Annihilator mainman Jeff Waters recently moved to the UK from his native Canada and has built a new studio, just down the road from Rushonrock’s North East England HQ. In the first of a series of in-depth interviews, Rich Holmes talked new music, NWOBHM, and new beginnings, with the metal veteran.

As a young guy in 80s Canada, Annihilator founder Jeff Waters would drive up to Ottawa International Airport with his buddy Tim and spend lazy Sunday afternoons smoking, shooting the breeze and watching planes come and go. The soundtrack to their plane spotting sessions was All For One by North East England’s NWOBHM heroes Raven, a band who – like Canadians Razor and Exciter – would inspire Waters’ illustrious musical career… and energise the ‘Big Four’.

Fast forward to 2019 and Raven vocalist/bassist John Gallagher is laying down backing vocals to Annihilator’s 17th studio album. And he’s doing it in Waters’ very own studio – just half an hour down the road from Gallagher’s home city of Newcastle.

Perhaps that’s not a scenario that a teenage Waters would have envisaged as he watched the 747s come into land.

But life takes funny twists and turns.

The mastermind behind metal classics such as Alice In Hell and Never Neverland is now fully ensconced in the historic city of Durham, where he lives with his wife Angie, a North Easterner he married in 2018, and a new step-family. Check out Annihilator’s Facebook page and you’ll see him enjoying the world heritage site’s many landmarks…and tucking into the delights of its restaurants.

And if you’re familiar with the region, you can’t help have noticed that Waters and his bandmates have been busy filming a new video at Penshaw Monument, a 70ft high Doric temple built in 1844 and commemorating the 1st Earl of Durham, Governor-General of Canada. It’s an impressive backdrop. His video producer had never visited Durham before – but, according to Jeff, he’ll now be bringing more projects here, such is its rich visual palette and metal-friendly shoot locations.

Durham is also where he has built Watersound Studios, a fully equipped studio and rehearsal space – complete with accommodation a fine array of horror memorabilia – into which he’s ploughed a considerable sum. He’s moved lock, stock and barrel from Ottawa to the UK. And the significance of the move, in terms of his own relationship with music, isn’t lost on the welcoming, coffee-guzzling Canadian: “I think Sheffield – Def Leppard. I think Birmingham – Sabbath, Priest. Newcastle? Venom, Raven. So, as a kid, the cities in this country represented something. And you had Kerrang, the Bible for a kid into metal in Canada.”

As for the Geordie accent…

“On the first flight in, Heathrow to Newcastle from Ottawa – and I swear to God, it’s not a joke – I was actually thinking, fucking Brian Johnson is sitting behind me, and look, it’s not Brian Johnson!  And somebody else would talk, and it wouldn’t be Brian Johnson, either.”

It takes a little getting used to, Jeff.

The six stringer admits that actually living in the UK leaves a somewhat different impression than some earlier experiences of touring the country.

He says: “I was joking with my bass player (Rich Hinks) who is from Cambridge. I’d always kind of said, the last place I’d move is here, because I’d only really seen it from a tour bus!

“Getting off the bus in a place where often the promoters would kind of treat you like a farm animal where you’d get the most disgusting dressing rooms. They would say, ‘do you want food? Here’s your food’ and give you some old crisps, and maybe you would get five or six towels for 10 people.

“It’s not my opinion of the UK, but my opinion of some of the cities. You come in with the bus, you probably don’t get treated very well at the show, you get the fuck out and wait until you get to the German dates when you can kick back and get your laundry done.

“So I was bugging Rich about that. But he’s got the last laugh, unbelievably! He’s now going to be hired here to work in the studio. And I am married to a girl from here and I live here and I have residency. He always reminds me of that! And then he also occasionally will fire me a little YouTube video where I have made fun of the ‘Brit in the band’.

“But I love the city and I love the country… and we have the Queen on our money in Canada!”

Watersound, nestled in the grounds of the Waters’ home, is his band’s new nerve centre. Annihilator 2019 is a multi-national band of brothers: young sticksman Fabio Alessandrini, who joined the band in 2017, hails from Italy while guitarist Aaron Homma is from Toronto. Through the summer, they’ve been using it to rehearse and record the new album, and thanks to Watersound’s cosy living quarters, they can get up in the morning and just hop down a spiral staircase into Jeff’s hi-tech lair. “They’re loving it,” says Jeff. “They’re like, ‘holy crap!’. And they know that this was kind of initially made for them. The number one thing was I need a place for my band to stay and we wanted to keep it separate from the house. And it had to be a place where I could do my music and where we could rehearse.”

It has paid dividends. Annihilator’s new album – the follow-up to 2017’s For The Demented – is on the way, crafted in a new environment close to the roots of so much of the music Jeff holds dear. And the local input doesn’t just stop with John Gallagher’s contribution. The last note on the record, Jeff reveals, was sung by Kat Shevil Graham, Durham-based vocalist with underground crust outfit Winds of Genocide and death/doom act Uncoffined.

And it’s going to be a more aggressive than we might expect from Annihilator. “Most of the record is extremely angry and pissed off,” he reveals. “This one, I wanted to be heavy like Cannibal Corpse, Pantera, Metallica’s really early heavy stuff, Slayer, who are probably my favourite band. It’s mid-tempo and fast.”

The mohawked Canadian has his ear to the ground when it comes to the current metal scene. He has not closed himself off from taking influences from younger acts. Indeed, there was a buzz around Newcastle’s Riverside 2 venue back in February when Jeff called in to check out rising Finnish thrashers Lost Society. “I flew my guitar tech, Kyle, over from Ottawa to tech these guitars (pointing to his vast collection on the walls) and hang out listen to music and then we listened to Lost Society – my stepson Charlie played me some of it – and then we found out, ‘oh, they’re playing Newcastle in a couple days’. So we went to see that and it was funny. I was saying to Kyle, ‘Can you pick out which guitar player is better at lead guitar?’. We couldn’t figure it out! And that’s rare.”

And Lost Society seemed to have provided more than just a good night out for the Waters clan. “I listened to Lost Society with my stepson for a month around the house and you damn well know that some drum beats and some riffing – whether that that indirectly comes from another band or it’s their vibe – that snuck into my record.”

Re-absorbing older influences through newer acts, consciously or subconsciously soaking up fresh sounds and techniques… they’re not exactly new phenomena.

“Look at Judas Priest – Glenn Tipton on Painkiller,” suggests Jeff. “Twelve records in and they are already legends. Yet Scott Travis comes in. So now the solo comes up. And you’re like, ‘that’s not Glenn Tipton. Sweeps? Where has that come from?’.  Well… from Racer X and Scott Travis. There goes Tipton, who could have died then and would have been one of the most legendary guitar players in the world, and he stops and essentially goes back to school and learns something new from a young band. So that was eye opening to me at that time.

“But for the kids that are coming up, the musicians and fans, you got to bet your ass that Kirk Hammett is listening to stuff that’s coming out now.”

There’ll be plenty of eager metalheads listening to Annihilator too, when the band kick off their extensive, 43-date European trek (fittingly starting off at Newcastle’s Riverside venue on October 12). Or when they hit Wacken during next summer’s festival season.

Jeff is in a good place, mentally and physically. It’s shaping up to be a very special chapter for a band he formed in 1984. With a new studio, base, album and tour, he’s both excited and focused. And he’s embracing his new life in Durham and the UK with gusto.

“It’s just an honour to be here from a musical standpoint,” he says. “And it’s a beautiful city in this beautiful country.”

Enjoyed this? Check out Part Two of our interview with Jeff Waters here, Part Three here and Part Four here.

Our review of the first show of Annihilator’s European tour is here too!