Jeff Waters is the standard for a new generation of Metal
Epiphone Signature Artist Jeff Waters is back with his band Annihilator and a brand new album, For the Demented, which once again features Jeff on lead vocals. This time, Annihilator bassist Richard Hinks was brought on to lend an ear to arrangements and songwriting in an effort to bring Annihilator back to its early roots. Waters is a full-time clinician, composer, performer, and one of the fastest and most exciting guitarists of his generation. His guitar clinics are standing-room only events around the world and have probably inspired more people to take up guitar than any single player over the last decade. We spoke with Jeff about Annihilator's second act in show business and how his Annihilation II Flying-V Outfits have been turning heads on stage and back stage, too.
Congratulations on your new album, For the Demented. It seems like Annihilator has been on a steady roll for the last few years.
Thanks. Yeah, I am very lucky and obsessed with my baby "Annihilator"... hard work can pay off, if you never give up!
And you're singing lead vocals again on this album as you did on Suicide Society (2015).
Actually I sang on three albums in the 90s and the first one I sang on was on King of the Kill. It was kind of a weird time. We lost our deal with Road Runner Records and Sony and was told by the label that the market for this traditional metal and thrash metal was gone in America so they gave us a good luck in your future career kind of thing. Literally a few months later, I was handed some of my biggest record deal offers ever; for Europe and Asia.
That's hard to believe now
In North America, that's what kind of happened for this kind of music. You had these huge bands like Judas Priest and Slayer and Iron Maiden who were playing arenas & stadiums and then 5 years later in Vancouver, I was seeing them in clubs with different singers. So that was kind of at a time around '92 when traditional 80's heavy/thrash Metal crashed here and I assumed my career was probably done, too (laughs).
My manager just pointed at me and said: 'What are you talking about? Japan and Europe found out you were dropped and there's a pile of labels overseas that want to sign you! ' And that's kind of how I continued. My #1 duty in music is guitar playing, you know? But my friends at the time said just sing! I produced the record and wrote all the stuff anyway. So, I sang and I was pleasantly surprised that it was one of our biggest albums. I realized immediately that playing guitar and singing is not exactly the same as doing one or the other in the studio. I had a really tough but challenging test there and got very lucky with it. Singing is not something I had done for a long career like most singers in this genre. It makes you respect people more that you've already respected anyway! Dave Mustaine and James Hetfield are the best at playing and singing. You always knew they were legendary and talented but when you try to do jump into both, you get schooled on how rare a breed these two are.
You've been a producer for many years. Do you find yourself having to take your own advice about how to prepare for singing in the studio?
Part of it is confidence. And if you've got the confidence level up, that's the biggest part of it. You have to have something there. You can actually be a fantastic singer with a nice voice and be able to hit these great notes. But you can also suck by having no feel. There are guys like Bon Scott (AC/DCs original singer) and David Lee Roth (Van Halen) who were and are the authority on feel. Take a guy like Tom Araya from Slayer. A lot of people who are not into that kind of music will hear his voice and maybe go, 'Oh... that's a little bit not like singing.' But there's another part of his voice that can make up for it ten times which is the attitude and how you do it. In my case, I'm working at everything so I've got a long way to go. But I'm really lucky that overseas we've been accepted every time I pull a stunt like this. Even though it's been five albums, it's broken up by 15 plus years in-between. It's a little difficult to restart.
I'm sure your influences come back to haunt you as you try to carve a style for yourself.
In my case, I wear them on my sleeve. They are obvious. I'm always saying in interviews where I got this from or where I got that from. My favorite singers would be Roth and Bon Scott and Dio. But for singing in the car--- something I can actually almost do well now ---it's people like Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, Layne Staley of Alice In Chains, Hetfield & Ozzy. When I'm singing on a record, especially the one we did in 2015, I just sang. I didn't really put a filter on it to leave off the more obvious influences I draw from but for the new cd, I consciously tried to shed most of it and bring back my more original vocal style, as on the King Of The Kill record (1995).
For this new one, musically and vocally, I wanted to just go back to what people liked about the first eight years of our career that was our biggest time, too. Although the last three years have shot the band up to a whole new level, especially touring and attendance-wise, a big chunk of our fan base came from our demo days of the mid 80's to around 1996. I just wanted to see if I could have someone come in the studio with me so I asked our bass player Richard Hinks from the UK to bring in fresh ears. I had him sit there and listen to what I was coming up with musically and say, 'yes, that sounds like 'Waters stuff' from the past or 'no that sounds way too much like the list of 20 musicians I love (laughs).'
