By Andrew Bansal
New Jersey thrash veterans Overkill recently concluded a co-headline North American run with progressive metal band Symphony X, also from New Jersey, bringing an undeniably unique package to metal masses through the continent. On this tour, the duo made a stop in downtown Los Angeles for a gig at the Regent Theater on October 6th 2015, and before the show, I caught up with Overkill frontman Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth, to talk about the then ongoing tour, the worldwide deal with Nuclear Blast and the impending ‘HistoriKill’ box set, plans for the next album, and more. Enjoy the conversation below.
How are you doing today, Bobby?
Andrew, good to see you again! Happy to be in LA. It means that we’re still doing positive things after all these years, and still talking to good people.
You’re very kind. It’s good to have you guys back. We talked on the last couple of tours. You did the tour with Kreator in 2013, and you’ve always done thrash tours, but this is something different in that sense because you’re touring with Symphony X. How’s that been going for you?
Well, ups and downs, and I think that sometimes when you do just a full thrash tour, it brings every thrash head out. When you do a mixed tour, I think you’re taking a chance. But the idea here was to expose ourselves to their people, and expose them to our people. The basis of it is that there’s a good friendship between the two bands. We’re both Jersey bands. My partner D.D. has had a rehearsal studio for over a ten-year period, and Symphony X were his longest standing clients. So, Overkill is recording in one room and Symphony X is practicing in the other room. So, I think that’s where the relationship was kindled. Everybody talks about mixing two genres, but we said, may be we should do it! We’re doing it, and I think the results so far are pretty good.
Right, and it’s a unique thing too, to have two bands that have been around for so long, both from New Jersey, and don’t sound anything like each other. For people who can appreciate different styles of metal, it’s a very unique package.
I agree, but you know, metal has always had the one basic element or gene that you start from, and that gene expands out whether it’s a thrash band or traditional metal band, or progressive or black or death metal band. We all have the same gene, so I do think that it can be appreciated by both sides of the fence. May be it doesn’t bring out the diehard thrash fan, but for sure brings out the diehard Overkill and Symphony X fans. We have good attendance every night, and there seems to be great response to both bands. No complaints on my end.
So, I believe it’s a co-headline tour and you’re switching spots every night?
Well, it’s a co-headline tour but I’m the boss (laughs). I say it on stage every night. I’m in charge, whether you’re here to see Symphony X or not, just so you understand that. We don’t switch every night, but we evened it out over the 28 dates, where we can each close an equal amount of dates, picking cities that we wanted to. If they had, for instance, more sales in Los Angeles, they would close, and if we have more in New York we’re going to close. And in between, we just mix it up. But obviously, San Francisco, LA, a couple of Texas shows, New York, Boston, these were the bigger shows on the tour with regard to pre-sales.
Who’s closing tonight?
They are, actually. But they have us higher on the marquee, which is great. I’ve been texting that to them all day (laughs).
That’s awesome. And with the two different slots, how does your set differ? Do you play the same set whether you’re closing or not?
It’s pretty much the same, but out of respect, we’ll do longer when we’re closing, but that’s our normal set the way we look at it. We just cut one song when we’re not closing, and they do the same thing. It’s not about which band is bigger, it’s about co-operation with the crew. A lot of people don’t understand that bands don’t make it happen unless they have a great crew. If you can give a crew guy an extra three minutes, he can change the world (laughs). So, the first band that goes on and plays five minutes less, it makes the turnaround for the closing band go that much better. So, it’s more of a co-operation than something we agreed upon in contract. It was a handshake thing.
But I’m sure it’s easier to play last because you don’t have to hurry off the stage straightafter.
It is easier to play last, but in a unique situation like this, with two separate genres, the first one who comes on makes the bigger splash, anad the second band always has the uphill battle (laughs). I mean, if it was all thrash it would be great, right? There would be no uphill battle, it would just be about adding on to what was created by the first band. But now, the first band sets the tone of the night. So, it’s unique. I liken it to a boxing match. Whoever is the underdog fights harder (laughs).
It’s a challenge for you, because you don’t want people to leave after Symphony X is done playing, and vice versa for them.
Of course. But you know, one of the things that I really enjoy about doing this, and I might have even said that the last time we talked at the Grove, competition is what this is about. I mean, it could be friendly, but the idea is you don’t go in to lose. You go in to win. So, I look to bury Russell and Romeo every night! (laughs)
Are you keeping score?
I do (laughs). But that’s my thing, and may be that’s the competitive nature I have. I can’t speak for them, but I go in to win. I don’t go in there to say, “Oh, wasn’t that nice? Let’s shake hands.” I want to fucking win! (laughs)
Exactly. So, you’ve been signed to Nuclear Blast in Europe for a while but now you’re on the label for a worldwide deal, and a box set called ‘HistoriKill’ is about to be released globally, with albums released between 1995 and 2007. I guess that’s a nice little throwback to the albums that were not on Nuclear Blast to begin with.
It’s a unique situation. D.D. and I started managing ourselves in the 90s, and we went from major labels at that point to a more independent approach. Through that, we started licensing things. So we got it all back, and when we got in with Nuclear Blast and started negotiating with them, we told them that we had all this weight with us that we could add to the deal. They were pretty impressed by it. Nuclear Blast sells to your readers, but we have to sell to Nuclear Blast, right? And what we sold was, there is a resurgence in metal, there’s a lot of younger fans coming in, but they missed this era. They have Metallica’s ‘Kill Em ‘All’, and then they have the latest records of Testament, Overkill and Anthrax. But they missed that whole era in between, and it was like a dark phase of metal. It was not the most popular time. So I said, what you have is instant catch-up course. If you want to know what happened in the 90s, there were still some good releases. Even though those were the darker days of metal, it’s probably one of my proudest eras, because it wasn’t easy to do it then. Having it easy doesn’t make it perfect. What makes it perfect is the work you put into it. I always think of that 12-year period as being an era where we found out who we were. It wasn’t about record deals, it was about fighting for a record deal, fighting for a tour. You can say everything about what you wanted, but when you take that walk (laughs), that’s what proves who the men are. And I think ‘HistoriKill’ is a good testimony to that.
