INTERVIEW WITH JEFF WATERS BY KEVIN STEWART-PANKO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY KAI SWILLUS
In the interest of full disclosure, my Annihilator fandom goes back to 1986 and the Phantasmagoria demo. Back in the day, the four track demo may have had the most ridiculous looking piece of headgear for its cover art, but it set my home and native land ablaze. Annihilator ended up being placed in a stead with Sacrifice, Razor, and Slaughter to often be referred to as The Big Four of Canadian Thrash, which in no way rivaled the true Big Four (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax) except to further demonstrate the ongoing inferiority complex Canada has in relation to its southern neighbors.
Continuing on with honesty and disclosure, your intrepid narrator’s Annihilator fandom hit a brick wall after the release of the band’s second album, 1990’s Never, Neverland. Sure, I was aware that 14 albums followed between 1993 and 2017. I’d even heard some of them—and wished I hadn’t heard a couple of them. But, while the colonies were busy ignoring one of their own, European folks did not relinquish any of their rabid support of the career of guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/founding member Jeff Waters. Waters has non-stop nurtured Annihilator to great Old World acclaim, even if hardly anyone on this side of the drink knows the band is still steadily releasing albums and playing to packed houses overseas and the saturated and oversold festival circuit.
The band’s 17th album, Ballistic, Sadistic, is a continuation of the rocking, melodic thrash Waters has perpetuated throughout Annihilator’s lengthy discography and comes as the band leader has ever so slightly loosened his 35 year iron grip on his glorified solo project and uprooted from British Columbia, Canada to Durham in the UK. We tracked down the energetic mastermind to discover he had a lot to say.
I noticed that the credits in Ballistic, Sadistic say it was recorded at Watersound in the UK, which implies you’ve moved the studio and yourself. When did you move overseas?
I moved here a year-and-a-half ago. I bailed on everything—cars, dogs, studio, companies, friends, family, my son, everything, you name it (laughs). It sounds like I was running from the law or something, but actually my son is 24, has his own place and own life and didn’t want to go. The dogs were too small to fly underneath a plane, I didn’t want to ship cars over, and I certainly couldn’t float the house over. So, everything was for a reason. I got married here and then it was either my wife and her two kids were moving to Canada or I was going to go to the UK. Either way, it was going to be a nightmare for us, so we chose to do the right thing for her kids and I came over here.
Was there a business aspect to that decision based on the fact that Annihilator’s market is Europe and most of your albums have never been released over here?
No, but there haven’t been more than four or five of our albums released in North America domestically.
So, why do you think that a Canadian band that had early success at home has had it bottom out, but has still been able to sustain a long-term living overseas?
Back in the 80s there was a scene that revolved around demos, and the first level that bands would use to sort of get known was sending cassette demos out through the mail to a fanzine. And a lot of fanzines were run by kids who would go to their parent’s work and photocopy them, and that’s the way the underground metal scene started and worked. You’d send your cassette out to a fanzine in Italy, or wherever, and it’d take a couple weeks to get there. They’d have to get it and their fanzine might not come out for three months, so you’d wait and five months later you’d get a black and white, 20 page thing and there would be a review of your demo or record. That was sort of the lower level of how a lot of bands got noticed, and the process was like its own mini industry and most bands would do this. Then, there was the step up of getting a record deal and getting into the bigger magazines. So, we became known worldwide with our couple of demos. The first one was called Welcome to Your Death, and the big one for us was called Phantasmagoria, which has the songs “Alice in Hell” and “Phantasmagoria” on it. I think what happened was that demo somehow took off worldwide and it was right up there with the Metallica and Megadeth demos. That led to a record deal with Roadrunner for our first album, Alice in Hell, in 1989. I think, for independent record labels it was the “album of the year” and all this stuff that was incredible. The next year we did an even bigger album called Never, Neverland, which was our best selling one. We were hosting MTV in the States and England, and it was a big success everywhere. We were touring with Judas Priest on the Painkiller tour and doing our own headlining tours, which were pretty big back then. Then, it started getting into the mid 90s when anything that was traditional heavy metal or thrash just dropped—unless it was newer stuff like Pantera, Biohazard, or Sepultura. All of a sudden promoters weren’t booking it, labels weren’t signing it, bands were being dropped, and bands weren’t selling as much. You had to be there to see what happened to metal. In the music business, it became something that was almost a joke. You saw that reflected in how Halford left Priest and Ripper Owens came in and how Bruce Dickinson left Maiden for Blaze Bailey. I was living in Vancouver and the tour we did with Priest in 1991 for Painkiller was playing stadiums and arenas. Only a few years later I saw them with Ripper playing a big club in Vancouver. Slayer was headlining arenas and a few years later they were playing the Commodore Ballroom, which is a big club in Vancouver. You saw the smaller bands either quit, change their names, lose their deals, or adapt by changing their dress and style of music and the big ones dropped down a notch. Eventually, there was a resurgence. But, for Annihilator, we were one of the many bands that was kicked off their label in 1993. We had jumped up to Sony for that third release of ours [1993’s Set the World on Fire] and we got kicked off there along with a ton of other metal bands.
