Interview By Marco Schmellentin / September 2010
Jeff Waters, undoubtedly one of the most influential guitar players of our time, spoke to K.K. Downing’s Steel Mill – not only as a musician or the leader and main songwriter of the legendary thrash metal band Annihilator, but also as a big Judas Priest and heavy metal fan.
I met Jeff, one of my favourite guitarists, at the Musikmesse 2010 in Frankfurt, where he presented his first signature guitar (everyone can buy), the Epiphone Annihilation-V and the Hughes and Kettner Coreblade (amp) live on stage. He played classic stuff like ‘Alison Hell’ and ‘Fun Palace’ as well as a brand-new song called ‘The Trend’ – the rest of the band was replaced by a (playback) tape. It was really impressive to see him playing his trademark riffs and solos from close range and he interacted with the audience very well. After his shows, he invited everyone to have a chat with him backstage…
I grabbed my chance, picked up two pictures showing Jeff with his new guitar and asked him to sign one for me and one for K.K. Downing’s Steel Mill. He stunned me when he said that he knew the Steel Mill and visited it from time to time – furthermore, K.K. would be the main reason he’s playing (Flying) Vs. I asked him if he would be interested in doing an interview for the Mill and he said: “Sure – count me in 100 %. I’m a Priest and K.K. fan for life”.
A couple of weeks later, in early May, my mobile phone rang…
Hi, this is Jeff Waters speaking – is Marco there, please?
Hi Jeff! Thanks for calling. How are you doing?
It’s a really busy time, but I’m doing very well at the moment. We just returned from a promo trip to Europe for the new album and everything went quite well.
A friend told me that you visited Tommy Vetterli (former guitarist of Coroner and Kreator / owner of New Sound Studio in Switzerland). Did you record any guitars there? I thought the new Annihilator album is already finished…
No, I didn’t do any recordings. Tommy and I know each other from tours in the past and due to the volcano ash coming from Iceland, our flights were cancelled. So, I decided to visit Tommy.
As you know, we recently prepared a 30th Anniversary of British Steel special for the Steel Mill and it would be great to get some comments and thoughts about this album.
Well, the problem with Priest it is, that it is hard to pick only one good album as they have 5, 6 or 7 great albums and all of them are classics. And one of the classics is ‘British steel’ – one of the best metal albums ever. I think the 30th Anniversary edition is a great idea as it will get younger kids back to this great album. The first Priest record I got my hands on as a teenager was ‘Screaming for vengeance’ and I remember listening to ‘British Steel’ on a portable cassette player (Walkman) in the backyard of my parents’ house, dreaming of seeing Judas Priest live in concert and maybe meeting them sometime.
‘British Steel’ has everything on it – great songs, riffs and choruses. There are party songs like ‘Living After Midnight’ and ‘Breaking The Law’ as well as faster songs like ‘Steeler’ and ‘Rapid Fire’. Furthermore, ‘Metal Gods’ has the best slow heavy metal guitar riff, especially the one in the pre-chorus (Jeff is singing the riff) was very influential for many, many metal bands out there. And there is probably no other metal band that can play such long fade-outs (end of songs) without getting boring – like in ‘Metal Gods’ and ‘Steeler’. Lyric-wise, ‘Rapid Fire’ is the song with the most powerful lyrics in metal (Jeff sings, again) ‘Pounding the world, like a battering ram…’. If I had to put one single song in a time capsule, I’d choose ‘Rapid Fire’ as this one reflects the heavy metal of 1980, perfectly. But, the perfect Judas Priest song (for me) is ‘The Sentinel’ off the ‘Defenders Of The Faith’ album…
In the early 90’s, your dream came true. You have not only met them, Annihilator were ‘special guests’ on the European leg of the legendary ‘Painkiller’-tour.
We had a really great time. You know, Priest were touring with the fantastic ‘Painkiller’ album, the last big metal album of the 80’s – I know it was released in 1990, but you know what I mean – and with Pantera there was a young band, that had just recorded ‘Cowboys From Hell’, opening for us every night…and as we all know, they became superstars shortly after.
By the way, there’s a cool story about Dimebag and me. I have this Judas Priest poster from a (‘Painkiller’) gig in Rome…it was on…I’m now going down to the studio…it says ‘Judas Priest, Annihilator and Pantera, March 1, 1991, Rome’. And, quite a while before Dimebag passed away, I saw that he had exactly the same poster at home.
Wow, that’s really cool!
Yes, indeed. And you know, on the same tour, Rob told the audience every night that this was their 14th album (including ‘Unleashed in the East’ and ‘Priest…live’, obviously). So on a day-off, it was either in Austria or Switzerland, some of us went skiing and in the evening K.K. took me out for dinner. He ordered some wine and I asked him: “Have you got one piece of advice for having a career as long as the one of Judas Priest?” “Well, besides not too much partying, believe in what you’re doing – work hard, work hard. If there’s no success, keep doing it, because people will respect you for what you’re doing.” His advice became one of my goals (‘Annihilator’ is the 13th studio album of the band, by the way).
Jeff, you’ve been in the business for quite a while, now. Some Annihilator albums (‘Alice In Hell’ and ‘Never Neverland’ for example) are up there with the best metal albums of all time and a lot of today’s guitar heroes (Trivium, In Flames etc.) name you as one of their major influences. What does this all mean to you?
