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Interview: Jeff Waters talks Annihilator’s ‘Triple Threat,’ favorite guitarists

Posted by on January 31, 2017

Jeff Waters can never be accused of not presenting his fans with something musically challenging, different from the glut of stagnation within the metal marketplace, and true bang for the buck. Waters, and his musical alter ego, Annihilator, has operated at a pace of a new studio album just about every two years, consistently, since Annihilator’s 1989 Alice in Hell debut. Waters delivers another round of Canadian metal fury with Triple Threat, a three-disc package that sees Annihilator’s first official flirtation with an honest-to-goodness acoustic set, along with an official document of the band’s 2016 performance at Germany’s Bang Your Head festival. Available as DVD/2CDs, Blu-Ray/2CDs, 2CD audio-only, or digital download, this is an Annihilator collection like no other.

Metal Insider caught up with Jeff Waters recently by phone from his home in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, to chat about the new Triple Threat set, and specifically, the acoustic performances contained within. The acoustic tracks are Annihilator laid bare – all cuts were recorded in one take, warts and all, to further achieve the full band vibe that Waters, as singular dominant force behind the Annihilator name since ’84, strives for when assembling musicians by which to realize his musical vision. Annihilator may be Waters’ baby, as he’s not only been chief guitarist and songwriter since day one (as well as on/off lead vocalist), but these tracks are given a breath of new life by live Annihilator members Aaron Homma and Rich Hinks, along with vocalist Marc LaFrance, and session ace Pat Robillard.

Not only did Jeff Waters fill us in on the new Annihilator set, he ran through a virtual storybook of the band’s history, which should be of particular interest to North American fans that may have lost touch with the band since the heady Roadrunner releases of the early 1990’s. He also clued us in on his musical inspirations and ambitions, and why Annihilator was always a welcome departure from the tried-and-true thrash labeling that he avoided being sucked into during the band’s formative years.

Always buzzing, creatively, Waters is working on the follow-up to Annihilator’s 2015 studio release, Suicide Society, and is set to participate in several festivals again in 2017, such as Wacken Open Air and the U.K.’s Bloodstock. A personable, passionate musician, eager to tell his tale, here’s what Jeff Waters had to say.

So, if calculations are correct, this will be the 15th Annihilator album?

Yes. Well, if you’re coming from the States or much of Canada, you’re thinking, “Who the hell are these guys? I might have heard of them, but I thought they only had one or two albums out.” (laughs).

 

Well, if you’re one of those guys like me who’s been reading the guitar magazines since the late 80’s, we know your stuff pretty well.

You know, it’s funny. The German, or Belgian, or any European versions of Guitar Player or Guitar World, I was in all the time, or had featured stuff. If you looked in the U.S., you might have only seen a little blurb or something every two years or so; and sometimes that’s just because an amplifier company pulled a small ad in the back of the magazine (laughs). But, that’s understandable, because we’ve been around a long time, and we only really, since 1993, have only been putting out records in Europe and Japan and South America. Even our own country is kind of discovering us every year.

 

Are you a guy that looks back much on the overall timeline of the band?

Not so much, because when I started the band, it was the end of ’84, with a friend of mine – we were teenagers. He was kind of into that Rocky Horror Picture Show/Alice Cooper style of singing and theatrical stuff. You have to remember, we’re kids. He introduced me to this band called Venom, and the fire that they were spewing out at their concerts – all the upside down crosses and all these things. He got me into the dark side of metal, which were the first albums from Metallica, Slayer, Exodus, Anthrax – I was already getting into Exciter, and Anvil’s first record was here in Canada. It started out as he and I – we co-wrote this “Allison Hell” song for a demo, and a few songs that eventually made it onto the first two records later on. It was just my dream to put a band together, and I had already been playing guitar for a long time. We’d very quickly put the band together in Ottawa, and as musicians in our late teens, I wanted to work at this full time and get better at it; how to write songs better and how to get this and that sound better. The other guys were, literally, more interesting in taking their long hair and their pretty girlfriends to the clubs and walking around like rock stars in the clubs. That was understandable, because we were young, but I didn’t do that. I said, “Screw the party and the drinking and their girlfriends and all that stuff – I want to stay in my parent’s basement or my friends’ basement writing and getting better at what I do, so I could actually have the chance to do this.

