An Interview with Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth of OVERKILL
Interview by Ray Van Horn, Jr. - March 2005
I remember the first time Overkill's "In Union We Stand" premiered on the original Headbangers Ball. In fact, I still have the videotape of that episode from some long ago Saturday night in 1987. Bookending this Overkill classic are Whitesnake's "Still of the Night" and W.A.S.P.'s "I Don't Need No Doctor," appropriate enough as the latter band reflects the same never-say-die attitude as the continuously enterprising Overkill. Celebrating their twentieth anniversary as a metal entity, I remember damn well when my longtime friend passed me Feel the Fire for the first time and I knew then this band would turn out to be one of the legends of the genre. To mark the occasion of twenty years in metal, Overkill has released the hilariously titled RelixIV, an album which displays serious aggression with a cheeky anniversary bash at the album's end. For a teenager who carried a boom box with this band blaring obscenities and blasphemy like the lexicon of the condemned, talking with lead singer Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth was nothing short of a treat.
RoughEdge.com: Hey, how are you, brother?
Bobby Ellsworth: Great! Everything's well here.
RoughEdge.com: Good. I'd like to start out and say that bands like W.A.S.P., Motorhead and you guys have really kept the faith over the years, weathered the storms and contributed a lot of quality albums along the way. Your current album seems to be a tongue-in-cheek potshot in title, RelixIV, which I interpret as "relics," denoting that you guys have been in the business for so long. I sort of feel safe in that assumption, or am I wrong on that?
Bobby Ellsworth: No, that's pretty accurate. I've always felt that we are! (laughs) Quite obviously a relic is not valueless, but something of great value and again quite obviously we're not new kids on the block! We've been here for quite a long time and we have quite a good understanding of ourselves and the music we create.
RoughEdge.com: Right. Now forgive me, but I'm going to talk as a fan as well a journalist here. I spent my teens in the original metal scene and I wore a Taking Over shirt regularly. I paid my dues lashing out against my peers, the whole nine yards, yadda yadda. To me "Deny the Cross" will always echo in my mind as the song that I cranked on my boom box in public and I did it to piss people off, just being that asshole menace to society! (laughs)
Bobby Ellsworth: (laughs)
RoughEdge.com: So I used to boom Overkill, Testament, all kinds of thrash back in the day, even bands that nobody today would know like Atrophy, Forbidden and Holocross. I also blared them in my car stereo in the mall parking lot, so you get the picture. I'm not sure that I really have a question here, but I wanted to share that because I figured you could relate to it!
Bobby Ellsworth: Quite obviously songs like "Deny the Cross" and the Taking Over album was when this "scene," quote-unquote, was new and this was groundbreaking. This just personified angst and I still think of that song as being one of the quintessential, let's say, angst-ridden Overkill takes when it comes to how we present our music. So yes, I most certainly do identify with it, even to a step beyond that because I actually got to create part of it. (laughs)
RoughEdge.com: Right. (laughs)
Bobby Ellsworth: So it was the real deal!
RoughEdge.com: Right on, man. Back in the day you had "hair metal" bands and the pop metal bands, what-not, and still Overkill had to fight and claw for recognition even amongst Megadeth, Anthrax, Nuclear Assault and of course, Metallica. Back then, did you feel a constant specter looming over your heads to prove yourselves?
Bobby Ellsworth: You know, I think proof was what it was all about! You're only as good as your last show, your last record, your last recording. I still think we take a big part of that attitude with us. I mean, if you press play on RelixIV it's not for lack of hunger that you hear or not for lack of aggression! Maybe Taking Over had that youthful angst to it and there's something very charming about youthful angst that is very magnetic, but there's also something very charming about controlled chaos and picking your battles, and that's what I hear on RelixIV. So I don't think we ever had to fight these other bands, but I think very soon after we started in this whole business it was really about doing what we wanted to do, and I think that's why we continue to this day. The principle of doing what we like is much more important than, let's say competitive issue.
RoughEdge.com: Right on. Now obviously some of the Overkill classics are Feel the Fire, Taking Over, Under the Influence, The Years of Decay, I guess for the lack of a better term the Bobby Gustafson and Rat Skates era. I really pity the people who missed those days, if not for the historical aspect for metal, but Overkill's history as well. I guess we could also call that the Megaforce era as well, you know? The fans today wouldn't even realize this, but they were the equivalent of Roadrunner Records today. At least that was my perspective of it, especially when they did the merger with Atlantic. So tell me your perspectives of working with Megaforce.