It’s very cool that young, mid-aged or even well-known guitar players say that I influenced their playing and/or music. Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard from so many bands and musicians what influence my songs had on their work. That really makes me proud…that rocks. I don’t see myself as an extraordinary guitar player but I think I’m a good guitarist and songwriter.
Honestly, I’ve never made music because of the money or the girls. It’s nice to have ’em both (laughs) too, but I make music because I love it. I love metal, I love thrash metal. When I started, I had two goals: to get a record deal and to record one album. Then I got a record deal and I recorded an album, which was ‘Alice In Hell’ – and then my manager said: ok, it’s time for a new one. And from then on I knew there was life after one record. The next goal I set myself was: take care of the business.
A lot of the older songs like ‘Alison Hell’, ‘Fun Palace’, ‘Set The World On Fire’ and ‘King Of The Kill’ still sound fresh and modern, although written in the 80’s and early 90’s. There are not many bands who can say the same about their songs.
I agree and it would be great fun recording them again, but I think many fans would not be happy with it as they prefer the original recordings. I think that the first four Annihilator albums were quite big and, for me, ‘King Of The Kill’ is number 1.
How would you describe Annihilator’s sound?
I grew up with the melodic /hard rock metal of Scorpions, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest as well as Van Halen and when it comes to solos, Angus Young and Glenn Tipton were my major influences as they had a lot of blues in their playing. Later there came other important bands like Venom, Slayer and Metallica. So the sound of Annihilator is kind of a blend of melodic and thrash metal.
Although there’s lots of stuff for musicians on every album, it’s still the song that’s in the first place. With your playing abilities, is it hard to be disciplined and not to ‘forget’ the song?
For me, it was never about solos – there’s always the song first. What I learned from the big bands like Priest and Maiden is how to structure a song. That’s a very important lesson. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. There are songs/albums which are good, some are better than good and some are not as good as they should be. I love ‘Painkiller’ and ‘British Steel’ but there are some (‘Turbo’ and ‘Ram It Down’) I don’t listen to. As for Annihilator… I’m not really proud of ‘Remains’, to be honest.
Annihilator’s new, self-titled album is out now. With songs like ‘The Trend’, ‘Coward’ and ‘Betrayed’ it’s 100 % Annihilator again…
Yes, it’s typical Annihilator – I’m really happy with the result. And the last song on the album is a Van Halen song called ‘Romeo’s Delight’ from the 1980 album ‘Women And Children First’. A very important song to me as it really changed my life and turned me into a rock fan. For me, it all started with Van Halen. By the way, do you know that there was ‘Hell Bent For Leather’ on the b-side of the ‘Set The World On Fire’ single?
Yes, and a bonus track of the European version I have…
Really? I didn’t know.
You’ve been playing Flying Vs for almost your whole career and, when we met at the Musikmesse in Frankfurt, you told me that K.K.’s the reason why you’re playing Vs…now, you’ve got your own signature Annihilation-V by Epiphone – a close-to-high-end instrument at a great price.
I have a lot of guitars and I don’t need any more. I never needed to sign a deal for a signature guitar but as Gibson/Epiphone offered me to build a guitar, I felt very honoured. I’ve been smiling for the first two days, but then I thought I do not want them to build a guitar for, let’s say EUR 3’000. I wanted them to build a high quality guitar that can be bought at a low price, so every fan/guitar player can afford the exact same guitar I’m playing. You can imagine how they reacted when I came up with my idea (laughs). But I wanted to make sure that my guitar was not for custom order at high costs only…and there would cheaper guitars sent to the stores. We then didn’t speak for about 1 year or so until Gibson/Epiphone called me to say ‘We’re doing it your way’. All in all, it took me/us about two years to design and create it…
And the guitar is exactly the one you’re using, you said..
Yes, the guitar is exactly the one I’m playing. It’s a great guitar and I don’t need another one anymore. The pickups have been designed specifically for me as well (the Jeff Waters Treble ‘JWT’ and the Jeff Waters Rhythm ‘JWR’). For the neck pickup I wanted to have this vintage sound like on ‘Powerslave’ and ‘Defenders of the faith’ – and the pickup division of Gibson did a great job. It is singing like a bird, now (laughs). The one at the bridge is very powerful, great for heavy sounds. Although both pickups are no high-gain pickups (I like to get the overdrive from my amps,), they do not lose any of the lows or the clear highs. Both pickups together are a great combination.
When will we see Annihilator back on stage?
First of all, we will be playing a couple of festivals this summer, like the Hellfest in France, the Rock weekend in Sweden or the Masters of Rock in the Czech Republic. Some more gigs should be confirmed, soon. After the festival season, there will be a proper Annihilator tour. Keep visitingwww.annihilatormetal.com.
Finally, any message for the Steel Mill readers?
Thank you very much for associating me with K.K. and for the possibility to be a part of the Steel Mill. As I said, I’m a Priest and K.K. fan for life. You rock!
Thank you very much for your precious time. I really enjoyed talking to you and I hope to see you on tour, soon.
It was really nice talking to you. Thank you and let’s talk soon.
While writing down this interview, I was thinking quite often at how I enjoyed this conversation. And my impression is that he’s got a lot in common with K.K. – not only is he a great musician with both feet on the ground, he’s a very nice person who cares about the fans as well. I’m an even bigger fan of his music, now.
Annihilator on the web: