The Electric Age is Overkill's 17th album. It is an amazing accomplishment in a business that eats its own and looks at longevity as a dare and not a goal. That fact is not lost on Overkill singer Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth, one of the only two remaining original members of the New Jersey thrash band. Along with bassist D.D. Verni, he has kept the band's mythology alive by pushing the limits of the style to include more melodic vocals and even classical elements. But these strains only serve to underscore the basic brutality and fury that courses through the group's music. On The Electric Age, there are pummeling riffs and guttural vocals on "Electric Rattlesnake," the first single, "Old Wounds New Scars" and "Save Yourself."
Ellsworth is a fast-talking funnyman who loves his thrash and is proud to hold the banner high. Though he was having new windows installed at his home, the singer focused all his attention on explaining who Overkill are and why they've been around for so damned long.
UG: The band has just reached album number 17 with The Electric Age. How do you keep from writing the same song after so many records?
Ellsworth: I think we've done so many records and obviously Overkill is Overkill and it's not a large scope of musicwe're a thrash band. I think for me to make it interesting is there's a fine line between style and repetition. Obviously I like to be known for a style; I think there's a comfort zone with style. But when it comes to repetition, I think if it comes to rehash and recycle, we try or me specifically I try not to do that with melody lines. Words can be part of that style but if I'm gonna rehash something from Ironbound or as long ago as Horrorscope, I'd rather stay away from that.
You actually go through the older albums and listen to what you'd done previously?
So I try to give stuff a quick listen and see, Is this evoking anything in my mind? Say 21st Century Man or Electric Rattlesnakehas that been done before? And I think, I've touched on this but I've never taken it to this level. Then it gets the checkmark from me to pass the continuum.
How far back in your catalog will you go?
I think first again it has to evoke that question mark in my head. If I've been there already I probably have a mental picture of it to some degree. So I don't sit down and listen to 16 records or 15 records and 150 songs [laughs.] When I heard how The Electric Age was coming together, I was starting to hear this wall of guitars when the production was happening and that always reminded me of Taking Over. Now these are kinds of triggers for me to say, Hey, I wonder if I did something like this on Powersurge' or on Wrecking Crew'? So that becomes the trigger and I give it a quick listen through and it's not always even the whole song. It might just be I'm working on Electric Rattlesnake or I'm working on Wish You Were Dead and I'm tapping advance, advance, advance. Nope, it's not in there and it's not in there. And then I get the OK.
You've been raising the banner high with Overkill for 17 albums. How does that feel?
I mean it's like being in the Tony Bennett category, right? Fine suits, young ladies and painting [much laughter.] D.D. and I have always believed that the banner is more important than who's in it. Obviously somewhere there there's a contradiction because D.D. and I have always been there so it's easy for us to say that. But that banner is always pushed forward. I think the obvious answer to that or reason or proof is guys like Dave Linsk or Ron Lipnicki who have a free hand in this thing. There's guidance to Ron because he's the newest member but at the end of the day it's his stamp that has to go on this. Dave Linsk is world class in my opinion with what he does in this genre in terms of guitar work. So I think if we're saying, Hey it's more important to present Overkill than it is to present Bobby Blitz' and D.D. Verni, then Dave gets that free hand and expands it out further. Then I think that banner or that flag waves higher and is held stronger and then it's moreso the true definition of a band. It's not about what we think it should be and the whole 1990weren't we great then? kind of thing. It's more about what we can create in 2012.
As someone who has been a true flag-waver for thrash metal, how have you seen the music change over the years?
I think records and bands like Exodus, Testament and ourselves are getting great results based on the health of this scene and based on the state of it. This is about young bands that came along and tried to take the flag with kudos to the old school but wanted to do something with it. And I think the older bands came along and said, No, this is how you do it. This is what you're supposed to do. I think everybody kinda got down to bare bones and brass tacks and started releasing records into a healthy scene. Older bands especially that increased the health of that scene.
Back when Overkill were still known as the Virgin Killers, you were mainly doing covers?
I think you have to understand if we were doing Sonic Reducer into Rapid Fire by Priest that neither of them sounded like the originals; they kinda sounded like us doing them. There has always been something about my voice that is all by itself with regard to coversit sounded like me singing the Dead Boys. But when D.D. got his hands on songs like that the tempos were really up. So it was really much closer than you think. If you think of the original Dead Boys Sonic Reducer of course it wasn't like that and it was almost like a thrash song we had created out of that. If you think of something like Priest it was more like a thrash tune.