“I WAS GETTING MORE MONEY AND BETTER TERMS WITH DEALS RIGHT AFTER GETTING DROPPED. BUT THE CATCH WAS THAT I COULDN’T GET BACK INTO NORTH AMERICA.”
I think what I was told was, “Either change the name of your band and sound like Pantera or Sepultura or you don’t have a future.” So, we were out of a record deal, and I thought, “Well, we had a great run of three albums, did a lot of great things,” and I was looking at getting a semi-real job. Before I knew it, Japan and Europe found out I’d lost my deal and immediately started throwing me offers. I was getting more money and better terms with deals right after getting dropped. But the catch was that I couldn’t get back into North America. Nobody in the States or Canada wanted to sign us and wouldn’t even consider taking an album for free from us. I just cruised along right away and had a bigger album called King of the Kill , but no one knew about it in North America and that was what set the band up. There were four albums in a row that were successful in Europe and Japan and that was it. Japan has been up and down over the years, but Europe is why I’ve never had a real job. It’s been 17 records and I don’t know how many tours. Without Europe, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything. However, metal started coming back in North America in 2008, 2009, and 2010 with great guitar playing from guys like Alexi Laiho and the Trivium guys. I could see the different styles of metal becoming bigger and bigger again, but when I tried to come back, I discovered that we’re considered an older band and we were never that huge in North America, so it wasn’t like a big, “Yahoo, they’re back!” Also, with the lyrics that I write, I can write a love song, I can write a song about food, I can write a goofy, silly Canadian humor thing, songs about real stuff like depression and alcoholism…just a whole range of shit. The music that came back around 2010 was more aggressive and angry, especially the lyrics. When a lot of North Americans discovered this “new band” Annihilator, they’d be like, “What is this goofy shit?” Whereas the Europeans were just like, “Whatever, that’s what they do.” When we play Europe, people are smiling. We play a show in front of 3,000 people or a festival in front of 60,000 people and we’ll have all those people singing along to a song we have called “Chicken and Corn.” It’s a totally different kind of metal. So, when I tried to get back into North America, labels were scratching their heads saying, “We really do appreciate you’re selling records overseas, but it’s not the kind of thing we want to sign.”
“I’M LUCKY THAT AT 54 I CAN TALK AND BE HAPPY AND POSITIVE ABOUT IT BECAUSE EUROPE HAS GIVEN ME A CAREER AT THIS AND I’M NOT STARVING.”
Has there been much frustration with the lineup’s revolving door and the crazy number of band members you’ve gone through over the years?
No, but there’s a whole bunch of answers to that (laughs). First of all, if the goal is to be on covers of magazines, sell millions of records, get noticed and get attention, then it would be frustrating. But it’s not. I’m lucky that at 54 I can talk and be happy and positive about it because Europe has given me a career at this and I’m not starving. If I was not selling records in Europe over the last 30–35 years, I’m sure I’d be depressed and complaining because this is what I love to do. If you look at Overkill, Exodus, and Testament, they weren’t up there with The Big Four. They were big names, but they weren’t in the upper echelons. They slugged it out when we all got hit in 1993 and most bands quit or went through a whole bunch of lineups. We’ve had so many members, touring lineups and on records. Keeping bands and members together at that time was hard because it’s expensive and times were shitty. It became an economical thing where you’re trying to keep musicians, but they’re going to leave in a year because you can’t pay enough. In my case, it was a little different because we were told on the first two albums, “You have to be a band,” when Annihilator was always sort of a band. I wrote everything, hired a drummer to do the drum tracks and he was gone. Then we needed a singer. So, we found Randy Rampage who would listen to a demo of me singing all the songs on the album, and I’d say, “Can you sing it like that, but in your voice?” And I’d sit there and work with him for days. When he was done [recording], it was like, “See you later.” When it was time to tour, I had to get a lineup. How do you do it? You gotta pay them. With Annihilator, it was a little different because the first four albums had four different singers and four different lineups. If you just look at Europe and Japan, those records were all successful and made it able to sustain a career. But the record companies here were all about it being a band, saying that no one cares about this solo project shit. So, I played the game and made Annihilator “a band” even though it’s more of a solo project. Megadeth is the same way, when you look at it.
