“OVERKILL” INTERVIEW By Dillon Collins
For metal fans, particularly those who bleed thrash, Overkill are a band that require no introduction. The New Jersey based practitioners of shred, the apostles of headbanging, Overkill have earned a reputation of consistency with a blood-sweat-and-tears mantra that have endeared them to fans for nearly four decades. Founding frontman and all around respected legend of the genre Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth caught up with Metalheads Forever in the wake of their whopping 18th studio album The Grinding Wheel for an in-depth conversation which examines thrash past and present, delves into what it takes to make an impact in a genre oversaturated with parody and the united passions which have carried Overkill from day one.
When you think of the thrash movement of the early 80s and of course as it’s progressed up until now, there can be a bit of repetition or parody. With Overkill many fans find something far left of all that, a sound that’s almost a thrash/punk hybrid in some ways and that stands on its own outside of the pack.
Well that’s a great compliment. I suppose that a lot of that has to do with local. When you talk about all of these thrash bands and some being cut from the same cloth, a lot of those are west coast bands, west coast U.S.A., and I’m not going to say the sound is shared but it shares a commonality when it comes to the environment, the local. Us being 3,000 miles away from them, I guess somewhere inside we didn’t give a shit. We saw punk meets the New Wave of British Heavy Metal as opposed to the way the west coast did. Maybe that’s where some of the signature came from, but you pair that with the fact that we’re always trying to push it. Habitually I think we have guys improving all the time, so I think then that signature sound you speak of becomes our own.
It’s been documented that you guys were quite influenced by the east coast punk and hardcore scene, especially in New York and New Jersey. Even looking at this record, The Grinding Wheel, a song like Goddamn Trouble really seems to have those punk influences and undertones. Would you say your punk influence is legit and something still felt today?
The record itself holds so many elements in terms of what our influences were. It’s everything from traditional heavy metal and hardcore and with that comes punk rock. And I think you’re right. When we have that opportunity to kind of show what’s in our tool shed we throw it all out there. The punk influence, especially the energy of it, has always been a part of this signature sound, or at least building upon the signature sound we have for the current day. I agree, songs like Let’s All Go To Hades or Goddamn Trouble still come across as something that was born of another time, as least in regard to influence.
Overkill is 18 albums in, with The Grinding Wheel (released in February 2017) your second highest charting album ever. It’s pretty remarkable, where after many bands at this point would be going through the motions or phoning in records and performances, you guys are releasing some of your most realized and fresh material of your careers.
This is pride too, you know? You have the opportunity and want to make the best of it. It’s not like well I wish I had something else to do. That’s not involved in the equation. The equation is that here’s an opportunity, now let’s make the most of it. I’ve always relished the fact that we’ve had a record deal, I think D.D. Verni always has. We’re in this for the good fight. It’s kind of a base principle of it, that to be able to release something 18 records in, still viable current and present day and still evolving, then that pride kind of pays off. No, you can’t do it. Oh yes we can! That kind of becomes the motivation in regards to it.
Of course these past several albums under the Nuclear Blast banner have been very fruitful for Overkill in terms of getting the songs out there, charting and album sales. Obviously this may go without saying, but how much of a difference does it make having a company like Nuclear Blast backing a record?
With regard to this brand of metal and even branched out into other things, for sure they’re a monopoly and probably the largest independent, if not the largest independent in the game, with so many different bands and having a great formula. It’s 2017 and you have to be able to target your clientele and your customer and I think these guys know how to do that. We can do as much as we can on our end but you need partnership to keep you viable, to keep you ever-present in people’s eyes, a partner that understands how important vinyl is to come back as collectors. All this kind of works in regards to presence. In the era of presence with regards to social media and instant information, to have somebody who knows the nuances with regard to the clientele and customer, that’s priceless. We owe a lot to the fact that they always have a good plan when it comes to the presentation.
Having really been there, and responsible in many ways, for the growth and evolution of thrash, what is your take on the genre today? And as an aside are there any up and comers you’re seeing that catch your eye?
