INTERVIEW AND LIVE PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJALA
Annihilator is a Canadian metal band founded in 1984 by vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Jeff Waters. The band is one of Canada’s highest-selling metal groups, having sold more than three million albums worldwide. Since its formation, the band has released sixteen studio albums. Annihilator’s first record, ALICE IN HELL (1989), is considered one of the most influential Canadian heavy metal albums of all time. Many of their later albums, including NEVER, NEVERLAND (1990), SET THE WORLD ON FIRE (1993), and KING OF THE KILL (1994), enjoyed great success in Europe and Japan. Annihilator’s sixteenth record, FOR THE DEMENTED, was released on November 3, 2017. The band arrived in Finland in early March. In Helsinki, I had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Waters and discuss the latest album, the tour, recent changes in the band, and various other things, including Judas Priest.
FOR THE DEMENTED
Whenever Annihilator releases a new album, it has always been compared to the band’s previous albums, and FOR THE DEMENTED is no exception. If I ask you to compare this album to your previous releases, what would you say?
Jeff Waters: I think a little bit of it goes back musically to some earlier thrash kind of feelings of the demos and the first couple of albums. But it still got the cross between where I am right now and what I have been doing lately with the early stuff. Some of the lyrical themes look like they’re going back a little bit, but I’m still kind of where I’m at today. I’ve been actually writing for the next record, which will be the 17th studio record, and I’m starting to enjoy going back a little bit into the more thrashy. Kind of more crazy music, a little bit crazier. Not so formatted and straightforward, it’s getting a little bit more fucked up now. So, I’m enjoying that. But FOR THE DEMENTED, it was a turn, a little bit of a change. So, I think I’m going to keep going in that direction on the next one, I think.
In my opinion, FOR THE DEMENTED is a traditional heavy metal album, and I definitely can hear some elements, which sound like the first two Annihilator albums. What made you decide to go back to that kind of style because you have done so many different things through the years?
Jeff Waters: Yeah. I get to a point on the previous album called SUICIDE SOCIETY; that one went more of a direction of… I’m a big fan of so many various metal bands, and sometimes you work hard to try to stay away from that. But on SUICIDE SOCIETY, I did the opposite. I just said it sounds a little like Megadeth or a little bit like something for Master of Puppets album or Rammstein or whatever it was that I liked at the time. I didn’t try to disguise it. I said, “Yeah! That sounds a little Slayerish. I like it.” Where else before I would say, “No. That’s too close, too much of obvious influence.” But in my case, it’s not a rip-off or stealing a thing. It’s more of I’m a fan. I’m a fan. Like I go to these concerts from these other bands. I’m a fan; I go there. So, I’ve been a fan ever since I was a kid. So, with FOR THE DEMENTED, I was going to do less format. The format means verse, pre-chorus, chorus, short solo, second verse. Maybe cut the second verse in half. Do the second chorus, double the second chorus. Go into a bridge, do a guitar solo. Technically, there are about five styles of writing traditional rock and metal, pop songs, and work. Every band does it, but almost every band does this. But in my case, I really laid that one in the last one versus the 2015 album. This one FOR THE DEMENTED, I went back to a little bit more just playing riffs, different riffs. Putting them together and just seeing what happens. I think I’m going to go further on the next record, where I’m just going to put riffs together that maybe don’t make any sense at all.
That sounds really interesting. I’m hoping that we will hear more songs like “Brain Dance” on the next album?
Jeff Waters: Yeah. There’s plenty of stuff on early albums that don’t really make sense. They’re just a whole bunch of different riffs together, and somehow they worked. So, it’s kind of what I would like to do and see if I can do that again.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
What made thrash metal enjoyable in the ’80s for me was that bands could do things like that, and it worked great!
