From the first time I heard the thrash metal anthem “Hello from the Gutter,” off of the 1988 album Under the Influence, I was hooked on Overkill. Then came “Elimination” and “Time to Kill” and “Horrorscope,” and you get the idea. The New Jersey band formed at the same time as other bands in the United States, from coast to coast, and around the world, were creating the new, chaotic subgenre devoid of rules and against the grain of what was considered heavy metal at the time. It would come to be known as thrash metal. With a notable winged-skull mascot named “Chaly,” and releases like The Years of Decay (1989), Horrorscope (1991) and I Hear Black (1993), the band was a regular on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, toured and became known all over the world. There’s even a strong sentiment among fans and metal purists that the “Big Four” should be expanded to include the likes of Overkill, Testament, Exodus, and others. Yes, Overkill is that important, and, in other words, they can be considered living legends. Throughout the turbulent metal scene in the ’90s, the band continued to crank out albums, and kept going strong in the 2000s.
That leads us to the present, when Overkill is about to release its 18th album. The Grinding Wheel is as heavy as it is diverse and dangerously fun. Members have come and gone, but the instantly recognizable voice of the band, Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth, remains. Blitz recently called in to say hello from the gutter, talk about the new album and Overkill’s three decades of thrash metal with Live Metal’s Jeff Maki.
LIVE METAL: So I just listened to the new album, The Grinding Wheel (Feb. 10, 2017, Nuclear Blast Records), and the one thing that stuck out for me is that there are no real standout tracks that are a cut above the rest. This isn’t an album that has two or three really good songs, or singles, and then the rest of the album is filler. I think every track is strong and really stands on its own.
BOBBY “BLITZ” ELLSWORTH: I think it’s one of the reasons I feel pretty successful with this record. I come from an era where people release records, not release songs. Whether it be that Sabbath record that got my enthusiasm when I was a teenager, or British Steel and Judas Priest records, they were entire records. And I think it’s kind of the temperament of the band that comes from that era, in that you want an entire record to sound great. And I get that feeling with this record, that we scored with the diversity between the tracks, whether they’re groovy or punky or thrashy, or the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. So I think we scored with diversity, but I think we also managed to put our brand on all of those diverse approaches to metal.
Many of your peers from back in the day, like Testament, Death Angel, Anthrax and Megadeth, have all released released some pretty incredible albums within the last year. It’s amazing to me that these bands from my youth, and you guys, are still doing it. I think I know the answer, but do you think that The Grinding Wheel can live up to the releases from all of those bands?
I think that one of our first rules is to not to compare our house to others, but I do think it’s a good time for people and especially bands from that era that are experienced and are releasing real high-quality material. Like the new Testament record (Brotherhood of the Snake) is just killer, I thought the new Death Angel record (The Evil Divide) was good, and I thought that Megadeth (Dystopia) had really shown a fantastic refreshment of roots on their last record. So how’s (The Grinding Wheel) going to stand up to it? I don’t know. With regard to how we feel about it, we feel it’s better. (laughs) I mean that’s how we feel about it. I’m humble to an extent, but I’m not a liar.
Well, when you put your heart and soul into something, obviously, I’d love to tell you it’s the best we’ve ever done, but I can’t do that honestly because I’m not objective at this point—I’m in the fire and I know it’s hot! So give me a year, and I’ll tell you where it stands. But I’ve really appreciated many of the new releases of bands with experience in the thrash scene, because I think there was some topnotch releases in 2016, especially.
Is the title a representation of the band having been going for over three decades and this now being your 18th album?
I think for sure, but it’s kind of a double narrative. It for sure speaks of our principle, grinding things out. I think that we always think of ourselves as dangerous guys with nothing to lose, and I think that there’s something special about that. If I pay attention to my own house, I can do it by my own rules and the rules of those that live in that house, as opposed to what goes on around me. So I think that our grind is work to ourselves. But I also think that when you speak of grind, you think of something to some degree that could even wear out because things are ground down. So as a double narrative of being sure of yourself, there’s honor and commitment in grinding through for three decades, but there’s also in that we have the opportunity while it’s here to be part of this because nothing does last forever.
What are some of the lyrical topics you get into on the record, and is the song “Mean Green Killing Machine” meant to be a new anthem for the band?
We think we’re dangerous, and that’s a great fuckin’ motivator, man.
When we get together, we work as a unit, and we think we’re dangerous, and that’s a great fuckin’ motivator, man. I remember (bassist) D.D. (Verni) saying to me 20 years ago that “there’s nothing more dangerous than a few guys from New Jersey with nothin’ to loose.” And I thought, “Woah, we’re gonna make some great records together, my friend!” And it’s a great feeling because you’re like the competition. And in the live theater, we want to compete with other bands of this genre. I think the people that win the competition are the people that pay for the tickets, and if that’s the way we go into a project, I think we’re gonna get good results.
I know we’ve talked about how (The Grinding Wheel) is an album as a whole, but if you had to pick, what are a few of your favorite tracks that you just can’t wait to get out and perform live?
That’s a good point, because some songs are, in my opinion, born to be played live, and one of them is “Our Finest Hour.” One for sure, the opening track, “Mean Green Killing Machine,” I can see opening our set for the next year-plus. I’d like to play “Goddamn Trouble” live, and I think we will. “Shine On,” and also, I love the song “Come Heavy.” That’s one of my favorites songs on the record, and I think the reason I like it so much is that it’s really about the hook being the riff. It’s not about a marriage between the hook and chorus; it’s a song that’s actually devoid of chorus. So the melody lines and the lyrics happen around the riff. So it’s all about the riff, and I think that’s something that’s special on the record.
OK, so you guys have kind of been known as the “Motorhead of thrash metal.” You know what you’re going to get with an Overkill album, and I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. But what do you think sets this album apart from your other newer, recent albums?
