Annihilator – Going BallisticSunday, 9th February 2020
Steadily continuing their mission to deliver semi-technical thrash with power, groove, and potency, Annihilator remain steadfast in approach and attack this deep into their career. Ballistic, Sadistic is the group’s seventeenth studio record – starting off the 2020’s as a reminder that they can still deliver that catchy riff, put in some searing lead breaks, and also amplify the energy that started their career off like gangbusters.
Guitarist/vocalist Jeff Waters is on the line again, this time from the UK as its now his home country where he resides. We were able to get the man to happily take us into the background for the new record, his recent foray into strengthening his vocals, his conquering of the bottle for twenty years now, and back and forth thoughts regarding how the band is able to still be alive considering the wide music industry changes during their career.
Dead Rhetoric: It feels like you are very inspired and these are exciting times for Annihilator – as Ballistic, Sadistic is the latest record. What would you say you set out to accomplish through this set of material – as there seem to be aspects that to these ears explore a feel and atmosphere of say Never, Neverland?
Jeff Waters: Yeah. There are a couple of aspects to that. We’ve had… as people can find out on the internet or read magazines or listen to podcasts that want to find out about our band, they’ll find a strange history to us. We can be kind of unknown and unsigned in some countries, like Canada and the United States- but all of a sudden you see us on YouTube playing in front of 80,000 people. It depends on where we are, what country, and where we are in the career sort of thing. People are like, ‘what the hell is going on with this band?’.
The thing is we’ve had kind of a comfortable European and Japanese story, where even though we are Canadian that’s really the only places we’ve been going when you look at the career. This is our 17th studio record, and a lot of people that are new to Annihilator or have only heard of the name but only heard Alice in Hell or Never, Neverland are like ‘huh – there was fifteen records after that?’ (laughs). So our North American and Canadian fans find out we have a zillion records out – and when you do that many records, as a writer, you are going to hit and miss just like any bands. I’ve got albums by Slayer, AC/DC, and Kiss – and I have all the CD’s but I don’t listen to them all, because some are classic, some are good, and some I don’t think are all that good. The same with my band, or any band that’s been doing this at this level for a long time, you can do good stuff and not so good stuff- and it’s not your fault necessarily, but you can’t get it right all of the time and it’s hard to get things right most of the time.
I went and said the last two Annihilator records started going up for us in Europe – do I sign on and do another record like that the same way, or do I take a chance and do something a little different? Not too crazy, going to do rap or try to change the band image, but just try something different. Because we can put out another record, maybe the albums sales only increase 10,000, or do I just try to do something fun at this point in my career and do something different? I asked my band members that had been with me for a while now, to be honest and write down the top three things you think I should do to kick my ass and kick the ass of the record that’s going to come out.
And they said number one, write the album with a drummer. Because what I’ve been doing since 1993 is every record since then has been written with a drum machine or drum software. And some of those records later on were recorded with the drumming software- I didn’t bother to get a drummer to do it, it was convenient and cost effective to do things this way. A lot of bands do that. So with Fabio from Italy, he would come back up and we’d go over the material and write until we got what we needed. It’s stunning to most people, but that’s always the way we’ve done things – and that’s going to give things a different sound and a different way of writing. The next thing- have that drummer actually record on the album. The third thing was don’t go back in the hopes of copying or cloning old material because you are never going to pull it off, and it’s going to be obvious. Instead go back to a bit of the feeling of that. We went back and just had a lot of fun vibes from the songs – a new riff we would be writing would sound a lot like ‘Stonewall”, the format of the songs are similar. We didn’t end up recreating part two of those albums, we clearly went back and tried to capture a bit of the early vibe. And that’s it, it’s going to be different and I don’t know if it makes things better or worse in the end. People will like it or they won’t. It’s never going to be as classic as Never, Neverland, but it brings a lot of memories of that.
Dead Rhetoric: That’s the key – if you are inspired by your own material, and take a fresh look at it, your writing in 2020 is going to be very different than how things came out in the 80’s and early 90’s…
Waters: Oh yeah – for sure. If you try to copy what you are doing, forget it. It does work occasionally for some bands – the part two of an album. I think it’s a real tough one to pull off. We did this in the spirit of having fun, but definitely getting close to the vibe. The initial European response is when you put out the CD, the pre-orders can indicate things – you can gauge a lot of interest. This is the best that we’ve had in over 15 years, it’s starting to take off. I hope that spins off to our home country and brings us back to Canada and the United States, I really it gives us a chance.
