We “felt the fire” when New Jersey thrashers, Overkill “took over” and had us all “Under the Influence” back in the early ’80s. Throughout the ’90s and “The Years of Decay,” not even the band itself could look into its “Horrorscope” and see itself becoming “Immortalis” all the way through to “The Electric Age.” But “The Grinding Wheel” kept thrashing all the way to present day, now prepared to ride on “The Wings of War.”
Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth, bassist D.D. Verni, lead/rhythm guitarist Dave Linsk and rhythm guitarist Derek Tailer have been on a roll. Fans might have assumed 2017’s “The Grinding Wheel” (review) was a culmination of all things Overkill and that it couldn’t be bested. But now the band has added Jason Bittner, formerly of Shadows Fall, to the “wrecking crew,” a drummer who Blitz says plays with “surgical brutality.”
With album number 19 about to drop and its first single, “Last Man Standing,” already getting serious airplay on Sirius XM’s Liquid Metal, this thrash metal machine cannot be stopped, not even in 2019.
Live Metal’s Jeff Maki talked with vocalist Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth about the making of “The Wings of War” and much more.
LIVE METAL: What’s goin’ on, Bobby? I’ve been hearing a lot of the band’s new single, “Last Man Standing,” on Liquid Metal, and it’s even part of this week’s Devil’s Dozen. And I know that “Head of a Pin” was also recently released, as well. So just going off of the first songs released, what do you think the response from fans has been so far?
BLITZ: It’s hard to gauge it on just a song, but I think so far (the response has been good). We had a lot of faith in releasing “Last Man Standing” first. It’s thrash; it does it not politely, but it kicks the door down, and I think that’s kind of a principle we’ve always had. It’s the opening cut from the record, and I think it just kind of fit the bill for us. Regardless of change, things are intact with us—in our camp, in our studio, in our presentation and our process. So I think it was a good choice, and then “Head of a Pin” followed it about a week ago.
You know, it’s always kind of weird to me doing these teaser singles, but it’s the wave of the present day to get it out there or be left behind. I, personally, would rather hear the whole record at one particular time so I can get the feel of the entire record. But I think the response has been good. I mean, I’m not a “Facebooker” or a “Twatter,” ’cause I could really give a shit. My point is, is that I don’t have that outside influence in my personal life, but coming from my Facebook and Twitter guy, it seems like everybody’s lovin’ this. So we’re pretty excited about it. It looks like it’s gonna be a good run and a successful record.
We actually talked a couple years ago, right before “The Grinding Wheel” came out. I absolutely loved that album, and it was one of the best ones I heard from you guys in a while, and I think the fans overwhelmingly agreed. as well. So when going into make “The Wings of War,” or any follow-up album for that matter, are you looking to top the album before it, especially if the album that came before was so successful?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not going to say it doesn’t creep in. I try to listen to (the previous record) prior to writing (the new one), but I use it more as a guide of things I would like to stay away from so I don’t repeat myself. And I agree with you. I thought (“The Grinding Wheel”) had really successful results on it, from the songwriting to the performance. I thought it was all there to a high degree in presentation value. I think with this (new) record, or most records, when the process actually starts, we try to work with the simplicity, a “what got you here” kind of thing and what got us here are our influences. So if the chemistry changed by adding (drummer) Jason (Bittner), we knew that the simplicity would work because the songs would evolve into something that, at the end of the day, we would be able to put our name on.
So when I started hearing the riffs, I didn’t start thinking about “The Grinding Wheel” anymore. I started thinking, “Wow, these are kind of old, classic, NWOBHM riffs with some punk and some groove in it.” And it was real easy from that point to just get a feel because the record was changing from day to day. So (with) everything constantly changing, “The Grinding Wheel” became a distant memory while working on this record.
Is there a running theme for the album, and/or why did you decide on “The Wings of War” as the title?
There’s a pretty simple explanation. We titled the painting once it was done. We had other running titles, but we loved the artwork. We loved the five skulls sitting around the table with the logo in the center. But we were using other things. We were using “Distortion Riot” and other titles that were mock titles, but they just really didn’t fit the artwork. And that’s as simple as it was. I think it was (bassist) D.D. (Verni) that said it looked like a “war council.” So we just titled it after (the artwork) and really has no significant meaning to what’s inside the record. But consequently, there were songs like “Believe in the Fight” and “Last Man Standing,” so it kind of worked in there subliminally.