How is the Annihilator lineup structured these days?
Legally, it’s the same thing. They get paid a wage like most bands do it. There are consistent members in a lot of bands who are the driving forces. You see that in Testament with Chuck [Billy] and Eric [Peterson], and even with Metallica. As important as Kirk [Hammett] and Robert [Trujillo] are, and Jason [Newsted] was, and Cliff [Burton] was—and without those guys it would be totally different—you know it’s Lars [Ulrich] and James [Hetfield]’s band. Nobody in Annihilator is going to be an equal band member. That would be ridiculous after 35 years to turn over all the work to other members, but the wages can go up if you want band members to stay. So, this is where it’s at now. For the new album, I took advantage of the guys because we were getting so good and had been getting along for many years that I asked them what—aside from getting a vocalist, which was completely off the table—do I need to do to get more inspiration to this band? I’m able to do these records mostly myself, writing-wise and playing most of the instruments, and it’s going to go out to those places in the world where we sell records and be bought by the same people. So, I asked them what they thought I needed to do to get a better output. The first thing they said is write the new album with a drummer. The second thing was record with a drummer. The software I’d been using for drums was Toontrack and Superior Drummer, the stuff that half the bands people listen to use and don’t tell you about. It’s a drum software program made by some of the best drummers and producers in the world.
That’s pretty funny and counterintuitive, that drummers are helping to create software that would take the place of drummers in the studio.
Absolutely, but I’ll tell you why this software is happening and it’s for a very legitimate reason. Before the economic fall of metal—and all other genres of music for that matter—happened, it was a very normal thing to get hundreds of thousands of US dollars to record an independent heavy metal record. You say that today and it’s crazy, but that’s what was happening, there was so much money in the business. When we did records in the 80s, we’d hire an engineer, a producer, an assistant engineer, a mix engineer, a studio, maybe a different engineer to do the drum tracks, and then you’d hire a mastering engineer. Now, bands are lucky to get $10–15,000 to do a record. So, the software came around because of the fact that the most expensive part for a metal band to record is the drum tracks. Despite what everyone thinks, when you see a drummer playing live and think he’s amazing, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to go into the studio and be amazing. The studio is a totally different thing than what a lot of people realize. It’s not easy and it’s a separate thing from playing live. So, it could be tough to record. Also, you need a good studio to do good drum recordings. With software programs and tricks, you can record in a bedroom and trigger and sample the drums and fix them. Back then, we didn’t have that option and needed to have an engineer who knew how to place microphones properly to make the drums sound good. Everybody thought they could do it, but only a small handful of engineers knew how to. So, that was always the big expense on any record. Fast forward and there’s no money in the industry anymore to go into these studios and spend $30,000 recording drum tracks, and the software guys came up with the idea of helping musicians write songs and record records for less than a thousand dollars. So, it becomes doable for the bands that don’t get big advances to be able to make a record. Guess what, half the stuff you guys are listening to is all Toontrack (laughs), but it helped save the music industry, if you think about it. How could anyone possibly do records if we didn’t have the money to do them?
“WE CAME UP WITH SOMETHING THAT I’D SAY WAS 75 PERCENT OLD SCHOOL ANNIHILATOR AND 25 PERCENT NEW STUFF.”
So, getting back to what the guys told me (laughs), the third thing was to take the first four records and write stuff that I think could fit on any of those records. I thought, “Wow, that’s a death wish,” because how many times have artists tried to copy something that was successful earlier on? You’re setting yourself up for a fail even before you start. Some bands can pull it off, but the majority should be looking forward, not back. It’s a different time of your life, a different everything. So, I said they were going to have to help with that because I didn’t want to sit there and rip off my old stuff too much. [Drummer] Fabio [Alessandrini] is in Italy, I’m in the UK, and he would come up here and we’d write and write and write and keep doing stuff back and forth that he’d take to his home studio. We’d pass it to the other guys [guitarist Aaron Homma and bassist Rich Hinks] for their opinions and we came up with something that I’d say was 75 percent old school Annihilator and 25 percent new stuff.
I saw a few videos of the European tour you just finished, and it seemed like there were a lot of packed houses and sold out shows. Is that indicative of a typical European tour, or were you surprised this time around?
