Sunday 5 July 2015

'Let the music do the talking': An inteview with Annihilator mastermind Jeff Waters

Sometimes lightning strikes twice.  A year ago I conducted my longest-ever interview with Jeff Waters, the mad scientist behind Canadian thrash metal legends Annihilator.  After my self-imposed exile from the Court of Sludge, I came back with a desire to not let the Sludgelord down, and prove my worth once more. 

“How may I serve, my Lord?”  I asked, bowing so low my beard touched the ground. 

From the throne of vinyl and amplifiers, a scaly hand pointed at me.  I dared not look higher, for to catch a glimpse of the Sludgelord’s gaze is to invite Death Himself upon me. 

“You will interview Jeff Waters, Chris Markwell,” rasped a voice that could melt a thousand styluses.  “And you will dictate to the world, all the latest on what he and Annihilator have to offer.  He has created a brand new album, named ‘Suicide Society’.  You will listen, you will research, and you will interview.  Understood?” 

“Yes, my liege,” I acquiesced, keeping my head low as I turned to walk from the Palace of Heavy Noises. 

I had a new job from The Sludgelord.  It was time to go to work… 

SL:  Hello Jeff, how are you doing? How’s London treating you?

Jeff Waters:  Really good, considering I just got in last night at midnight, and checked out of the hotel at 9 o’clock in the morning.  I checked in at the hotel, got some room service, and the food was on my bed (laughs)

SL:  A very rock ‘n’ roll way to do things! 

JW:  Totally, yeah.  Well I used to do that: pass out in the hotel room with the TV on, but this time it’s not from booze, it was from food. 

SL:  Let’s get straight into it and talk about ‘Suicide Society’: your brand-new, fifteenth album is coming out in September: you have taken on all the musical roles for this one.  How was it to create? 

JW: For me, it was kind of… when I started doing the record, it was working on the
eleventh or twelfth year with my partner in Annihilator crime, Dave Padden – and he was our guitar player and singer – so when he came to me in December 2014 and said “listen, as you probably may have noticed, the past three or four years, I haven’t been really into it anymore…”  He didn’t want to tour, didn’t want to come to my place and work on songs.  It was more like he’d just gotten tired of it all.  He was in the band for a little more than a decade, and we have started doing a lot more touring, a lot more work, and his heart just wasn’t into it.  I knew this, but I didn’t want to say anything for years, because, you know, this is your singer, and this is the guy who’s with you while things are going well here.  So it was a bit of a shock in December, but it was the right thing for him to do, because he wasn’t happy.  It wasn’t money, or me, or the band, it was just he was literally tired of it, didn’t want to leave home.  He didn’t want to go travelling anymore.

I mean, in my mind I thought that was crazy, because who would not love to do this?  Some people are not completely 100% into this, after a little while, and your singer has to be 100% into everything, otherwise that translates into the vocal performances on the album, and people go “hey! there’s not much feel on that!” you know?  There was a panic when he left, but it was also the best thing that could have happened at this time.  Then we got a singer who’s totally into this!  (laughs)  He’s so awesome!  His name’s Jeff Waters!  (laughs)  So when he [Padden] left in December, I’d already finished the record – written the lyrics and the melody lines, and I’d even demoed them on CD for him to see what he thought of the songs and show him what my ideas were – and so he heard it and came to my studio in Ottawa to sing it, but the difference is I did it. 

So, instead of actually going right in and singing right away, which would have been absolute career suicide; I went and took vocal lessons for a while.  I learnt how to warm up properly, and take the things I didn’t like about my voice when I used to sing for the band, analyse them and get rid of them.  Then I’d take the things – the limited amount of things I could do that were good – I’d write them down and concentrate on those things.  My favourite singers are Dickinson, Halford, Dio, but I could never sing more than one note of what they’re doing, you know?  So I kind of focused on learning.  I actually put this on paper; it was easier when I put it down on paper.  I said ‘how am I going to do this?’  I got rid of the things I don’t like, and now, what about the things I like about my voice?  And they were very few!  So I thought: what do I sing in the shower?  What do I sing when I’m walking around the kitchen and no-one’s home?  I mean, I’m always singing stuff, and playing drums on everything… and you know what?  Staley, Hetfield, Mustaine and Osbourne were the four guys that came right to my mind: when I sing in the car, when I look like a crazy nut singing stuff, those are the four singers I usually sing to, because they’re closer to what I could almost do.  So that was it.