Bobby Ellsworth: That's a pretty good take on it. Megaforce was born out of love for the music and something new, and bringing it to that minority that wanted it. With bands like Raven that they brought here, it shows they promoted it and bands they signed, even Metallica, for that matter, so it was groundbreaking. It was new then. That was the huge charm of it. It was the anti-everything else! So there's always room for the anti; when there's the positive, there's the negative. Action opposite reaction, that's what Megaforce is about. So for us and to call those records classic, I think it was really the formulating years for us. It was the best learning experience you could possibly have and there were some great records released due to that learning experience and that was due in part to Megaforce Records. So it was a good time for us.
RoughEdge.com: Yeah, definitely. Speaking of Megaforce, I just spotted they're resurfacing and re-releasing Feel the Fire with the notorious Fuck You EP. I still have the original ad for Fuck You and I think it went on to annoy people for the wrong reasons! In my day, I would say I was notorious for flipping people off who stared at me for more than five seconds! (laughs)
Bobby Ellsworth: (laughs) Right, right, I got you!
RoughEdge.com: So "Fuck You" still remains an anthem to this day for me, personally. I mean, I'm 34, I refuse to grow up and I still feel that song, you know? Anyway, I remember the EP took a lot of flack from people back then who didn't get it, so what are your thoughts from that EP?
Bobby Ellsworth: Quite obviously it was the timing of it. We'd been doing the song prior to recording it, as far back as before Feel the Fire we had it in our live set. It was a cover song, it wasn't ours, but when it was released, it came at a very volatile time between politics and music between stamping records and possibly censoring records and nobody knew what the future was going to bring and that future was the PMRC. They went after things and gave opinions. My thinking in hindsight about that record is that, maybe we didn't know it at the time, but it was a perfect release in 1987 because maybe this was the last time you could say "fuck you" on a record and actually have that middle finger extended to its height in all its glory. But the ideas and our rights weren't taken away, back then it was just because now I look at it as kind of, let's say historically significant to that time.
RoughEdge.com: Right. Within a month I got it right away so I didn't have any problems, but within a month they shipped them back out with black covering over them!
Bobby Ellsworth: And isn't that the best?
RoughEdge.com: Yeah! (laughs) Nothing like stirring curiosity! Now, Overkill kept slugging it out during the grunge years with I Hear Black, W.F.O. and to me, the immortal Horrorscope, which is one of my absolute favorites. As metal died off, did you ever think it was going to return to favor as heavily as it has right now?
Bobby Ellsworth: You know, we never got the memo back then!
Bobby Ellsworth: The memo sent to all the metal bands that said 'Close up shop, go home and work for Dad, thanks, it's been a fun ride ' We never got that memo and apparently many, many did and now this whole scene is resurging. Regardless, it kind of resurged when some people didn't pay attention to that memo. It's not just us, of course, there were a handful of bands, but the majority of us kind of packed up and went away and the evidence of that is, between 2002 and 2005 we're oversaturated with reunions! I mean, it's almost to point where I said "Geez, what're you thinking? You sucked in '91!" (laughs)
Bobby Ellsworth: What are you thinking having a fucking reunion in 2005?
Bobby Ellsworth: I think that the point is that there were bands like Kreator, Testament these are bands that I name whenever this comes up because I remember them staying current, I remember them as staying rooted yet changing with the times, evolving, and it kept this kind of scene alive. I mean, Overkill was there too, just releasing, just doing it. I think there's an attitude that started with this music that said 'We don't really care what the mainstream thinks of us. As long as we have the opportunity, we're going to squeeze the shit out of that opportunity and make it happen.' Now, because of attitudes like that, resurgence is only possible. Because if it totally went away, you can't breathe life into a dead body, but as long as the heart's still beating, you can always make the comeback. I think that's what happened and that's why you're seeing this resurgence today.
RoughEdge.com: Yeah, and on RelixIV you sound to me, invigorated, as you do on say, Bloodletting or Killbox 13, and all of this excitement in the restart of the metal underground I guess maybe helped restoke your fires a little?
Bobby Ellsworth: No, no, it most certainly doesn't, that's all coincidence! I mean, every record is everything we've had at any given time. That's the only formula that we have. It just so happens to be so we went to this record and it started forming itself. As we went along we found out that two worlds of Overkill kind of collided; it's that contemporary Overkill and that rooted Overkill. It laid in ten pieces on the ground that were songs, and these songs are cut from different eras or cut from today and we said "Boy, it's really unique that we have something on our hands that shows where we are and where we've been." So I think it's an essential type of record if you've never heard this band with regards to hearing all the types or all the characteristics of this band through time, and probably the most unique quality is that.
