Early this past week, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth, the singer/writer of one of the most respected and influential thrash metal bands of all time: Overkill. Quick to laugh (at himself especially in a good natured way), and even more quick to genuinely listen to and honestly answer my questions, Bobby was a pleasure to interview. He and Overkill are genuine legends of the genre, even if he’s quick to dodge such labels, and I couldn’t have had a better time talking and laughing with someone so genuine. Both Overkill and Symphony X were playing The Fillmore that night, and Bobby was gracious enough to chat with me after Overkill’s soundcheck.
S16: First off, thank you for the time and for playing Charlotte again! Overkill has played The Fillmore NC before correct? How’s the venue?
Bobby: Yeah, we have played here before and the venue is really nice. It’s got the nice big room and the cool chandelier vibe going on, but it’s also the type of venue where you can really work the crowd into a frenzy.
S16: So, Overkill has been around for something like 35 years?
Bobby: Well, I met D.D. (D.D. Verni-Overkill co-founder and bassist) around ‘80 so it’s been about 35 years of us being buddies, but we had our official first release in ‘85, so it’s been about 30 year period of touring and releasing. Prior to that we were a cover band that morphed into a band that was doing original material. It was cool because, although metal had always been around-I mean since Hendrix first ripped a speaker you had heavy metal, but the thrash subgenre of it was just blossoming and we were there at around the beginning of it. I’m not saying we were the originators of it or anything, but as the blueprint was being written we were a part of it. So it was cool to be having it happen you experienced it. You looked behind you to influences like Ozzy, and Judas Priest, and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but we were also big New York punk fans…
S16: Yeah, you can really hear some of the punk influence in Overkill’s music and I think that’s what made, and continues to make, Overkill’s music so great and influential. Overkill as a band has outlasted many other similar bands, as well as genres, that are still around, but have changed over time. What is the secret to Overkill’s longevity and staying power with their fans?
Bobby: Well, there are a couple of principles that we never really talked about at the time, but in hindsight I can see as being important. Obviously, we don’t have an identity crisis. We know who we are. We are hardworking guys from New Jersey. You put both of those together and there’s the two key principles of it. I remember doing an interview with a kid from Eastern Europe, and often over there they look at legacy and time spent and they think of it as legendary, and he starts the interview saying “It’s so great to be talking to legend of thrash metal” and I said, “Listen, every Saturday this ‘legend’ is mowing his own lawn, so let’s put this in some perspective here!” (laughs) So, somewhere in all that is the reason that there’s a longevity to Overkill. We’re not adverse to hard work, and when it was a dirty word to be in a metal band we just kept going. We knew we’d figure a way out. So hard work and not having an identity crisis are our two biggest principles.
S16: That’s really inspiring. Speaking of inspiring music akin to Overkill’s and the crossing of influences in music and art, you guys are touring with Symphony X, your fellow New Jerseyans for the first time. Their music is a little more concept based, like Underworld takes its direct influence lyrically and thematically from Dante’s Inferno and the tale of Orpheus in the Underworld. Overkill’s albums don’t particularly have concepts like that per say, but you do have common threads that run through your albums, has touring with them and seeing them do some of their stuff ever make you think…hmmm…that might be a cool idea to toy around with in future recordings?
Bobby: When I write the lyrics for the music, I’m always looking for a thread word. I’ll discuss it with D.D., who’s my songwriting partner, and get Dave (Dave Linsk-lead guitar) involved. So, like with White Devil Armory, the word “armory” was the thread, and if you want to get down to the basics of it, it does become kind of a concept so when I hear a riff these guys are writing, I know they are thinking of a thread word, and it gives me a place to jump off. Then you expand upon that thread word. The only time I did a hard concept was back in ‘04, where I used as a template the 7 deadly sins to write a record. I had read Canterbury Tales and applied the concept to a modern setting. But what I really like to, and what my wife really likes me to do, is get that thread word and use it to expose and work through all of my sins of the past year while I write the lyrics, and when I come out of my basement my wife goes, “I’ve got a better man!” (laughs). I’ve basically been down in the basement for the past three months confessing and purging my sins (laughs). So, I don’t really consider myself a lyricist, and while I do really appreciate great authors and literature, I use my lyrics and writing as an opportunity to clean my soul. (laughs).