Jeff Waters: When we came out with ALICE IN HELL, people were saying, “Wow!” They’re so fast, or Jeff Waters guitar playing is fast and technical, and it wasn’t. It was a little more technical and fast than some of the bands at the time. But if you look at today’s bands and bands, even from 10 or 15 years ago, and especially Scandinavian metal, ALICE IN HELL was not a technical album. It was at the time, but in today’s music, it’s nothing. It’s so simple and not that fast. Like you have bands like Slayer and Metallica when they were doing their first thrash type songs. At the time, that was just so fast and so amazing and still is, but bands have evolved, and musicianship evolved to so many… It’s like. I know this is a weird analogy or comparison, but UFC, the fighting thing, Mixed Martial Arts things. When I started watching that, it was the early ’90s. It was more of every fighter would have a different training in Judo, Karate, boxing, or whatever it was. There were a lot of personalities, where people stood out as different wrestlers. We had the Russian Andrei Arlovski. I don’t even know if he’s Russian. But you had Fedor Emelianenko, but even further back, Tank Abbot, and all these fighters that were good fighters. But it’s evolved now. It’s kind of boring because there are no personalities that you really remember too much. But the art of Mixed Martial Arts has gotten better and better. Nobody from the past could ever fight any of the new guys because they’re so well trained. It’s the same thing with the music. It’s the originators, the Priest and Slayer and most musicians nowadays, can go faster and better and tighter and everything. But the feel of the originators, the originals, the feel, and what they were doing, nobody can ever copy that again.
You’re absolutely right, and when you mentioned wrestling, it’s the same thing in the hockey world as well.
Jeff Waters: Hockey. Yeah. We had great personalities in Canadian hockey, there was a player named Guy Lafleur, and he was a French Quebecer in Canada who was incredible. When he was practicing on the ice, he would go off the ice and have a cigarette, and then he’d come back on the ice, and then he would play again. Of course, today, if you put today’s players against those old legends at that time, no competition. But they were the originals, and that’s what we all learned from. What we have today in metal music, the good things are all because of the old school. I kind of like, I’m obviously more of an old-school fan.
BACK BEHIND THE MIC
FOR THE DEMENTED is the second album in a row where you are singing lead vocals again. How does singing feel after a long break, especially at gigs? Do you enjoy it?
Jeff Waters: In the studio, it’s all right; a studio is fun. Live is different because you have to play guitar and sing, which is why I respect Mustaine and Hetfield 50 times more than I did before I started playing and singing because of how difficult it is. Of course, Hetfield is fantastic. He’s incredible, but Mustaine is even a level up because he plays very technical guitar timings and weird timings, but his voice plays at a different time. It’s like a piano, where the right-hand plays one time, and the left-hand plays another. That’s an art form. You have to be very talented to do that. I haven’t been singing for a long time. I’ve sung for three albums, and then I stopped for 10 or 20 or whatever years, and then now I’m back to singing for two albums. So, I have a lot of catching up to do and a lot of work. But the one thing I like about it is it’s a challenge because I don’t want to stay average or not so or that good. I want to try to get better, which’s a good challenge because playing guitar is easy for me.
Is singing getting any easier after doing it for a while now?
Jeff Waters: Yeah. On this tour, I’m pleased because the guys in my band have said, “Wow! You’re singing much better on this tour.” So that’s good news.
One interesting “old school” name found on the recent album credits and some earlier Annihilator albums is Dan Beehler’s legendary. What is your common history with Dan?
Jeff Waters: I’ve known Dan, actually we went to high school. He’s older than I am, but I started high school when he was finishing high school. So, we went to the same high school, from the same city of Ottawa, Canada. I moved to Vancouver with Annihilator, and my career was mostly Vancouver. When I moved back to Ottawa, back to where I grew up, I looked him up, phoned him, found him, and we became friends since 2005. So, he’s actually saying, and some people know he’s a singer/ drummer for Exciter, a legendary, influential band like Razor and Anvil and Exciter. Those were three Canadian bands whose two first albums really were very influential on the big four and everybody else, but they didn’t really get the big credit for that. So, with Dan, he’s just been a friend of mine, and he’s singing on most of the Annihilator records. He sang backups on most of Annihilator albums in the last 15 years.
It’s great. Exciter played here in Helsinki only a couple of months ago with Venom Inc.
Jeff Waters: That’s right. Yeah.
WORKING WITH RICH HINKS
What makes this album also a little different, compared to most Annihilator albums, is that now you co-wrote most of the material with Rich Hinks, and he also worked with you in the studio.
Jeff Waters: That’s correct.
How did Rich come into the picture?
