He’s swapped Canada for County Durham in a life-changing move that’s already reaping rewards. Following part one of our exclusive interview with Annihilator founder Jeff Waters, Rushonrock editor Simon Rushworth discovers that the grass can be greener…
“My starving musician story isn’t a tale of getting in a van and touring for six years until we broke up,” explains Jeff Waters as he holds court at the stunning Watersound Studios, hidden away within one of Durham City’s most exclusive postcodes. “Mine was being holed up in a tiny, bug infested room in Vancouver, living off welfare. For two years I was very, very sick. I was actually starving.
“But I was lucky enough to have a landlady at the time who said she would help me. She told me I looked like s**t – which of course I did – and she supported me through the system. But she gave me a deadline and said that if I didn’t manage to make it in the music business within two years then I would have to find a job. As far as I was concerned that was my job. I had no time for anything else.
“I was recording my debut album in a tiny demo studio after midnight, twice a week. I’d do two or three hours at a time over the course of nearly two years. In between times I’d practice in my room and count the hours until I could get back to the studio. I was on my own and it’s all I knew.”
Fast forward 30 years and Waters knows a whole lot more. The 53-year-old has invested a lifetime of knowledge, gleaned from the often unforgiving music business, into a project as important as any of the myriad Annihilator albums he has anchored or any of the huge metal shows he has fronted as one of the most respected guitarists of his generation.
There are regrets – opportunities to play with both Megadeth and Metallica passed him by – but his pride in Watersound is palpable. Personally and professionally, Waters is in a wholly positive place.
Watersound – a mixing studio and self-contained flat capable of housing three musicians at any one time – is across the yard from the beautiful home Waters shares with wife Angie. A County Durham girl and self-made businesswoman, the better half of an ambitious partnership is a key player in an exciting project. A passionate fan of rock and metal music, she first clapped eyes on her husband to be when Annihilator played Derbyshire’s Bloodstock Festival in 2017.
“Angie was there with her son,” recalled Waters, who has sold millions of albums worldwide and influenced a new generation of metal bands. “She thought I was a good guitar player and admitted she kinda fancied me – and, believe me, I’ve checked every detail of the story with my stepson! But it was another year before we met in person.”
What followed was a whirlwind romance and the pair were married in Las Vegas last summer – at a ceremony officiated by Megadeth bass player Dave Ellefson. And then came the bombshell decision to commit fully to a new life in the UK.
“I even had to surrender my Canadian Starbucks card,” revealed Waters as he attempted to play down the significance of a mind-boggling move. “It doesn’t work over here! Can you believe that?
“But in all seriousness, it was a huge commitment. You have to say goodbye to your old life completely. There’s no turning back. So I said farewell to my family, my friends, my bank manager and the place I thought I was going to be for the rest of my life. I thought I’d reached the peak professionally and personally. I was happily single. Ticking along. But when I met Angie everything changed.
“To do something like this you have to be 100% in. You have to leave no trace of your old old life behind – apart from your closest family. You don’t keep your Starbucks card, your flight rewards card, your bank account, anything. And then I took a huge hit financially because of how weak the Canadian dollar was. There are lots of ways to play with money – some I understand and some I don’t – but I couldn’t be bothered with offshore accounts or tax havens. I wanted to make the move and make a clean break. So I told my accountant to dump all of my cash into a new UK account and take the hit.
“And then I’d been over here for a few weeks when Angie said her kids liked the idea of going to university in Vancouver – and she quite liked the idea of going there too! Can you imagine? Who knows? Maybe we can finish everything over here one day and move back there. But I’m still getting used to living in Durham!”
And Waters loves everything about his new life: the picturesque northern city he now calls home, the musical heritage of a region that spawned so many of his favourite metal bands and the familiarity of folk he occasionally bumps into…on his way to Starbucks. “They all think I’m the slightly weird American with the Mohican haircut,” he added. “I don’t mind if they think I’m a little odd. But to call me an American!”
With his life’s savings safely deposited in a British bank account Waters, who has been sober since attending a Kiss concert on New Year’s Eve 1999, set about sizing up opportunities for investment. The family’s gated home included a dilapidated garage block and, for a musician who always dreamed of turning his love for mixing and producing into more than a hobby, it was a space ripe for redevelopment.
“The number one thing for me was that I needed a place where the rest of the guys in my band could stay,” explained Waters. “I certainly didn’t want them in the house! The garage had a loft space over the top but the whole place was just full of junk. It had been used for storage and it was essentially a wet and mouldy shell with leaking walls. But I saw it as the perfect mixing studio and recording space – in my head I could see the potential.”
A six-figure transformation ensued. Walk down the spiral staircase towards Watersound’s unique rehearsal space and it’s like entering the set of a horror movie – Waters’ love of the genre manifests itself in a collection of unique memorabilia from spine-chilling blockbusters spanning decades. A wall of Annihilator CDs is displayed behind barbed wire to create the most ‘heavy metal’ artwork imaginable. His love of the Coca Cola brand is celebrated in the bespoke kitchen area. And then there are the guitars. Four walls of them. There are signature axes handled by Slash, Eddie Van Halen, Angus Young and more flanking a futuristic mixing desk that wouldn’t look out of place on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise.
“I always loved the time in the studio and I’ve picked up some very good advice from the best in the business over the years,” added Waters.
“I had a whirlwind couple of years after Annihilator released Alice In Hell. I found myself sitting in some fancy hotel in Belfast or Dublin drinking with Rod Stewart, Madonna and Judas Priest’s KK Downing and I did all of that showbiz stuff. But it was the studio technology and equipment that always drove me nuts. I loved it.
“So after the second Annihilator record I took some time out to work in Little Mountain Sound Studios in Vancouver – answering phones, tidying up with the broom and fetching diet yoghurts for Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. In between doing all these shitty but legitimate little jobs I’d get out my pad and pen and write down as much as I could from what I’d learned about the studio and its equipment.
“I befriended the guys in Queensrÿche and in return for getting them the odd cup of coffee they’d let me sit in and see how they went about making a record. All of what I have learnt has gone into Watersound.”
Although Waters and his band mates continue to road test the state-of-the-art recording facility, Watersound is not expected to open its doors to the public until January 2021. Waters is on the road with Annihilator for the remainder of 2019 – the band kicks off its UK and European tour in Newcastle on October 12 – and expects to be busy throughout the 2020 festival season.
“Through social media word quickly spread about what I’d set up here and I had the likes of Alter Bridge’s Mark Tremonti and Gus G asking when they could check it out with a view to recording,” he added. “It’s great that there’s a buzz about the place but I think it will be 2021 before I properly open things up.
“What we have at Watersound is a cost-effective space which bands can use for rehearsals and recording over the course of a few days or weeks or even when they’re mid tour – passing through the North East up to Scotland or down to Yorkshire.
“Musicians can live here, do their laundry and get pizza delivered in minutes. And if they want to explore Durham City it’s right on their doorstep.
“Then there are the local bands and musicians. I’d love for Watersound to be at the heart of the North East’s music community for years to come.”
*For further information on Watersound Studios please contact firstname.lastname@example.org