By Andrew Bansal
New Jersey thrash legends Overkill have been riding on a high since their 2010 full-length effort ‘Ironbound’ which catapulted them back into prominence, following it up with an equally vicious album ‘The Electric Age’ two years later, and on July 22nd they unveiled the next chapter in their musical journey, in the form of their 17th studio album ‘White Devil Armory’, released via EOne Music. A week before the release date, I spoke to the ever-eloquent and thoughtful vocalist Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth to discuss the making of this album, the musical progress from the last two records, his own vocals, production, singing live versus studio, and future plans. Enjoy the conversation below.
Bobby, it’s always great to have you on Metal Assault. Your new album is coming out very soon. Of late, you’ve been able to bang out albums every two years. ‘Ironbound’ came out in 2010 and ‘The Electric Age’ two years after that. So, that itself must be a good feeling, to be that consistent at this stage of your career.
Yeah it’s funny, it’s not necessarily a plan that’s talked about but it’s obviously a clock to work on. I think it keeps us fresh and it keeps us excited. There’s no talking about yesterday, every two years there’s talking about today! So for us, it keeps a high level of excitement and relevance.
Right, exactly. I think on the last two albums you kind of rediscovered the Overkill sound with a modern style of production which suits the music. On this new album, do you think it’s a continuation of that, or how would you put it?
Oh, good question! I think so, because we have a very well-defined, skilled lineup. I mean, this is the longest lineup in Overkill’s history with Dave Linsk being the longest standing guitar player, and Ron Lipinicki the longest standing drummer. We’re in a position right now where we’ve got a healthy and fresh metal community. What we have since the addition of Ron is extra pop and an extra hop and a step, and it seems to be something that should be taken advantage of, in a good way. So, sure it’s a continuation. I don’t think it’s necessarily similar but for sure from the same chapter of our history, as opposed to the prior records.
Usually for a recording, how long do you take to do the vocals alone and at what stage of the process does that happen?
You know, I don’t like working on a specific formula. I obviously like to have finished instrumental tracks to put vocals on, but sometimes I would do vocals on just drum tracks and then go back in and redo them and it’s more of a work in progress. So if Ron’s tracks are done and scratch guitar tracks are being put over the top, I can still pop in to the studio and do vocals. With regard to this new album, I started recording a little bit before Christmas but it didn’t really finish until the end of March when we completed the record. So it was approximately four months but obviously it wasn’t every day. It was 2 days here, 3 days there, that type of thing. I would scratch some things, keep some, go back and do some things better. So it’s not really a formula for me but when it’s done, I’ll know it’s done.
As compared to singing live, which is more spontaneous and you have to deliver right at that moment, how different of an experience is it to record and which one do you enjoy more?
You bring up a great point. In a live setting, no matter how many times you’ve done a song before, there’s always a risk that goes along with it. There’s a danger. So when you present yourself, it’s for instant success or instant failure, I think. I always keep that in my head and I think it’s one of the reasons I enjoy playing live so much, just because I’m thinking all the time that I have to succeed at this point, and every point is a different moment. I string those moments together and I put together more successes than failures, it’s going to be a great night. And I think that’s the thing that always gets me high with regard to being in a band. But when it comes to the studio I really try to transfer that risky, dangerous feel to it. So one of the things I do that’s a little bit different is, I take an 8-track out on the road and I record some stuff in the back of the bus, primarily demos, but just to get the feel. I come off the stage in San Antonio, San Francisco, Dusseldorf or Moscow, and I’m in the back of the bus putting some vocals down! So I get that kind of a feel to it, and I think that’s my way of marrying two separate parts of what I’m involved with in this music. I’ve been doing that since the Ironbound record. I like to tour somewhere within the recording of the album, so that I can get that ‘live’ vibe into it.
That’s very interesting, man. So in that sense do you think this record, overall and not just vocally, captures the band’s live energy?
For sure, and I think the key to that is, it’s really a workmanship type of effort. The foundation of that effort, if you liken it to a house, is Ron. The drums are the brick and mortar. If that comes across with that live pop, that live feeling, that live hop to it, by the time I put the roof on the house, and I’m getting these feelings from recording demo stuff on the road, you will have a pretty good result. It’s a good way of transferring and that’s the way I look at it. But it has to be a good start with a good foundation, and Ron has been able to provide that since he’s been in the band, specially over the last three records.
You guys have become used to self-producing as well. How did that go on this record?
You know, self-production is a really misunderstood thing. We’ve been doing it since the beginning. To some degree I’ve been involved in the production, and i comes right down to tonality and what kind of tones you want for your drums and guitars, what gear you’re going to use, what you’re going to switch up, where you’re going to place the mics, what room you’re going to use. These are all production elements. So, it’s tonality and then it’s performance. So you get your tones and then you put on great performances. So it’s really about having good ears to match those tones and those performances to say, “Hey, I’ve got the best thing here.” And then the remaining step is really great organization. So you get to a spot when you involve a third party, like Greg Reeley who came in and mixed this record. He organized it. He looks at it and goes, “Wow, I love these tones, man. The performances are spot on, and it’s fucking organized.” So it’s really a simple process if you know those three principles. I suppose the hardest of them is getting the tones and staying up with technology but the rest of it is just what a band does.
Coming back to the music on this album, there are the flat-out thrash tunes that Overkill is known for, but there’s also some mid-tempo stuff which brings out more of the mid-range of your vocals as well, tunes like ‘Bitter Pill’ for example. As a thrash vocalist, how challenging is it for you to do those kinds of vocals as opposed to just belting out full-throttle for the fast tunes?
When you come down to a song like ‘Armorist’ or ‘PIG’, I can flip a switch in the back of my neck which I had installed years ago and thrash till death (laughs). That’s my thing, that’s my forte. But really, the challenge is always singing and what I like doing more than thrashing is to sing. My first memories of being a child is not my mother looking at me and saying ‘Say mommy!’, but it’s of my mother singing to me! And to this day, she still sings at a great high level. So I’ve always known singing, and for me to have the opportunity to be able to stretch my pipes and chords and to stand behind the mic to do ‘Bitter Pill’, the silent section of ‘Freedom Rings’ or to stretch it out with something more melodic, I really dig that because it’s a challenge. If you can’t accept the challenge, why are you playing the gig, you know? In my case I like doing it. It’s something I look forward to, the different nuances through ‘White Devil Armory’ and other Overkill records.
We’re going out, baby (laughs). That’s what it’s all about. I mean, this is the thing I’ve been chasing since the 80s. I don’t think I’ve ever been higher in my life than standing on a stage. I chase that high. The plans are Heavy MTL in August where we’ll be thrashing with the likes of Metallica, Anthrax, Exodus and Slayer in Montreal, and then we start the US tour in September. We’re taking Prong along the way, so it will be an Overkill/Prong US tour. And then from there in October-November it’ll be Overkill/Prong in Europe. For afterwards, we’ve already talked to some South and Central American countries. We’re also looking for an Asian and Australian run, so the Pacific Rim is also on the horizon.