Jeff Waters: He’s been our bassist for a few years, and Rich is from the UK. I think he’s 30 years old or 29, I can’t remember, but he’s a fan of the old school: Megadeth, Slayer, and Annihilator. That was key, Annihilator. But also, he’s a fan of this kind of music. His band that he has is called Aeon Zen. It’s more of a technical kind of almost mathematical kind of metal. So, he had that both, that sort of the old school feel and that newer school… technical skills. Yeah, that’s a better word. That’s a great word! “Laughs” So, he was perfect to come in, and the idea was he just come into the studio when I was writing music and say yes or no. Like, no, that’s not something I want to hear from Annihilator. Oh yes, that is something I want to hear. It turned into after about two days of that in my studio. He grabbed the guitar, and he was starting to write riffs, and then he’d grab a bass or a guitar, and he’d say try it this way. Then by the third, fourth day. I realized he’s core-writing the music on the album, and that’s what he did, he and I wrote all the music on the record, and then he left after that. So, it was back to me doing the vocals and the recording and playing the instruments, but that was a big one for me. I’ll probably have him or a drummer work with me on the next album because it gives you a lot. It doesn’t make you repeat the same thing because somebody there will tell you. That’s a good riff, but you did that five times already, “Laughs.”
Maybe it also takes off some extra pressure from you when you can share the process with somebody?
Jeff Waters: Yeah. And that’s more fun? The main thing is that it is more fun to sit there and jam something with someone you trust and who knows about the music.
THE REASONS BEHIND THE CONTINUOUS CHANGES IN THE LINE-UP
Annihilator has always been YOUR band, and the list of the musicians who have been in the group is quite long. What is the reason for all those changes, and what kind of relationship you have with your former bandmates?
Jeff Waters: Yeah, musically. I’d say 95% of the musicians I played with, singers, drummers, bassists, and guitar players, are amazing. They’re really great musicians. Most of them I still talk to. I didn’t have any problems with any, other than maybe three and there were many musicians. But what happened was in the early demo days, I wanted to be in a band when I was a teenager. So, I wanted to do this full-time and learn how to play guitar better, play songs, and make a band. But not just having long hair and wearing a leather jacket and having cool instruments and looking cool. It was about the music and learning and getting better. I found guys in my city of Ottawa. They were good musicians, but it was more important to go and party like 18, 19 years old. I was different. I wanted not to have girlfriends, drink beer, or whatever it was. I wanted to stay in my room and learn how to play guitar and write songs. That’s the same thing the Pantera brothers did. When I talked with them, we did the same thing when we toured with them years ago. Everybody is partying, and we said, let’s just learn how to do this, and then we can party once we do our job. So, I couldn’t find musicians in Ottawa. So, I would grab a bass guitar, learn how to play bass. I would write some lyrics. I would sing on demos. I would learn how to use a little recording machine, which was the beginning of me. If you forward 30 years later, I’ve had a recording studio for 24 years. So, I think what happened was when ALICE IN HELL was coming out, the first album. I had decided, okay. This is the band; this is the line-up. Right after the first North American tour with Randy Rampage was, he was a singer on Alice in Hell. We had to leave the tour one week before the end, and there were some big shows in California with Testament after two months of touring with them. Our singer got off the bus at an airport and went back to Vancouver, back home. We were all shocked. We were on a bus in California with the tour to do, and what it was, he had to go back to his job. He didn’t tell us. He told our manager, but he didn’t tell us, and he left. That was the day I decided from now on; I was not going to have a band. I was going to hire musicians. Many people who don’t know about Annihilator think it’s very strange because it sounds like a solo project. It is a solo project in business and behind the scenes and in the studio, but it’s a band when we tour.
Right, but there have been some exceptions have been during the journey, like Dave Padden. Was he more than a hired musician?
