Monday, 17 March 2014

Interview with Jeff Waters of Annihilator

So there I was, on a Thursday night, phone in hand, on hold.  As the eight-bit muzak pummelled my ear, I took stock of my present situation.  A few days earlier, Aaron had asked me if I wanted to do a phone interview on the Sludgelord’s behalf.  Naturally I said yes.  Then he told me who I was going to be speaking with. 

Back to the call.  As soon as the muzak stopped, that would be it.  I would be talking with none other than Jeff Waters, founder of Canada’s highest selling metal band, Annihilator.  My first phone interview and this is the man I get to talk to.  I took a deep breath and, as the muzak abruptly ended, I knew it was time to talk to a living legend.  Here’s what happened, that Thursday night:

(SL): Hello Jeff, how are you and where are you right now? 

Jeff Waters: Doing good, just enjoying the bloody resurgence of winter here in Ottawa, Canada.  It was looking good for a week or two back there, now it’s back to minus twenty Celsius… but yeah, that’s the perfect time for me to hibernate in my studio and get some writing done and have some fun, sit in my studio and write some riffs, get ready for the next adventure. 

(SL): Let’s talk about writing: ‘Feast’, your fourteenth album is having an amazing reissue on the 10th of March, packed with an extra disc of rerecording’s and a live DVD.  What’s the main reason behind the reissue? 

JW: I always thought that reissues were something you do like five or ten years or an anniversary on down the road or something.  You know, I think I’m pretty accurate when I say: we signed to UDR in Germany for this ‘Feast’ record and it was distributed by EMI, so that was good news… fast forward, and they [EMI] lost our deal, or walked away from the deal, or something happened with that deal after the release of our record, but what happened is… well, we were happy because they manufactured X amount of records which was more than we did before, and everybody was psyched and everything, and it sounds like the actual physical CD release of ‘Feast’ sold out by the time the release date came – which I remember was a Friday – so I was just jumping for joy, then the record company said to me ‘well yeah, but we got another little problem…’  I’ve known these people for quite some time, for many years: they used to be SPV Records years and years ago, so it was kind of more of a relationship with the company where everybody tells the truth, everybody says what’s going on, and there are no games or bullshit like there would be at some other labels.  And they said right out that on the release day they were super happy they were sold out, but they have an even bigger problem now: because they were meeting on the day of release, scrambling because there were none left. 

They were all pre-ordered and sold out, and they were meeting to talk to the distributor about making up a second batch as fast as possible.  I mean, could you imagine the lead-up to something like this?  You go on a press trip for three weeks to Europe and you do all these interviews and you get on your Facebook and you tell everybody your new album’s coming out, and you put some songs or clips up, a music video, all the kind of stuff that usually happens, and then all of a sudden the release date comes and it’s not available because it’s sold out already!  The label was scrambling and I get they couldn’t work things out with EMI, and in fact they left, separated, parted ways.  Normally I’d be pissed right off because that was a great opportunity to sell more records.  And, of course, when you sell more records, more opportunities open up: you get to go to different countries, places you haven’t been able to go to, and it’s just a positive thing.  Our record sales have been going up for the last three records each time, and the good thing for us is that it [‘Feast’] sold out.  So we sold more records again than we did before, but the potential for the actual sales part of it could have been way more if everybody had had a backup plan for what happens if it actually does well, you know? (Laughs).  

So it did well, sold out and on the day of the release, when I was all happy, then I get kind of bummed out because they were saying they were kind of screwed and they didn’t have any more copies!  And the distributor couldn’t make them; they [UDR] parted ways with them.  That’s why you got the rerelease, because the label is actually doing something really cool for me, I think, in a way, and themselves, to say ‘oh shit, there’s a lot of people that want this actual, physical CD package so let’s just put it out again.’  And I was kind of like ‘whoa, wait a second, basically it screwed up on us by releasing a package less than a year ago of the same album, I mean, what the hell?’  So we talked about it, and the only way this would make any sense is if we put something extra on there, which we did a live in Wacken DVD, and just threw that on there as a second bonus, because the original one, the ‘Feast’ record, we thought that was a pretty good record, and then we did fifteen rerecording’s, which is never a good idea to release on its own, you know.  It’s more like a free, bonus CD for the original album, just for fans that wanted to hear it with Dave Padden singing, and wanted to hear the songs we were going to end up playing live on tour, so this might be a good way for new fans to hear the old stuff.  And then we said ‘screw it!  If we’re going to do a rerelease and get it out there for those people who never got a chance to buy it the first time around, let’s put three things on there, put a DVD on it!’  Then the label turned around and said: ‘let’s go further!  Let’s put a different cover on it!’  And I’m thinking, ‘wow!  This is either getting carried away, or this is awesome!’  So yeah, I mean, initial reactions from the fans are probably like ‘what the hell are they doing?  It was just out!’  But when you’ve got tens of thousands of fans that never got to pick up the record, at least now for the same price they can get the rerelease. 

Technically speaking, that’s one hell of a value for money thing: I mean, if Slayer did that, or AC/DC did it fans would be all over it, buying three copies at once! (Laughs).  So we figured, if we’re going to do it, do it right and do it with something extra again.  You might get a little criticism for releasing now, but if they knew what the reason was: because it was sold out and not available any more.  Imagine that: you put a record out, and you’ve set all this stuff up, the release day comes, and the day after the release date you realise there’s no records in the stores! 

(SL) That’s one hell of a quandary! 

JW: Yeah!  I mean, a lot of the time you have a problem where the record company will just not put them in [the stores] to start with!  And then, like, one of the deals we’ve just had recently, they just stock it all on their online thing and, hopefully, their accounting was honest – which, usually, it never is – and they try to sell the majority direct mail through the company, so that they wouldn’t find out what was really getting sold, or sneaking them out to North America, and selling it here when they weren’t allowed to sell them over here, there could be lots of things like that going on you don’t know about. 