RoughEdge.com: I fucking love "Bats in the Belfry" with its monster riffage. It seems that if you're a longtime Overkill fan, the title "Bats in the Belfry" is long overdue!
Bobby Ellsworth: Kind of like homicide rock! (laughs)
RoughEdge.com: (laughs) Right, right!
Bobby Ellsworth: I think to some degree that's more contemporary Overkill. I always like to call it that sledgehammer groove that DD (Verni) comes up with. It's a half-pace, half-tempo, half-time look at presenting that aggressive nature. But what follows "Bats in the Belfry" is a song called "A Pound of Flesh," which could've been cut from those early days we were talking about.
Bobby Ellsworth: Maybe with a more modern production on it, but the point is, these are the elements that make up this band and evolution is evident when you hear these songs, especially "Bats" into "A Pound of Flesh" back-to-back.
RoughEdge.com: Yeah, right on. I read a recent quote from you that stuck out for me: "I've always thought the devil's more dangerous when you can't recognize him." I think that's a valid statement and it makes me think of a number of old Twilight Zone episodes, but let's apply your statement to the opening song, "Within Your Eyes," which I think reflects this attitude.
Bobby Ellsworth: Quite obviously "Within Your Eyes" is about first impressions and big impressions. If you're not really sure, look directly in. I've always believed in the adage that the eyes of the window lie through the soul. You can't fool me if I'm going to look into your eyes; I'm going to be able to tell! I suppose that goes for people looking into my eyes! (laughs)
Bobby Ellsworth: But the devil is dangerous when you can't recognize him. The idea behind that song musically is that we've always thought about if you're going to open the door for us, we're going to hit you hard! And that little guitar riff that starts it off has a classic guitar sound, it's almost AC/DC-ish. Not to knock on the door, but when it's opened for us, again, it's that sledgehammer crushing thing.
RoughEdge.com: Now I want to move to "Old School," which I'm sure is already a hot topic for you guys. I'm going to try and put a different spin, hopefully. We've been talking a bit about the old school and this song traces Overkill's history. There's a feeling to me of Guinness raising and wall-pissing with the "oi" and "hey" chants, so how many walls have you christened in your time, man?
Bobby Ellsworth: (laughs) How many walls? Oh, God!
Bobby Ellsworth: I could tell you a story. I remember back in the day when I was drinking and it was during those Megaforce years and I got out and done that and was so polluted I took refuge under a van!
Bobby Ellsworth: And the van actually ran me over on the way out! (laughs)
RoughEdge.com: Shit! Oh, man! (laughs)
Bobby Ellsworth: That guy pulled out over my arm and the whole bit, so
Bobby Ellsworth: Those days are long past, but it does have that kind of vibe to it. It has that swinging the beer stein pub feel, pogo, jump up and down, oi This band has always I think its unique quality is that when we were a cover band, it was "Hell Bent for Leather" followed by "Sonic Reducer" by the Dead Boys.
RoughEdge.com: Right on.
Bobby Ellsworth: It was an Iron Maiden cover, "Murders in the Rue Morgue," followed by "No Feelings" by the Sex Pistols or something by the Ramones, and it was a unique approach, almost to the point where people look at you like 'What are you trying to do?'
Bobby Ellsworth: But the point was that the energy was what we loved about punk and it was real and it was honest. We always presented ourselves as a metal band but there's always been that kind of honest energy in this band. It was only a matter of time until this came out. I mean, we've been covering punk songs like "Fuck You," we did an Eric Burden cover on a Japanese B-side for Bloodletting. There's Ramones covers, there's Pistols covers throughout our history and this just kind of flowed out and even when DD was done with the music, he said, "I don't know, this is B-side material" and I said "You know, man, it's twenty years, let's have some fucking fun with this, let's just do what we're doing and see what happens with this." So it was a fun little trip through, let's say that historical rooted feel of where we came from, even prior to the Megaforce days.
RoughEdge.com: No doubt, man, and I think it supports the crossover phenomenon back in the eighties.
Bobby Ellsworth: Sure it does, and it's a revisiting of that it's more punky than hardcore, but there's vibes of hardcore in it, there's vibes of metal and there's vibes of punk throughout. I think it was cool back then when those three genres kind of collided together and made for what we know as thrash metal today.
RoughEdge.com: Mmm hmm. To me, what drives me bonkers is that in my school I worked to unite the punk section and the metal section even though I was in the metal section. I recognized that we were like, the outcasts, and we shouldn't be bickering amongst each other.
Bobby Ellsworth: Yeah.
