JEFF WATERS Says Touring Will Be ANNIHILATOR's Focus: 'With 17 Records And 175 Songs, I Think I've Done My Time'

April 20, 2022

By David E. Gehlke

Having relocated to the United Kingdom from his native Ottawa, Canada in 2018, ANNIHILATOR mainman Jeff Waters effectively went to where all the action is for his band. ANNIHILATOR has been a European tour and festival mainstay since the 1990s, with Waters's brand of off-beat, technical thrash never falling out of favor with international audiences. It's helped him amass 17 studio albums without playing a show in North America for over three decades.

While various ANNIHILATOR albums have been made available in North America since their 1991 split with Roadrunner Records, discussion on this side of the pond generally begins and ends with 1989's "Alice In Hell" and 1990's "Never, Neverland". It's a double-edged sword that Waters has been willing to embrace at the expense of the rest of his catalog, that, minus his first three Roadrunner albums (which are owned by the label in perpetuity),will be part of a massive reissue campaign courtesy of German label Edel.

The first release is a "re-imagined" version of 2007's "Metal" simply titled "Metal II". It features current INTO ETERNITY / former ICED EARTH vocalist Stu Block, legendary SLAYER drummer Dave Lombardo and the originally assembled cast of 12 guest musicians. "Metal II" was intended to be the primary topic of the below discussion. Still, in true Waters fashion, the conversation quickly turned to other, more revealing topics, including Waters's decision to step down as vocalist and plans for ANNIHILATOR to return to North America finally.

Blabbermouth: If the pandemic doesn't happen, are we talking about a new ANNIHILATOR studio album instead of "Metal II"?

Jeff: "I think there are 17 records. The last one I did was 'Ballistic, Sadistic', which came out in January or February 2020, right before everything hit. I had already done my touring for that. I did two or three months in Europe touring before Christmas. We used the tour to set up the record as a promotion rather than releasing it and going on tour. I got lucky in that sense. The bulk of the sales and the touring were successful. I had a nice Christmas and then the record came out. It was a bonus if anything sold at that point, then everything hit. I thought I was sitting pretty because I've got this incredible building and studio. Being in the U.K., you're in the center in one sense, like L.A. in the '80s. You're so close to Germany and Holland, even Spain and Italy and especially England for the music scene. You're around this stuff with easy access for anyone to fly in and mix a record and do things. It was a lucky business thing that happened. I thought I was set and lucky. When Covid hit, I started thinking, 'Wow, was I lucky with the timing!' Even personally and the finances — where I was the last six years prior, Europe ramped right up again for us. I was pretty smart, not 'smart,' but conscious of the business side. I got lucky. Everything got lucky. When this hit, I was taking video calls like this, asking a few of my friends if they needed help, musicians, because they were having a tough time when this hit. They thought things would open up quick and I was like, 'Dude. It's going to be years before anything opens up.'

"So I got a little bit thinking that everything was cool, then my whole family got Covid. Long story short, it was bad. It wasn't as bad as my friend Will [Carroll, DEATH ANGEL drummer], who ended up in an induced coma in the hospital, but I was at the hospital but was sent back. They said they could only admit me if they put the tube down my throat. I was having breathing problems and oxygen level problems. I took a gamble and went home. It took a few weeks and I got over it, but it took six months to recover my lungs. It was no joke. I never thought it was. That gave me a reality check. I might have been doing better than a lot of my friends — having a nice place and the future seems okay. My cycle was done, mostly. But then the reality hit: Forget music, what about your life? Long story short, I took stock in things. Once I got over that first two weeks, it was like an average-weighted human sitting on my chest for 10-to-12 days. It sounded like a crackling fire when you were breathing in and out. It was like a bad asthma attack; it was terrible. Once I got through that, at that time I was 54; I'm 55 now. I was thinking, 'I guess this is about time I start thinking: Is the will in order?' I came up with three things: Does everybody connected to me in my little family circle know that I love them? It's cheesy, but if you're on your deathbed, you think about that. I went, 'Yup. Check. Good.' The second was, Are they okay financially? 'Okay, good.' Number three: Everybody has a legacy. The word sounds a little funny, but you and I and everybody have one in some way, good, bad, big or small, we got our little personal legacies. Mine would be my heavy metal thrash band for all these years. I thought, 'Holy crap! I don't have that in order at all.' I delivered our first three records, which are permanently owned."

Blabbermouth: It will be challenging to get those back from Roadrunner.