It’s relatively healthy at this time and I think that’s a tribute to its purity. It’s never really evolved more than its basic. You can add your different nuances and characteristics, but I think it’s really about action versus reaction and it’s a place to go for a listener who wants something aggressive that actually becomes satisfying, drug-like. That’s why it hasn’t changed that much over let’s say three decades. It’s really about that riff, really about that beat and how the two work together. It’s not really about the vocals, for instance. I see a lot of younger bands using the blueprint that was developed almost 30 years ago. I’m not saying we developed that blueprint, but let’s say Metallica for example. You see a lot of that used by other bands. I think the breakout has to happen for the next wave to really establish individuality, to find something that is their own, to take that blueprint and morph it into something that becomes more individual and more realistic. But for sure there are great players out there. One of the bands that has been around but you’re starting to see that bit of originality is Warbringer. I think one of the things that they did when they started is that they were very Exodus-clone-like. As time has gone on they’ve become Warbringer, which is a little bit different than just taking so and so’s blueprint which is so and so’s blueprint. I think you’re seeing that more. We’re going out with Havok on this next tour and they’re starting to get wings in terms of their own originality. I’d really like to see a band come up there and take that next original step and take it to the next level.
You guys brought in Jason Bittner (Shadows Fall, Flotsam & Jetsam) on drums earlier this year. What do you think he brings to the table that makes him a great fit for Overkill?
There was never a question of whether he fit or not. Ron (Lipnicki) was having a few troubles at home in regards to touring. Our sound guy Eddie filled in for over a year and Ron said he couldn’t come back so we went to Jason. Our relationship with Jason goes back to when he was in high school. We used to play and he would show up with a big smile on his face and a pair of sticks in his back pocket, hoping he’d be able to do one of the songs for soundcheck. That’s as far back as our relationship goes, he was probably 18 at the time. I used to call him sticks, like how ya doin’ kid? You got your sticks? That kind of thing. He’s cut from this stuff, this is what he’s cut from. Even when he was in Shadows Fall I remember being in Los Angeles on the Sunset Strip, maybe the Whiskey and Jason was out there and showed up like the 18-year-old kid with the sticks in his pocket saying ‘Can I?’ And I’d say, you know something? Sure. This is his love, this type of music. This is where he came from. To some degree whatever he achieved with Shadows Fall being great, I think this is where he’s more at home. What he brings to the band is not just consistency, but absolute heart. He’s one of the premiere drummers in the genre at this point, he’s consistent as hell, a hard-hitter and unusually creative. Not only are we having a great time touring with him, and he’s an east coast guy so we understand his sense of humor, but we’re looking forward to being in the studio with him, because we think he can bring another level or add another page of evolution to this band.
You guys have the Metal Alliance show coming up this fall with Crowbar, Havok, Black Fast and Invidia. That seems to be shaping up as one of the last great metal tours of 2017.
We know the Crowbar guys well. We took them to Europe with us the end of last year. They’re great guys. I love the contrast between the two bands. You know, music to kill yourself by slowly and music to kill yourself by fast. I think the cool thing is that contrast. We kind of both come from the same genealogy but I think with different approaches. I’m a huge Crowbar fan. I’ve been walking around for years saying they did the best cover ever when it comes to Dreamweaver. I’ll listen to that something staring up straight in the dark thinking I’m on something. It’s a fantastic cover and a fantastic band and have a great amount of respect from us. I think it’s going to work out really well.
Talking about Jason you mention the heart and the passion, and really the book on Overkill has always been about that heart and that passion, in particular from yourself and D.D. I think that goes hand-in-hand with the fans as well and that goes a long way in your longevity.
That’s a great compliment, and I think there is one thing we can add to that. We don’t go in this to lose. We go in to win. I think it’s obvious when you see the band live or at the end of the recordings. We go in to win. There’s no passive-aggressiveness here. It’s about lets say healthy competition. When we’re standing on that stage we believe we’re the best heavy metal band in the world. I think when you do that and have that in your head you have a lot to live up to. I think it does translate into performance year after year after year. If you can carry that with you it’s just an awesome f***ing drug. Pride can be the fall of a man but it can also motivate him to do great things I think.
For ticket information for the Metal Alliance Tour and all things Overkill visit www.wreckingcrew.com
Dillon Collins / MHF Magazine