But, in this case, they were set up with a good distributor, the album was getting great reviews, and it was just… I mean, thank God for the internet, because the kids out there realised this is one of our better records, so: woohoo!  So, they put it out now and, while we’re working on the next record, we’ll do festivals overseas this summer, go to Europe and then think about [this] new record again.  And this time, what the hell?  You know, you can’t get all bitter about stuff like that; you gotta move on and have fun. 

SL: No regrets, just like Lemmy says. 

JW: Yeah, exactly: Lemmy’s label too, is UDR.  It’s really cool for the company to do this.  Like I said, I knew them for a long time personally, so it was a very polite way of saying: ‘oops!  It didn’t happen the way it should have, but we can kind of make it up this way.’  And I’m like: ‘yeah!  Let’s do it!’ 

(SL) That’s the perfect way to do an apology, isn’t it? 

JW: Yeah!  And then again, it may not have been their fault, because maybe the deal with EMI or whoever was, maybe that company fucked it up, right?  Which I think that’s probably the case, so it wasn’t the label’s fault necessarily. 

(SL) Let’s talk a bit more about this reissue: the second disc is rerecording’s of older tracks, was it difficult choosing just fifteen from your back catalogue? 

JW: I think it was.  It was when I sat down and Dave Padden actually suggested this idea.  Initially, I was like: ‘well I got the Scorpions and Exodus and Testament rerecording’s…’ and some of the stuff I love, some of it I hate.  I like the fact that, sometimes, [with] rerecording’s of bands you can put in your car stereo and it just sounds huge, and you can really crank it and it sounds great!  But you could never capture what you had on the original recordings: maybe there could be a little interesting twist, like a different line-up records, or the sound quality’s ten times better… but, generally, for me, every time I buy these things I’m pretty much disappointed.  The last thing I want to do is do the same.  But Dave had a good point, which was a lot of our old records are hard to find, a lot of new kids are getting into the band.  I think now things have changed:  six, seven years ago it was sixty, seventy percent over thirty years’ old people coming to see our shows in Europe, America, and Japan.  Now it’s reversed, it’s mostly now looking at eighteen to twenty-eight year olds, so we realised a lot of  these people are saying ‘we can’t find some of these old records…’ so Dave suggested ‘you know what?  I know you don’t like the idea of doing rerecording’s, but let’s do it if we can have fun doing it, and at least do a pretty good job of it, and let’s do it as a free bonus, rather than actually asking people to pay for it.  Let’s do it as a free bonus thing of tracks people will want to hear live’,  so it’s not really a best of, even though there’s some pretty cool songs on there, it’s really just the songs we will pull out of the hat to play live on tours, right?  And that way, kids can listen to these without having to buy or find or track down these albums to hear how it’s going to sound live a bit more, with Dave singing. 

So that was kind of a tough one for me to even think of rerecording, but then Dave suggested it and he was right into it, then I realised after we started it and after we finished it, it was like all the fans that bought the record with the version with the bonus stuff, because that disc wasn’t on all of them, it was only on the limited edition copies… that’s pretty much what happened, everybody bought the record that didn’t have those rerecording’s on it.  They just came in and complained to us: ‘we need to get that!  That’s what we want, to get that with the ‘Feast’ album’, and it wasn’t available, it was sold out.  So we did the rerecording’s, had a lot of fun doing it, and we just kept in mind [to not] even fool yourself into talking about or saying to press or people [that]  this is anywhere as good as the original.  Just try to get as close as you can [to the originals] and have fun, right?  So we did it and, yeah, actually, feeling one hundred percent positive: people have said how chameleon-like and talented Dave Padden is as a guitar player and as a singer. 

SL) Would you say that this extra disc of rerecords is the perfect way for new fans to get introduced to your sound? 

JW: If I was speaking to you and what I said to you would go all over the world to newer metal fans that don’t know of Annihilator, or would like to just check us out, I would say ‘No.  Go buy an album called ‘Never, Neverland’, ‘Schizo Deluxe’, and ‘Alice in Hell’ and ‘King of the Kill’, those four records’.  Those records are kind of, like, the big ones and the ones that were… and ‘Set the World on Fire’, that one was a bit different…  those four or five albums, I think, they were really the ones to listen to if you had to pick some. 

This one just gives you a taste of what we’re going to do live, in our heads we were thinking more about a live show. It’s not like ‘here’s Annihilator, the song ‘Fun Palace’ or ‘King of the Kill’, this is how it’s supposed to be’, that’s not what it is.  This is more like ‘here’s a bonus thing if you guys want to hear it’. 

The old fans loved it, which is great and lucky for us, because usually the old fans are like giving you shit for why you’re even touching the classics.  Newer fans were like ‘hey!  These songs are great!’ and they slowly discover the old albums.  I’ve got to say Dave was absolutely right on this one.  I didn’t give a shit anyway, because I knew that I was never going to try and pull this thing like how great the rerecording’s are, I’m just going to leave it as: we had fun, they’re good, and it showcases Dave Padden and some of the songs that I was writing in the past that I’ll never be able to capture.  Some of the old stuff I did, you know, [things] I faced a decade ago, there’s no way you’re going to be able to recapture that kind of song writing level in that area.  You have to just find your own way and keep going and do as good as you can, and you’ll come up with good songs in another way.  But you just can’t recreate AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ or ‘Highway to Hell’, you know?  Maiden’s ‘Number of the Beast’ or ‘Killers’ or ‘Powerslave’.  You can’t.  Priest can never get back ‘Painkiller’, ‘British Steel’ or ‘Stained Class’ – it just can’t be done.  Slayer can’t get ‘Reign in Blood’ back, or ‘Seasons in the Abyss’.  The list goes on and on, you know, you just do what you do and hopefully you stay honest about it and hopefully people appreciate it. 

