The legendary thrash band from New Jersey Overkill stopped by the “Pink City” (Toulouse) to support their 19th release named “The Wings Of War”. We had the opportunity to chat with co-founder and frontman Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth. Bobby shared with kindness and authenticity his thoughts about his nearly 40-year career. His infamous and wonderfully demonic laughs made the rest. Definitely a real “one”, passionate about his band, proud of his Irish origins, always available and really nice. Cheers!
It’s been eight months since the release of “The Wings Of War”, your 19th album. What’s your feeling about this one?
Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth (vocals): It’s still a little bit new to us. It was obviously released in February and we’re still touring it, so, sorting songs in and out of the set. “Distortion” is on the set, “Head Of A Pin”, “Last Man Standing” and “Believe In The Fight” as well. When I look at the record it feels very cohesive, and possesses a honest energy to it. Not like it’s “just another record”. It still feels it has value. Where it stands in our discography is gonna take me two or three years to figure it out because we’ve made so many records. But the general overall feeling I have is a positive feeling about it, because the songs are fitting the set, the record fits in the Overkill discography.
Did Jason Bittner (Shadows Fall) change something in the songwriting process since he came on board?
Bobby: Jason was of course involved in the writing. I mean, I don’t think you have a guy like Jason in a band and just say “ok, just play drums this way”. The point of getting him there was based on his talent and he’s one of the best. So we knew that the chemistry was going to change. It was just whether we embrace the chemistry, whether we force this chemistry, but I think it came very naturally. We gave him free hands on how he wanted to interpret things. D.D. (Verni – bass) has some ideas for him, and Jason basically pretty much ran with it, with five or six takes of songs that we were demoing. I remember him sending me six different takes of the song “Head Of A Pin”, with different accents, using different drums, cymbal accents, toms accents, etc. So the point is that he was enthused to be part of this writing process, and I think he rose to the occasion and made the record that much special because of his input.
This album is of course really thrash, but still with surprises in it. “Head Of A Pin”, with its different rhythms, “Distortion”, with its long smooth intro, almost progressive song. Could we analyse this album as the next step forward?
Bobby: You know what I think that we did on this? I never look at records as being “the next era” of anything. But I think, when Jason joined, what I noticed is that even if the drums are brutal, it gave us more space to inject melody. And when I started hearing Dave (Linsk – guitar) injecting melodies, guitar licks and overdubs, I started injecting more melodies into the vocals. So now, we got a kind of different animal. That really became more of a motivation to say: “hey, how much more dynamics could we put into this?” or contrast. We don’t have to paint just black or white, but we can add some colours to it. That was the exciting aspect of it. Jason’s drums started it, and with the melodies and additions, it became like a thrashy melodic record. So it was a cool result for starting with Jason.
Is there a song that was really hard to achieve?
Bobby: For me it was “Head Of A Pin”, the chorus. I mean, the verse just came to me one day, and I changed that song probably six or eight times. But that chorus I was just singing to the guitar chorus and I hated it. I was like: “fuck, it’s got to be something different, it’s got to travel above the riff”. It was finished I guess maybe three days before I was recording it and I was super happy with the way it came out because it was a rhythmic chorus that was flowing above the guitar chorus. I didn’t had to sing what was exactly been played but something a little bit more complicated.
Is there a song from the new album that you’re really looking forward to play live?
Bobby: One of my favorite song is “Distortion” on this record, because of its uniqueness. It’s like you said. When they did that, that intro on the record which we probably don’t do live, it’s almost majestic. When D.D. and Dave finished it, they said: “that’s the closest Overkill is ever come to having a Queen moment!”. (laughs) It sounded like it was from Brian May. Because we like so many songs on this record, we inject songs and pull song out from the setlist.
Yeah, writing down the setlist is more than ever difficult with such a career.
Bobby: “Head Of A Pin” was played last night, tonight is gonna be “Distortion”. And later into the tour, we going to inject “Believe In The Fight”. “Last Man Standing”, “Welcome To The Garden State” are already there. It’s a positive record for us. And plus, it’s more fun to play the new stuff, I mean, the old stuff, when I hear “Rotten To The Core” it’s like an alarm clock in my head, you know. (laughs)
Is it true that the album’s name came right after viewing this artwork from Travis Smith?
Bobby: For sure. Yeah, yeah. We were messing around with other names prior to that, but it just didn’t work. We loved the artwork with the circle and the heads. I think that Dave said that it looked like a war council, and in my head I was like: “maybe we can make something happen with the word war”. We’ve never had a title like this, and the title “Wings Of War” really fits the artwork. So I think it worked out. The title was after the art itself.
