OVERKILL – Chasing the Thrash High
An age old debate exists in the metal realm regarding the best time period for original music. I don’t think we will ever be able to recapture the heights of popularity that occurred in the 1980’s (platinum records, arena tours), but there is plenty of metal to be had if you are willing to invest the time and energy to seek it out and support it. Overkill from the NY/NJ area is one of those thrash bands that lived through metal’s high times plus lean times during the 1990’s and still thrive in the current rebirth of the movement.
"White Devil Armory" is the latest album, another killer record that still propels audiences worldwide to seek out the tasty riffs, fast tempos, and one of a kind Blitz vocals. Seeking out the opportunity to speak to Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth one recent afternoon, you find that a half hour chat seems to go by in 10 minutes… a similar philosophy the band employ through their blistering live attack. Get ready to learn more about this phenomenal band- and be sure to see them live at least once in your life.
"White Devil Armory" is the latest Overkill studio platter – and I’ve heard early reports from you describing this album as having more of a ‘3-D’ sound in terms of songwriting and dynamics than your last two records which were well received, "Ironbound" and "The Electric Age". Can you elaborate on this set of songs and your view of what took place recording-wise, because I agree that this seems to have a different level of depth while still maintaining that Overkill substance you’ve been known for through the years?
"I didn’t necessarily make that comment in regards to "Ironbound" because I thought that that was really a three dimensional Overkill record, containing more elements than let’s say "The Electric Age"- and this is not to slag that record because it is one of my favorites through the years. It’s just… I suppose it’s ‘balls out’ in regards to the two dimensions, whereas what we have with "White Devil Armory" is a little more than that. At the end of the day it’s still Overkill but to get to the end of the day, there is a half time, punk rock kind of vibe here and there. There is thrash which is the highest in the pecking order and there is even rock and roll. What we are saying is "The Electric Age" was more of a thrash record, two dimensional and this is more of the eclectic value that Overkill can have but still being an Overkill record at the end of the day."
My favorite songs at this point include the adrenaline fueled "Armorist", "Bitter Pill", and "King of the Rat Bastards". What can you tell us about those songs in terms of the lyrical perspective, and do you find it easier to write within the genre as you get older?
"I tell you, "King of the Rat Bastards" is one of my favorites just on the title of the song alone! For some reason I love that title and I was just messing around on Google and I end up in the urban dictionary, and this is actually a definition for this. With regard to lyrics, we need a thread to start with and the thread was becoming the word armory. I heard it from D.D. (Verni- bassist) mentioning it to me, e-mailing about it, and he was really into it. The Great Southwest Armory, The Canadian National Armory, so I started messing with the word to make it part of the album thread. This created "Armorist" as a singular, individual type of person and I started stringing him along through all the songs. So he goes from that single, one man army to through all these short story journeys, until the last song "In the Name" where he is actually part of a group, ending in unified chorus. It’s about the understanding of strength through unity, throughout the whole record- and its steps of that. Not necessarily a concept record – having that character always in the back of my head makes it easier to write about something. I apply that something to that character, it’s based on real emotion but then goes through all this stuff. "Bitter Pill" is where the armorist kind of swallows his pride – and realizes it’s not only all about him, that there’s probably more responsibility in being the center of the universe then just part of it."
How is it working with two different record companies for the major territories these days between eOne in North America and Nuclear Blast for Europe? It seems to me you have the best of both worlds, as both have their strengths in their particular marketplaces – and allow Overkill to do what they do best, concentrating on your own music aspects…
"That’s a good point, they have good metal departments with guys who have been in the scene for a long period of time, who like this stuff. They are not the kind of guys who call up and ask how much profanity is in a particular song, that’s not the way it works anymore. They sign bands based on their like or love of those bands, as well as obviously a business decision because there’s always a bean counter involved in there somewhere. For our position in regards to both these labels right now, it’s a great position to be in. They work in cooperation- eOne has been distributing Nuclear Blast stuff, so it’s not like they are banging up against one another for a release date. This frees the band up to do what we do best which is to make music. Of course we want to be involved in the business decisions- to a large degree we are self-managed, we do have a third partner but up until a few years ago we have been self-managed since the mid 1990’s so a lot of these decisions we had to make on our own. Now that things are a little more fruitful we want to be part of those decisions too."
You were amazing considering the walking pneumonia you dealt with on the tour you did with Testament last winter, as I was at the Worcester, MA Palladium date on 2/16/13 shortly before you had to cancel the rest of the dates. Describe the trials and tribulations a singer has to deal with on the road to stay in shape and try your best to not cancel specific shows/ performances?
