Canadian metal band Annihilator ascended to worldwide acclaim with their first two releases on Roadrunner Records: Alice in Hell (1989) and Never Neverland (1990). The band’s founder and visionary guitarist/songwriter is Jeff Waters, whose blazing fretwork and skill at blending elements of modern thrash and classic melodic metal have made him an influence on many players and kept Annihilator front and center in the European metal scene. Ever since his band lost its deal with Roadrunner after releasing Set the World on Fire in 1993, Waters has forged ahead primarily on his own— writing, engineering, and producing all of Annihilator’s subsequent albums, including 2007’s Annihilator Metal, which featured guests such as Jeff Loomis, Alexi Laiho, and Michael Amott. The 2010 release of Annihilator marks the band’s 13th studio album.
What happened in the metal scene here that made you move your operations to Europe?
Heavy metal just kind of died in the U.S. when the Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam came in. I’d say that 98 percent of metal bands lost their deals. Roadrunner, the great label that I was on, told me that unless we were willing to change the name of the band and the style of music we played, they were going to have to let us go. I just thought, “Now what do I do?” So I went overseas where the record companies were still doing old-fashioned bidding wars, and we wound up having one of our most successful records in the same year that we were kicked out of Canada and the States. And now we’re trying to come back.
You’d like to sign with an American label again?
Yes. The problem is that Annihilator was never a big name in the metal scene here. We did have a couple of very well known records—Alice In Hell and Never, Neverland— and we did tours with bands like Testament and also some headliner tours. But it was all very short lived. We’re also an older band now, and when a label puts money into something they’d rather it be a younger band. So the grand comeback never happened for me. In fact, I couldn’t even get my foot in the door. I had to release this new record through a digital online company in San Francisco. I couldn’t get a physical CD deal for this thing even in Canada.
Who were some of your biggest musical influences?
As a teenager I was influenced by hard rock and heavy metal acts like Kiss, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden. And then I got into the thrash metal bands like Metallica, Exodus, Anthrax, and Slayer. So I’m basically pulling from two different kinds of metal—the melodic stuff and the fast and aggressive picking from the thrash stuff.
How do you decide which style to pull from when you’re writing songs?
It’s all about being in a certain mood or in certain place in my life personally. One minute I’ll write a love song and the next I’m writing a totally angry F-you kind of hate song. We’ve got silly, immature Canadian humor in some songs, we’ve got a bit a blues and jazz occasionally, and we have classical guitar pieces.
Were you intentionally going for a more aggressive sound on this album?
The production is a little more aggressive, and the guitars are louder and grittier than usual. I typically like that older kind of Priest/Maiden rhythm guitar sound where the pickups are more bluesy sounding and any distortion is coming from the tubes in your amp or maybe a pedal. But this album has more grit on it, which makes it sound heavier. Our singer also sounded angrier this time, and I actually tried to tone him down a bit. If you’ve only heard this album, it might be a little deceiving, because if you go back in the Annihilator catalog you’ll hear things like a song I wrote for my little baby son or a ballad I wrote for an aunt who died. I produce, engineer, and master my records, so it’s a lot of jobs in one. Maybe some of them I should not be doing, but I love gear and I love working in studios. It’s the coolest hobby in the world for me, and even if I had ten billion dollars and wanted to hire a metal genius like Colin Richardson to mix my records, I still wouldn’t do it.
Can you describe some of your recording techniques?
I record to Cubase through really good Apogee convertors, and I generally just pick a very simple chain using a nice preamp and a Shure SM57 mic—just like all the oldschool guys used to do. Here’s a tip I learned from three of the big four metal bands: Put an SM57 in the bottom left speaker of your 4x12 cabinet, aim it dead center in speaker and up against the grille, and then move it to the left about an inch or so. That’s pretty much the miking technique for most of the great metal albums that came out in the ’80s, and even including Pantera in the ’90s. I have a good set of Celestion speakers in my Hughes & Kettner cabinet, and, quite honestly, as long as it’s Celestions and an SM57, you can get a great metal sound.
You mentioned pickups earlier, so what is your preference in that regard?
I’ve tried EMGs and Dirty Fingers and all these “metal” pickups, but I realized if I used cleaner sounding old-style Gibson or Duncan pickups, I then had the option of putting more or less gain on the amp or pedal. If the gain is all in the pickup, you’re screwed, because you can’t add or take away anything.
What amps did you use for this album?
For recording I use 1982 or ’83 Marshall JCM800s. I have 50- and 100-watt models that have been hot-rodded by a guy in Vancouver, Canada. I also have a lovely plexi Marshall that I like to use for solos. I’ve always wished that I had an amp that I could use for recording and touring, and recently Hughes & Kettner asked me to try one their amps. It was the new Coreblade, and when I saw that it had a USB port on the front I went “oh no!” But when they explained that it was an all-tube amp, I was kind of hyped on it. So I tried it and it sounded good, and the computer side of it is just for saving the presets. It’s basically a Marshall with a computer hooked up to it, and it has these great built-in effects. The USB port allows me to put the presets on a memory stick, and I can email those presets to my guitar tech in, say, Spain, fly over there to do a festival, and all he has to do is load those presets in the amp. Within ten seconds I can be using the same sounds onstage that we had in rehearsal.
Are we hearing the Coreblade on the new album?
I recorded it with the Marshalls, but I also DI’d the sounds just in case I wanted to re-amp it later. After I did the deal with Hughes & Kettner I spent three days re-amping my guitar tracks with the Coreblade.
What sorts of things did you specify for your signature Epiphone Flying V?
I’ve always been attracted to cheaper guitars. The first three Annihilator albums were done with an old Vantage V, which probably cost $150 or $200 back in 1981. So I didn’t want to do an endorsement deal where I’d get a fancy $5,000 model that’s built for me, and then they’d stick my name on some cheap piece of junk and charge kids $1,400 for it. When I finally got a call from a guy at Gibson in Berlin, who asked me if I’d like to do a signature guitar, I was really excited. But once I stopped dancing around about it, I came back to the reality of wanting to make a guitar that kids could afford and I could also use live and in the studio.
Epiphone would seem to be an ideal company to make that happen.
Well, for about a year they just couldn’t come to the table with a guitar that was any good for the price they wanted to sell it at. I understood that they had to make a profit, but I just didn’t want to do it with the kind of guitar they were offering. Eventually they came back and said “We’re not going to make much profit on this guitar, but we’ll build it the way you want.”
What was your input on the final design?
They sent different versions of this guitar, and at first it had Gibson Dirty Finger pickups, which were too high output for me. So they got Gibson to wind a different pickup and that’s what I chose. In designing it, I kind of mentally divided the guitar into two pieces—the right hand and the left hand. On the right hand I wanted to be able to get that chunking low-string thing that James Hetfield, Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King from Slayer, and Gary Holt from Exodus perfected. Part of it is the picking style, but you also need a cleaner pickup so you can get that chunk from your amp or an overdrive pedal. For the left-hand part I wanted to have the Zakk Wylde or Dimebag squeals and harmonics, and the neck had to be a shredder type that feels like you poured oil on it. In the end I’m happy because Epiphone kept the price as low as possible. It’s like getting a $1,500 guitar that’s been squished down to seven hundred bucks!