This month I had the distinct pleasure to interview Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth of Overkill for Metal On Loud Magazine. This eternal underdog of the Thrash scene is one of the oldest acts in the genre, and after almost four decades they are still going strong. They are about to release their 18th studio album “The Grinding Wheel”, enough reason to have a chat! After a few pleasantries (he actually greeted me in Dutch) we dived right in.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, how are things in your world?
Good! Well, we’re doing promotion for the record obviously. We’re very happy with it, first of all. That’s the most important thing in the professional world. We just got back from a European tour, the record’s been delayed until February, but I think the result is going to be good. We’re doing a US tour obviously, we’re coming back to Europe at the end of the year, there are going to be festivals in between and a second US tour. South America is on the dossier, and so are Asia and Australia, so it looks like it’s going to be a pretty busy year for us!
Yeah, that sounds like it’s going to be a busy time man!
Yeah, you’re not kidding.
Straight from the studio to the stage!
Well, that’s okay with me though. This is what we do! To be able to make the most of the opportunities is what this is all about. It’s beyond a career, or a hobby, or a job. It’s more of a life at this point. It’s kinda cool to still be able to do this, especially at a high level.
So Metal is your calling, you could say.
Well I suppose so, I didn’t realize that until I was in it for a while *laughs*. It was for sure something that fits me, it fits D.D. for sure. The lineup has now been stable for a long period of time, and I think the results are in the new release. I mean, press play and I guess you can see where our heads are at. It’s not your yesterday’s news, it’s still about being current in 2016.
Indeed. I had a lot of fun listening to your upcoming album “The Grinding Wheel”. It really has that signature Overkill sound, with a few extra pieces of flavor in it. What can you tell us about the release?
I think that’s the point. We have to find the different ingredients that make us us, and kind of re-invent that with regard to how we use them and how we apply those, song to song and project to project. One of the things I noticed about this record specifically is that sure, it’s a Thrash record, but the Thrash comes more so I think from the energy. What else I hear in here is classic heavy metal, you know? I hear New Wave of British Heavy Metal on “The Long Road”. I hear like a modern groove that slides into the song “Shine On”. I hear epic feels in “The Grinding Wheel” or “Mean Green Killing Machine”. I hear Rock ‘n Roll and Punk in “Let’s All Go To Hades”. So I think that what we have here is a good representation of many different things that we do as Overkill. Add the energy to it and it becomes a Thrash record, but all the things that get up to that point are all the different elements we have as a band.
You could say that all your influences shine through on this album. I think I even spotted a dash of Manowar in “The Long Road”?
Well, if not Manowar, for sure that New Wave of British Heavy Metal, you know, when you first heard those harmonies. The Adrian Smith / Dave Murray type harmonies, when you heard those type of leads, when you heard that galloping bass guitar and that drum beat that gallops… but then the song switches, when the vocals come in, to maybe a little bit more of a modern approach. It adds a fresh face to that approach. So it’s not necessarily about taking the influences and polishing these influences, I think it’s about taking the influences and making it your own. Pride wise, we know where we come from, we know who we are, and we don’t forget either, but still put a brand on it, at the end of the day.
What makes a song an Overkill song, at a bare minimum?
I think the bare minimum, the first element is always energy. Energy is the emotion I think, or the byproduct of what we understand as emotion. When that’s in there, it becomes real. It doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be energetic in terms of speed, but energetic in regard to striking that emotion, whatever that emotion may be. Probably the next, or most important thing is that the riff and the vocal line and the beat continuously dance together, that there’s not a forced issue from any of those three. If the riff and the vocal line dance with the drums, you have something that’s special. It’s not something that you strive for, it’s more something that you know when it’s completed. It’s a feeling, as opposed to saying I need to have these three interlocking pieces. We never say that when we’re writing a song. We know when that feeling comes across. That could be for instance in “Our Finest Hour” and “Goddamn Trouble”. I mean all three of those elements seem to dance together throughout the entire songs, and I think that’s the bare minimum.