Jeff Waters: He was more of a partner because I thought he would be the singer and guitar player live for the rest of my career. He left after about 12 years suddenly. In fact, he left days before he was supposed to fly in to do our next record. I think our 15th record; everything was fine. We never had any problems, and we just assumed we would be together for the rest of the career. But he didn’t tell me, but for years before that, five years probably, he didn’t want to get on a plane or a bus. He did not want to travel. Some people like myself, I can do this till I die. It’s not a comfortable life, but I love it. But some people, he loved it for ten years or eight years. Instead of saying I do not love this anymore, he didn’t tell me so. That was a bit of a shock, but I recovered really quickly. After about a year of being very shocked, somebody you think will come in to do your next record and be with you for the rest of your career. After two weeks, I just said fuck it, do what I always do. I’ll move on and find another singer. I looked for two weeks, and it was strange. The people I was looking at were either old school, older people my age, who were just into the old school, or new, younger singers with more like growling or screaming voice. Yeah. I just said, screw it. I don’t want either one. I don’t want to go back to an old-school singer, like who’s my age. I want to get somebody that’s 25, 30 years old, they’re into that new stuff, and we do both. I couldn’t find that from anybody. So, after two weeks, I said, screw it. I got the album ready. I sing on all the demos for the records, for the singers, and I’m just going to do it myself. That’s when I decided; I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it right, as good as I can. Right, meaning as good I can. I’m not just going to sing on it, and that’s good enough. I’m going to have to do it properly. I worked very hard to recover my voice from not singing for so long.
But so far, so good.
Jeff Waters: Yeah. I think so.
THE CURRENT TOUR AND BEING A SUPPORT BAND
Let’s talk briefly about this ongoing tour. You’ve known the Testament guys for decades. How actually is your common history?
Jeff Waters: This is our third tour together, and we’ve done many, many shows over the years. And we have also played at festivals together. They were the first band that brought us to North America in 1989. They had PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH, and we had ALICE IN HELL out.
It sounds like a tour I would have liked to see!
Jeff Waters: Yeah.
Overall, how do you like doing these package tours? On the bright side, this way you will reach bigger crowds and new fans, but on the other hand, you can only play 45 minutes on a smaller stage, etc.
Jeff Waters: For this one, part of it was because I like Testament. Part of it was because I liked the package. Last year, the first package was with Testament and Annihilator, Death Angel, and when I heard about the Testament, Annihilator, Vader offer. I said yes. Let’s do that one too. Yeah, it has its downfalls. Because as you said, you’ve got a small stage. Even where the stage is big, you set up in front of the headliner. So, to think about, plus, I think Vader were playing 30 minutes or something. We were playing 45. But if you think about 45 minutes, that’s only seven songs. But the plus side was a great package, play for Testament and Vader’s fans that may don’t know us too much. That kind of sets it up for us coming back to do our own tour. So, sometimes they’ll wait if they’ve seen Testament 20 times, maybe they don’t go to see them again. But I think, because it’s a package, some of the shows we’ve been doing here, like the last tour we did, were almost all sold out. We did very big places in Europe. You can’t complain about that when you’re playing to sold-out crowds. I think that was because Testament has a fantastic new record out, and they’re a great live band, and they’ve got genius musicians in the group. But I think it was also because it was a killer package. This run is the same thing; it’s a good package. I think it’s what they call a tougher market in Scandinavia for Testament and probably for us and for sure for us, and maybe for Vader. I don’t know how well they do here? But this is considered a tighter, more difficult area for us.
To be honest, I haven’t seen too much of your album promotion being done here. So, when there’s not much promotion, many people don’t even know about your album. So, do tours like this be the best and only way to promote your new music nowadays?
Jeff Waters: If a record company does not promote your record or your tour, then you’re not going to get many people there. So, that’s another thing. I think some bands do very well, and I say Scandinavia, of course, through Copenhagen, all the way over to Helsinki. Some groups get a lot of promotion and do well, and some bands, I know a lot of Scandinavians and Finns, would like to know but don’t really get to hear them.
Many bands don’t actually have a real chance because of the music business’s current state.
Jeff Waters: Yeah. That’s the modern-day state of many record companies, which is why I wanted to do this tour also. It was because financially, of course, it’s a minus, but it’s a plus that at least you get to see fans and some people who will maybe show up today and go, Annihilator. Do they have a new CD? Maybe they’ll buy a CD and go, hey, I like this.
THE NEAR FUTURE OF ANNIHILATOR
You still have a few days left on this tour. How does it continue from now on?
Jeff Waters: It goes still for a while. We play in Tampere tomorrow and then Annihilator and Testament, just the two of us, go to Russia, and we do shows there. Then, I think, Testament goes to Tel Aviv. We go back to the UK and wait for them, and then we start up, and we do kind of a full UK tour after that. That’s a good tour that is almost sold out. It’s the big places again. I like both. I like the Scandinavian run because it does okay. But again, this is how I can get fans to go, oh, they have a new album. I better listen to it.
