Overkill’s Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth Speaks To SonicAbuse

Formed in 1980, Overkill have been one of the most consistent and enduring presences on the thrash metal scene. Fronted by the indomitable Bobby “Blitz” Elsworth and with the formidable D.D. Verni in tow, the band have released some eighteen albums and, whilst fans will all have their favourite moments and eras, the band have remained committed to the atmosphere and feel of their very earliest releases. In 2014 the band released the stunning ‘white devil armoury’, an album that captured Overkill at their very best and it seems arguable that despite all the ups and downs of a turbulent career, Overkill have weathered the changes better than most, remaining ferociously committed to their art throughout.

It is, of course, easy to remember the 90s as the era of grunge and, for sure, metal suffered declining fortunes with regard to the mainstream, but it should not be forgotten how many great metal bands were releasing albums throughout that so-called fallow period. The nineties gave us career defining moments from Machine Head, Pantera, Sepultura, Rage Against the Machine, and many more, whilst bands like Overkill simply refused to be swayed by any notion of popularity. Their fierce refusal to adapt in the face of external pressure, as well as their staunch commitment to quality, is documented in the new box set ‘Historikill’, a comprehensive, thirteen-disc box set that covers the years 1995-2007. Starting with live set ‘wrecking your neck’ and then running through the studio albums from ‘killing kind’ to ‘Immortalis’, ‘Historikill’ proves once and for all that Overkill, regardless of fashion, were determined to remain true to themselves and, as Bobby asserts, if you believe in something enough, you will become it. With metal back in the public gaze once more and with Overkill stronger than ever thanks to some blistering recent efforts, it can be seen that the band’s determination was well-founded and it is striking how positive and enthusiastic Bobby remains after a thirty-five-year career that has seen titanic shifts of fortune. With UK tour dates booked, a mammoth US trek underway and ‘Historikill’ out now via Nuclear Blast, we were proud to be able to talk with one of metal’s great survivors – Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth from Overkill – about the box set, his continuing inspiration and the philosophy that underpins one of thrash metal’s greatest acts.

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Hi Phil

Hi, is this Bobby from Overkill?

Yeah, it is!

Hi, I hope I haven’t caught you at a bad time?

No, I’m just between interviews, they’re all just back to back. This is Phil from SonicAbuse?

Yeah it is.

Yeah, I saw you ring in earlier but I was just finishing up a Skype interview with a guy in Scotland, so I was hoping you’d call back. We can start anytime you’re ready.

We firstly, thanks so much for agreeing to talk to me, it must be a busy time right now!

Yeah, it’s actually a holiday here, so it’s an easy day for me to do a few interviews and it’s gonna roll into some parties and BBQs by the end of the day so it should be a pretty awesome day – talk a little metal and then move out to some cold ones and a couple of steaks, you know?

That sounds fantastic – sadly here it’s just a typical grey English Autumn day, but talking metal is always good!

Yeah, we can talk a little metal and then I’ll be off to some BBQs with family and friends.

To start off with, the reason we’re talking is that you’ve got this amazing box set coming out, ‘Historikill’, which is huge – 1995-2007, it’s a massive box set and for me, I guess, one of the thing it highlights is the ability of Overkill to stay relevant and to stay heavy over such a long career.

I think that’s a great point and probably one of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that Overkill, during any era, prides itself on being relevant. Living in the day is the most important thing for this band and what we have here for that twelve-year period is that period of time. And this was not, let’s say, the brightest days of metal. It was, in the US, we were being crushed by grunge. We went form above-ground visibility to the underground, which was fine with us – we were comfortable in the underground, it’s where we were born and bred. I think a lot of bands went away in that twelve-year period. In 92, 93, 94, it was a crowded touring room or release room but Jeez, by 1997 there was only a handful of bands left and I think that this box set shows that regardless of the waning popularity of the genre, there were still great releases coming out within that time period and I think that ‘Historikill’ is just the proof of the pudding, when it comes to the dark days, because there still were positive, relevant releases.

It’s interested that you bring up the grunge period because looking back it was clear that metal was suffering in terms of popularity through grunge and alternative and then, later on, you had nu-metal which was seen as the next big thing at the turn of the century. But Overkill not only remained relevant and, I think, remarkably consistent throughout that period, but it must have been tough sometimes?

Well, you know, it’s funny because…. I think what we did was that we negated what was popular opinion. We were just unswayed by it. I remember a conversation with D.D Verdi that, during the 90s, and this would apply to some of that box set… we were somewhere in Europe, we were having coffee so we were still touring. We were both sitting there in those wife-beater undershirts, stirring our coffee, wiping the sleep out of our eyes and I said “What about the next record?” and he said “What are you talking about the next record?” and I said, “well, where are we going with it?” and he goes “we’re not going to reinvent the fucking wheel are we?” and of course I said no! And he looked at me and said “You know the best thing about us? We’re two men with nothing to lose!” [laughs] Wow, that’s fucking deep! So I think if you’re not swayed by popular opinion, but swayed more so by that feeling of danger, by that feeling that we don’t have anything to lose, then we can just run through fucking walls. So that’s what we wanted to do. That’s where that relevance comes from, That’s where those releases get that intangible, common thread to Overkill that has been there throughout our career.