Alright! Well, for me personally Overkill has always been about the attitude. Having a blast with a big grin on your face and the speakers on loud, the essence of Metal you could say. Is that also important to you, the attitude like you find for instance in the Punk scene?
You know, I hate to say it, but it’s really the kind of the way we live! *laughs* It’s not for show!
*laughs* So it’s just the way you are!
*laughs* I mean, I’m sitting here talking to you in Levis, with my shirt off wearing motorcycle boots!
*laughs* You’re living the live man!
I supposed it’s something I’m proud of, that we’re able to speak at the people lyrically and musically, the way we live. It’s not always a fantasy, it’s a real representation. So am I proud of it? Of course I am. It represents me and it represents us. I really kinda think that we bring a little bit of where we live and where we come from to the rest of the world. We’re recognizing New Jersey is just being normal *laughs* Maybe in Brabant (Edit: Where I live) we can be a little bit crude or aggressive in our musical style, but I think what we represent is a good representation of where we come from as musicians and our geography.
I hear ya, absolutely. Well you have to say that with 18 studio albums behind your belt, three EP’s, Three live albums, that’s an amazing number. That can only work if Metal runs deep in your blood.
Yeah I think so. For us it was never a question about whether it was easy, it was just a question about getting it done. And how we could get it done under the best circumstances, you know? If we have an opportunity, how can we make the most of that opportunity? I think that’s still obvious after 18 studio records that we’re taking opportunities and squeezing them for all that their worth. I would never try and hail back at the nineties, when it wasn’t as easy to do, but I think we always stayed one step ahead of the devil. Or the Grim reaper, in regards to how bands get killed off by a changing musical attitude, especially towards Heavy Metal. For me those were the times I was most proud of, because they were probably not the easiest. They were more so the harder times, but I think it shows what the guys are all about. We get things done under those circumstances. That’s when you really find out what kind of person you are. You don’t find out what kind of person you are when everything’s easy. You find out what kind of person you are when everything is hard.
I think this was a great test for us. I remember, we were still touring, we were still getting record deals. We were going over to Europe, doing tours in the US, going over to South America, and I’m sitting with D.D. somewhere, and we’re talking about the next record, and I asked him what do you think? He said What do you mean? I said The next record! And he said we’re not going to re-invent the fucking wheel man! I said dude, you’re probably right *laughs* And then he says Blitz, we’ve been over since 1991 and there’s nothing more dangerous than two guys from New Jersey that have nothing to lose *laughs* So we’re going into a record thinking that we have total freedom from any type of public or popular thinking, and I think I kept that with me ever since I heard that from that man’s mouth. I think it’s kind of the way we represent ourselves. We have an opportunity so let’s do the best we can with it.
I love that attitude man. It’s really metal! *laughs*
*laughs* Well, maybe it’s a little sick.
I don’t know, who’s to judge, right? *laughs* The new album, it has some great new thrash classics, that I think will create some nice big circle pits when you play them live. My favorite song on the album has to be “Red White And Blue”. Damn right! Can you tell us a bit what the songs on the album are about?
Sure, of course! You know, that song, we were talking about elements of the band before. We kinda cut our teeth in the New York/New Jersey area back in the ‘80s, and the other rising scene that was happening next to Thrash was the Hardcore scene. And when I got this riff, D.D. handed me this riff really in it’s barest form with just a drum machine behind it, then him and Dave Linsk got together with Ron, and then I went down and said, this has got that Hardcore feeling that I remember from the mid ‘80s. We would do shows with the Crumbsuckers, with the Cro-Mags, you know? Agnostic Front + Overkill was not an unusual bill in 1988, 1989. But it had that Hardcore feel to it. I felt that one of the cool things was that this was maybe part of us, from back then. We gave it kind of a fresh face, we made it kind of Hardcore 2016 with an Overkill stamp on it. But the song itself is a real simple topic of appreciation. It’s almost like a foxhole confession. The guy who is by himself and willing to give everything that he has and put down his life and he sees it through the sight of the top of his rifle, and what he might be thinking while all this happening. And I think that many of us who live in the free world appreciate guys and girls who put themselves in such positions for our freedom – or we say we appreciate it – heard one of them really speak when they think it’s all over actually get the opportunity to survive through. Just a personal conversation with someone who got to see it first hand. Or my imagination is such.