(SL) With saying that, did you approach creating ‘Feast’ differently then to when you were creating your 2010 self-titled release? 

JW: No, I’ve kind of figured out [my approach] years and years ago, way back in the mid nineties when you do have it in the back of your mind that your biggest and most popular album was called ‘Never, Neverland’.  I mean, we had the first one, ‘Alice in Hell’, but ‘Never, Neverland’ was setting the bar for us, and I figured out that after that album I had a choice to make: to go back to that thing and do another version of that album, or do I just say ‘screw it’?  I went in a totally different direction: instead of [using] the thrash or technical end for the next album, ‘Set the World on Fire’, I totally withdrew from my thrash influences and went back to heavy metal, back in the days before I got into the Bay Area thrash, the German thrash scene and all that.  I drew from the heavy metal, melodic side, and went away from that [thrash side].  And then the next one was ‘Kill of the Kill’, which was actually one of our biggest albums, and it was more of a raw heavy metal album.  It’s hard to sort of analyse it, but you just give up on targeting stuff.  You just do what you do, and that’s the only way I think you can survive doing it: you’ll never recreate that stuff.  You can try, but fans know, and you know in your heart that it’s not you moving on and having fun, it’s going back and stretching and trying to recreate something that was good and you’ll never be able to do again.

My approach has been, for so many years, is despite any pressures around to record by this date, or to get out there by this date, or do this, or any deadlines, is just write a zillion riffs and have fun in your studio.  Write it to drum software, or a drum machine, or with a drummer, just write riffs.  That’s all I’ve been doing, is write riffs with no pressure.  After I get off the phone with you, I’m going to hit ‘record’ and I’m just going to jam to some drums here in my studio.  I just go down here every day with a coffee and a smile and just jam and have fun.  And at the end of two or three months of doing this like 9 to 5 or 9 to 3, five days a week, you end up with five hundred to eight hundred riffs, and I invite over two friends.  One used to be the original singer/drummer in a band called Exciter years ago, back when they were influential and put out some killer records in the early eighties.  I call him up and say ‘Dan, I need you to come over here and help me listen to riffs.  Tell me what sucks and what you like.’  And then I do this with the second friend of mine, these two guys, two different times, and we literally go through all these five- to eight-hundred riffs and say what sucks and what’s good and what’s awesome, and what we’re not sure of.  If it sucks, we just hit ‘delete’.  And that’s it. 

Basically the actual process of creating the music is fun.  It’s the way it’s supposed to be: you get down there and you just write riffs.  You don’t say ‘I’ve got to write a great song or else I’m fucked!’ or ‘I have to have this or that’; you just go and write riffs and there’s no pressure.  Then you weed out the shitty ones, and you keep the good ones and the great ones, and then you whittle that down, from five- to eight-hundred down to thirty to fifty.  And there you start the song writing process.  I’ve found with the metal stuff I do – I do songwriting, mostly in the past for other artists, TV shows and movies and video games, themes for shows, country style ballads and all these different styles I do, where you have a formula and you really stick to that formula – with Annihilator, it’s all centred in a lot of thrash and metal stuff, that guitar riff.  And if you’ve got a shitty guitar riff, and a shitty drum beat, then having Rob Halford around might save your ass, but I doubt it! (Laughs).  So once I’ve whittled them down to thirty to fifty, then I have the bassist in to sit here and say ‘okay, what riff goes with what riff?  What’s a verse?  What’s a chorus?  What sounds like a solo riff?’  And then you put it together.

 Sometimes it’s hit and miss: sometimes that way of putting it together sounds really technical, or neat, or original, sometimes it just doesn’t make sense or doesn’t really work.  But it’s fun doing it, and that’s the whole point.  It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle, putting all these pieces together: as long as your pieces are pretty good or good, then you can make something good out of it. 

(SL) What would you say was the timescale for making ‘Feast’? 

JW: It took a long time!  I’m the kind of musician where, if the business end isn’t taken care of, and you don’t know who the next label will be, and if that’s all up in the air with a big question mark, I could have my studio completely wide open and, literally, not even get into my studio for three months, because I can’t mentally have fun doing this unless I have something in place.  And that’s kind of opposite to what I was saying, where you just go have fun and do it, but it is a music business, and if you don’t take care of the business side you don’t have a career.  So, if my business side isn’t taken care of i.e. if I’m having problems with the label, or contract thing, or if I don’t have a deal, I will scramble and get a deal, and then I’ll go and write these riffs and put this stuff together. 

I had to take two years off, because I was with Earache in the UK, and there were some pretty serious issues going on there, and I had to back out of Annihilator doing a record and doing much, other than I did tons of touring, and boat cruises and guitar clinics around the world, and shows with Annihilator.  But as far as the actual recording and writing process, at least, I couldn’t get into the studio when I didn’t have something clear going on with the band and with the future, you know?  So I stayed out of the studio, and then, when it was all sorted out, I got free of them, I got a new deal, and it was in the studio and happy and joy and adrenalin and just writing riffs for two to three months.  At the end of that: bang!  You’ve got seventy-five percent of your song writing done.  You know, I could have gotten three albums done in that time while I was waiting for this Earache mess to get sorted out but, like I said, if I’m not there with that business side, I just can’t get in there with the mental side.  Now I’m totally set: back with UDR for a second album now, they got their issues sorted out a little bit, and life’s is always good when you’ve got something there, a future, a plan, you know? 

(SL) Speaking of the future, I believe that 2014 is Annihilator’s 30th anniversary. 