Shutter 16: Yes! It’s a catharsis. Much like so much of the world’s great literature and music is. From your greatest classical writers to your teenage garage punk band to “thrash metal legends,” many artists make some of their best art through the catharsis process. Oh, and by the way, as a dude with an MA in English and a huge fan of classical literature, it’s more awesome than I can describe to hear you say, “I had read Canterbury Tales!” (Bobby laughs).
Bobby: Yeah, and it’s all according to the perspective you are going to approach it from as well. I mean, are you going to be forthcoming and honest in your work or are you going to be a fucking narcissistic pig and create some kind of dream in your head?! (laughs). For me I write abstractly enough to think to myself that I can be forthcoming, and I can throw it out there, but everybody’s not going to know exactly what I’m talking about, but I’m going to have this great feeling after I’m done with it.
S16: So moving into the live performance aspect of the artistic experience, does the thread translate directly into the setlist choices, stage thematics, etc? Obviously, you’re going to be focused on the new music as you are obviously going to be touring on the new album, but as far as the other songs that are chosen to be played along with the new ones, do they need to fit the thread?
Bobby: Actually, it’s like ‘somebody left the backdoor to the pharmacy unlocked and let all the junkies in’ (laughs). It’s all about what’s going to get us ‘high.’ When it’s working you know it’s working, but if there’s a consistent theme to each Overkill tour it’s adrenaline. I’m more proud to be known for what we do as opposed to what we’ve done. So, the most important show is here. Tonight. If you make that a guiding principle then it works, maybe that’s why you really last 30 years. I still get nervous before a show, but I don’t overthink it. The reality of music is that people enjoy it, and that includes me as I play it. If I’m getting ‘high’ then you know other people are getting ‘high’ and you know you’re on to something. So you insert and remove songs as needed and personally I like playing the new songs because I’ve played them less and it makes the show more fresh. When it comes down to it though, it’s just about the adrenaline. There’s no other real thread that goes into it.
S16: Are there any songs that Overkill feels that they just HAVE to play every night? Like is there a particular song or songs that fans might be disappointed that didn’t get played?
Bobby: “Elimination” off of Years of Decay that has been in the set every year since its release. There’s a song “Rotten to The Core” off the first record that has been presented at this point close to about 9,000 times! (laughs). There’s also a song called “Fuck You” by The Subhumans that has been in our set since our cover days, so it’s become a staple. Those three have always been in there.
S16: So what’s next for Overkill? The newest album came out in 2014, and you have this tour which is winding down, so are there any more tours or albums on the near horizon?
Bobby: We’re going to South America. There’s some stuff in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. It’s a really great place to go. The fans are really off the hook down there. It’s really in their blood. It’s almost to the point of riotous with these kids at times. All in a good way though. We’re also currently throwing around ideas right now for the next album. We always plan on being in the studio. I think the guys will actually be in the studios come January recording demos. I’ll be popping in with ideas and write some stuff. We’re also going to be popping over to Europe during the writing and we’ll be doing a special show in Germany for some people we know. I’ve found that writing for me works best when we’re on the road. When we’re doing live shows it’s cool to have the ability to write in between them. I just head to back of the bus and because technology is so small these days you can kinda transfer the stage energy into the demo. So, over the next 6 months we’ll be writing and probably be delivering the demo for a 2016 release.
S16: Any “threads” in mind yet?
Bobby: No thread word has come up yet, but we are messing around with something and it seems to be following suit for us.
S16: We talked about influences, genres, and music we love, so to kind of wrap up, what newer bands currently have you seen, come across in touring, or that you’ve been listening to personally recently that really get you excited?
Bobby: There’s some great bands in Europe right now, like this one called Lost Society out of Finland that I really like. Evile, a band from the UK is also one. They’re a part of a current wave of bands that are emulating the thrash metal blueprint that we talked about a while ago, but these two really have the ability to rise above the current crop and I’m really interested to see what they do with their next record.
S16: Wow. Thanks man. This has been great!
Bobby: A good time? Great! Well, that was pretty simple! (laughs)
S16: Definitely! Thanks again for spending some time talking with me!