If I listen to your music, it sounds like you’re having a great time when you’re writing and recording this stuff. Is it actually as much fun as it sounds?
Well yeah, work is work! I mean there have to be things done at the end of the day, there has to be a yield, something that you’ve harvested from your fields. It can’t just be all fun and games, but I think there are enjoyable ways of going about that. I think one of the things that we embraced, obviously now for a longer period of time than not, is that we’re old school guys. We need to be in a room together, having a beer, talking about sports and jamming songs out and recording those songs, but we also embrace technology. So I think that when we’re together and are creating these songs, and demoing these songs it’s always a good time. I think that’s just a natural thing to us. It’s kind of like a middle aged boys club. There are a lot of laughs, there’s a lot of back-slapping, there’s a lot of high fives, a lot of practical jokes. Occasionally there’s a dice game, somebody’s taking someone else’s money, smoking cigars. So if that’s the case, we’re having a good fucking time. But still there needs to be work done, but I think a lot of the hardest work is done individually. We come up with those ideas and push ourselves as individuals, away from each other and by ways of technology, staging those ideas via the internet. Then when we get back together again, we have that good time, so I think it’s a combination of both. When we get to recording and all that hard work is done, it’s just about enjoying the fruits of it, and trying to get your best performance and your best energy on that computer, on that tape.
Having fun while doing your job, that’s very important! Where it comes to the title of the album and the cover, how did you come up with those?
You know, I remember watching a football game with the guys. We were on tour, Overkill + Symphony X through the States. It was a Sunday and we always get the National Football League package on the satellite TV, so Sundays we can go back and forth from game to game before the show. Usually there are coolers full of beer and sandwiches, and if the stage is set up the crew comes in and watches, and usually bet money. Just act like degenerates in the afternoon, you know? I remember that we were watching the Giants, I think it was Giants vs Philadelphia and the word Grind was being used in every other sentence. Oh, I think he just grind this up. I’ll tell you something about Jennings, he can grind right through that line. I just got my phone out and put that in my phone, and I think weeks or a few months later I was in my phone going through notes and I thought what a great fucking word. We use this word for everything, it’s part of our vocabulary and it’s probably descriptive of our lives. We’ve been doing this for 35 years and we’re obviously grinding through. It’s not the lives of pampered rock stars. We don’t race Lamborghini’s and vacation on desert islands with supermodels, you know? *laughs* We work!
You’re not Motley Crue, no *laughs*
So it was a simple way of saying, this is part of us. But I do think that if you look at it objectively, you know, a grinding wheel will always worn down eventually. I think that there’s also a confession of mortality in it, and saying sure, we’re realists. We’ve been in this for 35 years at this point, we’re realists. Enjoy this opportunity with us, for it’s maybe the last, you never know. I think it’s a good assessment of the present day reality.
Is it intentional that the way that the gears on the cover are hooked together, they can never ever move? *laughs*
No, it just looked cool to us! *laughs*
I was watching that thing and was like, what? That will never move.
We’re not that fucking deep. *laughs* We were looking for grinding wheels and all sorts of things on the internet and D.D. found this picture, and we’re looking at it and think, hey we can always put the bat in the middle of it, that looks cool! *laughs*
It does look cool!
We gave the original to our artist and he brought up the same thing, he goes you understand this will never move right? *laughs*
Yeah, not much grinding there. You’ve had almost four decades now of Overkill, that’s an epic number. What do you feel were the high points of your band’s history so far?