JW: I think it’s fifteen…

(SL) Fifteen?

JW: You know what; I still don’t know what the deal is.  The original founders of the band are Jeff Waters and John Bates.  John Bates is actually the singer that helped me write the song ‘Alice in Hell’ and even up to ‘King of the Kill’, and he was even on something in 1999 on a record of ours.  Now, he’s in a totally different type of band: he’s in, like, a Stray Cats meets Rocky Horror Picture Show kind of rockabilly.  He’s been doing that stuff for decades, but in the beginning he was the guy who got me into Slayer and Venom when I was a teenager.  He and I started Annihilator together – we don’t know, we keep arguing, I think it was late ’84; he thinks its early ’85.  But yeah, it’s coming up.  One thing is for sure: next month or the month after it’s the 25th anniversary of our first record. 

(SL) Did you ever think you’d be around this long? 

JW: No, honestly my goal was always just ‘wow!  Would it ever be cool to have a band, and be in a band that got a record deal!’ even though I didn’t know what a record deal was, and to put a record out like these people and bands that I like, like Exodus, Slayer, Anthrax, Metallica’s first record, Judas Priest, Maiden and oooh, it would be so cool to have a record out like those people.  But I was also realistic enough, even as a drunken, crazy, ADHD teen, to realise that you had to do the work, you had to learn how to play guitar, and rhythm; not solo, but rhythm, and you had to learn how to write the songs, and you have to learn to do the words and spend eight hours a day on this shit for years. 

You can’t just jump in and be a rock star because you’ve got long hair, you hang out at the local metal bars and you pick up chicks.  So I kind of realised it took work, so I backed out of that kind of stuff and sat in my room for years, and analysed and played and learned from every kind of guitar player.  But no, my two goals are these: the first was to get a record deal and be in a band that put a record out, and when that actually happened, my manager came to me and said ‘okay, ‘Alice in Hell’ tours and, when the album cycle’s over, it’s time to get back in the studio and do a new record.’  And I looked at him and went: ‘what?’   I’d never actually thought about there being another record I’d have to do.  I never saw life past that one goal of getting a deal, so when the second one came up, and it was even bigger; I was just a young kid, thinking the world was mine, and wow! This is just amazing!  And ever since that album, when we got so big and crashed for a year – there was a lot of drinking and drugs and a lot of shit happening – personally, I thought I was pretty much a drunk when I was younger, and my girlfriend kicked me out, and my manager threatened to leave because he thought all I was doing was partying, and the label was questioning whether they could continue with us, even though they had the biggest album of our career.

It was just from then on, I sobered up and got my shit together, I realised ‘okay, my next goal is surviving.’  And surviving means being able to get a deal to put a record out.  Nothing else.  Not making tons of money.  Nothing.  As long as I can keep making music and keep enjoying it, and if somebody still wants to hear it, and fans want to buy it, whether it’s twenty thousand fans or whether it’s three hundred thousand, it doesn’t matter.  As long as it’s going, I win!  That’s it.  I never thought in a million years that I’d be working on my fifteenth record in my studio right now, at forty eight years old.  It’s fucking amazing. 

(SL) Do you think personal attitude is the most important aid to keep making music?

JW: I think there’s just so much involved in it.  I mean, when I started out, metal music was almost the biggest form of music in the world: the business itself, so many venues and all the video channels were all playing metal music and radios were playing metal.  It was such a big money maker for the labels and for everybody involved in the industry, so there were so many opportunities for bands.  Today, that is completely different.  It was worse ten to fifteen years ago, but still it’s not the same business, and with the internet and labels just wanting a piece of everything. 

Instead of just your record deal, now they want publishing and merchandise, they want to try to take you for everything.  So it’s a lot harder for young bands to make an actual career out of this, and it’s becoming more and more that the bands that are getting successful have had to bend over and do what they’re told much more than they did in the eighties, when the metal thing was big.  It’s so many factors: this is only my personal opinion, but I’ve seen so many musicians, and you too can point out a couple of people, probably, but how many of the drunk, coke addicted, heroin addicted, speed-doing musicians are still going and still seem to make money out of this?  You can count it on two hands, right?  Those guys that were around in the eighties?  There are a few of them, but the majority of them have either died, or they’re out of the business, or they’re so sick right now that they can’t really do anything.  So, I mean the number one thing is don’t get into drugs, and don’t think that booze isn’t the same.  How many people do you know in the music business that have died, or have liver cancer, or have liver disease, or are just alcoholics and ruined everything? 

(SL) It’s crazy, isn’t it? 

JW: I think the number one thing I’d say is: keep fucking clean!  I mean, I’m not a health nut, that’s for sure: I eat donuts and fucking shitty foods.  Sometimes, I have to watch my weight because I can balloon real quick; just because I don’t do drugs or alcohol and haven’t since 1999, doesn’t mean I’m healthy.  But! My head is healthy, and I can start realising that this is a business and, if you want a career in it, you have to take care of the business.  So that’s an important one, nowadays, with computers and so on, and the advancement in technology: if you’re a guitar player, by all means please learn how to program and write to drum software.  Because the more jobs you can learn how to do as a musician or as a songwriter, the more you’re going to have a chance of staying around and doing some good things. 