I think the first thing a person would listen to or hear before finishing the record that is standout about the record is its production. I think the record when it was written was a good record that had good energy, but when we did the production for it, we chose really good tones for it and put the right energy into it to make it come across as if it was everybody was on exactly the same page. And I think that’s necessary for good production. When we handed this record over to Andy Sneap, we loved his template for how he does metal records. He just has a great understanding of the relationship between drums and guitars, and we wanted to change that and make it a little more ours as opposed to the template. And he’s that kind of guy that makes Accept sound like Accept, or Arch Enemy sound like Arch Enemy, or Exodus or Megadeth. We wanted our Overkill brand on it, so we brought more organic drums forward, we brought a lower-ended guitar in regard to it’s tonality—a guitar that came from the gut or below the belt, and not from the nose. So we brought that to him and told him what our wishes were for production, and I think he fulfilled it. So I think he took a good record and made it a great record, and I think that’ll be the first thing noticed by someone listening. You don’t have to hear the whole record, you can tell about halfway through the first song that the production on it is stellar, and I think that’s something we couldn’t have done on our own but only with the help of Andy Sneap.
What do you think has been the biggest high point for you in Overkill’s career, and then, on the other side of things, what do you think has been the biggest low?
That’s a good point, but I’m a firm believer in that all the mistakes are necessary to get to the current day, and I always thought successful when I did. I kind of measure my success on the way that I’ve lived my life.
I’m a guy that’s spent most of his life in motorcycle boots and Levis.
I think probably the lowest points I ever had … I don’t know, because it’s been so long and even the mistakes that I’ve made have had the rough edges smoothed off of them because I try not repeat them. They become successes later on. But I think that probably one of the lowest feelings I had was in the ’90s when it seemed that everything was changing. We knew we were getting dropped from Atlantic Records because we knew management didn’t want to continue on with us. We took the management on ourselves so we didn’t have to search for another field. So what seemed to be the lowest moment actually tested our metal and gave us one of the highest moments that followed. And that was that we could do this because we wanted to do it, we wanted to push through, we wanted to manage ourselves, we wanted to continue doing what we want. So even in that dark time of waiting around because the doors had closed, we were just forcing other doors open. It kind of worked out for us in the end.
What, if anything, makes thrash metal different today than it was back then in your early days?
Well, I think the main thing is that when it was being created—and by no means would I be so bold as to say (it was us), but it was happening simultaneously in New York and New Jersey, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and other parts of the world and other parts of our great country—I think what was attractive is that it was chaotic. It had no fuckin’ rules, and that was the greatest thing about it. It was the antithesis to the glam rock generation. Other people were playing under the flag of heavy metal when it was really pop, and when bands like ourselves and bands like Slayer or Metallica were first releasing their demos like Metal Up Your Ass, we were the antithesis to that. We were the opposite of it. We were a voice in the dark that was screaming. And it was so fucking great that there were no rules to it. There was no template to follow and there was no map. Whatever was the rule on Wednesday was not the rule on Thursday, and there’d be a new rule on Friday.
But I think that what ended up happening is so many years later, is that rules happened. There is a template for success for this, and I think that younger bands can follow that template. I think that that’s the biggest thing—if you’re a young, fresh band in 2017, you have a road map to follow. In 1983, there was no road map. But I enjoy the fact that there’s an influence of new bands, because I think they really give this legs. The fact that young guys and young girls are playing thrash metal gives us legs and shows its value. It’s transcended, at this point, three generations.
If Overkill had to be remembered by one album—like if it said on the band’s gravestone, “Here lies Overkill, maker of ‘what album’— what would it be and why?
What comes to mind is a record in 1991, it was called Horrorscope. I think that the reason is that we were a three-pronged songwriting team before that on the record called The Years of Decay, and our guitar player Bobby Gustafson left the band. So now it was just D.D., (guitarist) Merritt (Gant) and myself writing. I remember the record company at the time telling us, “We’re not sure about this situation. We want to hear the material before you do it. Basically, we want the band to audition to the record company.” And this was before the Horrorscope record. I was a punky, snot-nosed—not a teen, but in my 20s and almost 30 at the time—but I was fuckin’ pissed when they asked us to do this. “The fuckin’ balls of these people, man!” I wanted to stick that motorcycle boot right up their ass. I said, “You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna go into that office and turn their desk over!”
But in any case, I think it gave us the inspiration to write a record that always makes me feel that the decision of Overkill was that when it looked like it was our darkest hour, what came out of it was a lion out of a cage. When we came out of the cage with that record, just clawing and fighting and scratching and biting, and to this day, in my head I always think of it as the definitive Overkill record, because it gave us what we have today. It showed that it didn’t matter what other people thought, it mattered what we thought. It didn’t matter that I was pissed off, it matters how I used that anger. And I used my part of it into (helping) writing songs like “Coma” and “Horrorscope” and “Blood Money,” etc.
I know you can’t speak for the fans, but what album do you think is the fan favorite?
I think probably Horrorscope and The Years of Decay. I think the newer generation would remember us for a record called Ironbound (2010). I think that’s as much of a quintessential record as those other two. I think a lot of the youth love that record, as well as the old-timers because it’s got a great link of what was and what is on the record. But there’s also guys that are such purists that it never got better than the first record. But I think Years of Decay or Horrorscope will be what the band is remembered for most.
Pre-order Overkill’s 18th album, The Grinding Wheel, here in a variety of formats.
Overkill will kick off a U.S. headlining tour on Valentine’s Day with Nile, Amorphis and Swallow the Sun in support. After circling the country, the tour closes it out in Overkill’s home state in Sayreville at the legendary Starland Ballroom on March 11. View the complete list of tour dates here.