That’s true although you don’t have time to play many new songs in such a short time.
Jeff Waters: We can do only a couple. Because we have a rule, of course, with Annihilator, you have to play “King of the Kill,” “Set the World on Fire,” and “Alice in Hell.” Then there are one or two songs that we have to play 100% because we want to, and that’s something like “Welcome to Your Death” or “Phantasmagoria.” But we’ve also realized one thing. We sat up a couple of nights with the whole band on the bus on this tour and discussed. We threw out all the old set-list from the last 20 years and said, let’s pick three important songs. “King of the Kill,” “Set the World on Fire,” and “Alice in Hell.” Everything else goes in the garbage. So, on the headline tour, which we’ll do at the end of this year and into the next year, we’re going to try and do many songs that we’ve never played before. We don’t care if nobody’s heard of them. At some point, after 25 years of touring, you got to get rid of everything and say; look, there is a lot of songs. We’ve recorded 160 or 170 songs so, let’s do stuff that is not as popular as songs like “Stonewall” and “Alice in Hell.” It’s similar to when I saw it last week, and I saw the Priest tour’s set-list. I saw “Saints in Hell.” I’m like, “yes.” That’s the kind of thing I want to do with my band is to play the songs that we never played.
JUDAS PRIEST TALK
We can’t finish this interview without one particular question; what is your opinion about Judas Priest’s new album FIREPOWER?
Jeff Waters: It’s fantastic. The number one thing that I heard immediately from the first tracks and the first previews was how brilliantly Andy Sneap and Rob Halford worked together with the vocal sound. It was the most amazing… It was almost the best vocal sound I’ve ever heard, and the guy is in his ’60s. So, Sneap and Halford combination is just the top, the best. It sounds almost, like a bit of, like the first Halford album when you really hear it?
Yeah, I agree with that.
Jeff Waters: I think it’s a fantastic job, and we love Glenn Tipton, of course. Everything that’s going on, I think he’s been a big… From all the people I know in the music business, we’re all thinking of Glenn Tipton and appreciating everything he’s done for metal.
Are you going to see the “Firepower” tour?
Jeff Waters: They’re playing in my home city of Ottawa, Canada, and we’re playing in England at the same time.
ANNIHILATOR SONGS COVERED
One more question. It’s not a secret that you’re a massive Priest fan. You’ve also toured with them and…
Jeff Waters: We did two tours with them.
I know. I saw Annihilator with the Judas Priest in ’91.
Jeff Waters: That’s cool
Yeah, but my question is; you’re a big fan of the band, and you’ve recorded a brilliant cover version of the Priest classic “Hell Bent for Leather.” But how does it feel when there are now bands that make their versions of Annihilator songs? For example, Cradle of Filth made an excellent version of “Alice in Hell” a couple of years ago.
Jeff Waters: That particular one. When Dani said that he would cover “Alice in Hell,” he’d said that maybe ten years ago, and it never happened. When I found out he did record it, I was thinking, this is even going to be totally bad, or it’s going to be amazing. It turned out to be almost had a tear in my eye when I heard the song. The first thing I did when I heard the song, I picked up the phone and called my co-writer John Bates, who wrote the song with me. He was out in Vancouver and said, you’ve got to hear this band Cradle of Filth playing “Alice in Hell,” and they did it better than the original. I thought it was incredible. I am surprised they didn’t push that out as a single, instead of a bonus thing or as a B-side. Because many new kids and fans don’t know, maybe they don’t know the song? If they had to push that out as a single, I think that could have been a different thing for them.
You may be right about that, but have you heard any other good Annihilator covers?
Jeff Waters: Yeah, actually, most of the covers I’ve heard from our songs are small bands from Greece or Italy or somewhere where they don’t have a big record deal, and not many people hear it. But there are quite a few bands out there that it’s usually “King of the Kill.” I get a lot of comments. People are saying; we want to cover some of your songs, but most of them are too difficult to play “Laughs.”
Our time is up now. Thank you for doing this interview.
Jeff Waters: Yeah, that was great, and that was really, really interesting. A good set of questions. Not the boring ones. You know what you’re doing. Thank you!