Learn how these little recording devices work.  Learn how Lars Ulrich does the drum fill and how it comes out on this beat, or how Dave Lombardo did this fill, or this trill, or how Tommy Aldridge did this.  Learn what makes a good song: why was Metallica successful?  Why was Slayer?  Little things like this.  One thing I learned which was pretty amazing was somebody told me, years ago, way back when I was a kid, was: ‘notice when Rob Halford from Judas Priest, when he’s singing, listen to what the guitar player is playing.’  And you realise its one note, right?  And the second that Rob Halford stops singing, there’s a guitar riff!  All of a sudden, the guitars fill the gap when there’s no singing, and there are these riffs, and then the second Halford comes singing again, bang!  They go back to one note.  And little things like that, that you learn from all the bands and reading interviews, you realise why, because Halford was singing, so Glen Tipton said: ‘well, let’s just create space for his singing, so all the attention goes on the singer while he’s singing that line, and when he’s done there comes our guitar riff, and people will switch their attention to the guitar riff.’  So, you gotta look logically at all of the things going on: why are bands doing well?  How do they write songs?  Why is that their style?  Why are they good at it?  And don’t listen to two or three guitar players; listen to twenty or thirty.  Listen to twenty or thirty bands, analyse them, have fun listening to them.  Why do you like that riff?  Why do you like that song?  Why is it good?  Learn lots of jobs: you’ve got to learn lots of things in the business to keep alive in this thing.  Not just ‘yeah, I’m the bass player’ stuff, you’ve got to be ‘yeah, I’m the bass player, but I also know how to program the drums for the drummer so I can help him write songs, and I also engineer so I can help track the guitars when the guitar player’s tracking, because we don’t have a big budget’, you know?  You’ve got to keep busy and work at it if you really want it.  You can’t just do one or two jobs and do it part time and think that success is going to come to you. 

(SL) I think, thanks to you, my new motto in music is going to be ‘versatility and curiosity’ after that! 

JW: (laughs) Hey, it’s great to analyse this stuff, because Dimebag – or Dime, as I knew him – way back in the day, Pantera and I were on a tour with Judas Priest for a few months, we shared the bus, we shared hotels, everything… booze and everything else… you know, Dime and I were both right on the money [when it came to understanding each other]: we both had the same year of birth, we both agreed that our favourite players were Eddie Van Halen, Angus [Young], Randy Rhoads, and Tony Iommi.  We realised that Van Halen and Sabbath and Metallica were among our favourite bands.  It’s like, you know, they [Pantera] decided, they planned on their sound being ‘let’s narrow it down so our style sort of is a combination between Van Halen, Black Sabbath and Metallica’.  And of course Vinnie [Paul] went and took the Lars Ulrich drum sound and they capitalised on a lot of the cool Metallica and Sabbath-y grooves and vibes. 

Annihilator did it totally different: in my brain, I guess, I went ‘you know what?  I’m not narrowing things down’, because that actually makes it easier to become famous, or become a bigger seller, because you get more of your own sound.  I mean, AC/DC or Slayer have that one sound that they stick to, whereas Annihilator, I went ‘I’m not going to do that.  One minute I’ll write a love song; the next minute I’ll write a silly, punk-ish influenced, comedic, Canadian, bad-humoured song about Macaroni and cheese, or something about a caribou I saw on the news, or something that happened to me, booze or depression or whatever the fuck it is, something in the news.

I just decided I’ll take every kind of band that I’ve got: from the Sweet to AC/DC to Slayer to Exodus to Van Halen and just wrap it up.  You never know what you get every time you write a song.  In other words, I’m not going to write stuff and go ‘oh, that’s too commercial!  Oh, that’s too much like this!’  I’m just going to say ‘fuck it!’  If I like it, I’m putting it in there. 

(SL): Totally.  I’m amazed at the scope on display in this album.  My personal favourite track is ‘No Surrender’, which is a real sucker punch of a song, with this Pearl Jam-y, spacey riff which gets dragged into the ultra heavy chorus. 

JW: Yeah!  (Jeff started humming the song for a few seconds at this point) I’m just trying to remember that one…yeah!  With the little funky, sort of, Chilli Peppers, Pearl Jam vibe… is that the one? 

(SL) That’s the one. 

JW: Oh yeah!  That’s funny, because I never bought a Pearl Jam or Chilli Peppers record, but when you’re watching MTV back in the day, or whatever, I think what me and many musicians, you’re just bombarded by the stuff.  Sometimes you find if it’s garbage or if it’s just not your thing, if you hear it enough you’re going to probably find something in there that’s catchy, or something that you did like about that.  You’re the first one to mention Pearl Jam ever; everybody else hits on the Chilli Peppers on that one.  Which is cool, because I would say, I’ve never bought a Chilli Peppers or a Pearl Jam record, but I’ve heard Pearl Jam so many times going through the nineties like everybody else did, that sometimes that shit comes out!  And you go ‘hey! I can’t believe it came from there!’  That’s kind of the beauty of music sometimes: stuff that you think you don’t like, and all of a sudden you realise ‘well, I do like it a bit…’ let’s just hope I don’t get too much Backstreet Boys coming out! 

(SL) It would make for an interesting follow-up to ‘Feast’, I’ve got to say… 

JW: Well, I guess it did in a way.  I mean, I wrote a love song for my fiancée, called ‘Perfect Angel Eyes’ on the ‘Feast’ record.  Then after that you’ve got the one I did with Danko Jones, a Canadian singer, which sounds more like early Guns ‘N’ Roses, Tattoo, slight punk/metal cross, fun song… what’s it called…?

(SL) ‘Wrapped.’