Dead Rhetoric: You choose to do video clips for “Psycho Ward” and “Armed to the Teeth” – how does the process work to decide what singles should best preview and represent the first look into an album, and how do you feel these video shoots went overall?
Waters: Simply because – the image and being a frontman…the total album sales and money is not the priority. The priority is the music and keep your business sense together to make enough money to get to the next record and make a little money to make everybody happy. When you have that attitude and it’s about the music, the band and survival, you don’t get into a lot of things a lot of other bands care about. You are not putting an emphasis on the image, decisions to keep promoting to get on the magazine covers and what not. For me, if you had an income of x amount of dollars, and you could continue comfortably doing what you wanted and pull that off until you die, you either have the drive to make more and more and more, or you are comfortable where you are at. Artistically I can do what I want, live the way that I live comfortably and not worry about things other people worry about, and not give a damn about which singles we want. We sat around as a band, chose the songs we liked best, and filmed them. We didn’t have the record label choose them, we did the videos, got the people and company to do them, and did them.
Annihilator is not getting on the mainstream radio. Annihilator is not getting into video rotation channels. It’s just going out to social media, YouTube, and our little community. Go out and enjoy it, check them out with another thousand bands, it’s like that.
Dead Rhetoric: You spent some time with a vocal coach working to improve your vocal technique on the recording and touring front. Can you tell me what you learned most through this, and what you’ve been able to apply to Annihilator?
Waters: It was a brief thing, but I had enough lessons to bulletproof my voice so to speak. I could do the longer tours and survive. The problem I didn’t think about is either my voice held up, and I wasn’t good enough or my voice wasn’t strong enough to get up there for years. I restarted singing with the band in 2015 and I really didn’t feel I’ve been getting good at it until the last tour last year. The bulletproofing was where I got the help. If you get sick or you get a cold, that really doesn’t matter – you are screwed as a singer. I got really lucky on the last tour that we did from October to November of 2019, we did a long two-month tour of Europe. I stayed healthy, I pulled it off, and I started getting better and better as a singer. Keeping your voice strong with lessons that goes far- but you have to take care of yourself. Different people have different health issues, better stamina, this and that- I’m 53 years old, six shows a week and that’s suicide on the voice. I was pretty impressed I could do it – no heart attack (laughs).
Dead Rhetoric: Speaking of that tour, that was a tour you had to reschedule last year. What happened in that circumstance and how do you believe the reception was?
Waters: For a metal fan, they have six bands they want to see during the year, and then festivals. In our case, we postponed it – we were going to do this 30th anniversary Alice in Hell tour, in 2018. We were going to bring the singer of that album out, Randy Rampage, with his band – and he would be the opening act but also come out and do some songs to honor that album. Just do four or five songs with him, and he had a heart attack and died. That of course messed that whole thing up – and we were all totally depressed on that. It made us reevaluate things, everything sort of becomes a blur. On top of that, on a positive note I got married to a girl in the UK and ended up moving to the UK. Immigration took my passport as a part of the deal – I wasn’t able to leave the country. That sealed that one – we postponed that for a year.
Moving and setting up the studio here, everybody understood why we had to do this.
Dead Rhetoric: Now that you are living in the UK, how have you adjusted to life there after spending most of your life in Canada?
Waters: It’s kind of like… I don’t know how most Canadians feel but I’m going to take a wild guess that living in Canada is a pretty good life. It’s a nice country, except if you are in Vancouver or Western Canada it can be one hell of a shitty winter, cold hell (laughs). It’s a beautiful country and a good place. When you are from there, I’m guessing you don’t want to leave unless you have a reason. I was a lifelong Canadian – either Ottawa or Vancouver. But then I met a girl, and that was the end of that one. My brain and heart went that way, she had two little kids so I didn’t want to take them away from their routine, their schooling, or their grandparents. It was a huge choice, because I have a 24 year old son Alex, a recording and rehearsal studio, I’m a Camaro freak, I had a puppy dog, business, friends and family. I had to say goodbye to everything – but I’m not complaining. You sell cars, you get money, you can always jump on a plane to visit your friends, your family, your son. You’ve taken a hell of a chance and gamble to move and become a citizen of another part of the world.