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Maybe I read to much into it, I always felt that Overkill had a bit more of that old-school, punk, “don’t give a fuck attitude” whereas some other bands seemed to be more keen to follow what was big on the radio and that attitude really damaged them I think.

You know, I don’t usually talk about how dirty somebody else’s house is – one of our principles is to pay attention to how dirty our own house is and I think that’s key to, let’s say, the feeling of success that we have because this is a long period of time. But, for sure, we were spawned form what came out of the UK in the late seventies, early eighties, when Iron Maiden was the quintessential NWOBHM band and there were bands that proceeded it like Tygers of Pan Tang and Angel Witch etc… but we were also these kids from New York and New Jersey who had just witnessed the birth of the New York punk scene, whether it be the Ramones or the Heartbreakers, The New York Dolls and Televison or Richard Hell and the Voidoids… it was fucking great to take both of those genres together and carry that punk attitude we had as teenagers into that NWOBHM musicianship, so we were playing the stuff that we liked to play with that “go fuck yourself” attitude, and I think it really worked for us because it was something that we experienced first-hand.

Over the years you developed that readily identifiable Overkill sound – there’s that classic thrash and punk blend, but it would be difficult to talk about Overkill without talking about your voice as well…

I have an on-off switch, that’s for sure! It’s pretty recognisable yeah!

But with that consistency, did you ever feel that there was a pressure to keep pushing the band’s output to new heights?

Well, you know, I think I mentioned some principles that we have, if you think you have nothing to lose and being relevant in the day… I think these are kind of at the forefront of our thinking. It’s not about pushing it. It’s about staying with the plan and if the plan is relevance and danger, there’s something about growing up in this area that has a great work ethic. New Jersey was always the area that picked up New York’s garbage. But there’s something to be said for that because there’s a great work ethic with that. And that’s something our parents kind of instilled in us, so we’ve got a good work ethic, we’re very blue-collar thinking, we want to get the job done, we want to have impact, we want to be dangerous, and we want to keep these principles of relevance first. So I think that’s where it comes from, I don’t think it’s really a push, it’s just the idea to stay with that plan.

The line-up that you have now has actually been together for some time, although I was surprised at just how long, and you’ve had an amazing run of records recently from ‘Immortalis’ and ‘Iron bound’ to ‘white devil armoury’ and I think the latter stands, possibly, as the pinnacle of your recent output, because it’s such a well-rounded release.

That’s a good point, and I’ve even said it and I think it was in an interview in the UK, I said I really liked ‘the electric age’, but it came across for me as a two dimensional record. It was missing… we didn’t dust off all the tools that we used in the past and somewhere those tools were re-introduced on ‘white devil armoury’ which was much more of a three-dimensional record rather than two dimensional. And I mean songs like ‘in the name’ which is the last song on the record, and that’s cut from NWOBHM cloth while ‘bitter pill’ has that mid-tempo pound to it. So we had different angles but with the same approach when we talk about ‘White devil armoury’ so I do agree that it has more to offer than ‘the electric age’.

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Which is really positive, because at a time when a lot of bands seem to be struggling with fans downloading releases and the need to create albums as opposed to collections of songs, Overkill put out a record that was awesome from start to finish.

I think that we have a healthy scene right now. There are lot of bands with history that are releasing some really good releases and that’s been the case since the turn of the century, or at least since 2005. I think that there are also younger bands out there who emulate, or try to use the blueprint of some of those older bands, and I think what we end up with is really healthy competition. So, if a new band comes along and they release a record and start getting accolades for that record, there are old fucking dogs like me who say “wait a second!” [laughs] “Wait a second, that’s not how it’s supposed to be done!” And I think form that you get that great type of pulse with regard to the scene. I remember back in 07, I guess it was ‘Immortalis’, we were touring with Exodus and I really like these guys, they’re kind of cousins to us, we’re kind of family members, cut from the same cloth, we come from the same area even though we’re at different coasts in the US. It’s probably as far for you as Moscow in distance! But I remember Gary Holt coming off stage in Spain and he was sweating his ass off and he says to me “Mr Ellsworth – try and beat that!” and I said to him “ I am going to bury you! [laughs] But you know, who wins in that situation? The people who pay for tickets! So I think that this competition is translating into records like ‘white devil armoury for us’ or ‘blood in blood out’ for Exodus, or the last Testament record. I think you can see that we’re still competitive, even after all this amount of time doing it, and with that competitive edge, that competitive element in there, you get some really great, really honest sounding records.

It must have been flattering in a way when thrash started to get big again a few years ago that you got bands like Bonded by blood and Evile, you got those young bands who were taking their inspiration from you guys.

