there and the industry needed a change and blah blah blah, here comes Nirvana and Pearl Jam and everybody and wheeee there goes the metal. I don’t even know what your original question was…what was it? [laughs]
[laughs] Roadrunner kind of going with the trends.
Oh, ok I’ll finish that one off! [laughs] They had two choices. They could have chosen to support that metal and been out of business in a few years or turn around and go with the flow. Or the third option was to make their own scene. Roadrunner had the smart people in there that said they could make their own scene, and make a type of metal. Granted Nickelback is not metal but Slipknot and Machine Head and all these great bands they’ve been about to guide through, they have made them stars and famous and created their own scene. Then of course they got Nickelback and then they went through the roof. I consider myself a 99.9% honest metalhead. The only 0.1% would be that I gotta pay the bills, pay the rent, pay for the studio and my kids. Other than that, everything I do is for what I love to do. Even now, if I just gave up Annihilator and went into the record business I sure would not have had any problems making the decisions that Roadrunner did – it was all they could do.
So now a few questions about the new record. When you were writing METAL did you find yourself drawing inspiration from a lot of the older bands you mentioned before, or some newer ones?
No, not really. I’d say I sound like an odd person for doing it this way but a lot of bands are doing this now, recording the guitar, bass, vocals and guitar solos to a drum machine. You program the basic drum beat for the song, and then play all the instruments, vocals and solos because it makes you play to a perfect timing machine. Your playing has to be really darn good or it sounds like crap, and at the end of the process you bring the drummer in and he plays along to these perfectly timed tracks. I was at the end of doing that and had finished all of my recording and our singer Dave had done most of the vocals, and I got a call from Corey Beaulieu who asked me if he could play a solo on the new record. I thought they’d be great to have a new school player that likes my stuff on my album. On the same day Mike Amott called me to say hello and see how I was doing, and I worked up the courage to see if he would like to do a solo on my record. Corey kind of started that, and then the next day I called up Alexi Laiho and by the next week I had all these people. The criteria was really not to try and find the biggest people I could, because as I told you before that would’ve been a totally different story. I kept it to my original idea, Corey’s idea, to call up the people I talk to every couple weeks or text message or e-mail, people that are friends and I’ll go see the shows and we’ll hang out at my house or whatever. The criteria is they have to be nice people, they have to like my music and I have to like their music. It was a pretty easy thing to do for me, and I pretty well exhausted all my friends! [laughs]
When their parts were recorded for the album, were you there for the recording or was it all done separately?
Yeah, I didn’t even answer your question, but I will! [laughs] I think about half of them did it in their studios or homes, and the other half came here to do it. Like I was trying to say and forgot, at the end of the recording after Corey gave me this idea I ended up just erasing a bunch of guitar tracks that I did and let them solo over it. The record and music was pretty much done, it really is just another Annihilator record and it’s either a good one, a better one, an average one, or not so good. It’s just another Annihilator album that happens to have some really cool people on there playing some really cool solos.
This album marks the third straight album featuring Dave on vocals which…
That’s a milestone right there!
Yeah I was about to say that’s the longest streak as far as I can see for any singer in Annihilator.
He tied me, because I did a string of records in the 90’s – KING OF THE KILL, REFRESH THE DEMON, and REMAINS. It was too much to play and sing, so I did three and he did three. We’re starting to talk about working on the 4th one now, so this is great.
So there are plans for him to beat your streak?
I think so, and then he’s gone. That’s a joke, I’m from Canada. [laughs] We’ve got some touring coming up, and trying to get into the States of course and Canada. In between some of these tours I’m writing riffs doing the usual stuff, but it’s gonna be interesting next time.
Speaking of touring, recently you opened for Iced Earth across Europe which I guess ended up being Ripper’s last tour with the band. How was that tour for you guys?
Yeah, I did a few last tours. I was in a band called Savatage in 2002, nobody really knows that over here but I did their summer touring that year. That was their last tour, wonder if that was my fault. Then we did the Iced Earth thing for a little over a month in Europe recently. That was a blast, it was fantastic, and it went well and that was it. It’s just too bad about Ripper leaving.
Yeah that was the news that shook the metal world last week.
Yeah, but I know as a band member there’s always reasonable reasons why these things happen. Usually, especially with someone like Jon Schaffer who is actually an incredibly nice guy if you know him and so is Tim, so it sounded pretty mutual. It didn’t seem to be some kind of thing where Schaffer waved a wand and said "you’re fired." These guys were getting along great on tour and it’s not my business but I hate to see guys on either side of that get flack on the internet. The bottom line is that Matt was a big part of Iced Earth, but then again a lot of people were getting used to Ripper but it’s a tough call and Jon has to do what he’s gotta do and it’s his call.