It took me a year, but I’ve gotten used to the foods. A lot of the stereotypes I had about England, some of them are right on the money, and others were silly. It’s like, some of the things here I love even better. Other things are worse.
Dead Rhetoric: Curious to know some of your favorite memories surrounding Rush considering the passing of Neil Peart last week, which obviously shook the heavy music community to the core?
Waters: Yeah. I’ll just give you some random thoughts that pop up. “The Spirit of Radio” and the Permanent Waves album. That’s the one I got into. “Limelight” for decades I’ve said in interviews that’s my favorite chorus. Neil Peart, of course he influenced more drummers than almost anyone. And also another thing that comes to mind is that when you are from Canada, and you are over forty years old, Bryan Adams, Rush, April Wine is one there too. And a Canadian band, they were called The Tragically Hip- it’s not just musicians and bands, they become a part of your culture and part of the industry. It’s like maple syrup – Rush… it’s a part of Canada. When he passed, of course you see all these musicians coming out of the woodwork to talk about his great drumming. I think for Canadians it’s even more of a loss, because he was a part of that country.
Dead Rhetoric: Considering the depth of your career, which do you think is harder to handle – the ascent upward to achieving success, or trying to maintain credibility and relevance currently?
Waters: We had an instant… from the apartment broke, starving, literally starving for about two years in Vancouver I had no money for anything. It was an instant thing, we jumped up to a fancy tour bus, within a year we had records out, touring with Judas Priest, arenas for months, we tour with Testament in the US. It was an instant success as far as the first record gets out and bang, you are now known. That was cool, I was partying and drinking my face off. I stayed away from drugs, because alcohol was the more legal thing. It was easy, and became a hardcore alcoholic by 1992. The second album got even bigger, then I had a fall so to speak, but my fall was literally months. I got dropped from Roadrunner Records and Sony, heavy metal was out unless you were sounding like Biohazard, Sepultura, and Pantera and willing to change the name of your band. That happened to a lot of bands all over North America. Thrash and traditional metal went now, and this nu-metal started coming up. I didn’t have the carpet pulled out for long, as European and Japanese labels offered me deals, and they were great deals. I got my own records back, and I got real money to buy a house and have my own record studio.
I sobered up and eventually quit the alcohol thing, 20 years ago this past December 31st. That was a huge milestone in a part of sustaining everything. As far as sustaining it, the only thing I was trying to do was make enough money where I can keep making my music and have some form of artistic control where I didn’t have to have labels decide my style or what to call this. I did deals where the labels would give me advance money, go have fun and give us the album by this date. And that’s what I did, and I have been doing this ever since my fourth album.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you think you’ve made the greatest changes in your life from your early years of Annihilator to the current Jeff Waters?
Waters: I started off being very serious as a teenager in being in a band as the bands I loved. I wanted to get into the business, get a record deal, and write good music. To do that, was to focus day and night on this stuff. So when I was a teenager into my early twenties, that’s all I focused on- I tried not to work at a job, or finish school completely. I was 100% into this, and what I wanted to do. Almost no cigarettes, no girlfriends, not going out and partying, no socializing- this was all about staying in my room, writing music, and watching videos of other bands and learning how they did things. I put my time in heavily with practicing and learning about everything I could.
And then Alice in Hell/ Never, Neverland came out – and wow – girls, cigarettes, alcohol, I was enjoying the fruits of my labor. Right away when you get that thrown out at you, I didn’t handle it. I became a full-time alcohol addict for about four years, and that’s the first time I actually quit was in 1992. I think only a couple of nights were the only nights I didn’t have a large quantity of alcohol. That was a huge wake up and change, and I fell off the wagon privately a few years later. By getting off alcohol, it helped me focus more and not be 70 years old, I keep my physical self in shape. I’m not at the end of my life here, and I can make better business decisions. I’m enjoying life better. Just loving music and doing it for the right reasons.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for Annihilator and Jeff Waters related activities for 2020 going forward?
Waters: We did something weird where we did the tour before the release of the record. We are back trying to book stuff – we want to do something in North America. We want to make that happen this time. I just hope everybody likes the new record – and gives it a chance.