Pre-order Overkill’s “The Wings of War” here!
So album number 19 now?
Yes, 19. The amazing thing is that I’m only 32. (laughter)
At this point, what keeps you motivated after being in the game for so long? Obviously, you have the music and the passion for it, but we’re talking 19 albums now, which is a rare feat for any band these days.
Well, I think the opportunity to do one better. I think that that’s huge. If it’s something you love, then you’re not really working. Of course, this takes work, but the hardest part of the work of this is the bullshit logistics: setting up budgets and making sure shit works, and the management end of it. But the fun part is doin’ the fuckin’ songs. If somewhere there’s a chance to outdo what preceded this record, then that to me is being an opportunist. And I think what happens internally is that guys start competing against each other and start competing against themselves. And when that happens, I think you can get some decent results because you’re trying to make yourself better—trying to sing it higher, trying to add harmonies, faster, slower, melodic. That’s my contribution to it, to try to outdo what was recently done by myself and the other guys.
So I’m going to ask the dumb question that’s been going around: “Is rock dead?” I actually asked this same question to Max Cavalera about a week ago, and he had a great response.
I suppose it’s an interesting question, but in my estimation from being on the inside, I think it’s an observation of an asshole. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with anything, because you and I and Max are living proof that it’s not. There are people out there that want this. It may not live up to the standards of whoever had that observation and said that. But I always say that there’s a great expression that when you point a finger, you get three pointed back at you. So I would look at the motivation of whoever that came from, because I’m having a pretty good time where I am. (laughs)
When guys tell me, “Oh, it’s not like the good ‘ole days,” I always say, “Dude, pay attention. These are pretty good fuckin’ days.” It’s a healthy scene. There’s festivals that pop up all over the place in the United States with regard to metal, with regard to the metal community. Europe has had a lot of those festivals for a two-decade experience at this point. There are 100,000 people that go to the three biggest ones in Europe. So when you think upon those terms, I think the evidence says otherwise.
You mentioned how the metal scene is healthy now, so are you guys influenced by any of the current metal bands? And with bringing a newer, younger guy from the scene in (drummer) Jason (Bittner) into the band, what influence did he bring into the band, as well?
Am I aware? Of course, I’m aware. I think when it comes to the newer thrash bands, many of them have a template that was set back 30 years ago by our herd. Whether that be the biggest bands that have ever been labeled heavy metal like Metallica or whether it be smaller bands. But when it comes to new bands, I think they have to break the template and show their originality. They have to take a step and go left or forward ,or they will remain in that template.
So I can’t be influenced by a template I already understand. To some degree, I’m part of that template. So I listen to what turns me on. I got Sinatra and Dean Martin in my car. You know what I’m sayin’? I mean, I’m all over the fuckin’ place. So am I influenced? Probably not as much. And I only say that because I kind of lock myself down when I’m doing my end.
When it comes to Jason, I think he changed our chemistry. It was obvious to me that after three days of playing with him that this was going to be a different band. With that being said, I think we embraced his input. He’s technically trained and plays drums with surgical brutality and precision. And to forgo that would be a mistake on our parts. We became part of that change. So we wanted to keep the Overkill integrity but, at the same time, not put a saddle on the wild horse—let the fuckin’ horse run. So I think he did influence us but only as so far as in an Overkill realm.
What are the immediate touring plans for Overkill? What has been announced so far, and what bands will be heading out with you?
We’re off to South America in like three days, and that’s gonna be like a two-week run. That’s followed up by Europe with Flotsam & Jetsam and Destruction, and that goes through March. So that’ll be a real three-pronged attack right there.
We announce a U.S tour on Monday that starts in Baltimore on the 24th of April. The tour is gonna be Overkill, Death Angel and Act of Defiance. For the New York show, we’ll add Life of Agony to it. You know it before anyone else, we actually print it on Monday (Jan. 28, 2019).
Thanks, Bobby! I hope to catch the show at Baltimore Soundstage!
I’ll see you in Baltimore. Stop by and say hello.