Well I think one of the high points is that it’s been almost four decades. I think that’s pretty incredible just by itself, you know? I always think one of the highpoints was getting signed back in 1984. We worked our way into a club called L’Amours in Brooklyn. It was the Rock capitol of the east coast, if not America at that time, and we almost actually became the house band. We were almost the local opener. We would be slotted in when someone cancelled the headliner, and we got a great following. I remember a Halloween night in 1984 and we were slotted to open for Anvil, from Canada. Megaforce Records came down. They said we’re friends of Anvil and I think within a week we had the first draft of a record contract. I think that was one of the highest points. Another one would be our first European tour in 1986, that was right after Chernobyl in Russia. I remember my mother putting notes everywhere in my luggage saying don’t eat any fresh vegetables! *laughs*
*laughs* Good tip, thanks mom!
I remember in the late ‘90s, when my wife and I started dating. We had known each other since the early ‘90s but we lost touch. This was before email addresses were really prevalent and we were just writing by post or fax. We lost touch and I remet her at Dynamo in Eindhoven, Holland. For me that was a great moment. You’re talking to a guy who doesn’t have to have a destination, and you’re talking to a guy who’s enjoying the journey. *laughs* I don’t want to get to the end of my journey, because then it’s the end! So what are the high points? The high point itself is the fact that the journey exists, and I think that we’re still relevant in 2016. That we can put something out that’s valuable. It’s not about what we were, but what we still are.
So, the highest point is that you’re still moving forward and having fun!
I think so! It’s a great revenge on life, living your life doing what you want to do. Wise words that I obviously didn’t come up with myself, somebody told me that first and I said wow, that’s got a lot to do with me. And I think somewhere in there I embraced that as a person, and we probably embraced that as a band as well. If it wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t do it. It’s not worth doing it if it’s not fun. But it is fun!
Exactly. Do you have any band related dreams that are still left on the bucket list?
Yeah, or to do, or to achieve…
You know, we haven’t done Asia extensively. We’ve done Korea, we’ve done Japan but we’ve never been to Thailand, I’d like to see inside of China. The only thing I’ve ever seen in China were the airports, connecting to other places. I would like to go to Africa too. I would for sure like to go to South-Africa or be able to do something in the North-Eastern part of Africa. I don’t know if that’s possible these days, but I’d like to do that. I’d also like to go to Iceland, that would be pretty awesome, to be able to play there. On personal levels, I always have personal kinds of bucket list stuff. I’m an avid motorcycle rider. Between three bikes I’ve had, I have more than a hundred thousand miles on my old ass.
Still going W.F.O.!
Yes! But I’ve never ridden the whole country, and I’ve never driven Route 66, so I’d like to ride Route 66 someday.
Better hurry, it’s almost gone!
*laughs* That’s true. So I’d like to do some more riding, and you know, all the other stuff is just kind of a daily thing. I don’t know if there’s any other specifics I’d like to meet personally. I think I can accomplish a lot of them by just being in the band, and seeing places, and going places with my wife.
Sounds like the best way to move through life.
Yeah man, satisfaction is a great thing. It usually leads to good days, one after another.
That’s what we’re here for. I had the honor of seeing one of your rehearsals. We accidently took the wrong entrance to the Turbinehallen in Oberhausen this year, when I interviewed Van Canto, and I entered right through your rehearsal set. Sorry about that!
*laughs* yeah. But seeing you there, what struck me is how powerful and true to the albums your material sounds on stage. When you write material, do you actually have live performances in mind?
I think so. I don’t think outwardly so, but I remember when we were first writing tunes, you would think to yourself, or somebody would even say it at rehearsal, oooh this is going to be a hit! And if you say something like that, you’re thinking somewhere, even subliminally that this is about playing it live. But I think when a guy first experiences music, his first attraction to music, especially this music because it’s all I really know, it’s that standing on the stage. That is the highest time yet, because it’s risky you know? When you first stand on the stage, sure it’s about your energy and your excitement, but there’s a distinct possibility you will fail. And if you still take that chance, it means you want more. It means that you go higher and higher. So sure, there’s a subliminal hint while writing that this will be played live.