Still on the touring subject, we talked earlier about how you opened for Trivium earlier this year in Europe which was a billing that left a lot of people at a loss for words. I know you’re on good terms with them and I’m sure that tour helped introduce a lot of unknowing fans to your music.
Bingo! There was a lot of flack actually against Trivium, and people wondering what I was doing supporting these guys. It’s silly because Matt and Corey called me up and said they’d really love to have me come on tour with them. I know where my place is at with sales and popularity. For example, Van Halen, they don’t even have an album out, right?. Somebody like Slayer is probably, before that Van Halen tour, selling more records than Van Halen do in any given week before that reunion but you know Slayer’s not gonna headline over Van Halen. At the same time, with Trivium we sell more than them in certain areas but in the UK they are massive. They play to 5000 people a night, and part of this tour was a 3 and a half week run through the UK. From a business perspective, for me I got to play in front of all these people who were looking at us wondering who we were or thought we were a new band. "Is this your first album?" And I’m sitting here going "look at me, look at my eyes! I am over…well, I am late late 30’s…possibly 41! [laughs] I am NOT putting out my first record!" It was great because our sales jumped throughout the UK so you can imagine how good it was for us there. We would go as Annihilator and play England to maybe 250 or 300 of our faithful fans at each show so for us to go over there and play for 5000 a night and to kick that sales up, now we can go back and go play for more than those 250 or 300. In mainland Europe it’s a little different because in most of the countries there we headline and can go to certain places and play from 500 to 5000 people on our own but that was okay, that was part of the deal. It was a good deal for everyone involved because Trivium got a lot more people at their shows for the rest of Europe.
So it didn’t bother you at all for a veteran band like Annihilator to be opening for a bunch of kids, basically?
If you look at the magazines, and I get a lot of these magazines from Germany and the UK and the US and Canada. I’m on the mailing list for these things and the editors send me this stuff free of charge – that’s one of the perks of being in this thing, right? I get free magazines every month! But you don’t see Waters on the cover of all the magazines, you see Trivium on the cover. They’re the ones that are getting the big push, and they sell ridiculous amounts of albums compared to my band now so of course I don’t mind supporting them. If I had some massive ego I would have said no, but it’s metal and it’s a good tour and gets my band out and exposed to a lot of new fans which can only help me. What it really does is helps the fans that are already Annihilator fans because it means we can come back and play better shows, longer shows and afford to come back to do more touring.
You mentioned before the whole Van Halen thing, I was going to say one of the more recent trends in the metal world seems to be the reunion with classic lineups. What do you think about that?
I guess from the North American perspective, there have been a lot of people who have even said that to me. "What about reuniting with the classic lineup?" And I have to say, which one? My first four records were mega records for me, and they all had different lineups so which one do you want? [laughs] But we never went away, we’ve always been here since 1989. I rented a tourbus on one of our days off when we were in the UK and a couple of us went to see WASP. I went there thinking I just wanted to see the old songs, and that’s all I expected. I didn’t know if Blackie could even walk, if the band would suck or who was even in the band. I was blown away by the energy of the band and the new songs, and went out right away to buy the new WASP album and listened to that for the whole tour. When a band like WASP is on stage and you see Blackie who could be 25 or 30 years old with the energy level he’s got some nights, that is an example of…I guess that’s not a reunion is it? [laughs] Give me an example of a reunion.
There’s Carcass and At The Gates reuniting next year, maybe Halford coming back to Priest, the Van Halen thing, or Testament getting back together with the old lineup.
I guess when a singer leaves and comes back it’s technically a reunion. We were on the "reunited" tour in 2004 with Priest, which is a cool story. The last tours with Halford were on the Painkiller tour in 91 and we did that one with Pantera. When they got back together in 2004 I got a call from them and they asked me to come back out again, because we were the band that did the last shows with them before Rob left to continue where they left off. You still haven’t gotten the answer out of me yet…what do I think about it? In some cases it’s great and it’s cool, and in some cases it’s just a joke.
On a totally different subject, have you ever thought about doing a solo album?