"It’s funny, D.D. Verni had a broom stick duct taped to his shoe and the other hand of it was up my ass, that’s the only reason I could stand during that show (laughs). That was the toughest show I ever had to do, and it was… by the grace of God and the paramedic with the oxygen on the side of the stage that kept me going. I cancelled the night before because I couldn’t even get up a flight of stairs, full blown pneumonia- and it wasn’t just me who got it, 6 of us had it. 3 of us ended up at least in the emergency room because of this after the tour had been cancelled. I ended up going the next day to the hospital in Buffalo, I was laying in a snow bank dribbling on myself at 9am. With regards to staying in shape, that has always been my thing- we’ve been a band that’s been around now for 3 decades, you’ve seen us over the years- we take huge pride in our presentation, whether there is 200, 2,000, or 20,000 people – they are going to get an Overkill show. That’s where we stay in shape- its balls out, this face melting type of energy."
In a recent interview I conducted with Jeff Waters from Annihilator, he made specific mention of 3 other bands who never gave up on thrash metal during its rougher marketing/ sales standpoint (at least in North America) during the 1990’s: Exodus, Testament, and yourselves. Do you believe this determination to fly the flag regardless of the trends has worked to Overkill’s benefit with thrash’s resurgence over the past few years?
"That’s a good point- and I think to some degree it has. When Jeff was around we toured with Annihilator in the 1990’s in Europe, he’s a good dude and he likes what he does. When he mentions those groups of people, that’s good company for Overkill to be mentioned in. Probably there is a lot of parallel principles that these bands all have themselves. Flying the flag was never anything that you thought of while you were raising it on a flagpole every day when times were lean – I think in hindsight it’s brought up to me more in question. Of course we have a staying power and tenacity- as do those other bands, that’s part of thrash. Thrash was never about what was easy, it’s about creating havoc and chaos and that side of emotional value. It’s not the left side of the artistic brain, to some degree it’s about the right side of the brain, the do side of the brain as opposed to the deep thinking side of the brain. It follows suit in our case, this is really the right thing to do for us. We love doing this, it’s hard to abandon what you love doing just because the majority of the world doesn’t love it or thinks it’s over and done."
(Photo: Håkon Grav)
How difficult is it to come up with a set list in a festival versus headlining situation? Do you try your best to switch out certain songs to surprise the audiences who you know faithfully attend every Overkill show coming through their area?
"One of the things that we feel is that a well-oiled machine is much better than ‘well, wasn’t that one a surprise?’. We want to turn 90 minutes into 45, we want to steal 30 seconds out of every 60, and you want to make people think, ‘what the fuck- is this just done? How many songs did they play- seven?’ No man- they played 16 (laughs). That’s the key to it, and to some degree that is about repetition. Now when choosing these sets, they can be repetitive night after night, and we can inject a song possibly because we are in a close territory – if we are Boston and then playing Albany, we may put a different song in there. Headlining and festivals are about time. We like the big festivals, we are usually not the headliner, so our time constraints are anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. Under those circumstances to get 17 records of Overkill material in is impossible- we came out with an idea called loading the gun. Half of the classics, and then split the other half between what’s new, relatively over the last three records."
What would you say have been 2 or 3 game changing records in the Overkill catalog through the years? Do you think also there is an album that is very underrated that maybe fans need to go back to and really check out again?
"Probably "Years of Decay" and "Horrorscope" are the game changers right there. "Years…" was probably the game changer and "Horrorscope" is the fruit of that game changing album. Which is cool to think that was so long ago- over 25 years. It was where we finally found our place as that group Overkill at that time, we found what was our pinnacle record. "Ironbound" is a game changer, a reflection of a very healthy thrash scene, we just happened to write that record and it came across as giving the people what they wanted type of thing- which was never the intent, we just wanted to go in writing a good record. The old fans of this stuff were able to say to the younger generation – ‘see this is what I was talking about!’ All the younger fans were able to see that they were right, and now knew why people were talking about us in that regard. The album I would say people need to go back and listen to again is a record produced by Colin Richardson called "From the Underground and Below" in 1997. To this day one of my favorite Overkill records, it’s cohesive from start to finish and also a great reflection of the time. This is the era of metal’s unpopularity but it was a bonecrusher- we did what we wanted to do regardless of the times."
(Photo: Håkon Grav)
How do you balance the changing tides with new technology and recording studios at home, things are easier for bands to make records- are there particular tricks of the trade you still pay attention to being an older band?
"You have to keep your eyes open with regards to technology or you get left behind. It’s great to be that purist who said to record on magnetic tape but it’s unrealistic in this day and age unless you have unlimited time and unlimited funds- it’s just more expensive to do. As people say, downloading ruined the music industry- well technology, the downloading, etc. has also made it so that everyone can record something that is at least pretty good sounding, and I think people who really pay attention stay up with regard to having objective talented ears mix their stuff as we do with Greg Relly they have the opportunity to take things a step further. Sure the downloading may have hurt your finances but it can cost you 1/10th of what it cost to make a record 25 years ago. It’s not the same world anymore- I really think the key to making a great record is understanding performance. Not overthinking it, but really performing it. There is so much software out there, you can go in and sing out of key, burp, and it can be removed to some degree so you really only have to do it once. I can say this for myself, and I know the other guys do too with regards to their instruments, there’s a huge pride in being able to perform. One of the things I do, and I take this all the way back to when I first started understanding vocals- The Rolling Stones or the Beatles, where these guys are doubling and tripling their vocals. I do that physically- singing over the top of everything I have already sang, layering it perfectly, not having a guy move it around on a computer. Because to me it sounds so much more natural when it is done correctly, and as a result stands the test of time."