Those elements were translated to the Power in Black demo?
That demo had that kind of a punkish energy to it with that New Wave of Heavy Metal riffing. And that was really the x factor I think with Overkill was that it was that kind of bastard child of the two genres that really came into something that this was our stamp. Other people were creating something on the west coast in the Bay Area and it was great. It was local but it acted globally. With regard to how the east coast was going, I think there was separation between the bands whether that be Overkill, Anthrax or Carnivore. These were three totally separate bands but our stamp was that punk energy versus that New Wave of British Heavy Metal and you put it all together and you have Overkill.
You had been in the studio for the Power in Black demo but what was it like recording the first official Overkill album Feel the Fire?
I was actually asked what five records changed my life and I said, The top one has to be Feel the Fire. I know that wasn't what they were looking for because they wanted me to say something like Black Sabbath. One minute I'm on the bus to the city running the loading dock at the Museum of Modern Art and trying to get some classes in at night and still do gigs at the Peppermint Lounge on 45th Street in New York. And the next minute I'm in Ithaca, New York with Carl Canedy [producer] and he's producing a record for us. I mean this is life changing.
It meant a lot to you to be recording your debut record?
Going in there, sure, it was hugely exciting. I'm always asked what's one of the biggest moments I ever had and I said, It's getting signed, man. It's what started all of this. I have the picture sitting here in my office with me holding a 16-ounce Budweiser in a bag standing next to my lawyer with a shit eating grin on my face. This is what it's all about. But I remember those first sessions as being something we really didn't understand. We thought, You go up here and work hard as hell. You drink a lot, you play hard and party hard and that kind of a thing. It's gonna be 22-hours a day and it wasn't because we worked like six hours a day. We actually did some punk covers that we wrote on the fly during preproduction and one of them was called Where's Carl? The chorus went, Where's Carl? and the background vocal everybody went, Telephone. We didn't understand why the guy wanted to work six or seven hours a day because we were ready to light it up and just continuously go from dusk to dawn and then some.
On the second album, Taking Over, there are more melodic elements in songs like In Union We Stand. Were you trying to bring in different textures?
I think it was the beginning of an identity because it was actually fresher material. The stuff from Feel the Fire had actually sat around for a while and we were developing in the interim. If the Feel the Fire stuff was written from '83 through '84, the Taking Over stuff was written immediately and some during that Feel the Fire time.
The material on Taking Over was written more concurrently with the recording of the album?
We started taking on an identity. I always hear chaos with Feel the Fire and that's a good thing because I think that's the reason this stuff all starts. But I start hearing some more control and more direction coming in with regard to Taking Over and a little bit more diversity in In Union We Stand and etcetera. I got polyps from the first tours we had done and had an awful time trying to get out of the Feel the Fire days and into the Taking Over days. I actually took singing instruction for about an eight-month period and I can hear it on my voice between the two records. Everyone thinks I sounded like a Dickinson-esque clone early on but I never heard that until after the Taking Over record because I had actually learned how to sing during that to combat the polyps. And I think we also had direction.
The Years of Decay album brought the band to a new level with songs like Elimination. Had Overkill finally found their stride on the record?
Yeah, there was a general feeling around this record as it was being created. I think that it was the culmination of the first three. If there were mistakes in the first three we were going to not repeat them; if there were successes in the first three we were going to expand upon. And there was that general feeling with regard to how the band worked together during this time. But there was also this feeling of tension, which was the first time that ever came into the band's writing. And I suppose that under tense situations you actually can create some pretty good things because the fight actually can make for good results as long as there's compromise at the end of the day. And in most cases there were.
So the album was borne out of tension?
My feeling was that during The Years of Decay, I could see the songs coming together and finally the band knew what it wanted to do for an entire album and not just shit that was falling into place. It was kind of a planned out situation and I think we succeeded with it. It was the first record for us that was fully cohesive and it was something that you could put the needle down on itvinyland flip it over and listen to both sides and say, Wow, that's a good full record. I think that was the first one that had it. You could feel there was a change coming and there was a storm brewing.
A big change on the Horrorscope album was working with tandem guitar players instead of just one guitarist. Rob Cannavino and Merritt Gant joined the band at this point.