Every time we do a record we normally do a couple tours in Europe and the summer festival run, which is a shoo-in because everyone seems to like everyone, it’s a party, we get to see old friends and bands, and you know it’s going to be a fun summer and successful. Your own tours can be variable, but we have been pretty consistent. This time things were a little bit different. Venues started selling out early, some of them were upgraded, and stuff like that. I think everyone got a vibe that the new record was going to be a step up and the buzz got around. I also think that as kids started discovering metal on the internet, of course, they discovered the big bands first, and I think what’s happening is that bands like Testament, Exodus, Overkill, us, and other mid level bands that cruised through the ups and downs and never quit are experiencing a delayed effect. Everyone knows Priest, Maiden, Slayer, and Megadeth, but now the next level of bands are getting their due as people are finding out about what they missed out on.
“NOW THE NEXT LEVEL OF BANDS ARE GETTING THEIR DUE AS PEOPLE ARE FINDING OUT ABOUT WHAT THEY MISSED OUT ON.”
Do you still feel the urge to take another stab at North America?
Part of it is that you get a little spoiled knowing where your career is and that you can make an actual financial living at it. It’s like this: in the last 15 years, we’ve been asked by three of The Big Four to open for them in the States and Canada. So, I would run to American record companies and tell them that so-and-so has offered us a tour that would be huge exposure for us and a great way to physically come back to the scene in our home country and the States. But, every tour offer was contingent on us having a current release. I’d go to labels thinking it would be easy because it’s an opportunity, but I learned the hard way that you can have an offer to tour with some of the biggest bands in the genre and a record company either won’t offer you a deal to get your album in stores and online, or they’ll offer you a horribly criminal contract that would tie me to them for the rest of my life. And they’d have to put money in to manufacture the records and promote them and that in itself seemed to be too much for them. I kind of understand, unfortunately, but also some of it I don’t get. I also looked at how much it would cost up front. I think for one of the tours, which was supposed to be six weeks, it was going to cost $140,000 US for tour buses and crew, and I probably never would have seen any of it back because no label was willing to sign us. I just stopped fighting it.
Do you still ghost write songs for country and pop performers and bands?
No, but I’ll tell you how all that happened. I started doing that in 1991. I was coming back from a Judas Priest tour in Europe, and we were stuck somewhere in the States because of a snow storm. I spent a day-and-a-half delayed, staying in a nice hotel. I was sitting in the bar, and this dude named Ralph Murphy came in and sat at the bar with me. It turned out he was the president of the American Song Writers Association, but he also wrote a lot of hits for a lot of country and pop stars, and most of them were ballad-y. We got to talking, he liked my story, and I was going, “Holy cow!” at his story. He said he had a guitar with him and asked if I wanted to hit the lounge, have a few beers. and jam. So, we wrote a song. On our third album there’s a song called “Phoenix Rising,” which is a full-on ballad written about my aunt who died of cancer. He just looked at me and said, “Give me something painful that’s happened in your life.” I thought about how painful it was for my mother to lose her sister to cancer, and bang, he comes up with that song and it ended up being used in a lot of different places—the Cancer Society and I think it made it onto Deep Space Nine or one of those Star Trek spin-off shows. It did a lot of good for a lot of people in a lot of places and did well for us. From then on, he said, “Why don’t you write some songs for me? Just write 80s metal ballads, I’ll turn them into country songs with session players in Nashville.” So, I would send him demos of 80s metal ballad type songs and get something back months and months later with full-on session players and singers and think, “Holy crap, did I write any of that?” (laughs) The music and arrangements were the same, but all of sudden it was a country or pop song. Then, I did some stuff for Canadian TV shows, some video game stuff, and a bunch of little things that were fun and made me a few bucks. Then, Annihilator got really busy around 2007, and I just stopped doing it, but it’s something I wish I could’ve done more of.
“IF YOU’RE GOING TO WORK HARD AT SOMETHING, YOU MIGHT AS WELL DO SOMETHING YOU LOVE”
With all being said and done, but the story still unfolding, how would you sum up your career so far?
I’d say I love metal music, I love music, I love the fans, I love playing live, and I love the geeky studio stuff. I’ve had a studio since 1994 in various forms. I’m just one lucky son of a bitch that I could be from Canada and have literally 30 years of putting records out and this is what I do for a living. It’s been a lot of stress and non-stop work. This is something you do full-time day and night to get to where you are and to maintain it. But if you’re going to work hard at something, you might as well do something you love doing, and I’ve been lucky to be able to do that.