Yeah, I think you hit the nail right on the head and I think you find that they were for sure cut from that blueprint and they used the blueprint that was developed in the eighties to present themselves. I think what was going to happen with those bands was that Bonded… or Suicidal Angels or Evile… I was a big Evile fan, we had those guys out on the road with us for three tours, these were some great dudes and they were starting to develop their own approach to things before the wheels came off the wagon… I thought that what was going to happen was that those bands would forge their own identity and then it would be time to pass the flag over to some of the newer bands. But I had my money on Evile from all the way back in the beginning, I thought they would be the ones to take it to the next level, but it was an interesting time touring back then with those younger bands who had been cut form the same cloth as guys like ourselves or some of the guys I mentioned earlier.

We talked a little bit about grunge, and commercial changes are one thing, but you also had a number of line-up changes – was there ever a time when you and D.D looked at one another and thought that it was becoming difficult?

Well, you know it was never spoken about. It was obviously difficult. It wasn’t fruitful at the time and that was the thing. To keep people attracted to it, it has to be fruitful to keep everything intact. And obviously now that we’ve been intact for a ten-year period so it’s fruitful and people are taken care of, so we couldn’t always take care of people during that time so obviously, it was also personal decisions, so, you know, one guy becomes a father and he couldn’t live out on the road like me and Verni for thirty fucking years and miss his daughter growing up, which is a human… it’s a human decision and it makes sense to us. But one of the cool things, when it becomes fruitful, is you can keep a line up together, you can have a great time and we don’t tout 200 dates a year like we did in the eighties. We do about a hundred dates a year, so we look forward to being with each other. I just told a story in an interview where we’re out on the road for just a couple of days and my wife’ll call, or I’ll call her and she asks what I’m doing and I’m like “well I’m rolling dice with Dave Linsk and I’m losing all my money, I’m smoking Cuban cigars and drinking imported beers!” and if that’s the way you’re touring, shit’s good! You’re fruitful! We’re having a good fucking time, man, It’s a middle-aged boys’ club, let’s fucking celebrate! So I think that back in the 90s, it was a different…. During the ‘historikill’ era it just wasn’t great when it came to taking care of everybody within the fold.

I don’t want to embarrass you, but over the course of your career you’ve had a number of different issues, not least a major health scare, and it’s inspirational, I think, to see how positive you are in interviews and, of course, Overkill is still pounding in the nails as well – how much of your life experience informs your lyrics and material.

Well, for sure… I remember back when I first had an issue and I was in this bikers’ club. Bikers are a weird bunch, you know, and they have certain ideas and principles that are unto themselves, and I was sitting with this guy smoking a Marlborough and sitting by the river and I was giving him the whole fucking ‘poor me’ thing… you know, ‘poor me, poor me’ and this guy goes “pour you… another drink!” He said, “for every problem, there’s another side to the problem. It’s not the problem, it’s how you react to the problem and you’re going to get through it. You may not like the results on the other side of the problem, but if you go through it, like a man, you could come out the other side.” And I thought to myself “how fucking simple is this!”  [laughs] and from this fucking lug-head giving me the advice. But he was 100% right. I came through the other side and there’s nothing better than experience that you’re able to infuse into your life rather than speculation and worry and stress. I got through this problem… OK I looked a little different, but I got through it and I was living and I was touring with Overkill and I was thinking to myself “This is fucking great! And it was life-changing. I would have totally wasted what that guy said to me if I had come through it and was nervous the next time something came up. So I think that what he did was teach me a great lesson. It’s one of the things I’m most grateful for – it was a jumping off point for me in my life and I think of it as life-changing. You know, life-changing things are only good if they actually change it. I have this great opportunity to go at this right now and this will change me…. So for sure there’s a positivity here and when I’m dead and gone whether it be tomorrow or way down the road, I’d like to be thought of, not with a tear in somebody’s eye, but with that wicked grin like “that motherfucker could run through walls!” So I still try to live with that principle that I was taught by that guy.

That seems to be a key principle of thrash metal as well – the ability to overcome.

Well sure, it applies to what I’ve done. And what D.D and Dave and Derek and Rob and the other members too – I think it is about rising above. When there were no rules in the eighties, we were there and we were making the rules up when it came to thrash metal. I think that the common element that everyone had, that was in that scene, we were the voice in the dark and we were going to be heard. No matter what, we were going to be heard. Maybe not by everyone, but somebody… we were going to get somebody’s attention. And I think that became the motivating factor, and it is a rise above, that’s what it’s all about. Thrash was about life changing issues, whether it be lyrical or musical, we were doing something that was a force to be reckoned with, and I think if you believe that, then you become that. There’s a great American writer named Kurt Vonnegut and he wrote this thing called ‘Mother night’ and the principle behind ‘mother night’ is if you believe this thing long enough you actually become it and I think, somewhere, thrash applies to that.

You’re about to go on a mammoth trek of the US, but when are you next likely to appear in Europe?

You’ll see us in the UK in April. The confirmations will come out very soon, but we already have holds in London, Manchester, a couple in Scotland and a few in Ireland. So we’ll be back very soon.

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