I limited the vocals to certain styles, I didn’t target that, I just thought that this was the only thing I could really do that’s decent and, in the end, after all the hard work I did on it, I sat back and listened to it and said: “wow!  I can actually listen to one of my own songs that I sang on and not be embarrassed and not be weirded out!”  And that’s great!  I’m on the press trip, and people really like it, and that’s the best part. 

SL:  Do you feel like with the loss of Dave Padden to the recording process, made you feel more focused and driven to build a better product? 

JW:  You’d think, but it was more felt on the approach to vocals, and making the smart move of not just jumping in, saying “hey, I can do this” and getting it done.  I said: “you know what?  I think I’d be stupid to just jump in” because I need to do some work on it.  I mean, for someone to say I haven’t sang professionally in the band as a lead vocalist, really, for twenty years, and you’re forty-nine years old, for you to tell somebody “oh yeah, I’ll just go in and sing it” and most people will go “oh, you’re an idiot, you can’t do that and make anything good.”  And I couldn’t. 

So I had to, in a very short amount of time, retrain and relearn this stuff.  The bonus was, the reason it went quick for me on that end, was because I basically produced all my singers along the way, I write all the melodies, I write all the stuff, and I’m the producer, mixer, engineer, I’ve got this mastering thing down for years, and I have fun doing it, so I knew what I wanted, and that shaves off a lot of time that it would take a lot of other people to get to the next level on the singing thing.  The music is the same too, in the sense that my influences just came right out: you can just hear them, and it’s not something I’ve tried to hide in my whole career.  It’s just something that I’ve just wanted to say “yeah, I’m a fan of all these bands and musicians and guitar players, and you are going to hear this all over the music.”  It’s there, enjoy it!  Celebrate it! 

SL:  How do you feel about going back to being the front man and playing and singing all these songs live again? 

JW:  That’s the next step.  Dave had been with us over eleven years.  We went through all our catalogue of songs at the time, and we had to get rid of 50% of all the songs, because they weren’t written for a singer, they were just written as music, and to play guitar and sing them would have been impossible on some of the things, with the timings that were happening in them.  So we would pick out the songs that he could do, then all the new songs we would do on records with him.  It’s the same with me: I figured out that I have a hundred and sixty-one songs in the Annihilator catalogue and fifteen records. 

I narrowed it down to about forty that I can play and sing, and then maybe ten or twelve of those are just not the greatest songs at all… some of them are just not good enough to play, and I wish I’d written better songs at the time, but it doesn’t work like that.  So we narrow it down, and then you look at the songs you have to play – ‘Alice in Hell’, ‘Set the World on Fire’, ‘King of the Kill’, ‘Fun House’, all those songs – and you say “can I do those?” and if you say “I can’t do those” you better work your ass off and learn how to do it!  Plus, I’ve sang before.  This is my fourth CD of Annihilator where I’m singing on it.  Doesn’t mean it was good in the past when I did it, but I think that the new one’s just quite an accomplishment for a forty-nine year old guitar player! 

SL:  Do you feel like slowing down at all, or is there plenty left in the Jeff Waters gas tank? 

JW: The body sure is trying to slow me down!  But my brain is still three years old, so there you go!  That’s what my twenty-year old son says every day to me.  I remember once apologising to him for acting slightly too much like a silly kid, rather than a father, and he laughed at that and said “Dad, you aren’t like a twelve-year old, you’re like a three-year old!”  So yeah, it’s still a lot of fun, and something I’ve never even considered stopping doing it, because it’s a blast to be able to travel and meet all these people, and play the music that you did in your studio, or basement, or whatever, and get paid to do it!  So it’s a full-time job, and just fantastic. 