What qualities do you think make a good front man in metal – as you are one of the best in the business in my opinion?
"Its funny- I get told that a lot of times and I need to make a confession here. I run off the side of the stage and re-start the show every time I’m not singing. That started years ago because of stage fright. I was fine if my mouth was moving but if I had to stand there and cheerlead, it wasn’t my thing. So that’s why I left- and I copped that from Dee Snider of Twisted Sister. I remember having a talk with Philip (Byrne-vocals) from Gama Bomb and he’s like, ‘where do you come up with all of this stuff?’ and I’m like ‘what are you talking about?’. He goes, ‘all the stuff you do on stage?’ I said, ‘oh, I just steal all the good stuff from the guys I like!’. There’s a little bit of Dee, a little bit of Iggy Pop, a little bit of Freddie Mercury, a little bit of James Hetfield, a little bit of Bruce Dickinson- all of the guys I admired who I felt had great stage presence, and I never sat there and practiced it. I made it my own. What makes a good front man is obviously confidence, beyond that it’s being able to recognize that there is some really good shit out there that you can use to make your own."
Do you find younger bands reaching out to you for advice on how to proper navigate the choppy business side waters – and if so what insights or words of wisdom do you bestow upon them?
"That’s funny, because I don’t really. Of course if the guys in Gama Bomb asked for advice I would give it to them, but to some degree there isn’t really a generalized question, it’s more like we hate our management, we would like to be on this label, etc. It’s more of a statement they are making. A lot of young bands just don’t want to come up and ask you because they are already in the game. We are all making these rules up as we go along because this is an ever changing industry. You can’t be left behind, you have to have social media. I don’t do it on a personal level, I am too much of an old guy, I don’t care to Twitter out what I am doing on my day off. When it comes to young bands, they are privy to embracing the modern day technology, but I think they should have questions for some of the old dogs who have been slugging their way through the mud."
(Photo: Håkon Grav)
How are things going in the chocolate business these days? Do you enjoy the diversion this offers your family away from your metal days?
"Sure! We are tri-state NY/NJ guys, I think this is kind of our background. I don’t mean chocolate – I mean staying active and doing other things. Whether it be another band or studio work, we do things! Chocolate happens to be ours because it’s a passion for my wife. It’s cool to have- talk about two stress free types of things, a heavy metal band and running a chocolate shop. The fate of the world is not resting on either. I do like the fact that it’s successful, she immigrated here and we have built this, I’m proud of the American dream and this business has been standing proud for over 10 years."
Have you learned a lot about the health benefits of chocolate, especially the different nations in comparison to what is normally offered in the states?
"It’s about process and it’s about percentage of cacao to single bean. We carry stuff that’s Ecuadorian for instance, the beans are 78% cacao, processed in Belgium so that any of the bitterness is now removed from it but the chocolate is so consistent. Out of that you get most of the antioxidants you need for the day, a quarter ounce to an ounce will give it all to you. You get charged up with energy and it also releases a hormone that makes women feel nice (laughs). This is why chocolate and Valentine’s Day have gone together for years. Boy I am thankful that I have a wife who loves chocolate and she has this great chocolate every day, so I am a lucky man."
What does the rest of 2014 into 2015 look like for the band in terms of touring? I know you’ll be doing some dates in the fall here in North America, correct- including a special appearance in Atlanta, GA for the ProgPower festival?
"When we get down to Atlanta we are going to be the progressive Overkill. It’s kind of cool to be the token band in a festival that is themed in that way. We’ve done it a few other times, where it is a pure heavy metal show and we are the thrash band, we did the Inferno festival in Norway which is a mostly black metal festival. I like some of those bands, I’m into the power and ferocity of it. We were the token thrash band held on Easter weekend. We went on at 5 minutes to midnight, it was Saturday into Sunday, and after two songs I walked up to the mic and said, ‘we are Overkill from the United States of America, we wish you all a Happy Easter!’ and the whole place started cracking up. We had this big roar and from there the levity was broken, the tension lifted and it was a great show. So we will do Progpower and be the token thrash band, I’ll figure out something sarcastic to say to them. We are touring North America with Prong in September, pack up and head over to Europe in October again with Prong, we will also add Enforcer from Sweden on that bill. This is our Killfest theme that we’ve developed over the last few years that has gone over quite successfully the past 8 years or so. After the holidays we may do some South American dates, Australia and the Pacific Rim are knocking on the doors for some dates. We are also setting aside two more tours in early 2015 for Europe and the United States- and that should bring us up to about May of 2015. So it’s going to be good- and the whole thing kicks off in August in Canada, we are going to play on the Heavy Mtl festival in Montreal."