In the third part of our interview series with Jeff Waters, Rich Holmes uncovers the Canadian’s passion for studio wizardry, gets into the nooks and crannies of his band’s new base…and reveals more about the writing of Annihilator’s next album.
An empty garage with leaks, mould and a hell of a lot of junk.
Maybe not the best starting point for a high-spec, certified rehearsal and mixing studio.
But after blood, sweat, tears and industrial quantities of caffeine were poured into the building, it’s now the dazzling, tech-laden Watersound Studios UK, a stone’s throw away from Durham city centre…and the domain of Annihilator mainman Jeff Waters.
It’s the place where his band’s next album was written and recorded, and where Jeff and his bandmates (bassist Rick Hinks, guitarist Aaron Homma and drummer Fabio Alessandrini) have been ensconced these last few weeks, sharpening up for their forthcoming European tour.
And Watersound UK will eventually open its doors to other bands and studio engineers, who can stay in the apartment above – as long as they have no aversion to horror memorabilia and Coca Cola merch…
“It was a place for my band,” says Jeff. “And then as it was being built, I thought if we get the acoustics done better, maybe we can actually bring some bands in here once in a while. And it just went crazy. The bill is insane!”
After he posted the first pictures of Watersound UK on Facebook, the hotline buzzed with enquiries from Gus G and Mark Tremonti. Jeff envisages that North American acts playing the European festival circuit could use their downtime to write and track new music in Durham, rather than waiting until they return home: “You’ve got your privacy, your creativity, nobody has to bug you, your laundry can get done and you can still walk out the gates and get a Starbucks in 10 minutes.”
Watersound Studios UK is a labour of love in more ways than one. You’ll find it in the grounds of the home he shares with his North East-born wife, Angie. And its creation was a key step in cementing his recent move from Ottawa to England, in order to start the next chapter in his life.
But after running Watersound Studios in Canada for many years, such an undertaking wasn’t exactly new to him.
Indeed, as well as being Annihilator’s founder, chief songwriter, vocalist and one of metal’s most revered shredders, Jeff has been honing his studio skills for decades. “People would say, ‘what’s your hobby outside Annihilator?’. I’d say, ‘oh, being in the studio!’.”
The Canadian produced Annihilator’s 1989 debut, Alice In Hell, which he recorded in a demo studio after midnight, over two years. “I would go back to my little apartment and practice, practice, practice and wait unto three days later until I could go in at midnight again and do it again. I was learning how to do this.”
He has produced, engineered or co-engineered every release since – bar 1990’s Never Neverland. Back in the early days, when Annihilator was really taking off, he admits that despite the female attention that success brought, he was more focused on ‘studio stuff’ than girls: “Something about it drove me nuts.”
So much so that in the aftermath of 1990’s Never Neverland, he took a job working at Little Mountain Sound Studios in Vancouver, answering phones, taking messages for a resurgent Aerosmith, and in between running errands, recording every studio tip and trick down on his notepad. He became friendly with the likes of Peter Collins and Jim Barton, the producer/engineer team who were working on Queensrÿche’s Empire opus in Vancouver at that time. He listened and learned. “I met and talked to a lot of the big guys who do this for a living.”
Just a few years later, sales of thrash and indeed, what we’d now term ‘classic’ heavy metal, were nosediving. Record deals were lost. Live bookings plummeted.
“I remember one record company saying that we were getting rid of any band that had the word ‘metal’ in their bio. Imagine that! I thought it was the end of my career, right after touring with Priest.”
Yet Jeff secured a licensing deal for three albums – and a substantial sum in advance. And he used it to set up a recording studio, built by the same team behind Little Mountain, right at the start of the digital era. He would scour bookstores for magazines on mixing and sound engineering. He invested heavily in brand new equipment and training.
“My goal wasn’t to work for other bands,” he says. “It was just for my band…and a hobby. But it came in handy. Out of necessity, from 1997 to 2007 when our band sales went way down, I was doing other jobs, writing songs for other artists and working in my studio to keep Annihilator alive.