JW: ‘Wrapped’!  Yeah!  The next minute you have, you know, you’ve got a ballad, you’ve got that one, you’ve got the funky thing, intro piece to the one you were talking about, ‘Never Surrender’? [‘No Surrender’] Then you’ve got ‘Smear Campaign’.  I never bought the ‘St.Anger’ album: I’m one of those dedicated, first four Metallica album, faithful, pigheaded fans that can’t see past ‘… And Justice for All’.  I get it, why ‘The Black Album’ was so big, and why ‘Load/ReLoad’ had some good tunes, but I’m always one of these fans where the first four are for me, and ‘… Justice…’ is my favourite.  But, I bought the DVD that Metallica had out a few years back, ‘Some Kind of Monster’.  I never bought ‘St. Anger’, and I didn’t really get into it at all when I heard it but, I guess, when I watched the DVD a few times, I really liked the parts where they jammed in the studio.  You know?  Just jamming.  To just jam is so fun, right?  I guess that stuck in my head because, years and years later, the main riff in the song ‘Smear Campaign’ sounds like it’s something from right out of that era of Metallica.  And that’s the one Metallica album that I definitely would not pick up.  And you can see how these things get into your brain and they come out in different ways, right? 

(SL) It’s really interesting how we can receive these inspirations from the periphery of our senses. 

JW: Some of it’s because, maybe, you have to be more open-minded about stuff, or maybe you’re too close-minded, and you’re automatically thinking ‘I’m not going to like the new Metallica, or the new this or that’, but then when you hear it enough times you go, ‘I guess in my brain I’m saying I do like some of this’.  But the other side of it is when you hear something over and over again, even if you freaking hear Lady Gaga or something, you’re lying to yourself if you’ve heard it a hundred times and you haven’t remembered that, or you’re kicking yourself for humming the tune, or thinking of the beat or something.  You’re thinking ‘dammit! Why do they have to play that fucking shitty song over and over again!’ but, you know, that’s just human nature. 

(SL) Totally.  Now, I have only a few more questions left-

JW: I don’t talk enough, do I? (Laughs)

(SL) This interview has been amazing so far.  I’d like to talk about the DVD with ‘Feast’, of you playing live in Wacken last year.  What are your memories of this event? 

JW: Well, I haven’t actually seen the package that’s out with the new cover and the DVD thing.  You know, piece by piece I sort of approve it; I get the artist to do the cover art, and the label and I look at the cover and go ‘fix this.  Maybe tweak it… yeah!  That’s perfect!’ Then they sent me the audio masters, just the music part of the Wacken show.  I mixed it in my studio.  I didn’t do overdubs, where you fix up mistakes, because there are a lot of mistakes there.  I mean, it was forty-five degrees out on the stage with the sun on you, no sound check and you’re out there just doing it, you’re going to have mistakes and running around and gear being funny.  I had the opportunity, like every band does, to just go in and overdub that and fix all the shitty parts.  Part of me was going: ‘that’s not morally right’, and the other one was ‘even if I wanted to be immoral, it was all over the internet anyway’.  People would pick up on it: ‘hey! I have the recording of that!’ or ‘I have that on YouTube, and that’s not the same singing!’ you know what I mean?  You couldn’t get away with it if you wanted to, so I just mixed it and made each instrument sound better, like using compression and equalising, the stuff that everybody does when they mix something.  I tried to make it sound as good as I could, then I sent them the stereo audio file, basically a CD of it.  One big, long song, basically, to them.  And that’s it. 

I haven’t seen the package, heard the music with the video; I haven’t seen it together and have no friggin’ clue.  I trust the people I work with, they’re all good, so I know it’s going to be awesome.  Wacken itself was good.  The show – again I don’t how good the DVD portion of it is – it’s kind of a really cool snapshot of time for Annihilator, because that was the opening of Wacken.  Officially it was eighty thousand people there, and you may wonder if there was a couple dozen thousand more there, but at least eighty thousand people were there, and only three bands were picked to open Wacken: Deep Purple, Rammstein and Annihilator.  And every band was fighting for that slot, because that’s the day everybody’s sober, there’s full-on energy, they’ll remember the show, it was just the most exciting time of the festival.  You know, when you get to the last night, or late at night, a lot of people are so wasted, tired from the heat and the booze and the partying, they just don’t know what the hell’s happening.  You know, it was the best night, when we went up there and behind the scenes, no sound check whatsoever; we were doing press right up until half an hour before we went on.  We only had one guitar tech, scrambling to hook everything up at the last minute, and they had a curtain up; and, I swear, I was in the middle, right in front of my amps, trying to fix some problems, and one of the guys yells ‘the curtains coming down!’  And you can’t see it from the video, but I was literally diving behind my cabinets, landed on the floor, sitting on my ass, smiling, looking up at my fiancée, who was taking some pictures, I was looking at my tech going ‘oh my god!  They just dropped the curtain, didn’t they?  I’m not even ready!’ (Laughs).  So to capture that, and to have it all on film, you would never know that stuff was going on behind the scenes; you’d think it was all a professional band, with all these techs and all these big speaker cabinets and it’s Wacken, they must have had time to…  It was really, basically, like it was some bar and the support band’s playing, and the owner’s saying ‘you have ten minutes to switch your drum kit and your gear [on] and go play’, you know? (Laughs).  That’s where you’ve got to be professional: you see who the men are from the boys.  You really have to bite your lip and say ‘let’s pretend nothing’s wrong and go out there’, and everything’s great.  And then you go out there and you panic, you can’t hear a drum, or the singer… actually, one funny part I remember: I was playing, looking over at the drummer, because I couldn’t hear him! 
Imagine trying to play music, with people screaming, and you’re at the other end of this huge stage and you don’t even know where you are, you don’t even know where the band is [up to in the song].  I had to look at his hands, his drumsticks going up and down in the air, and guessing when that hand was actually hitting the drums so I could do it.  Seeing him go ‘bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!’ and I would watch his hand to try to know what the beat was, you know?  That’s what you don’t see on the DVD. 

(SL) Faith plays a large part in getting through shows like this. 