Just to be simple about the two guitar players, with the storm brewing on the prior record, our thought was with two we could do everything we were writing and recording in the studio we could now do it live. Because there was a lot of two-guitar parts on our earlier stuff so this was a no brainer to us. It was also really simplehow do you compare two to one? I mean if you just get a replacement then people can actually have a debate over it. We kinda ended the debate by having two guitar players [laughs] and you can't compare one to two. There was no debate. You could, Oh, I liked it earlier but not based on the guitar player or guitar players. So I thought it was kind of a slick move [laughs] when D.D. and I sat down and said, Let's get two and this will just end any debate before it starts.
On The Killing Kind you did replace two guitar players with two more guitarists: Joe Comeau and Sebastian Marino. Did they bring something different to the music than what Rob Cannavino and Merritt Gant had brought?
I think the first group was footloose and fancy-free and kinda carefree guys and Joe and Sebastian were more scientists at this. Joe would be one of those guys where you'd put something by him and throw this melody in where it was balladesque and he'd always think that he was going into this metal dictionary and he'd say, Listen man, it's not in here. We can't use it. This isn't us because it's not in the dictionary. But I really thought those guys were kind of a solid section. I mean thrash wasn't at his healthiest during these times.
What do you mean?
This was the grunge era we're talking about. Cannavino and Gant left at the end of the thrash era and grunge kinda now pushed us underground or back to the underground. So I don't think it was the healthiest. You went from 1,500-seat venues down to 400-seat venues for instance. It was a fight but there was still a public out there and I think these guys were a real good medium to keep this going for us. Cannavino wanted to race motorcycles and Gant wanted to get married and started a family and these were decisions men made to be men. Hey man, move on. If that's what you gotta do good luck to you. Stay in touch. But the other two guys walked in and gave us the opportunity to keep it going through a time that was not I don't knowit wasn't on people's lips and it wasn't the flavor of the day. But it really didn't matter to us. It was if we could get the gig and we could get the record deal, we always thought we could still thrive.
Your choice of covers on the Coverkill record in 1999 were interesting. Where did Jethro Tull's Hymn 43 come from?
Yeah that was the ideas was to be a little unusual on the record. Some of those were Japanese bonus tracks and the Japanese always needed one that wouldn't be flooded by imports to have something special to release as domestic product. So we would do some of those covers for the Japanese records. We added some of the other ones we liked and I was a Tull fan. When I was a kid I owned Thick As A Brick and Benefit and the more popular of the Tull records. I always thought that Hymn 43 was one of the greatest metal riffs that ever existed or one of the first ones really. That was just so riff-oriented that these guys could actually do stuff like that and still pull off their vibe as Jethro Tull. I think at the end of the day the key was that the Overkill stamp was on it.
Where did Deep Purple's Space Truckin' come from? Were you an Ian Gillan fan?
I don't think anybody who has ever picked up a microphone who's in this genre including that of the new guys can ever say that they're not to some degree influenced by Ian Gillan. I mean this is the voice of all voices. I mean you think of Halford or Dio as being the staple or the star in the metal world but Ian Gillan could do it all. I mean that was one of the great things about this guy. He could hit those screams raspy or clean, man. He was just something else on some of that Purple stuff and even Sabbath stuff he did.
"I think records and bands like Exodus, Testament and ourselves are getting great results based on the health of this scene and based on the state of it."
Talking about more classic singers like Ian Gillan, did you check out people like Robert Plant or Roger Daltrey?
Yeah, I mean I'm actually cut from that era. I'm 52 so when I started getting vinyl I mean it was the Led Zeppelin catalog, Black Sabbath and the Who. I was an Alice Cooper fan. I know it's been the flavor of the day with thrash bands but I was actually a Lou Reed fan. One of the Lou Reed records I love the most and I still to this day think it's one of the greatest heavy metal records is one called Rock n' Roll Animal. He does a live record and he incorporated two guitar players and this is after the Velvet Underground. He put in Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner and these guys were the studio musicians for Alice Cooper.
Unbelievable guitar players.
They were unbelievable these guys. They were like the original Malmsteen and Van Halen-type guys. I mean this was some fuckin' record, man, and some great riffs on it. So yeah, I was cut from that stuff.
On the Bloodletting record Joe Comeau and Sebastian Marino depart and current guitarist Dave Linsk joins.
Comeau was on that record with us; we'd never been a four-piece since the Bobby Gustafson era. So Sebastian left and Dave walked in and Joe played with us for a little while and then we eventually put Derek Tailer in there at the end of the Bloodletting tour. Derek actually filled in for D.D. on bass; D.D.'s daughter was born and Derek came over and did eight shows with us in Europe so we didn't have to stop the tour. But we were still a five-piece at this point.