RoughEdge.com: Then it kind of spread across the country when the bands merged, but looking at it today, the kids today don't know that, so it's starting all over again!
Bobby Ellsworth: I knew it!!! You were the one responsible for this!
RoughEdge.com: (laughs) Yeah, right!
Bobby Ellsworth: (laughs)
RoughEdge.com: Yeah, me! Maybe DRI, but not me, man! (laughs) Maybe in our area, that's about it and I'm giving myself too much credit. But seriously, "Old School" sounds as much for the Wrecking Crew as it does for yourselves, right?
Bobby Ellsworth: Yeah, without a doubt! The form you do it for yourself, but I think that song has local validity to it. Our first manager who owned the club L'Amours in Brooklyn
Bobby Ellsworth: He was doing dialog. Ed Trunk, who was our A&R guy at Megaforce Records and later became a local DJ and is now a national DJ and a satellite DJ doing metal once a week
RoughEdge.com: Right, and VH-1 Classic.
Bobby Ellsworth: Right! I mean, these are guys that we've known over the years and are still more than friendly with. DD and Eddie are catching a Giants football game during the season. You meet George for a cup of coffee from L'Amours; to have these guys on here, these are the people that were involved back then, or two of them anyway. So I think it has a valid feel to it for the locals, but I think from an overall perspective as you said, the genres collided, and that's where that valid feel comes to anyone outside this New York or Tri-state area.
RoughEdge.com: Undoubtedly, man. Now, on RelixIV you guys cut the middleman out by producing it yourselves, and I'm sure you've been asked a lot of questions about it, but you've learned a lot through thirteen studio albums and the polish shows on the new album, I think. Was there more or less pressure on yourselves by adopting this DIY methodology?
Bobby Ellsworth: Well, there's more without a doubt. The first thing you're looking at you look at the budget and you say you're going to save all this money, but quite obviously we're not going to do it was quick as a guy like Colin Richardson can do it.
Bobby Ellsworth: So there is more pressure, but with more pressure, more responsibility. It doesn't mean that it's a worse situation; it can actually work good because it's more of a vested interest in the whole thing and that's really the only thinking behind it. 'Hey, mix it up, let's do something different this time.' We did it for W.F.O. back in '94, let's do it again in 2004 and see what happens! So it was fun to do, in accomplishment hindsight. With regards to the production itself, we lay less on technology and more on performance, and that's, let's say, the best way I can give a summation of the procedure we wanted, or the result we wanted.
RoughEdge.com: Cool. Now, going back to the Wrecking Everything live CD and DVD, especially on the DVD you can see the vitality that Overkill still possesses, so since you performed in your own back yard in Asbury Park which obviously has significant musical history, put me in your shoes at this gig because it obviously has to rank as a personal favorite for you.
Bobby Ellsworth: Well, you know, again it's a vested interest and that's what this band is about. We co-promoted the show with a local promoter. We set the price, we brought in the production, we brought in the video crew, and, and, and It's really about how we see it to be, so again it becomes more responsibility but it becomes a higher payoff in the end. I thought it was, let's say the quintessential Overkill show with regard to what we picked to play that night and we dusted off some of these old classics. But when it comes to energy, it's not preconceived prior to the show like, 'Okay, we have to be on top of our game tonight because we're filming.' This is like any other show.
Bobby Ellsworth: I mean, this is just the way it is and that's something we've been lucky all these years to possess. I don't know if it's five minutes before I go on, I'm nervous. Ten minutes, I'm not, but five minutes I'm like, 'Oh, geez, the lights are going down!' Twenty years doing this and that still happens! Well maybe that's where this comes from, maybe that's the motivation to keep that energy at a high level and still take the risk with regard to promotion, with regard to finance, with regard to everything. We wanted to put people in that building and we did and it turned into a great night for us and you know, in many regards for what DVDs are, it's two hours of show and an hour and a half of extras! I mean, it really should be the benchmark as far as value goes. This is really about them for coming to see us for so many years. This was about something that you could take home with you and put in anytime you want. If you went to that show Ed Trunk actually co-promoted with us we set the price at his frequency numbers, which was $10.27.
RoughEdge.com: No shit, that's awesome!
Bobby Ellsworth: But it was an all-around successful, good night, and I think of that as maybe not the best show we've ever done, but one of the more successful nights we've ever pulled off.
RoughEdge.com: Right, and going back to the DVD, just the "Batmen Return" section on the second disc alone is worth the price right there!
Bobby Ellsworth: I like watching it because it's like watching yourself grow old! (laughs)
Bobby Ellsworth: Growing into the relic Geez, I do have history, look at that!