Jeff: "Yeah. There's a new law in the States and I'm debating whether I should go for them. It's called 'Right Of Reversion.' After 35 years, it will come back to you in the U.S. If you fight it and go for it, you get them. I'm going for that one. Why not? The reason the rule came in was because I think people started thinking, 'You're catching an artist at a young age when they're full of alcohol and thinking of girls and music and SLAYER and EXODUS and concerts and fans and all the fun stuff that goes along with it, tour buses and meeting great musicians that you've idolized,' and 'Hey, sign here and we own you forever.' I was lucky because I was dropped after three albums. That sounds weird but being dropped was the best thing that ever happened to me. At the same time, the label Roadrunner was instrumental and responsible for our success. I took stock in this. I thought, 'Okay, technically, there are 26 releases by my band.' I'm sure the U.S. has heard about three or four, and Canada as well. I couldn't get back three of them and a fourth was with another label over here, an acoustic thing [2017's 'Triple Threat'.]. So, four out of 26, I couldn't get back. I managed to get everything else back — 22 releases. That was my mission when I recovered: To get that in order. So that's what I did. I spent time by myself in the studio, which was great because everything was locked down. I spent months getting the rights back, some things remastered, some bonus tracks, alternate mixes, the usual crap that everybody puts out when they do a re-release, which is why it was important to do more than just that if you want to have a good legacy left. I got all this stuff together, 22 releases together, everything I've ever done but those first three releases. You remember hearing about MÖTLEY CRÜE and ZZ TOP that everybody was selling their publishing, selling their masters? I was in there right before it [the pandemic] hit. Part of this was a feeling with friends, who were always telling me, 'We should be out on tour in three months.' I would say, 'Try three years, realistically.' I was thinking because right after I recovered from Covid, I thought, 'Let's do it this way: I've been given a second chance,' not just recovering from Covid, that wasn't a death thing that was going to happen. It was a second chance in a way to live the rest of my life a little differently. I changed up my diet and started living better. This was a whole thing like, 'Take those 22 releases. Get them done as good as you can for what you have to work with it.' Some it was old, not so-well-recorded and sell it, start fresh. Either do some new ANNIHILATOR or do some touring, anniversary stuff over here in Europe.

"The 17th album I did in 2019, it was the peak of what I'm going to get. I wanted to put that old stuff in the past and find a home if somebody finds it in Canada and the States and finds our band and goes, 'Don't they have this song called 'Alison Hell'? Is that all they've done?' They might be able to go to iTunes and Spotify and find it all. That's my goal. Just get it so it's out there. Say goodbye to it and do the fun touring with the original singers and members and have fun doing the tour. When I had that attitude and got that done, this Edel company, very good and big in Germany, they were pretty rabid about it. They kind of foresaw that a lot of musicians were going to be in trouble. You can see a lot of people have been selling it — not necessarily saying why they're selling it, but [WHITESNAKE's David] Coverdale and so many great people are selling their stuff. Some are selling it because as much as you think they're rich, they're not. And some are selling it because they're kind of rich and want to keep living that lifestyle. And others are doing it to completely survive because things are going wrong, which is sad. Then if you follow the Jimi Hendrix stuff, there's a lot of people who are using the excuse or actually getting rid of it because they don't want family members fighting over their work. It makes sense. If you're a musician, no matter if you're my level or a superstar like [Bruce] Springsteen, if you got something that's worth anything, the last thing you want is your family [fighting over your catalog]. The last thing I thought, who better to look after your publishing than a publishing company? And who better to look after your music? A record company. It made sense. I basically did that. I just said, 'Okay, that's number three in my life. Everything else, other than my diet and eating healthy, is taken care of.' It's almost like I have a second life now."

Blabbermouth: Did your bout with Covid impact the way you sing and your vocals?

Jeff: "It might make them better," he said. The way I sing, it might make them better. Finally, I can do a raspy voice without having to try. No, actually, what I've done, again, with this big sort of life-changing thing in my little world, when I talked to Stu Block and Dave Lombardo about doing this — it's not a new record ['Metal II'], but I consider it 're-envisioning.' It's not meant to be some competitive thing. The drummer on the original, Mike Mangini, is probably one of the best drummers in the world. Dave Padden, our singer and guitar player, was great. It wasn't about that. It was 'Let's release a second version.' Not stomp on the past. It was something fun to do to create attention for the label that they are releasing the catalog. It's working so far. People are like, 'Wow! A new album.' I'm like, 'Well, sort of.' So I decided I'm not singing anymore. I'm a guitar player. I took over singing on my fourth record, 'King Of The Kill'."

Blabbermouth: That was more out of necessity, correct?