How would you describe the sound on Bloodletting?
I think was starting to get back into more of that thrashy-type feel. I don't know if Dave actually brought that along but there sure seemed to be that groove we incorporated in the 90s but this was kind of becoming a new era for us back in that Bloodletting phase.
On the previous record Ironbound you can hear the twin guitars doing some harmony work that is almost reminiscent of the UFO-era.
Yeah, I suppose so. It lends itself back to another time with certainly a contemporary presentation. I really think that's what was kind of cool about that record that it was a real good representation of what we were and where we came from. We were starting to understand moreso that you can step back and still present it with contemporary value. Everything just fell into place: the timing was right; the chemistry was right; and Ron Lipnicki had now been in the band for a long amount of time. Dave and Ron were playing with each other and Dave was playing on top of Ron's beat and giving kind of an anxious feel to it. Everybody else kind of raises to that level I think. Ron was on the road for two weeks and he was so happy to be on the road. He's learning everything and he's got notes on his kickdrums to get through the tour and he's trying to fill in as quick as he can. Two weeks later he's laying on a tattoo table drinking a bottle of Jim Beam with his shirt and shoes off at two o'clock in the morning. I walk in and I go, What are you doing? and he goes, Dude, I'm having the time of my life. I guess this is what it's all aboutit's gotta be cool and you gotta be having the time of your life.
So you think the combination of Ron Lipnicki and Dave Linsk really built a fire under Overkill.
Adding Ron lifted Dave up and Dave lifted Ron up and the rest of us rising up to that level. And then getting something like an Ironbound record where the timing is correct; the chemistry is correct; and the scene is waiting for a record like this from us. So it worked.
Then all of those elements were refined on The Electric Age album?
I think so but I don't think so consciously. I think it's just a continuation with regards to that chemistry I spoke of. I hear a lot more power in The Electric Age or maybe aggression is the word. It seems to be and I'm not gonna say uni-tempo but with regard to its presentation there's much more of the faster type songs on this. So everybody was more in that upbeat kind of phase on The Electric Age. It sounds like a bigger record and a bigger production to me. It's a horse race type of album and that's what it feels like.
You produced The Electric Age yourself. Was that difficult?
No, because of the amount of time that's been put in. The way we do it is a little unique. I mean the guys will be tracking at D.D.'s studio and I go to another studio. This gives us objectivity from each other. I'm hearing mixed tracks with drum groups/guitar groups-based. I sing to that and bring it down to there. They've already moved on with something else. We're dropping my stuff into the real stuff now so we have objectivity. We're not hearing it go down and being over-exposed to and I think that works. I also think what works is the fact that so much time has passed so you know when it's shit. If you listen back you go, Look guys that's just not gonna work. I've never sat there over production with regards to the vocals and pined over the word the. You know, Which one has more th in it. It's never gonna be like that. I listen and say, Which has the more attitude? Which is the one that's one the beat? OK no brainer, let's use track two on that. So I think it's more about simplicity; over thinking it with this production is not what it's about. It's about organization and the best performances you can get and the best tones. And if everything kind of stays in place and you keep it within those parameters the production comes relatively easy.
Electric Rattlesnake is the first single and it has some serious shifting in the rhythms and riffs. Were you looking to bring in these different kinds of pieces?
That one specifically just came out in one shot and that was D.D. Verni. When I heard the first riff and the first three minutes of that song it was presented to me. This song really never developed within the studio; this developed in D.D.'s head. The arrangement and everything. Now the other ones that we had more time with were arranged with regard to more input from Dave, D.D. and myself. But I got this one and I was, Man, this is very unique cause we're going neck breaking; we're going half-time; we're going quarter-time and back to neck breaking. And I was thinking to myself that the unique part about it is that first of all the guy's willing to think out of the box. Second of all even though it's out of the box it contains just about every element that Overkill has used to some degree with regard to timing and with regard to speed. I thought it was kind of cool to present that over a six-minute period and say, Yes, we can show a couple of different photographs or snapshots of what this band is about. The staccato vocal into a melodic vocal into almost a bluesy feel when it really breaks down into that center. It's just I think a real cool presentation and a real good piece of work on D.D.'s part.
Does a song like Black Daze with a slower tempo allow you get more of your melodic side out?
