“There’s Never Been an Identity Crisis regarding Who We Are”: In Conversation with Overkill frontman Bobby Blitz

By Andrew Bansal

New Jersey thrash legends Overkill are about to release ‘The Grinding Wheel’, a whopping 18th full-length studio album that comes as the newest offering in their highly admirable career spanning nearly four decades and showing no signs of ending any time soon. While some of their more popular peers that are no longer worthy of being deemed thrash bands still garner more attention with their sub-par new material, Overkill continually and unfailingly do what they do best, fly under the mainstream radar and keep it real and honest, with new music that strives to be contemporary with the modern era, yet retaining the classic style and vibe the band is loved for. ‘The Grinding Wheel’ is exactly that and more, and vocalist Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth recently spoke to Metal Assault to discuss the album in detail. Enjoy the conversation below, along with three new tracks, and be on the lookout for Overkill to conquer a stage near you real soon!

Bobby, it’s good to have you again on Metal Assault. You guys have been churning out these albums so consistently over the last few years, ‘Ironbound’, ‘The Electric Age’, ‘White Devil Armory’, and now you’re ready with ‘The Grinding Wheel’ which is coming out February 10th. This time, what was the process like for you, and was it any different from these last three albums?

I think the basis of the process is the same. The riff comes first, then the development of the song, and then we come together as a unit to demo that. It’s he old-school, in the room and sweating, and somebody picks up a pizza and a six pack, that kind of approach. But then we also take the modern approach where we go to our respective homes, where we have studios and the ability to exchange ideas any time during the day, and work towards that second demo, and then towards rough tracks as the development happens. But I think the X factor in every record, and this one specially, is that you push yourself as an individual, looking for things you haven’t done in a while, things you can enhance, stepping into a different realm, let’s say for me vocally by singing more melodically and doing more harmonies, by emulating classic heavy metal singers as opposed to death metal singers. So I think that becomes the X factor, the individual push, and when the results come through and everybody has been pushing, you get really proud when it all comes together, and you can say that you have something special here. We have diversity, we have a little bit of difference from the past, but we still have the Overkill brand on top of it.

Right, exactly. That’s a good way to go about it. But I heard something about the fact that the album was supposed to be out in October, and it got delayed to February. Was there a reason for that or just a matter of scheduling with the label?

I blame all people but me. That includes you too (laughs). But seriously, it was just a bit of misunderstanding between us and the label. We were rolling along right on schedule, and we obviously wanted to have the record out in October as we had a European tour coming up at the time. So it was planned to be released by then. But they were like, “It was supposed to be two weeks ago”, and we were like, no, it’s two weeks from now and we’re right in the middle of the mix. So, it was bad communication, and again, I’ll take 49 percent of the blame (laughs). But in the end, I suppose we chose the integrity of the record versus the money we could have gotten from selling it on that tour. Simple enough.

What was it like having Andy Sneap on board this time to mix the album? Obviously he has a long catalog and history working for big metal bands.

We’ve been trying to fence him in since ‘Ironbound’! Andy is state of the art in my opinion when it comes to this level, and levels around it, little bit higher and lower. We think he has the ears. My opinion of him is that he starts with a template but doesn’t use the exact template on each band, instead he enhances that band’s brand or sound. There’s a big difference between Accept and Overkill, for instance, or between Overkill and Megadeth. So, having Andy is like having a super-objective look at what you’ve just done, as producers, writers and recorders of this stuff, and then having somebody who’s going to enhance it and make it sound like you. So, we gave him thicker guitars and we said we wanted that. We wanted our drums to be more organic. We wanted the feel of 1992 with an absolute fresh taste of 2017. I think he accomplished that, and he was a great pick for us.

It’s important, isn’t it, to have somebody from the outside give you that opinion and input? I guess it’s easier to do everything on your own, but sometimes you don’t have that quality control that you think you have.

Yeah, it’s funny, because pride is your biggest motivator to do this for a professional like myself for as long as this. I’m proud of our results. We manage the band, we approve t-shirts and backtracks, go through deals and contracts, and write the tunes. But I think pride is also my biggest sin, because I can say, wow, this is really great. But when somebody like Andy comes in, the atmosphere changes from being all chiefs to some Indians too! Somebody’s got to be in fucking charge, and to have Andy with his ears just got us fantastic results in my opinion.

Bobby Blitz

I was sent the promo and I listened to the whole album. I think it has a more epic feel and there are longer songs, but in a good way. It’s more dynamic. The overall length of the album is also more than the last few. Why do you think it came out like that?

You’re correct. I think in the Overkill school, saying that you don’t give a shit really frees you up. When somebody says, “You realize that’s seven-and-a-half minutes?” I don’t give a shit, it sounds right (laughs). I think that works, because if it’s right, it’s right. There’s a great feeling when we’re doing a record that we have nothing to lose. That’s what makes it dangerous and gives it a sense of reality that encompasses the whole project. So, going in there and thinking with regards to time and length only takes that sense away from you. What we were doing was writing good songs and trying to separate them based on the emotions we felt while doing so. When there was a punky feeling, we pushed it onto a song like ‘Goddamn Trouble’. When there was a heavy groove coming, we pushed it. When it was straight-out thrash, we wrote ‘Our Finest Hour’. ‘The Grinding Wheel’ (the title song) is where we pushed the epic vibe. So, there was separation between all the songs, and then a larger separation. Now at the end of the day, stamping the Overkill brand on it, we made something that has diversity.

And the fact that you’ve been able to put out an album every two years also must free you up and put less pressure on you, because it’s not like you’re putting out an album for the first time in 7-8 years where everything depends on it, and what if people don’t like it, and that kind of thing.