SL:  You have a massive European tour coming up this year.  Do you find that, with getting older, you have to approach touring differently? 

JW:  Only vocally, not with the age thing, because we live good.  We have a nice bus: if you ever really want to just blow off a couple of interviews, or in the daytime just relax, or knock out a sound check, you have about twenty hours a day where you can do that, or even sleep, if you wanted.  If you want to eat properly, the catering’s good, if you want to eat healthy, you can eat healthy, and not even spend money because it’s part of your catering rider.  If you want to go for a walk in the day, or run, or work out, you can do it…

I mean, I don’t do most of those things because I’m lazy, but I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t do drugs, and now I don’t smoke cigarettes.  I haven’t smoked for about three years: I quit!  Mostly it’s don’t talk in the daytime, and pace yourself, don’t go too crazy on stage, and when you’re singing and playing guitar you just don’t have that choice anyway.  You have to stay planted in one place, and you’ve got to make sure the other guys in the band, who’re thankfully younger, sweat and run around and have fun. 

SL:  Speaking of the other guys in the band, you’ve had a bit of a reshuffle.  Mike Harshaw is still on the drums, but ‘King of the Kill’-era bassist Cam Dixon is back. 

JW:  Yeah, everything seems to kind of change with us.  Basically, Annihilator’s always been a solo and studio project, where we’d hire a drummer and singer, and then we would go on tour and it would become more of a band.  We would hire the guys to tour, and then that would not become a Jeff Waters-run thing, by the time we got on the plane it would become a band.  So it’s kind of a neat experience for me, but it can be confusing for fans and press that really don’t know much or anything about us.  It looks like we’ve set a record for the highest turnover of band members; but again, it’s like a half-band.  So yeah, we brought back an old bass player, and we’ve got a new guitar player for this set of tours, and we’ll see what happens. 

SL:  Let’s hear a bit more about this new guitarist, Aaron Homma.  Where did you find this guy? 

JW:  I was looking for a couple of months for a guitar player.  First you start looking around for guys that are already in bands that hopefully are in Canada, hopefully in the east of Canada where I am, so you start from your own city and find people.  So I kind of went backwards: I started looking everywhere, then I started looking in North America, to Canada, and then, when I started looking locally, I found one person.  That guy just happened to live pretty close to me, and is a killer guitar player.  He’s not one of these lead guitar gods, like Chris Broderick or Jeff Loomis, or schooled players that, you know, like Dave Mustaine would hire to just do solos.  While Dave Mustaine would do the writing and the other jobs, the killer guitar player would just come in and do these incredible things, you know?  This kid’s more of an all-round player, and just a killer rhythm player, and in Annihilator you have to be pretty good on the rhythm guitar.  It’s really about rhythm guitar and drums, and not about guitar solos.  It’s really just the rhythm. 

SL:  Let’s talk about ‘Suicide Society’: what were the main inspirations behind this album? 

JW:  There wasn’t a concept to tie in to the title track – maybe with the cover, a little bit – but there’s no real lyrical concept, other than, lyrically, there’s a lot of stuff to do with things I observe on the news, or things that I see that are just ridiculous, or bad, or funny, or like if stuff happens to family members, or myself, or world events, that kind of stuff.  And sometimes on our records the songs are just silly, or humourous, or not important, no real important meaning. 

Then sometimes, occasionally, I hit upon something that actually means something, which were the songs ‘Suicide Society’, ‘Every Minute’, a couple of others on there.  ‘Suicide Society’ the song was actually meant about something that ended up being… sometimes I’ll write down subjects, and one of them was what the world is doing to each other, to our fellow men, and what we’re doing to our planet.  That’s probably one of the most unoriginal subjects to write about!  But I wrote it down anyway, just in case I had some ideas, and when I started thinking about it, I became very obsessed with that song. 