I’ve got a pile of stuff…actually pile doesn’t make it sound very pretty, but a load of stuff [laughs] in my studio on my shelf that I just finished a few days ago spending a couple weeks getting all these old master tapes, recordings and rehearsal tapes that were scattered over the years that they don’t make machines for anymore. Really, they don’t. For some of the masters I was trying to figure out who owns a machine that would fit this kind of tape to find out what it is. I spent about 3 weeks or so dumping all this over to the computer and realized I had about 20 hours of music, which was just shocking but here it is, and it is unused and some of it is really good. I wouldn’t mind later on having it out there, putting it on my website for people to have a listen but it’s all not Annihilator material. Basically when I write songs I have two shelves, one is for metal and has Annihilator potential, and non-Annihilator.
You said you have your own studio, so do you produce any other bands to help keep you busy when not doing the Annihilator thing?
I do a bit of work for bands overseas, usually for Japanese and European bands but it’s not like I do it all year and I maybe mix 2 or 3 projects a year. Annihilator takes up too much of my time. If someone asks me to mix something and I like their stuff then yeah I’m in.
With 2007 coming to a close, how do you feel this year was for Annihilator and metal in general?
I think metal in general is great. You sure can see it all coming back, in the last couple years it’s been coming back real quick. In fact, when I first put METAL out awhile ago I remember thinking what a cliche, silly title, and did a search to see if anybody’s used it. I found that nobody had used it, and thought if Judas Priest haven’t taken it, because they would deserve a title called "Metal" more than anyone, then I’ll take it. I’ve been playing metal since the 80’s and everyone always asks me what kind of metal I play…well, metal! There’s a bit of classical guitar in there sometimes, all the way to silly punkish riffs to thrashy Slayer and Exodus type stuff, to British wave of metal and German stuff. There’s different metal roots in Annihilator and I don’t know how to classify it. I look at all these magazines and books and Annihilator seems to get categorized under thrash metal, and I never understood that one.
I can hear that on maybe the first two, but past that it’s more of a melodic thing to me.
Yeah, it’s sort of like heavy metal/thrash. Anyway, it doesn’t matter how you label it…what in the hell was I talking about? I was getting to something, I promise. [laughs] What were we talking about?
[laughs] I just asked what you thought of 2007.
Yes, okay, it’s coming back! [laughs] There was a big gap in the 90’s when Pearl Jam and Nirvana and all that came out playing the 3 or 4 chords and nobody played solos, when that happened the generation of kids that were teenagers listening to that stuff did not know what lead guitar was – they really didn’t. The guitar players that were asking their parents to buy them a guitar were literally able to learn the chords, die their hair red or green, jump up and down like Flea…this is not an insult, the Chili Peppers rule and Flea is one of my favorite bass players, but back then all you had to do is learn the rhythm chords, jump up and down and have an image and be young and you would be able to get a record deal 4 years after you got that first guitar. You’d be 18, 19, 20, 21, and you’d be able to get out there and jump up and down and do either pop/punk stuff or more of the Nirvana/Pearl Jam stuff and everybody forgot or didn’t know there was still Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, there were all these great guitar players. All of us that came out of the 70’s and 80’s as guitar players, we all played and listening to Van Halen, Malmsteen, Satch, Rhoads and all these great solo players and that generation of the kids in the 90’s have never heard this stuff and had never even practiced these scales. Now what’s happening is kids are figuring out solo lead guitar stuff, and the way they’re hearing it from Alexi Laiho, Jeff Loomis, Christopher Amott, Michael Amott. They’re hearing it from Iron Maiden and Priest and Slayer because they only just discovered these bands 4 years ago. Remember in Sum 41 videos where all these pop/punk girls would be wearing Iron Maiden and Slayer shirts?
Yeah they were on sale in the local Hot Topic.
Yeah, exactly, and it was a fashion thing. When I saw that coming, the first thing I thought of is that it is sick that these bands are wearing this shit. But then I listened to a Sum 41 song and noticed he was wearing a Maiden shirt, but also playing an Iron Maiden kind of harmony on the guitar.
Yeah and they actually had some solos and stuff too if I remember correctly.
Exactly! And then I was wondering how it could be bad if you’re getting these 15 year old kids to listen to Sum 41 and then find out that the guitar player likes Iron Maiden and then they go buy an Iron Maiden album. All this stuff out of the 80’s that was so underrated and dissed in the 90’s, by 2010 I’m sure people will be celebrating what came out in the 80’s. Now it’s coming back, kids are learning how to play lead guitar and you’re going to see a flood of lead guitar coming in the next 10 years. That’s my word and I’m stickin’ to it!
I would like to thank Alexander Ford at SPV USA for setting up this interview.