“I ended up mastering, mixing, engineering, producing, doing all the guitars and bass in the studio and writing the drums on a drum kit and asking the drummer to play what I played.”
Does he feel that his own records would have benefited from the input of a ‘big name’ producer? Yes and no.
Jeff replies: “Financially, when I started being able to bring someone in, I thought, ‘let’s just say it’s 20 per cent better with Andy Sneap doing it. Do I want to do this mix myself? Yes. Is it going to sound better with Andy? Yeah. But we’re not the biggest band the world. What our fans want to hear is, ‘is Waters playing more of the poppier, hard rock and metal ballads and instrumentals? Or is he playing the heavier stuff and the crazy stuff he did in the early days?’. That’s all they give a shit about, really, unless it sounds bad, right? My records don’t sound bad. They could sound better with someone else doing it. But it’s not hurting the records. Either the songs and the performances are good or they’re not.”
However, he remains open to new ideas and techniques. Take his work on the follow-up to 2017’s For The Demented. “I asked the guys in the band, ‘what do I need to do to kick my ass from a technical aspect?’. Number one, everyone said, ‘you have to get Fabio to do the drums’.
Jeff admits he was hesitant. The complexities of recording live drums – and the investment needed to do so – was a potential hitch. Watersound Studios UK wasn’t set up to record drums. But after three days of tinkering and re-structuring, courtesy of Jeff and Hinks, they found a solution that worked for Annihilator’s 17th full-length.
“They also said you have to go back to the way you recorded Never Neverland, when it sounded like a band,” he continues. “They asked, ‘how did you write the songs before?’.
“Well, what I was doing 90 per cent of the time was going with a drummer in Ottawa four nights a week for about four hours a night and getting behind his kit and playing a beat. And then I’d run out and he would learn the beat real quick. And I would play the riff and we would record it on this little machine. And that’s how the best stuff I ever wrote was done.
“I thought, I won’t try to copy riffs, because that’s what happens when you’re the main writer after 16 studio albums – you end up copying yourself intentionally or unintentionally. Or, you start going a lot of concerts and you’ll hear a Testament riff and you want to write that, you know? It’s just normal. I needed something different.
“So they were right on the money when they said, ‘write with Fabio’. He would play a drum beat on drum pads and come up with the drums and email it to me. I would drop it in here into a Superior Drummer programme. And those MIDI notes play back kind of like real drums. So for writing, it was perfect, because now I was actually writing with a drummer. He’d send me about 20 beats every day for six weeks. I would get a coffee and crank them up.”
Influences came from the humid swamps of Louisiana to the frozen lakes of Scandinavia.
“I gave him a list,” he says. “Annihilator’s first two records – I told him, ‘find the beats you like and change them, make them your own’. New Orleans blackened metallers Goatwhore provided inspiration, as did Finnish thrashers Lost Society: “I liked the beats they were doing, old school, San Francisco, Exodus kind of beats.”
Jeff also pointed the young Italian in the direction of Tommy Aldridge, Deen Castronovo and Dave Lombardo.
And he explains that after honing his guitar sound in the studio, he could then jam over Alessandrini’s beats and lay down the riffs for the album, right there and then. “It was like jamming with a real drummer,” he says. “Everything he was sending me was exactly what I wanted to play on, rather than me sitting here and coming up with stuff that wasn’t from a drummer’s perspective.”
He’s excited about the new record – scheduled for a 2020 release – which promises to be a more brutal, violent piece of work than we’d normally expect from the band. Annihilator’s 43-date European tour starts 30 minutes away from Durham at Newcastle’s Riverside on October 12. A summer of festivals awaits next year.
It’s all go, for Waters and co.
But when Jeff finally calls time on Annihilator, when the band he founded in 1984 finally bows out, retirement won’t come accompanied by a set of golf clubs, a Sudoku book and a pair of slippers. Watersound Studios UK is part of his long-term game plan.
“I’m such a fan of heavy metal,” he says. “If my job when I’m in my 60s is watching some really cool mixers come in and mix records…well it sounds like a blast!”