Jeff: "Yeah. I was dropped by Roadrunner and told unless you cut your hair, change the name of your band — this is a quote: 'Write material in the style of SEPULTURA, BIOHAZARD or PANTERA, sorry, you'll have to cut your hair and get a real job,' kind of comment. I didn't find that funny. It was pretty depressing. When you're a metalhead kid, rock and roll, hard rock kid, right after disco, then you're into heavy metal, then thrash metal. You get to be in a band and get out there, which is all you wanted, just to be a part of this, not to be the next METALLICA, but to just be included in any of this. Then you tour with JUDAS PRIEST on the 'Painkiller' tour and do all these great tours and have our own success, then to be told, 'Unless you totally change the name of your band and everything you're doing, F-off.' I was kind of bummed out for about a month. My manager in Vancouver at the time said, 'What are you worried about? This is the best thing that ever happened.' I said, 'What do you mean the best thing? I have to find a job.' He goes, 'No. You don't have to cut your hair,' which I did later. 'You don't have to cut your hair and get a real job. He said, 'You already got offers from Japan, Europe and England for publishing and recording. Everybody wants a record from you over there.' Immediately, I turned around and went, 'I don't have a singer. The singer left, too. Nobody is into it.' Long story short, one of our biggest albums was that post-Roadrunner 'King Of The Kill' album. It was competing with — this is so cheesy — it was a heavy metal album, which was wannabe PRIEST, wannabe [IRON] MAIDEN, it was never going to be that great, but it was always something to strive for. It was the number two record. BON JOVI kept us from the first spot. I was laughing, going, 'I'm a fucking SLAYER-head. I'm playing heavy metal like PRIEST, MAIDEN. I don't want to be, but I'm a fan because I love it. Now we're trying to bump BON JOVI out of the first spot.' It was that kind of success over there. That was the point when I said — that didn't continue — there were ten years of whoosh! Then there was a resurgence in 2007, then it kept going up for us overseas. That taught me a lesson. If you love what you're doing and think there's a chance you could feed yourself and pay your rent and hopefully if you drink or smoke, buy a beer or smokes, or if you like to be healthy, get a gym membership and eat well, as long as you can do that, then screw the other offers. It's been a long, interesting career, but I don't intend to sing."

Blabbermouth: Does this mean there are future plans for Stu to sing in ANNIHILATOR?

Jeff: "Bingo. I asked him if he would do the reunion thing — because it's been 31 or 32 years or something for our first three Roadrunner albums. To North America, those are the only ones anyone has ever heard, especially the first two. We actually have another 14 albums."

Blabbermouth: So he'll sing [previous ANNIHILATOR vocalists] Randy [Rampage], Coburn [Pharr] and Aaron's [Randall] parts?

Jeff: "If Coburn is healthy enough, he's into it. I told Stu I don't want to sing anymore. It's too taxing. It takes too much of a toll. I'm not a great singer. It's really tough to play and sing. I don't have that natural, awesome singing voice. Like, for example: [METALLICA's James] Hetfield and [MEGADETH's Dave] Mustaine are amazing. Hetfield for his tones, but Mustaine, as I found out singing — I've done about seven records with my band as a singer, so probably about 20 tours, including festivals — Hetfield was my guy, but Mustaine also became my guy, so to speak, he can write these rhythm guitar riffs and what James does is he'll do a simple riff and sing on it. When he's done singing, here's the real, killer James Hetfield, then he goes back to singing. That came out of JUDAS PRIEST. That's probably where he got it. [Glenn] Tipton was a genius. If you listen to [Rob] Halford on any of those classic PRIEST songs, they're playing one note on the guitar. When Halford stops, here's the riff. That's Hetfield. Dave Mustaine threw out all that garbage. He's playing all this crazy-timed stuff and able to sing over it. It's incredible.

Blabbermouth: It's the whole "left brain/right brain" thing.

Jeff: "I'm not in that league. I think I'm a good guitar and bass player — I do all the bass on the albums. I think I'm pretty good at guitar and bass and some other things, but guys like that are just the top. Fans know it because of the songs, but I think musicians who take this seriously for a career look at these guys and go, 'They're so much bigger and better than what you see on the news sites posting and showing people making a mistake on YouTube.' They're beyond genius. I was like, 'Let me stay on guitar like I used to do. Do you want to come and sing with us anytime we do shows, like the anniversary tours?' [Stu] said, 'Absolutely for the anniversary tour. It would be a blast.' Plus, he's a good backup if one or the other singers wasn't feeling well or can't make it."

Blabbermouth: Will Stu now be involved in future ANNIHILATOR albums?