Yeah, this works for us. This is what gives us visibility. We’re not on everyone’s lips until we’re touring, or we’re on a festival, or we’re releasing a record. We understand that. There’s never been an identity crisis here with regard to what our popularity is, or who we are. So, I think when we work on our schedule, it’s better when we’re working than when we’re not. It keeps our visibility up, and at the same time keeps us on a schedule where we can actually do something to improve ourselves, even 18 records down the road.

Exactly, man. And each album is a stamp in time, and that’s why we call it a record, but in terms of the lyrical content, do you try to write it all fresh for an album, or sometimes do you go back into your own archives or vaults where you might find something that you haven’t used yet?

Well, obviously repetition can be a bad word here, and there’s a fine line between style and repetition. I try to dance that tight rope. I don’t necessarily like to repeat myself. I like to cleanse my sins of the prior year-and-a-half, or the experiences I’ve had, and sing about things I know about in abstract, interesting type ways. Probably the thing I know most about in my life is what’s been introduced to me through this band. I don’t voice political feelings or principles that I have, and I stay away from social issues a lot of the time. But I do speak about the band, about the community, the principles we have and how they can be applied to life, or at least how I apply them to my life. ‘The Grinding Wheel’ is obviously about work. It’s about understanding work. Work hard and you’ll be the happiest guy in your house, that kind of thing. That’s really worked out for me. I know I’m not what I was when I was 22, but I can accept and embrace that.

Talking of the live shows, you did Europe but you have the U.S. tour coming up, and you’ll be busy on this album cycle, I’m sure. But it must be getting harder to make set lists now, with another new album. I mean, when I see you guys, I still want to hear not just the classics but also songs from the last three albums which are all great. Obviously you have to drop some of those to accommodate the new stuff.

Well, that’s a good point. It’s not an easy thing to do, to be able to play 90 minutes and check every box on the form. I just don’t think it’s possible, and obviously the newer songs, the stuff from ‘The Grinding Wheel’, that’s going to widen the eyes of the band, as in, we can’t wait to get our teeth into it. So, that has to be in the set, and three minimal, if not four songs. But then other things do suffer under those circumstances. But I think when you talk about it, it’s about anticipating the moment. When you’re in the moment, it’s totally different, because you may leave the show saying, “Oh, I really wanted to hear ‘Armorist’ but shit, my heart is beating twice the normal speed!” When that happens to you, the task at hand for us was complete, and it was the right process.

That makes total sense! So, as I just said, you have U.S. touring coming up with Nile. After that, what’s next for you guys? More touring, I’m guessing.

You know, that’s really business as usual. I suppose we’re in a phase of our career where we almost run on a work clock for ourselves. 12 o’ clock is the release, and then back to 12 o’ clock is another release. Between now and 6 o’ clock, it’s touring, and it’s going to be the U.S., and we’re going to the Southern Hemisphere to do South America, Australia and some stuff on the Pacific Rim. There will be a second U.S. tour that we’re planning. There’s going to be European tour in November-December, and some festivals in the interim. So, it’s really just a work process. I think probably from now until the 6 o’ clock hour when we start writing again and stop touring, it’s going to take 18 months. So, the stage is where you will find us over these next 18 months.

Yeah, and as you said, it’s like ‘The Grinding Wheel’ itself for you. It’s work, but you’re able to enjoy every moment of it, and that’s what you must feel fortunate for.

Oh yeah, you appreciate where you are. My father told me when I was younger, “Of course I’d like you to go to college, of course I’d like to take you into my line of work, but I want you to be happy. If you want to sell fishing bait at the end of the pier, do so, but be the best bait salesman you can be, and that’ll satisfy you.” I kind of lived by that principle, that I’m in the right place, and if I am in the right place, I should make the most of these opportunities. I should celebrate the moment as opposed to what could be or what could have been, because I can’t change the past.

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Related MA link: Album Review: Overkill – The Grinding Wheel

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Overkill US tour dates with Nile:
02/14/2017 – Philadelphia, PA @ Trocadero Theatre
02/15/2017 – Cleveland, OH @ Agora Ballroom *
02/16/2017 – Columbus, OH @ Park Street Saloon
02/17/2017 – Chicago, IL @ Concorde Music Hall
02/18/2017 – Minneapolis, MN @ The Cabooze
02/19/2017 – Lawrence, KS @ Granada Theater
02/20/2017 – Englewood, CO @ Gothic Theater
02/22/2017 – Seattle, WA @ El Corazon
02/23/2017 – Portland, OR @ Hawthorne Theater
02/24/2017 – San Francisco, CA @ Slim’s
02/25/2017 – Anaheim, CA @ City National Grove
02/26/2017 – Mesa, AZ @ Club Red
02/27/2017 – Albuquerque, NM @ Sunshine Theater
02/28/2017 – Dallas, TX @ Trees
03/01/2017 – Houston, TX @ Scout Bar
03/02/2017 – San Antonio, TX @ Alamo City Music Hall
03/03/2017 – New Orleans, LA @ Southport Music Hall
03/04/2017 – Ybor City, FL @ The Ritz Ybor
03/05/2017 – Atlanta, GA @ Variety Playhouse
03/06/2017 – Charlotte, NC @ The Filmore Charlotte +
03/07/2017 – Norfolk, VA @ NorVa Theatre +
03/08/2017 – Washington, DC @ Howard Theater +
03/09/2017 – Clifton Park, NY @ Upstate Concert Hall +
03/10/2017 – Worcester, MA @ The Palladium
03/11/2017 – Sayerville, NJ @ Starland Ballroom +
* = w/ Lordi
+ = w/ Amorphis & Swallow The Sun