If those albums hadn’t happened, ‘Ironbound’ might not have happened, because the 12-year period you speak of is where you found yourself and that allowed you to emerge out of it and come back with ‘Ironbound’ and the albums after that.
That’s a great point. Popularity does not necessarily make a great presentation. Just because it’s unpopular, doesn’t mean it’s not great. When grunge came in to stomp out the heavy metal fire and force it back into the underground, a lot of guys went home to live with their parents, chain-smoked Marlboros and wondered why nobody would appreciate their genius. We never considered it. It wasn’t in us to say, we’re going to go home or do another job. It was about how can we do this and how can we make this work. So, it’s not the situation that makes the man, it’s how the man reacts to the situation. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m most proud of that era.
And I think it’s quite a brave move too, to put out a box set just of that era, because a lot of bands wouldn’t really dare to do it and would consider that era as something to be forgotten.
Yeah, it’s great to be able to talk it, but you can’t scream you have big balls unless you show it sometimes (laughs). You can’t say that you don’t care and you will run through walls unless you do run through walls. So I do think that if you live by your principles, you can always keep your diginity. And these are our principles. We don’t follow anyone else’s. When I look at myself in the mirror, I’m proud of the fact that when it comes to metal and my contribution to it and being part of it, is that what I’ve said and what D.D. has said is what we are and what we’ve done, and I think the proof is out there. It’s not about ‘Ironbound’ being the greatest Overkill record, or ‘The Years Of Decay’ or ‘Horrorscope’ or ‘White Devil Armory’, it’s about doing the best you can in the circumstances. That’s where the success or the feeling of success comes from.
Right, and a lot of bands that started in the early 80s disappeared when things weren’t going right, by the time the early wave had fallen down because of the grunge thing, as you said. But unless you went through that period, you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing right now.
It’s a great point. You can’t talk about the fight unless you’ve been in it, right? (laughs)
But, I believe there’s also a bonus CD with that box set, with a bunch of demos and a Johnny Cash cover. Where is that from? Is that a recording from the past or something that came up recently?
We found demos from the ‘Horrorscope’ era, and these were songs pre-completion. Some of them are relatively the same, but some are quite different. We worked with Terry Date, who actually did the latest Slayer record, and the guy was the ears of the metal community at that time. We wanted to do something great. He was so easy to work with. We’re kind of high-energy and high-strung, and he was relaxed. So the meeting of those two minds had us change some songs from demo to completion. If we were methamphetamines, he was weed (laughs). We were tweaked out and he was mellow. So I think there’s some interest there. That’s where we got a kind of unusual balance when we finished ‘Horrorscope’, but what was prior to that was a little different. The Johnny Cash cover came about because I wanted to learn how to sing differently. I was doing a side project called The Cursed. I didn’t want to present my Overkill voice in the curse, I wanted to present a voice that was adjusted for a different project, because it was more of a rock ‘n roll kind of a thing. I learned all the essential Johnny Cash stuff, and at the time D.D. was doing a side thing called the Bronx Casket Company. I said to him, you’ve got to do a Cash cover, it’s perfect for your little vampire teeth and your dracula cape, but do it your way. He started listening. I walked into the studio one day and he goes, check this out! I was listening to it, and it was him singing ‘Man In Black’. I asked him whether he was going to do it for Bronx, but he said we should do it for Overkill. So I went in there, and it’s a duet of D.D. and I. We never bastardized the song. We kept it kind of true to form, and it almost sounds like two metal guys singing a country song.
That’s a great little bonus for the box set.
I thought so too. I was really excited for us to do it. I knew the song cold, so I could just go in there and sing it, and that’s how it worked out.
And aside from this tour, what else do you have coming up in the immediate future?
All sorts of shit (laughs). Life’s a funny thing. As you do more, you get more opportunities. I think we’re that kind of people. We’re opportunists, and we always write while we’re taking these opportunities. We’re going to South America, but we’ll be writing in the process. We’re going to do a UK tour in April but we’ll be writing there too. We’re going to do a special German show where I think we’re going to film it and there’s a possibility of performing not one record on its anniversary, but two. So, there’s going to be some unique stuff, but at the same time we’ll be working on the next release. And the cool thing about the next release when you’re taking all these other opportunities is that you’re not really talking that much about the release, you’re just making it happen. It’s unspoken communication. When you’re in the fight, you know how to fight again. You don’t have to talk about how to fight. You are either aggressive or passive, you either defend yourself or you attack. The Overkill principle over this last decade and we’ve got great results with it over the last four records or so is that, we’re not talking about it, we’re doing it.
The last three records have been great, and a new record is due. We’re looking forward to what the next step is going to be for Overkill.
Yeah, you know, I never know what the next step is. I know ‘HistoriKill’ is about the past, and it’s really for those who weren’t there. It’s not necessarily for me to say these are my proudest moments, but they for sure were my proudest moments when they were released, and I like to live more so in the day. So, if shit like that happens, or that principle comes to light for me, I think it makes the band relevant. It makes my contribution relevant. I’m thinking about Los Angeles on October 6th. I’m not thinking about Tempe on October 7th. That’s what’s more important to me.
On that note, I’ll wrap up this interview. It was awesome talking to you as always, and I’m looking forward to the show tonight.
I’ll be there (laughs).
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