RoughEdge.com: Right, right. As you're mentioning, twenty years, man! With DD's trademark bass reverb and your vocals that still sound using the live version of "Shred" off of Wrecking Everything, you sound as potent from those Under the Influence days, and then you brought up "A Pound of Flesh" earlier what I'm getting at is it's the same "Blitz," man! So what keeps that skullcrushing machine's thrusters going for you in 2005? We kind of touched on it, but
Bobby Ellsworth: You know, I really think it's just a love of it. It's always been seize the moment for us, it's always been take the risks and of course, a huge vested interest, and when that happens you don't quit in '95 or '94. That's the philosophy and you're taking the moment and seeking that opportunity; when that moment arises you DD sneaks up behind and belts it in the back of the head and I'm taking its front out, and that's the way we've always looked at this. So I think that's it's really just about a philosophy or standard that we have. We hold this to a high standard and we take it seriously. We may not take ourselves as seriously as we do the music or that moment, because I think if we did take ourselves that seriously this would be a hard world to live in, because we're not getting the recognition we deserve or whatever! But from where we sit, we are getting the recognition, we're getting the payoff for going after that opportunity, we're getting the payoff for seizing that moment and then we're looking for the next one. So it's like a constant hunt for the next moment and it's lasted for twenty years and I think it's always worked for us to keep the energy high. It keeps the hunger level high and it keeps the creativity high without having to bail out on what our roots were.
RoughEdge.com: Nice, man, and with DD, Dave Linsk, Tim Larre and Derek Taylor, together you guys have maintained what seems to be your be-all-end-all lineup, so any thoughts on that?
Bobby Ellsworth: Well, I can never say never because of all the changes that have happened prior
Bobby Ellsworth: But I think it should be understood that there was only one time in this band's history when it came down to somebody's got to go. Anybody else that's left has left of their own accord, and that one person was Bobby Gustafson. It could've been DD for that matter, but it wouldn't have been because of the trust I had for him at that time and that meant more to me than anything and it's really paid off in friendship and in a writing career with him. But the idea is that this lineup I'm very happy with. Every lineup has positive and negative aspects to it, but this lineup of course this lineup plays live well. This lineup gets along well. Derek Taylor's the newest member but he's the hungriest one too, and I think that him coming in and saying "AHHHHH!" you know, with blood running off his teeth and drooling
Bobby Ellsworth: He says "I can't wait to get out on the road and make this happen!" That brings everybody else up to that level, you know, and that's a great thing to be able to see that kind of hunger. It's very inspiring, so yeah, I'm really happy with this and I think RelixIV is living proof of that.
RoughEdge.com: For sure, man. You seem to have grown strength. I mean, Killbox 13 is a pretty good album, and this one's even better. You guys have just grown stronger between albums, you know?
Bobby Ellsworth: Right on.
RoughEdge.com: Now, to anyone who gave you guys shit back when you were about to put out the Power in Black EP in '84, what would you say to them now if they were in front of you?
Bobby Ellsworth: Ohhhh! That's all lip-service, you know? It doesn't really matter. I've tried throughout all these years to never hold grudges. It kind of frees me from other things! (laughs) Gives me a hell of a lot more space in my head!
Bobby Ellsworth: You know, the idea is that I don't want to say "See, I told you so" because that means that change has never happened for me either, and quite obviously it has to happen on a personal level. We can hold the music at that high esteem where it's at, that high standard, but for me to say, "Oh, you didn't believe in us then," that's a ridiculous point for me to even go back there and say that. I would go back there and say "Geez, I shouldn't have been such a dickhead!" (laughs)
Bobby Ellsworth: You know? Regardless, it's worked for us, so the changes have quite obviously happened personally, but the music is at the same standard that it was back then.
RoughEdge.com: Yeah, right on. So in conclusion we could probably say Viva L'Amours, right?
Bobby Ellsworth: Viva L'Amours? Hey, that's pretty cool! I never heard that! That would've been a great shirt!
RoughEdge.com: There you go!
Bobby Ellsworth: It would've been a great t-shirt!
RoughEdge.com: Put it out there, dude!
Bobby Ellsworth: (laughs)
RoughEdge.com: Why not? I'll get one! I'm long overdue replacing that torn Taking Over shirt from my teens!
Bobby Ellsworth: (laughs) Right on!
RoughEdge.com: Well, thanks for your time, brother.
Bobby Ellsworth: Stop by the bus sometime and say hello, Ray!
RoughEdge.com: Will do, man. Thanks again.
Bobby Ellsworth: Bye bye.
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Revised: 31 Jul 2018 23:38:09 -0400.