Much like a thrash guitar player, a thrash singer likes to get out every now and then too. A song like this is the opportunity because it gives you more room. Where there's more room there's more air and where there's more air there's more room for melody. When I first heard the riff on this song in pre-development, I got on the phone with D.D. He had passed it to me with electronic drums in the background and I said just one thingand you and I just talked about itI said, I'm gonna do my best thrash Ian Gillan on this thing [laughs.] This is going to be Deep Purple on steroids by the time I'm done with the vocal part.
"I hear a lot more power in The Electric Age or maybe aggression is the word. It's a horse race type of album and that's what it feels like."
On the other side of that idea is whether a thrash vocal could be too melodic. Do you ever think about that?
You know I don't really because what we were talking about and where I was cut from, I've always just tried to marry what I do with phonetics to a drum beat when I start singing and then I worry about the key later. I know that sounds a little ridiculous but if I can phonetically pick up the drum beat with syllables then I'm OK. But I've never worried with regard to melody. We've also touched on the ballad stuff and if you want to see something too melodic. You go on YouTube and you can search The Years of Decay and I forget the girl's name but I would just put The Years of Decay Girl or Acoustic and there's this girl who's a stripper from Florida. She does the ultra-ballad on that song and I met her down in Florida at one of the gigs. She goes, See my video? and I said, It was just spectacular. So I suppose too melodic is not out of the question.
Good Night begins with that great guitar intro with clean guitars and bass playing these classical-styled lines. How much of that can you get away with before an Overkill fan needs to hear something aggressive?
That's a good point to bring up. When you look at a part that has that classical-type feel to it like the beginning of Good Night, it's really about contrast. If you really want to show how black black is put it before white. And I really think that's why it works in a song like that. Now are we gonna do a fully classical piece like that? I don't think so. I don't think it's in us to do something that's entirely like so. It's for sure in us to do partly like so. For instance on this song musically or even if we did add vocals to it.
Dave Linsk and Derek Tailer played some cool guitars on Come and Get It. Did you get involved in guitar riffs?
It's moreso a later thing. We learned something early on from Terry Date who said, Too many chiefs and not enough Indians. You want people to have a free hand; if they don't have a free hand it becomes un-creative. Obviously you don't want to go so far that you're just wasting all this time but if people are all heading in the same direction I think that's the better way to put it. Then let it sit and then let the comments come in. I think it's easier that way and you get better results cause the obvious will always show itself but not if everybody's talkin' at one time. Then people start getting stuck on the ideas they had. No, this was great the first time I did it. If you let it sit with somebody for three days and say, Maybe that should have been a minor chord as opposed to a major that person who even played it goes, Hmmm, that's interesting. That might not have sunk in minutes after they had played it especially if they loved it. So my comments would come in later on. But primarily these guys put that together; that's moreso Dave and D.D. putting that together and the other guys kind of playing along with them and commenting back and forth. With me being the objective voice later on.
Back in 2010 you talked about the staples in your live set: Rotten To the Core, Wrecking Crew, Elimination and Fuck You. What makes these tracks so special that they've stood the test of time to become part of your live show?
I can answer that by saying youth; memory. It's the first lay; it's the first drunk. How did you start? A lot of the people that follow us to this day were there early on in the beginning and I think this was their introduction to the band. Sure, I really think they're great songs and they should be in there and newer people have been exposed to them over the years. The younger people; there's a younger thrash crowd out there and the excitement becomes contagious. Why does Slayer play stuff off the first couple of records? Cause they're great songs but they're also your introduction to Slayer for instance. I think that's the same with Overkill. Hey man, I heard Rotten To the Core' in 1985 the first time they played it at L'amours in Brooklyn, New York and that becomes common and that becomes one of the attractive natures of this. That to some degree it was then and now it's moved to now. This is perfect and nothing has changed. So I think that's really why people are so attracted to those staples.
Do you have any feelings about your newer songs and which of them might become staples down the road?
I think off the last record Bring Me the Night and Ironbound sorta have that quality to it. With regards to the new ones we haven't played any yet but I was hopeful Electric Rattlesnake would. As we talked about it earlier, it's kind of a ride of contrast with regard to band's characteristics and I think that's why it can be a staple. But there's ones that come in and out that people love off the Horrorscope record and occasionally we jump into the Killbox record. But those four from the beginning will be those four I think forever. And hopefully we can add a few new ones on this next jaunt we're doing through the U.S. and Europe.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"Under tense situations you actually can create some pretty good things because the fight actually can make for good results as long as there's compromise at the end of the day."