JW: Usually we have sound checks and all that kind of stuff, but this was a real, real rush.  And even with Rammstein, they had the other big stage – there were two identical stages – Rammstein had the one, and us and Deep Purple had the other, so there was no issues of being rushed on, or technical issues, or other bands being late, or any of that crap, it was simply because we were doing interviews and they pushed it right to half an hour before, and then you’re on, no excuses.  Anyway, yeah, it’s cool for fans to have this extra one, a reason to get it, but it’s not so much saying to the fans who bought the record ‘go buy it again!’, it’s more like ‘okay: to the thirty, forty thousand kids that are basically hitting us and the record company, saying they can’t get the album, here’s another batch they’re making up, so if you really want it, here it is, and sorry for the hassle, we’re going to give you an extra disc.’  (Laughs)

(SL) If you had to pick one song from the album, which would it-

JW: ‘No Way Out’!  No Way Out’!  That’s the one I like.  I don’t know if that’s the best representation of the band or the album, but that one is my favourite song off the record. 

(SL) That was a very definitive answer right there!

JW: Yeah, that was… I mean, some people like it, some people maybe don’t like it as much as I do, but we did a very simple, in-rehearsal video for the song, where we karaoke’d ourselves to the song; we’re actually playing our instruments, but clearly the sound you’re hearing is from the record.  The thing about it is we were trying to capture what it is we do in rehearsal, and this is how we play and look. 

Within a day or two after that video, we were on the plane, going to Wacken.  So that was, like, our big Wacken rehearsal.  The song itself is about an American girl: Jodi Arias, the ‘Devil Girl’.  She murdered an ex-boyfriend and there was one of those big trials on TV that they make in the USA, where it’s on every news outlet.  It’s aired too, the court is airing [on television] every day it’s in session.  I hate that shit, but at the same time I got addicted to it, and I watched for months and months, like four months. 

While I was doing the entire record, writing and recording, I would run upstairs and sit there and watch for an hour, then run down and start writing the record.  Then my singer would come here, and we’d break for lunch and watch this court case (laughs).  I was really obsessed with it, because it was a very interesting thing for me, for some reason, and yeah, I wrote a song about it.  I just love the chugging, grooving, not-too-fast, not-too-slow; it’s a real ‘driving the car’ song.  It’s not total thrash metal, it’s got some melody, it’s got some old-school heavy metal in it, and a bit more heavy stuff too.  I think that it’s probably one of my favourite songs since ‘King of the Kill’, and that’s from 1995!  That doesn’t mean that it’s going to be our best song ever, but for me, personally, I love it. 

SL: What was the first guitar you ever owned, and do you still have it? 

JW: It was a classical guitar my grandfather gave me.  I still have it; I used it on the first song on the first Annihilator record.  It’s called ‘Crystal Ann’; it was a couple-minute guitar piece.  I’m actually looking at it now, its right here.  That was the first acoustic I owned, I might have had a folk guitar… maybe one of those hundred dollar, big-ass country-Western guitars that was probably the same size as I was at seven years old, but I think around eight or nine my grandfather bought me this one, this classical guitar right here.  My first electric was – I don’t know if they have them anywhere else – but in Canada they have this place called Sears, one of those catalogue shopping stores, and they were selling this cheap Les Paul imitation thing, it was eighty-nine dollars back then, probably… I saw Van Halen’s guitar as a kid, and how he striped it, and I striped that little Les Paul copy myself, black and white.  I thought it looked so cool.  Isn’t that cool? 

(SL) Most definitely – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.  Hell, as a teen I bought an Explorer because James Hetfield played one. 

JW: Yeah yeah, for sure.  I was always into Flying V’s, because I took a couple of years of classical lessons, and you put the classical guitar on your inside of your legs, you don’t put it on the right hip or right leg like a normal guitar.  So, when I came out of classical and started into rock and metal stuff, I realised that the Flying V was the guitar that fits like a classical guitar, between your legs, whereas all the others, Les Pauls, Explorers, they fit on the right leg.  That’s one of the reasons I stayed with the V, because the neck would angle in the same position as the classical guitar, and you’d sit down in the same way with it.  Plus KK Downing from Judas Priest was using the V, so was Schenker, the Scorpions and, of course, Accept, those guys were using these white Gibson Flying V’s and I loved them.  So it was cool for me, after being a kid and going through that big Judas Priest phase, which I’ve never, ever gotten out of, meeting KK Downing, playing with him, jamming with him, jamming with his red Kramer V that I had idolised and one of the reasons I played V, playing through his rig and hanging out with him, and touring on the Painkiller tour with him.  Then they brought us back in 2004 for the reunion tour with Halford, and we came back to Europe and toured with them again.  So just imagine what a life, even just that is, for someone who’s a metal fan! 

(SL) What’s it like, meeting your heroes? 

JW: It’s amazing.  I mean, sometimes you do get let down, because you meet them and you go ‘oh shit!  I wish I’d never met that guy…’ I’ve had a couple like that, but the majority of them are just… you know, I’ve been kind of lucky, because I met so many of these so-called ‘stars’, that are not just in heavy metal, but in pop, and all these other [genres of music].  Rod Stewart, Robert Plant, Madonna; all these huge names that you never think would have any reason to meet, or they’d ever have anything to say to someone like me.  But just through road crew guys, or from bands, or different people in the business, like an old tour manager we had, who’s now the tour manager of a huge act, so I get tickets to go see them, and get passes to go backstage, and you’re sitting there with somebody you never thought you’d speak with, you know?  (Laughs)

(SL) As soon as you said that, I had this weird image of a collaboration between Annihilator and Madonna… 

JW: That might not work… I don’t think that would work… no… no… I don’t think so.  (Laughs) yeah, I blew that one off quick! 

(SL) I’ll move swiftly on, then.  How important do you find social media sites are to spreading the Annihilator word? 