That’s a long story, I don’t want to get too personal on that, but I just had that awakening where I just realised: what in the hell are we doing to each other in this world, and what are we doing to this planet?  All of a sudden, my life became not just something I knew was there, I sort of stopped, thought about it, and felt how horrible this whole situation is that we’ve created for ourselves and the planet.  In the end, I got through all the pessimism and there’s still a little ray of hope that we can change it all around; if, magically, if we all got our shit together, and wanted to really do something about these issues, we could do it.  It was just a sort of general pessimistic look at the world, and the cover’s a lighter version of that, a little fascination I had that maybe the human race is an experiment, placed here by whoever’s out there, The Creator or whoever, and so far we’ve completely failed the experiment.  So I thought, well that would be kind of neat to send down a Terminator, or an Annihilator, or an Iron Man-type thing to wipe us out and start all over again. 

SL:  Sound like you had a very dark epiphany! 

JW:  Yeah!  Very soon, a lot of people are going to wake up to fuel running out, and a whole lot of other problems are going to come down in the next fifty years, and we’re going to have a tough time getting out of them. 

SL:  Here’s hoping something will change… otherwise we’ll be living the Mad Max movies! 

JW:  (laughs) Well, we’re not heading in the right direction right now, so it’s great to beoptimistic, but not if things are really not getting done.  Really depressing, but hey! whatever!  That’s metal! 

SL:  Let’s move onto metal and mainstream society: VH1 recently listed their top 10 debut thrash albums and, lo and behold, ‘Alison Hell’ was there at Number 10. 

JW:  There are two sides to this: one is it’s amazing in one sense to be able to say: “hey! VH1 and people are contacting me saying isn’t that cool and great?”  And then the other side is: the list is just… wrong!  (laughs)  There’s so many missing things on there, I’m guessing this could possibly be just one person’s opinion.  I mean, I’m sure everybody at VH1 doesn’t know anything from those records or what that list is about; there may be one guy, maybe two, that put the list up that know.  But it’s very good for promotion, good for publicity, so I’ll take it any day! 

SL:  It was good to see the Little Four of thrash: Annihilator, Overkill, Exodus and Testament included in the list, though. 

JW:  Yeah.  I mean, you mentioned the four bands that are kind of in my list that I like to repeat that were not at the level of the Slayers and the Megadeths and Metallicas.  These are the bands that were not the bands that broke up for ten, fifteen years when it wasn’t popular, or when it was tough to go on.  These bands that you mentioned – Overkill, Annihilator, Exodus, Testament – some of these, or all of these, bands are putting out some of their best records in the last couple of years.  Some of those bands are finally starting to make money in their careers, and get paid more for festivals, doing the jobs they did in the nineties and now they’re finally getting the credit and the respect and the money that they deserve.  Because 90% of the metal bands at least just gave up or just got dropped around 1992, ’93 in North America. 

In Europe, you had Kreator and Destruction too that, in addition to Overkill, Exodus, Testament and Annihilator, went through tons of line-up changes.  Those weren’t because we’re all screwed up, it was because there was barely any money in it, and some people just couldn’t keep touring and going broke.  Some people had families, and just needed a certain amount of money to survive and, therefore, the turnover of these bands were amazingly high during that period.  I think now these bands are putting out quality records, like they were in their earlier days, and finally they’re getting some respect and some money out of this. 

SL:  The internet has been a massive boost for these bands that were somewhat overlooked in the nineties.  There’s also a lot of hype about music streaming sites these days – Spotify, Soundcloud, Apple are coming out with an on-demand service – do you believe music on-demand is a good thing? 

JW:  That stuff, I don’t really have an opinion on.  I don’t know much about it, and I kind of stay away from that, because I just don’t know much about it.  I don’t have an opinion on where it’s going, or what’s happened, or what did happen.  I have an iPhone, and I have an iTunes account, and if I like some music that I hear, even my friends’ bands, I can just send them an email and say “hey! Do you mind sending me a CD?”  Sometimes I’ll ask them if I can get it signed for a friend or something, but I’ll always go to iTunes or buy the CD so I can play it in my studio.  I’m always supporting that, and I just try to block out the fact that the artist isn’t getting any money from those payments anyway! (laughs)  iTunes is a convenience for me, but I just try to stay away from this whole internet on-demand stuff, because there’s just so much going on, and there’s too many opinions on the thing. 