How would you describe an Overkill show? From the side of us fans, I can tell you it’s raw power, mayhem and fun! So what it’s like for you?
It’s always fun for me! It still makes me nervous after all these years. I always think of the show that’s in front of me as the most important show. Yesterday’s show is already ancient history, today’s show is the most important one. It doesn’t matter if it’s Wacken or some smaller venue. It doesn’t matter. It matters that the feeling comes in, the mentality, and I think somewhere in that principle it gives me the opportunity to still feel that nervousness, to still feel that risk. And if I feel that risk, it really pushes me a little bit more so. I’m really proud to say that over all these years, we never went out there and stood there, and took people’s money. Love us or hate us, we gave you everything we had! *laughs* So somewhere in there it becomes how I see the Overkill show. If you ever get off that stage and have to take a deep breath and say oh my God I’m fucking soaked, that was exhausting, something you did in that previous hour and a half was correct.
Well the best Overkill show that I remember (vaguely) was a couple of years ago at Bospop here in Holland, in a tent. It was just madness.
Ah Bospop? I’m trying to remember what happened at Bospop. Did we do Peter Koelewijn and the Rockets? (Edit: Dutch band).
You might have. I was somewhat intoxicated, I don’t remember all of the show *laughs*
At the end, with “Fuck You” we broke into “Klap maar in je handen”, do you know the song? It’s a Rock ‘n Roll song by Peter Koelewijn.
Yes I do!
We broke into that at the end of the show! It was a really energetic show!
I was right in front man, having a blast! Where it comes to the new songs, which one do you look forward to playing live the most?
Probably “Mean Green Killing Machine”. I think there’s always been something about this band that we write the song that is specific for opening the record. I think that’s kind of important, to be able to kick the door in. Saying we’re here, we’re back and it’s business as usual. One of the things that I really enjoyed about that song when it came together was that it never seemed that it’s seven plus minutes to me. It always seemed as if I was feeling the song that was five minutes long. I know that there’s obviously an intro in it, that takes a minute or so, but the feeling of the song was always condensed, so I think there’s something special about writing a song that is that long but feels like it’s much shorter. It’s a succesful feeling to put in weight but make it feel as if it’s compact. I think that it holds many of the different elements that makes us us. It’s the Thrash, it’s the Rock ‘n Roll riffs, it’s the breakdown and the Sabbath-esque Doom parts to it, it’s some decent background vocals and harmonies and a great hook in the chorus. I mean, it’s got all the elements. I look forward to playing that.
Yeah, I bet. It’s a great song. I love it. I was very excited to get a chance to talk to you, I’ve been a long time fan. Between my cousin’s Iron Maiden album covers and the Overkill “The Years Of Decay” tape I got from a girl in highschool I became the metalhead I am today, so thank you!
*laughs* You’re one of the two cornerstones of my Metal education!
Hey we’re happy that we could help!
I still love that album by the way, “The Years of Decay”. It’s a classic. So, that leads me to my last question! Do you have any last words for our readers?
Well yeah! “Het beste” (Dutch “for all the best”), “Tot de volgende keer” (Dutch for “until next time”)
“Tot ziens!” (Dutch for goodbye) *laughs*
Those are good words *laughs*
It’s always good to be in the Netherlands. I suppose it’s funny. We had a friend from the Tilburg area, he used to work for us, Fozzy Bear. He is no longer with us. He used to say to me, Blitz, you are 49% Dutch (edit: he said this in Dutch as well). *laughs*
I love hearing you speak Dutch man. *laughs* I hope you have a great 2017, a fantastic ending of this year, happy holidays, and have an awesome tour next year!
Yeah, Randy, you too! See you on the road man, Merry Christmas!
Absolutely, Merry Christmas man!