Jeff: "That's the thing. The last record I did was a big deal in my little world, but it's not now because I decided this a year or two ago. I will hopefully be doing the 70,000 Tons Of Metal cruise, the luxurious, get a tan kind of gigs. Also, the Wacken, Sweden Rock and Hellfest [festivals] playing the old and new ANNIHILATOR material. Over in Europe, you don't get that, 'Alice In Hell and 'Never, Neverland' in Europe, but the majority are into the later albums. My wife and I have said, 'Okay, it doesn't matter. No excuses. Even if we lose money, we're going to do a U.S. thing. Finally.' We're going to do some fun tours and cool stuff over here.

"Honestly, there were many reasons. Some of them were my fault, some of them was the music I was writing in the '90s and later on, it was so not heavy, it was goofy. Like, when PANTERA came out. We all know PANTERA had the [BLACK] SABBATH and the Hetfield thing and Dimebag [Darrell Abbot, guitar] played all these great leads like Eddie Van Halen. They were groundbreaking. They were more original, original as you can get. ANNIHILATOR has never been like that. When we came out with the first album, it was almost like a prog-speed metal guitar thing going on. People were like, 'Holy cow. Listen to the technicality and speed of this Waters guy.' The reality was, a few years later, the Swedes and Scandinavians were playing three times clearer and faster and way more technical. But we had this 1989 to 1991 slice at the end where we got in with those first two records. I don't want to go back to singing. Maybe I'll sing my 'King Of The Kill' type songs when we do the tours. When you're the main songwriter, you're the guy who is producing, mixing, mastering, engineering, playing the bass, guitars, the leads, you're programming or playing the drums for the drummer and you're doing a bit of the management, you're doing some of the books, accounting, legal…17 studio records is a hell of a lot. If you're a fan of metal music, you're not going to be original the whole time. You're not going to be groundbreaking; you're not going to be cutting edge. If you're lucky, you'll have a few classic albums, a couple of really bad-ass records, a whole bunch in the middle, then a whole bunch of stinkers. That's life for everyone. I think I can call it likely the beginning of some awesome touring for the next years and getting back to North America. With 17 records and 175 songs, I think I've done my time."

Blabbermouth: You have a new band coming out next year. What can you tell people about it?

Jeff: "My entire life, there's another side of my music that I wanted to do and I knew that I could do. I was always thinking, 'Am I kidding myself? Am I good at anything else other than this ANNIHILATOR thing?' After all this, I was like, 'Wait a second. You only live once. If that's what you think you want to do and you can do a good job and work hard at it and be honest about what you're making.' I'm going to do one album minimum, with something that's not heavy metal. It will basically be many people saying over the years that you wouldn't believe the labels that sign the instrumental stuff: 'Hey, you do blues. Why don't you put out a blues album?' 'You do pop. Why don't you do a pop album?' A lot of people play jazz. I'm not really good at jazz, but I want to do a different thing, an instrumental record? I'm like, 'ANNIHILATOR is my thing that I love. It's all I'm doing.' Now, it's screw that — I'm doing the one thing I want to do more than anything. I call it 'hard rock' but done with some of the best people out there. It's not meant to be a Zoom or pandemic recording. Next week, we're at the Armory Studios in Vancouver doing drums, then L.A., then we're doing stuff at my place here. It's an actual old-school recording. We're trying to do it the old way. It's not over the Internet. It's with old-school people. For example, the guy I got doing the drums, one of the things I wanted from this project is I wanted to, in a way, celebrate Alex Van Halen. I found one of the top drummers in the world who is also on the same page as me that thinks Alex Van Halen is one of the most underrated and amazing drummers in history. What do I do? I tracked him down and grabbed Mike Frasier, who did the 'Balance' album with Alex Van Halen. Remember the song 'Amsterdam'? It's amazing music. I wanted to get that kind of level of fandom-meets professionalism. That's the start of the rhythm section for this thing."

Blabbermouth: Does the band have a name yet?

Jeff: "Not yet. I talked to a few labels and they said, 'For a new band…' and I don't want to use my name in it because the first thing people will say, 'Oh, that heavy metal guy is in it.' I want to fool everybody and sucker everyone into going, 'Hey, I actually like that!' Then they find out it's me. Gotcha! A couple of labels have been saying that when you are a brand-new band in 2022, if we're going to do a proper job, meaning, when you get the final masters of the audio, mixed and mastered, they need at least 12 months before we can release the album. I'm like, 'What?' That puts the album out probably out in June 2023."

Blabbermouth: For "Metal II", did you give Lombardo free rein?