SL:  So do you prefer having the physical copy than having a digital cache? 

JW:  Well I was doing press over in Germany recently, and one journalist from a German magazine said that he had over nine thousands CDs in his collection!  They’re all there in alphabetical order, in three rooms, completely jammed, walls of CDs!  I thought about it, and it’s like a catch.  I mean, LPs were the best because you could open it up, and you’d have this amazing display of words and pictures.  The LP is the best for fan experience, and I’m a huge fan of records!  So I’ve put my favourite records on the walls and the hallways of my studio, but I don’t collect them.

I have the Van Halen ‘Women and Children First’, Sweet ‘Desloation Boulevard’, one of the Slayer records, ‘Master of Puppets’… I have all those almost stapled to the walls, you know?  I don’t have a turntable anymore, but the quality of them was great, and is still good when you listen back to it, with the crackling and stuff.  Now, the CD is perfect and still is the best format really to just generally listen to stuff, because with mp3s and most styles of compression, those styles just suck and destroy the quality of what you’ve worked so hard to make sound good.  CDs are the best because they’re small, you can throw them in your car,
and they sound the best. 

But you look at the booklet, at the cover, and you don’t get the big picture of what the art’s about, if the artists really tried to make a great cover and booklet, it’s kind of hard to see that.  The audio is the best thing; the artwork on the CD’s the shitty part.  Then, of course, you’ve got iTunes and that, and the benefit is you take your little bloody phone and plug it into anywhere in the world – a hotel television, or an airplane, or plug in headphones and put it in your pocket – it’s just like the most ingenious idea, except that unless you burn the WAV file to be the real high-quality file, you’re just listening to compressed crap.  And you don’t have the cover and all that either… so, I kind of like the idea of all three?  That was a long answer, right? 

SL:  What keeps you passionate about making music? 

JW:  I think I overloaded myself so much from the age of ten or twelve with hard rock and disco!  I was a little kid when disco was around, but I remember the Bee Gees and Donna Summer, and KISS doing ‘I Was Made For Loving You’, and Rod Stewart doing disco songs, and I remember that era when I was really young, but I like the music, I liked the drum beats. 

When Elton John did ‘Saturday Night’s (Alright for Fighting)’, the ripping rhythm guitar in that song did something to me when I was twelve.  That made me progress, through hearing Sweet ‘Desolation Boulevard’ and asking my friend what that cover is with the blood, and it was ‘If You Want Blood…’ by AC/DC, and then there was KISS ‘Alive II’ and it just steamrolled from disco, to rock, to hard rock, to heavy metal: Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, all that stuff. 

Then it progressed to Venom, Slayer, Exciter, Anvil, Razor, the Big Four... so yeah, I think I overloaded myself so much from the age of twelve to eighteen, nineteen, where I literally would, day and night, be living, breathing, soaking up music.  I would be in school and all I would be doing would be thinking about songs.  I would be sleeping and dreaming about songs.  I would line up to buy Black Sabbath’s ‘Mob Rules’, or ‘Number of the Beast’ by Maiden, I would line up at the local record stores and arenas for the concerts.  I had autograph sessions with Maiden during that album’s tour in Ottawa, Canada.  So I was just an obsessed fan of hard rock and heavy metal, and then thrash metal. 

Since I started with Annihilator, I really didn’t need to listen to anything else again, because you can listen to any of my records and put your finger down on a riff, and 50% of the time you are going to say: “hey! That sounds a little bit like this band, or this guitar player.”  You’re going to find that on pretty much every riff, if you really want to be picky.  So I don’t have a problem coming up with stuff, it’s just a matter of what mood I’m in, or what time of my life am I in, and then the luck factor.  Sometimes you hit it and write a great song, sometimes it’s an average song, or a good song, and sometimes you look back and you go “oh, that was embarrassing!  I wish I could go back and have written a better one!”