JW: The internet’s been a fantastic thing for most [bands], especially new bands.  [At one point] the internet and illegal downloading and all that stuff was really killing the bands in the middle, having a real devastating impact on the bands in the middle.  Not the Metallica’s, but the Testaments, Exodus, Overkill, Annihilator, those bands, the ones that never gave up and were always there, and always changing line-ups to survive but still always there, and never gave up, and there was no epic reunion, no getting back together after ten years. 

The bands that I mentioned there, those four: we never broke up.  We just had to change line-ups when things weren’t working with one or two members, we did whatever we could to survive, and other jobs outside of the band, you know?  Testament have had tons of changes over the years, [as have] Annihilator and Overkill and Exodus.  But those bands, it [the internet] hurt for quite a long time.  We are the bands that needed the record sales to survive, to get deals, to make enough money to do records and to live.  But big bands didn’t give a shit, because they were making the money off that publicity that the internet was giving them, and [for] the small bands it was great because for the small bands you could be sitting in Morocco, in a basement, writing some cool music and have no way normally to get that to anyone else except through the mail, back in the old days.  Now you can do something and, if it’s good, you can upload it and thousands of people can see it within an hour, maybe more if there’s an interest.  You can get something to a record company guy through Facebook now: you can go ‘hi!  My name’s this; could you take two seconds to listen to our song?’  And bands are getting signed in all kinds of music from that now.  So that’s the best thing in the world for new bands; it’s great for the big bands, who get all the promotion on the internet, but for bands who got the illegal stuff, it was killing us, therefore the sales would go down for a lot of the bands, which made it very tough to continue.

That’s why I still idolise the Little Four I was telling you about: Annihilator, Exodus, Overkill, Testament.  I think that the four bands I just mentioned, in the last two or three albums of these four bands – including my band – we’ve come up with some of the coolest records in music that we’ve ever done.  And good for us, because we were hanging in while [there were] these types of bands like Korn and Avenged Sevenfold, Bullet for my Valentine, those kinds of big, pushed bands saying they were heavy metal, they were METAL, they were metal as FUCK, they were HEAVY, you know?  While we were just cruising along through all these starving years, trying to keep the thing going without the publicity and without the venues or the agents to book us, or the labels wanting to push us.  We were playing metal, and we didn’t stop.  We never got the millions and millions of sales and the big paycheck, but we just went through that shitty time.  Those bands, I think, should be commended – there are, of course other bands too [who had the same problems], like Kreator and Destruction.  There’s another two: they never stopped… hell, I don’t even know what the question was anymore (laughs). 

(SL) It was about social media sites being important. 

JW: Oh yeah!  Now it’s at a point where it’s rebounded for the bands in the middle.  Now that the Priests and the Maidens have been exposed to the young kids ten years ago, and the Slayers and the Megadeths, they’ve been exposed through the internet to all the fifteen year olds that were coming up, listening to System Of A Down and Static-X and bands like this, who were all saying they were metal as fuck and they were heavy.  All of a sudden the internet gave them the opportunity to find out, ‘wait a second!  Metal as fuck?  Listen to Slayer!  Listen to this band!  Listen to Exodus, Testament, and holy shit!  There’s a band called Annihilator, I’ve never heard of them!’  And these kids, now, have the ability to go and find the bands that have been playing the whole time through, without stopping and being true to what they love.  Now we’re getting payback!  Now it’s awesome, because you’re seeing Testament come up with some of their best albums, and you’re seeing them tour more and more, and playing bigger venues, and bigger festival slots, and making it more not a part-time job and working other jobs to survive; now Testament is full-time Testament. 

You saw Exodus, I mean before Gary Holt went to Slayer, you saw Exodus working more and more, and putting out some damn good albums.  Overkill, too, put out their last three or four albums, I think there are two of them that’re absolute killer records.  And it’s the same with Annihilator: we don’t come out with perfect records every time, but we’re getting some pretty good stuff coming out lately, especially on the ‘Feast’ album, I think.  So yeah, now the internet is letting those kids find us, and now it’s just… I tell ya, Testament, Annihilator, Overkill’s album sales are going up, so that’s telling you something right there, the internet has definitely helped us.  So while I was slamming the internet in the past, and illegal downloading, like a lot of bands did, I just realised that it’s here to stay, don’t bitch about it and deal with it: use social media to your advantage.  In my case, it was different: I didn’t hire people to just go on social media to promote my band, I literally just started my own personal Facebook page – and a band page – and I just went there and talked to people every day or two, answered mails when I could – because there’s zillions of people on there – but I would upload stuff of me, like me getting ready for a guitar clinic, or rehearsing, or ‘here’s what we’re doing’, ‘here’s a video we took at the hotel’, and we just talked to people.  And a lot of artists don’t talk to people.  I kind of used that to let people know that I’m not part of that group that takes your money, buys a BMW and doesn’t give a fuck about you; I do appreciate every time someone buys a record and helps us out, or buys a shirt, or even just gets interested in the band and wants to ask a dumb question, do you know what I mean? (Laughs).

These are the people that let you be forty-eight years old, working on your fifteenth album, have a fucking awesome studio, get to jump on planes, stay in nice hotels and eat some good food and play these festivals and tours.  These are the people that help me get free guitars, free amps, and free toys!  Studio gear!  Clothes!  Fuck, I even got in the mail this morning a Van Halen cup!  A coffee cup that I ordered from the Van Halen web store.  And hey! I know it sounds cheesy, but if the fans hadn’t bought my records and helped me survive, I wouldn’t be spending my money on a Van Halen coffee cup!  (Laughs)  

(SL) Jeff Waters, thank you so much for a great interview.  Here’s to a great 2014 for Annihilator. 

Words and Interview : Chris Markwell