Jeff: "With both Stu and Dave, I said, 'Guys, this is meant to be a rough and raw recording. We're not spending 50,000 dollars in these fancy studios with fancy engineers.' We're on a video conference and Dave puts his hand up, like in rock and roll video school and goes, 'I can do it in my house. My wife Paula can help me engineer.' He was smiling because it was kind of funny. We're talking about a cool record and it's like, 'Me and my wife will take care of the engineering.' Dave also brought somebody else in to set it up. That's what happened. Dave and his wife worked on the tracks. And Stu was in Canada and got a friend of his in a medium-level studio to do the vocals. The marching orders for this thing was they were both kind of surprised. If you can picture what Stu was in before with ICED EARTH. Jon Schaffer, a very focused person on his music and what he wants from the singer. And you have Dave Lombardo, who's the legend and innovator along with Lars [Ulrich, METALLICA]. Those two are the influences for everything you're hearing today. At the same time, Dave would have been in SLAYER and a producer or Kerry King or Jeff Hanneman likely would have said, 'This is what we need you to play.' Or, 'Can you play it like this?' Dave was expecting me to say exactly what to play and to run it by me before he finishes it and get the approval, so to speak, which is ridiculous. Stu was the same. He didn't know what voice to sing. He can sing Phil Anselmo [PANTERA] or a Halford. I said, 'Hey guys. You don't get it. You got three takes. Send me the three takes and do whatever you want.' I remember Dave staying on the video call after Stu left and going, 'Jeff. Seriously. Do you really want me to do three takes and send them to you? You don't want to approve it?' I go, 'No! You're Dave Lombardo.' He smiled. A week later, I got the drums back and I smiled because they were absolutely raw and amazing. Totally Dave Lombardo. It's not meant to compete with the original. The original is also going to be re-released. This is just to take a quick take on their point of view. I thought it would be a fun thing for people to listen to."

Blabbermouth: Beyond the ANNIHILATOR reissues and the hard rock project, what's on your schedule?

Jeff: "The touring stuff. I will get slammed in Canada and the States for saying this, but I will be back with the band. I say that every year. We will be back with that. We will be doing a reunion-y thing over in Europe and Japan and all that stuff."

Blabbermouth: When you say "reunion," does that mean the guys who played on "Alice In Hell" and "Never, Neverland"?

Jeff: "Aaron Randall and Coburn. My idea was to use my band that I've had for many years. Then I have the three singers. We're not replacing Randy Rampage, who passed in 2018. That was an honor for Stu — he said Randy was his favorite singer and I totally get it. The option will be open for any of the ex-members of those lineups. But I know one has a criminal record and can't go anywhere. At least one has an addiction problem. At least one has a health condition and can't do it. And one has not played his instruments for decades."

Blabbermouth: Then that leaves your current band to do it.

Jeff: "Exactly. The invitation is going to be there all those for former, first three album guys. There are not that many of them. But later, there were hundreds."

Blabbermouth: For the States, are you thinking New York, Chicago, Los Angeles?

Jeff: "And Seattle. We'll just do the [geographic] star [of the United States]. Back when the original 'Metal' was released in 2007, there were at least 12 guests on this thing. There's a lot of guests on there. Most of them are my friends or people I see and hang out with in Europe, but at that time in 2006, 2007, when I did that record, I shopped it around in the States and Canada because it would be the time to come back and see if I could get back in. I'll put it to you this way: Two or three of the Big Four [of American thrash metal] gave me an invite that 'We will take you on our North American run.' One or two of those bands was a huge deal. I was shaking, heart-flying, when I got the emails. But the catch was their agents and management said, 'You got to land a record deal with proper distribution if we're going to take you the States.' I had the invite from the most amazing people that any band could ever want to tour with. It was right there and I shopped to all the labels you could imagine in the States and let them know that not only did we have the 12 or 14 guests, but I was also really excited because I thought if you put it together, who wouldn't want it? From a record company perspective, who cares if the music is good because you got 12, 14 guests and this big tour? From a music standpoint, it was probably a seven-out-of-ten in our history. But, no. Nobody bit. In fact, I kept getting the same comment back: 'Sorry, we're not interested.' Without them hearing it. Something went on in the past that kept people from hearing it. The guy shopping it was Michael Alago, METALLICA's A&R. He was hot on that record in 2006 and 2007. He thought it would be a bidding war, especially with these bands offering the tours to support it. He came back to me and said, 'What did you do to somebody? Nobody will sign you.' Later on, I tracked down why that was and why that is, but it was private for multiple reasons. It's funny. Nothing to do with me! [Laughs]"

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