So you just keep going, and a lot of bands don’t get the chances to have their ups and downs; usually on their downs they’re let go, and for me I was just always lucky that enough people wanted to sign it in mainland Europe, and Japan, and South America.  Scandinavia and the UK have always been very difficult for us since 1993.  A lot of the times you wouldn’t hear of us here [in the UK], but we’d go somewhere else and play to twenty thousand people.  And then we’d play a five hundred person club in one country in Europe, and then the next day we’d co-headline with Slayer in Bulgaria, or something.  So we have a very strange career where you can go from country to country, from unknown to known, and sort-of known to pretty popular, you know?  (laughs) It’s weird, the band is a very strange, very unique thing. 

SL:  Do you find going back and forth playing small crowds to huge arenas jarring, or does it keep you excited and grounded? 

JW:  It’s been happening for so long, and we did have a ten year period from ’96, ’97 to 2007 where we were at our lowest, as far as sales were concerned.  I actually looked at this and said: “okay, well maybe Annihilator’s music, as much as I think it’s at a certain level, maybe it’s just not there.”  But I still love it, and people still want to hear it.  We still get deals and tour, so I work my butt off and just do the best I can, but I was realistic about things. 

Then in 2007 we had an album called – the most clichéd title in the world – ‘Metal’, and we had a bunch of guests on it, and those guests helped bring an extra focus on it and onto the band.  Sales finally went up a little bit, and that was good news!  Then 2010 we did a self-titled record on a UK label, and sales went up again.  2012 or’13, we did ‘Feast’ on a German label, and sales went up yet again!  It’s kind of funny, because the new records that we’ve got out now, you know how, unfortunately, many times your sales are predicted by how much your distributor is interested in your record, and how much they think it’ll sell, and how much your record company is interested in it, and how much money those two want to put into the promotion of your record. 

Sometimes they can put money into it, and it bombs, but a lot of the times it’s almost closer to certain that, if they put the money in, it’s going to do well.  So it’s kind of looking like that for us, everybody seems excited for the record, so that would make four records in a row where the sales go up!  Now that’s not supposed to happen in today’s climate! It’s a very lucky and grateful time for us that we’re on the fourth one going up, and we’re going to enjoy every second of this. 

SL:  Looks like we’ve found that positivity we thought you’d lost earlier! 

JW:  We’ve always enjoyed ourselves, it’s just that being in a band sometimes is actually tough.  If you lose members, or if sometimes it’s financially hard to keep a band going, so you do other things on the side, and a lot of times in every job in everybody’s life you have ups and downs: somebody dies, or somebody gets sick, or somebody has a family problem, all of these things can happen.  It’s when you have good news, and it’s really appreciated at this point, that makes the hard work worth it. 

SL:  Having a fourth album that’s going up is very good news, I really enjoyed listening to it; I can’t wait to see what the rest of the world is going to think of it. 

JW:  When I did the record I was like ‘am I happy with it?’  I have my own studio, so I can take longer in producing if I had to, and I just do that until I’m really happy with it.  You also have to try and be honest with it, because if you’re not really completely happy with it, it’s not right.  It’s just not right.  If you have a budget, or a time constraint, and you work your ass off to get it done by that date, and you finish it and you realise that you could have done better: that’s life. 

That’s okay, too, but if you have the opportunity to keep going and get it right, and you hit that point where you think ‘I think I did it.  I think that’s a good record’, that’s actually the best feeling in the world.  You cannot top that with piles of money, or playing a huge festival, and the feeling you get, sitting by yourself creating something for over five months, and you get to where you say ‘I like that.’  Then it’s out of your hands, you hope the record company likes it, you hope the press like it, and you hope the fans like it too. 

SL:  Five months for the record’s creation- was that the timescale for this new album’s creation? 

JW:  Yeah, from starting, to writing, to finishing; but we had a couple of months off where Dave Padden left and I had to just go back and retrain and take vocal lessons.  I had to take that break so that I could do this right, and that was a lot of hard work, but I was so into it, it wasn’t so much work, it was more ‘okay, I’m going to do this!’  Once you decide ‘I’m going to do it!’ you can’t turn back. 

SL:  Jeff, on behalf of me and The Sludgelord, thank you so much.  Here’s to an amazing year for you and Annihilator. 

Words and interview by: Chris Markwell