Annihilator‘s seventeenth album is Ballistic, Sadistic, released via Silver Lining Music. The album marks the band’s 36th year. Jeff Waters has been the sole creative force in the band since the beginning. Although he’s employed a long list of players, he’s been the only continuous member. He wrote their guitar riffs and lyrics, provided backing vocals, played bass and did so much more. He has assumed lead vocals during the middle nineties and on the last three albums.
In the following interview, Waters reveals his involvement goes even further than all the aspects mentioned. Here, he details how he constructed Ballistic, Sadistic. Finding inspiration to make an angry thrash metal album after three-and-a-half decades is no easy task, but Waters feels confident this album will stand out as one of his best. He returned to some of his early methods, which he feels resulted in an album that hearkens back to their first two classics, Alice in Hell and Never, Neverland.
Darren Cowan: In your press release you state Ballistic, Sadistic takes you back to the first three albums. What gives the record that vibe?
Jeff Waters: The first two records that I did, Alice in Hell and Never, Neverland, were our best or biggest ones worldwide and with our continued career over here in Europe. Never, Neverland is the big one. When I finished the second one, Never, Neverland, that was the end of the way I wrote records. I discovered this drum machine, SR-16, which made it a lot easier to write songs, rather than run down a drummer and see if he could take time off work or go down to the rehearsal spot. I sat there all day with this machine making these beats up, and I was good at that. It was good for me to write anytime I wanted and it has a whole bunch of riffs. I missed actually playing with a drummer and writing a drummer in. That’s something I kind of ignored for years because of the inconvenience. Over the years, drum software has gotten better and better that over the last ten-plus years many of the metal bands you and I know say they have a drummer on it but actually the drummer is the name of the program or series. That’s not a cheating thing; it’s more of an economical thing. Bands can save money for the labels to use on a great engineer and a good studio and spend time with a drummer for a couple of weeks if you have the drums set.
The last two or three records are like, ok Annihilator is putting out another record over here, and people will buy it. It’s another record. It’s adequate. It’s good. It’s 6.9/10. It’s 7.2/10. It has that kind of vibe. I told my band, It’s gotta go either way on this one. I don’t feel right about going on and on until I drop. How do I take this to another level? It was pretty frigging obvious: Write the music with a drummer and record with a drummer. Get the vibe back and try to go back and record, even with the modern technology that I did in my studio. Try to go back to that vibe. Also, it was the way I approached the vocals. I’m mainly a guitar player. The vocals were thrown on me in the ‘90s for three records, and I got away from it when I had a real singer come in so I could relax and focus on playing guitar live. The last three albums I’ve been the singer. I’m trying to overcome the fact that I’m a part-time singer and lately I’ve been trying to do a line or verse 40 times to find my best option.
Two albums ago we did an album called Suicide Society. When I hear the vocals now, no wonder people say I fixed the vocals with a computer program. I sang so many times and I made the perfect one, and when you hear that it sounds like I fixed the damn thing on a computer. I should have just done it once instead of wasting 40 takes. That was the end result. My band told me to sing it just one take to get the feel of it, instead of going in and saying I’m also a singer and being insecure about that and trying to show I can sing it. You just have to have the attitude. My favorite singers were not real singers; they were just 100 percent kick ass attitude. You got everyone from Tom Araya to Randy Rampage from our albums. Tom Araya has the most attitude you can even imagine. He’s not known for being a Freddie Mercury operatic singer. Attitude is more straight forward to me unless you’re talking about the freaks like Rob Halford. I was trying to be a better singer than I was. I couldn’t pull it off live and play guitar as well. It sounded just too good technically and no feel. It became just doing three takes of the song and taking the best take. Now I’m just waiting for the label, the press and fans and I’m going to cross my fingers and hope I did something good.
Ballistic, Sadistic is your 17th album. Many bands from the old guard lose their aggression over time, especially when success comes knocking. How have you been able to maintain an aggressive stance, especially on this album, for so long?
I can’t find inspiration all the time. When you’re the main writer and for 35 years you’re doing a lot of things in management, even the main booking, mixing, producing, mastering, playing the bass on almost every record, solos on the guitars, getting behind the drum kit to show drummers what I want to play, it’s like a solo project behind the scenes since the beginning. When we tour live it’s different. We can’t go this long, no band does—let’s say they have 10-15 albums, we have 17 albums…bands like Priest, Slayer, Maiden and Metallica are my favorite bands. AC/DC have never been able to do Back in Black part 2. Maiden can’t do The Number of the Beast part 2. Priest can’t do Painkiller, Defenders, Screaming for Vengeance part 2 or Reign in Blood by Slayer. If we could, we would have number one records, there would never be shitty stuff in our catalog. It would be the best ever! We just can’t do that. The longer you go, how do you find the inspiration to get to that level? I think it’s impossible. There are the people who do it for the right reasons in all that they do, and they really try hard. Priest’s Painkiller was, I think, their 14th overall record. It came out of nowhere. They never needed to prove anything again. They had British Steel, Screaming, Defenders. They did the most amazing, historical stuff that they could, and could have retired at that point and been legends forever, yet they came out and schooled everyone with Painkiller 14 albums in.
I think the people who really love it and do it for the right reasons will never put out 10/10 records. It will always be 8, 7.5. 6 or 9, but if you keep the love for it, you’re going to get inspiration that you haven’t had in years. I think at some point you lose it. You got two choices after doing a great record; do you ride with that and do another record or say, 17 and that’s it? It’s time to retire. I haven’t been inspired on this record as I have been for many years. This could be a reason for me not wanting to play anymore. I was arriving at that point in the last couple of years where I said I don’t need to go out there and take shitty record deals. It’s like I’ve been doing this for a while and I don’t need to do this anymore. So at what point do you say I love it but it’s not working anymore or do you keep going and see writers that have more inspiration than the last couple and then I stop it? The harsh reality is the album hasn’t even come out yet and I’m already talking about retiring (laughs).
“The Attitude” really cements this aggression.
There is a certain subject that inspired me to make this more of an angry and heavy record. I’ve always admired Slayer and Pantera and Cannibal Corpse for their sheer brutality and heaviness. I’ve always admired that and try to get that heaviness. I’ve had a pretty good life and pretty good parents. I’ve had issues with my life, but I’ve never really had a hard life, so I don’t have the aggression others have to make angry music. Now for the first time in my life a personal situation happened that affected my wife, family and kids and it got turned on to me. It was a really traumatic last year-plus. I used this album as therapy. Seven of the tunes are themed on that. “The Attitude” didn’t come from that, but the music still comes from that pissed off aggression. I get why these bands can write pissed off, aggressive music. I get how that happens and why I haven’t been able to do it, but what’s happened to me recently put my aggression into it.
Is “Psycho Ward” based on actual experience?
It’s just a story, but some parts may relate to it what I’ve been going through here with my family. That’s one of the seven songs that have something to do with something. Annihilator write songs about love, cancer, silly things, mature things, mental illness, ADHD and there are positive things, so we write a whole spectrum of stuff. The music goes crazy—crazy stuff, melodic stuff, ballads. I tried to do something musically and lyrically on this record to get out of my system. I thought was I going to make something happy or something traumatic to make a good record.
(interview published January 23, 2020)