This was essentially the beginning of the Jeff Waters Annihilator solo project, where he’d hire guys to go into the studio, like a drummer and a singer, and when it was time to go on tour, Id’ revisit that and say “can that drummer go on tour?” Also, we need a bassist and another guitar player. So, live, it really is a band. In the studio, it’s a solo project, so it’s kind of a combination of that. I’d go through different phases with different singers – we had four singers on the first four albums, and they were huge-selling records. North Americans may know the first one and maybe the second one. There was one in 1995 called King of the Kill, which was a massive record in Japan and Europe. Over there, a lot of people got it right away, that this was something different – a Waters solo project that we called Annihilator. North America just sort of lost track, and then they did get to revisit us through the internet or Blabbermouth, they would just be shocked at all these changes. For me that was just normal. I’d make a change – every tour I’d have different musicians sometimes.

To look back, each album meant something at a different time. Looking back, it was really cool and an honor to be able to work with some of these guys that were so unique at what they were doing, and then moving on to do something else different. Sometimes it did great, and sometimes it didn’t do so well.

 

This new Triple Threat release is half acoustic, and the songs really take on a new life when they’re broken down into this form. What was your process for deciding which songs you’d include on the acoustic set?

Our first record, Alice in Hell, was a raw thrash record – no click tracks or anything. We tried to play tight but we were young and inexperienced in the studio. We blasted through that album and it came out thrash, but the first track, “Crystal Ann,” was a classical guitar piece and had nothing to do with metal. Then, “Allison Hell,” despite the album being billed as it was – which was a thrash metal album with a bit of a twist on it, was more of a heavy metal song with a little touch of Gary Holt/Exodus riffing in the chorus; it wasn’t even a thrash metal song. The rest of the album turned out to be thrash metal. Our second album, Never, Neverland, had more melody, but it was still thrash. The third and fourth records, Set the World on Fire and King of the Kill – those were heavy metal-meets-commercial hard rock/heavy metal. Those went over huge in some countries and were completely disregarded in others. That was understandable, as there was this band called Annihilator that played thrash metal, now with some ballads and some different ideas on the albums, and changing singers.

Those two albums, Set the World on Fire and King of the Kill, gave the most acoustic tracks for this Triple Threat record. That was the time when I realized that traditional metal and 80’s metal were on their way out in 1993, so I couldn’t really think of doing an MTV Unplugged type of thing, and we were sort of kicked out of North America, so to speak. Those were the two records that really started me being able to do just whatever I wanted on my records, and not worry about the thrash metal label and the name Annihilator. It didn’t matter at that point.

So, those two records had a lot of melodic stuff – I could have done an acoustic version of both those albums, pretty much. Picking the songs for this thing, I figured 10 or 11 songs would be fine. Initially, there were three different things I had to think about connected to it, and I made a list of about 30 songs. Maybe 10 of them were metal songs that I thought I could convert to acoustic, and change it all up and be different. Then I thought, “I don’t want to do that.” After I tried a few of them, I realized that wasn’t what the song was about. The other maybe 10 songs on my list; I realized I couldn’t sing them, because some of the singers we’ve had in the past were very talented. Some of them weren’t’ very talented at singing, but had this gift for being original or having so much attitude. A great example was Randy Rampage – he couldn’t sing, but he was the coolest attitude guy we’ve ever had in the band, because he was like a punk rocker. He played bass in a band called DOA, and had this attitude that was second to none. Coburn Pharr, our Never, Neverland singer – nobody sounds like him. That’s partially why that album was so successful.

So, there were just some things I couldn’t sing – my main thing is guitar and secondary singer. These were the ten songs I put in a pile because I couldn’t sing. The other ten, were songs that I’d sang on. I’m currently working on my fifth studio album with Annihilator that I’m singing on. I pulled songs that were personal to me – a song about my son called “Holding On,” Innocent Eyes,” and a few others. Then, I went back to the ten songs that I couldn’t sing, and I thought to get my friend out in Vancouver named Marc LaFrance to sing on them. Marc’s been on hundreds of albums that we all know – “Dr. Feelgood;” he’s the high voice on the chorus of that song, Scorpions albums, David Lee Roth, Bon Jovi’s “Living On a Prayer.” The high voice you hear on that is not Richie Sambora, it’s Marc LaFrance.  Since the 80’s, this guy’s been singing on metal albums, and no one really knows except for the producers and the bands. So, he’s a friend of mine that sang on some of the early Annihilator songs for backing vocals. We got him, and I said, “Wait, maybe he can sing the songs I can’t, and when I sing my songs, he’ll sing backup.” It worked out perfectly for me.

 

This acoustic angle fits into the vein of you basically going wherever you want, musically, with Annihilator. Some of your tracks can almost be called “progressive,” because you change the direction on a dime. Where did that come from, this want and ability to not confine yourself to musical tags?

I’m a rare guy that’s been known to admit to saying I’m a fan of this Megadeth song, or this era of Metallica, or stuff from Judas Priest/Iron Maiden, the list goes on and on. I’m influenced my many guitarists ranging from heavy metal, to hard rock, to thrash metal. I’m not shy about saying where I get things from. As a kid, my mom got me into classical guitar lessons; I’m not very good at it, but just the basics. I had a year of jazz lessons, which completely destroyed my brain as a 12-year-old; it just didn’t make sense to me. Then, I was into a band called Sweet – people would know their songs like “Ballroom Blitz” and “Fox on the Run.” They had an album called Desolation Boulevard, and there were two songwriters on there named Chapman and Chinn that wrote all the hits, while the band was left on side B to write their own material. Sweet wrote some of the most influential music in history, and people don’t give them credit for it. So many bands, whether they know it or not, were influenced by Sweet – I think Testament actually covered a song.

When I got into this album I heard this great rock guitar – that, and Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” I was born in ’66, and I was a kid going through disco; KISS had “I Was Made for Loving You” after I already got into them for Alive II. So, I was into hard rock, then I got into things like the Blizzard of Ozz album and Randy Rhoads, and then Loudness’ first album and Akira Takasaki. You had the Scorpions in there was well, and that was the beginning of the heavier music; the killer shredding albums – Van Halen came out around that time. My hard rock and radio influences were turning into heavy metal. Heavy metal was Van Halen, AC/DC, and KISS back at that time. In my mid-teens I was hearing the first albums from Exciter, Anvil, Razor, and of course the Big Four.

So, I had a choice when I was starting this band, and on the first few records. There was a pressure by managers and labels, to either be one of these bands that targets a style or a genre and stick with it; like a Slayer or AC/DC, or just say screw it and do whatever you want, and whatever happens, happens. That’s what Annihilator is – everything from pop, ballads, to goofy, immature cliché songs from time to time, to thrash metal, to heavy metal. The beauty of the words “heavy metal,” by my definition, is I look and Randy Rhoads. He put “Dee,” the classical guitar piece, on an Ozzy album. He was able to put classical music on a heavy metal album. Heavy metal also has blues all over it – soloing by guitar players is more than half blues guitar, just played louder and faster. So, I was able to take heavy metal, which is a broad canvas, and thrash metal, with a pop songwriting format, and do what I want. Part of that condemns your life to a career of non-major success because of that; you’re not staying on an image or particular lineup, building within a genre with the title of Annihilator. It was even more ridiculous that I thought I could do some love songs and personal songs on the albums, but I just did it and said “I don’t give a crap.” The only reason why I’m surviving today, and things have been going up for the last ten years, is because people are slowly figuring out, whether you like it or not, Jeff’s doing what he wants to do, and enjoys doing it.

 

I was watching some YouTube videos of you doing a clinic at NAMM a few years ago, and it was great how you really help people’s attention with your presentation. Those of us in the know realize your guitar hero status, and I’m curious if that ever played with your mind over the years as far as writing went. I ask because you’re a player that never seemed to focus on the amount of notes they could jam into a solo.

I do a lot of clinics for the Epiphone guitar company in Europe each year – I’m lucky enough to call up and ask, “Do you have a few weeks open that you’d like me to come over and swing through on the bus?” So, I get to do these clinics and get to talk to a lot of people, mainly guitar players, and I’m just one of the players they like or listen to. I can give them my two cents on how I do my stuff and entertain and just have a lot of fun. I’m more of a songwriter and rhythm player who can do solos, which happen to be the icing on the cake. I’m not the best at it; I’m good at it, but the lead guitar and the shredder thing – I’m kind of lucky to have been able to avoid that. A lot of guys are killer lead guitar players, but what about the rhythm playing and the songwriting? I’ve always liked guitar players like Eddie Van Halen, Dave Mustaine, or even Alexi Laiho, or even go a stretch and say Corey and Matt from Trivium – when they did their Crusade era of Trivium, for example.

These people that I mentioned, and Randy Rhoads, they are a rare breed in hat they have the three categories: they have rhythm guitar playing that they’re good at, lead guitar playing, and songwriting. Most of the guys that get heralded as great guitarists, they’re good at one or two things, and almost never three – even the great Malcolm Young. His specialty of rhythm guitar and songwriting, and Angus is the lead guitar player. Look at James Hetfield – his specialty is rhythm guitar playing and songwriting, and Kirk Hammett is the lead player. A guy like Dave Mustaine is a little different – he’s all three. A guy like Van Halen is all three; in fact, he’s probably the best ever at all three. Other guitar players like Malmsteen can just throw their guitars behind their back and make us other guitar players want to quit, but he didn’t write Women and Children First, Diver Down, Van Halen I and II, and Fair Warning – you know what I mean? For me, I’m lucky, because in Europe and Japan, at least, I’ve been put in the jack-of-all-trades category, doing all three pretty well.

 

You’ve served as producer on Annihilator records going back to Alice in Hell, and have engineered many as well. Sonically, this Triple Threat record sounds very pristine and clear, which leads me to ask you about your attention to audio detail. Do you obsess over how a record should sound?

I think that’s partially true, and then I think…I didn’t even know what “smoke and mirrors” meant, but it’s partial illusion and partial correct, because some records I’ve been on we’ve had great budgets, like the early days, and I’ll listen back and think “Oh god, so much money was wasted in a beautiful studio with this and that.” Some of the records I’m doing in my little studio are sounding way better. I think what happens, is that if you listen to some Dio albums and some Dokken albums, even Defenders of the Faith by Judas Priest – one of my favorite albums of all time, the performances and the musicianship and the songwriting can take a badly produced record to another level. Some of my favorite albums are technically so horrible-sounding, but the singing or the performance is so good, that the listener does not even consider the production into the equation of them liking it.

I’ve heard some of the most expensive recordings of the last 15 years; where as a guy that works in a studio, I know that the sounds were so expensive to achieve, but the songs suck and the playing sucks, and the songs are very boring. I think, “Wow, you just spent a million dollars on this record and it sounds like garbage.” My records are the same – sometimes we’d have a bigger budget and they’d sound better, and sometimes, even more recent ones, not just early days, I’d listen back and realize that my guitar sound was just not that good at all. It was a good thing that we played really tight and had some good songs on there because the guitar didn’t sound good. All of us get fooled in the sound production process. So yeah, I’m definitely not proud of all the production, but I think the craft has made up for it. Alice in Hell was technically so badly recorded in a demo studio on demo equipment, but there was something on that album that hit so many fans and press so positively, that when I listen to it, I cringe when I hear the quality of it. But, I also know why people liked it – because it was honest, real, and it was about a song and a performance.

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