Canadian thrash metal legends, Annihilator have build up quite a cult following since Alison In Hell was released in 1989. Their longevity and status in the underground thrash scene is partly due to the dedication of the band's founder Jeff Waters. For him Annihilator is a labour of love, so much so, that he oversees all of the bands creative decisions including being the chief songwriter, engineer, producer and mixer. Taking on such a huge mantel for some would be a strain, but for Jeff the post-production stuff is part of the fun and he views it as a bit of a hobby. “ It's the most fun in the world to sit in a studio and work on your music. You get obsessed with it.” Jeff tells me about his recently upgraded studio, which he jokingly likens to the renovation a house!
It can of course be hard to maintain perspective on the overall sound and quality of the album. “It can be a bad thing, when you’re sitting in the studio doing all these jobs and when the record is finally recorded you've kind of lost the sense of being able to step away and listen to know if it's good or bad or shitty or average.” So far Jeff has made some pretty good choices about his music, including Annihilator’s album Feast which has just been re-issued and contains a live DVD which Jeff also mixed.
All Music's Eduardo Rivadavia refers to Annihilator as 'thinking man's thrash metal' which it certainly is. In many ways Annihilator are the precursors of symphonic metal. Jeff is a multi instrumentalist with a background in classical and jazz, which explains the technical and complex nature and of his music.
Nobody can deny that Jeff certainly has a vision and runs with it when he makes an album. He explains to me that he records everything when he is writing in the studio, so he can use what he needs without having to re-do it for the album. He then shows the band what he wants by playing them the riffs, or the drums from the tapes and they get to work - although he admits he's still a bit possessive of one instrument. “I play the bass on all of the Annihilator records, except for one song on one album where I actually let a bass player play it.” He laughs. Lyrics, however he considers his weak spot (fan's would disagree) The lyrics for Deadlock were written by Dave Padden, who Jeff want to do more. He explains “he writes a couple of songs on every CD we do, he's been offered since day one to write the entire lyrics for the records, but he just won't do it. He can play rhythm guitar amazingly, he's got everything from a pop voice to a thrash voice, he's a talented guy and musician, he just doesn't have the motivation to write, so I've been stuck writing all the bloody lyrics! When he does write it puts a whole different spin on an Annihilator song...Every year I've been screaming at him to write some bloody lyrics. I'll start a Facebook page get Dave Padden to write lyrics!” He says in jest, but I can sense that it is hard for him to let go of his creations; which is no bad thing when you hear the horror stories of bands getting ripped off.
“It's important to keep control, most bands have signed deals where the record company own the masters or recordings or the publishing writes maybe even merchandising. I licence them, I own them, the albums always come back to me, so I try and keep control of it.” Luckily for Jeff he is able to retain his autonomy and with the band selling well and having a following he doesn't have too much interference, which many bands face - this is something he is grateful for. “If it was all about selling records and making money it would change my writing style. I learnt so many decades ago that I really wouldn't be happy doing that. I've been lucky that I'm able to make that decision where I can stay at the top of the underground and still make a living and do what whatever the hell I want.”
Having this creative freedom has allowed Jeff to build Annihilator's distinctive sound from successfully fusing together his influences. “The sound is how I combine all these genius riffs from other artists and influences together...it's hard not to do, but it's gonna creep in at some point.” He continues to give me an example of this. “You have to be careful when you have two guitars playing a melodic harmony riff, you have to put a different slant on it otherwise it IS Iron Maiden! Nobody's ever captured that in metal like they have. They'll all great... but Bruce Dickinson is one brilliant, unique, gifted, talented person...the guy's a genius.” Anybody who has ever listened to an Annihilator album would have told you that it is no surprise that the mighty Iron Maiden were an influence on Jeff, but he does manage to put his own unique spin on the dual guitars.
I ask Jeff who else, apart from Maiden has helped to form the band's sound? “ I started listening to Elton John, Kiss, Sweet, AC/DC then it evolved from hard rock with electric guitar to Black Sabbath and the heavier stuff, Judas Priest, Maiden, Loudness, Van Halen was coming in. Then I get turned on to the thrash stuff, so then it was Razor, Exciter... Those first albums were a huge influence on metal bands.”
He talks about how his friendship with Pantera's Dimebag Darrell started when they toured together in the 90s and how they often discussed their musical heroes. “We had the same influences so we connected that way. People say how original Dime was but he'd be the first one to turn around and say no, let's put it this way: the drums were Lars Ulrich, the guitar was Black Sabbath and James Hetfield, the solos were Van Halen and Randy Rhoads, and it's the same for me. It's just how you put it together.”
Whilst Pantera may have broken out into the mainstream by focusing on minimal influences and putting it all together to create more traditional thrash albums, Jeff has continued to follow his passion for music rather than working within the constraints of a genre. If you listen to their first album, Alice In Hell, the opening track is a wonderful classical flamenco guitar piece called Crystal Ann. “I had lots of talks with Pantera in the early days and they more sat down and planned what they were doing and targeted those sort of areas, for me, I'm all over the place. One minute there's a love song, then I've got a punkish song, the next I've got thrash, then an AC/DC type song.” He continues, “ targeting and refining all that stuff would give me more records and a get us more famous or popular, I knew that in the early days, but I thought, I'm just going to do what I want to do. If the albums are all over the place, who cares!” Certainly not the band's fans, as Jeff says, it's how it's all put together that counts.
When I ask him what the most rock n roll thing he's ever done is he tells me an amusing story of when Annihilator and Pantera were on the Judas Priest Tour and went to Yugoslavia in 1990. “We did the show and Dime and I did the same thing we always do and sit beside the guitar tech station where they had two chairs and a bucket full of beers in ice for us. We ended up drinking lots and watching the set. The catering people had put an after-show deli tray out for later on and when we were travelling on the bus, so, later on, that night we'd all have some good food to eat. So Dime and I went back to the dressing room, saw the deli tray and for some stupid, immature reason we decided to pee on it. Apparently one of the caterers had seen what we did and told every band member and crew member not to touch it and later watched as Dime and I tucked into the deli tray full of fruit and vegetables. The other guys watched and finally couldn't hold back their laughter and told us. We were like 'Oh my God....That's payback! We felt really bad for the catering people... I don't think I realised just how dumb that was until years later when I quit drinking.”
He talks candidly about those around him succumbing to drug addictions, including former band members: For Jeff, it was too much alcohol. “I don't do drugs, it's not good to have a criminal record, but then I'd go and drink like 15 beers every night for 4 years! I kind of woke up after that in 1992 and said I've got a problem. You don't know you've got a problem until something happens, mine was watching the Oprah Winfrey show, he laughs. “There was this lady who didn't think she had a problem 'cause she only drank 10 beers a day. I could relate to that. I thought 'oh that’s not much I drink more than that!' The audience and Oprah reacted, the doctors came on and said you're going to die if you keep on doing this, and then it hit me. I was on the couch watching Oprah Winfrey going 'there's this woman on the show and they’re saying how horrible addiction and making all this fuss and I drink more!'” He cut down his drinking rapidly after that until finally giving up the booze on New Years Eve 1999. “As soon as I quit drinking my bank account started to grow, I started taking care of business and having more fun with things.”
I'm guessing more fun included expanding his studio and continuing to enjoy mixing and engineering music including the re-issue of Feast. Having toured with the album last year and with the summer festival season not too far away are there any plans to return to the UK? “We try every year to play Bloodstock, but they offer barely enough to fly us there, but as a fan of the festival and as Annihilator I really want to play Bloodstock...But maybe next summer we'll get there.”
Come on Bloodstock get these metal stalwarts back to our shores!
Feast is out now.