As a multi-tasker on your records, did you find Richard's help gave you some relief?
Yeah. In the early days, budgets were so big for these albums. You would go in and the engineer would record it, the mix engineer would mix it, the mastering guy would master it. You'd have all these people involved during that time frame of traditional Heavy Metal and Trash Metal. While most bands in our genre lost their deal in the early 90s in North America, I continued the success overseas but the budgets for everything were still less. So, I invested the money I made on the first four records and put it in a home studio and learned about the equipment. I had some really great teachers out of Vancouver with some of the biggest studios and engineers in the world there. And out of necessity I started learning a lot of different things from the start of making a record-- writing, playing different instruments or the technical side. It was out of necessity economically from around 1997 to 2010.
Then when "better" money started coming back in, maybe around 2010, you just didn't want to farm it off to a producer or engineer or this or that. I thought: I love doing this. It's like a hobby. I love working in the studio. So even though technically maybe fresh ears would be better, I'm not wasting the money when I love doing it. Why would I want someone else to do it when I have fun doing it, right? But I really wanted somebody to keep me on the right path for the writing of the music. And Rich's job was essentially, I'd start with guitar riffs and basic drum beats. His job in my mind was to say 'yes' or 'no'. Within a couple days, he picked up the Tobias Bass in my studio and would start writing a riff with me: 'Why don't you try it like this?' He basically started co-writing the music for the entire record with me. That's the real place I needed help in.
Did you use your Epiphone Signature Models on For the Demented?
Oh yeah! On rhythm guitars, I use the Annihilation-II and on solos I'll often use the Annihilation-I. That's my precious little targeted collection for recording.
Today, the only way an artist can make a living is through touring. Has life on the road become easier for you?
I'm 51. I started in late '84. First record was out in '89. For some reason, I'm still able to do this and have fun and have people want to hear and see what we're doing. And the last three years have been ridiculously awesome. So I'm on the biggest high. I'm enjoying every minute of it. We did almost 18 months of touring for the last record starting in 2015. And we're booked for the next year so far. So it's gonna be close to two years of touring. I'm thinking: are you kidding? What's wrong here? It's got to come crashing down at some point. You know how it is. You have maybe a couple of really good years where everything from personal relationships or your finances or your band or something are on a roll and you're flying high and enjoying it and you think you got the best life ever. Then it seems to be inevitable-- it happens to most of us I'm sure --big crash! It's like a roller coaster, playing in a band I think. But we're on that thing where we're going up and up lately so I'm enjoying every single minute of it. My 22-year-old son said when he was about eight: 'Dad, you're not acting like a teenager, you're acting like a three-year old!'
How involved and educated are your fans today about not only your music but the music that inspired you?
I think with the internet, Metal fans are working their way backwards to find things that maybe didn't get much promotion and I'm falling into that category because, in North America, I haven't had a lot of promotion. Overseas, it's just the opposite and they go, 'Not these guys again!'
I think European audiences are very open-minded. There is a core audience of fans and clubs and labels that have kept this music alive. Now it's cycled back in. You go over to Europe between May and August and you literally have hundreds of festivals geared toward Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. For bands like us, it's great because we can keep making a living and keep putting out records. That's the reality. If you step out of an area, either willingly or dropped off a label, if you don't work that territory, you can't expect it to fall in your lap.
Likely as this interview goes up, I will be in Europe touring with Testament and Death Angel. Amazing bands. I'm also hosting an All-Star jam session on the world's biggest and best cruise called 70,000 Tons of Metal. It's awesome. People look at all my Epiphone's backstage and players show up and ask: "Can I use one of yours?" I get a lot of people looking at these guitars. People with very big endorsement deals will hear and play my Epiphones and it's almost like you know they want to look into it and get one but they have a deal or they don't want to be caught with something so "affordable". You just have to look at the greatest guitar player of all time, which, in my opinion, is Eddie Van Halen. His first guitar and the one that really made his name was a combination of around a $300 guitar with parts. So if he can do it, Epiphone can do it! I love my Annihilation 1 & 2 guitars! Thanks!