You should really release a book with all your album artworks, T-shirt artworks, tour artworks. It could be really great to see that.
Bobby: Yeah, it’s a very good idea. A big glossy book.
Yeah. Your artworks and imagery are always great.
Bobby: One of the things that we always thought is that, sure, this may not be the biggest thing. It’s just not. But we should present it like it is .(laughs) But I think it’s one of the reasons why the people like the band. Especially in this healthy thrash scene. We take a lot of time to always try to make it look a little bit better. Whether be the music, the presentation, the visuals, the t-shirts, it all has to be approved by D.D. and I. Because it’s important for us. We take a lot of pride in this business, in our passion and people dig it. I think that it’s important for people to know that we give a shit about how we present ourselves, musically and visually.
After all this time, how do you still have that much energy and anger?
Bobby: I don’t think I have anger in me anymore. It puzzles me that, it really should be a young men’s game, because it’s all based on angst. But I think, what I have personally, is the passion to improve and what I know, when it comes to music, is anger. (laughs) I’m not an angry man but I know the anger, so it’s very easy to recall for me. But if I can prove, into some degree, that when I stopped smoking around “The Electric Age” (2012) my voice started to improve. I was like “Fuck! I’m 52 and my voice is improving”. (laughs) It makes no sense (laughs), but it was such a great surprise that it really gave me the feeling that there’s still more things to do. If that’s the case, it doesn’t make me angry. To some degree, let’s say, grateful to being able to stop smoking, grateful to know that I can still improve my voice. I hadn’t been singing better since the beginning, than I am on “The Wings Of War”. Every fuckin’ notes (laughs), so its feels great.
A word about your project with Phil Demmel, Mike Portnoy, Mark Menghi?
Bobby: It’s a cover album. Mark’s one of the reasons why I did Metal Allegiance. America will always go back to its heritage. Mark’s heritage is Italian, and my heritage is Irish. He likes having a guy he can call up and go: “what are you doin’ you fuckin’ Irish prick?” (laughs). And one day, he asked me: “what about a cover record? Of the 1970’s. We take ten songs from the seventies, we get Demmel and Portnoy. Me and you, we run the project. We all pick two songs, and then we’ll vote on two more”. I said: “it sounds fuckin’ great”. So the whole idea was taking it, adding more energy to it, adding modern tones obviously and modern production. You know the band Mountain from Long Island? They did “Mississipi Queen” for instance. Blue Öyster Cult, Catfish, ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s these songs, taken, let’s say from a little bit more of a fresh mentality. A very simple work, just reworking the songs, there’s no writing or anything. But it’s a nice project, just for fun. Summer fun. (smiling)
What’s the name of the band?
Bobby: We’re gonna call it B.P.M.D., just the initials for everybody. (ie: B for Blitz)
You recently did “Live In Overhausen” to celebrate “Feel The Fire” and “Horrorscope”. Can we expect that kind of celebrating for some other albums? We suppose it’s a lot of work, playing songs never played and everything.
Bobby: Never say never, but I was happy with the one time thing, and it was contractual, we needed to release a DVD for Nuclear Blast. We said, let’s not do one, let’s do two, two records. It wasn’t that hard to learn the songs, I had performed those songs and I have a pretty good muscle memory. I had to relearn a couple of songs from “Horrorscope” we never played, and maybe one or two of “Feel The Fire”. I think that what excited me more than learning it was promoting it. We did it with our agent Dolores that you’ve just met. We planned how the tickets were gonna look like, we made tickets that were souvenir keepsakes with embossed, so when you bought your tickets you’ve got something that you can take home. We made special merchandise, a special made backdrop, we bought as many amplifiers as we could, we fuckin’ overkilled that stage with lights (smiling). So, that was really the fun part about it, putting the show together, from a promoter’s, production standpoint, you know?
You’ve always being hard working, straight up persona and everything. What’s your opinion of our era now, where you have to be really cautious about what you’re gonna say, everybody being ultra sensitive about almost anything. The politically correct rules everything it seems now.
Bobby: Oh, I suppose if it concerns you enough. I think that people that are concerned with the political correctness are also concerned about what they can lose. There’s a great freedom in saying: “I don’t care”. (laughs) You can’t take it from me, I only can give it to you. (laughs) And listen, you don’t change. I mean, this year I turned 60, so for me to be worried about political correctness at 60 is denying myself as a person. I lived my whole life politically in-fuckin’- correct. (laughs)
You like true stories movies, more than just fantasy. What do you think about biopics like “The Dirt“, “Rocketman” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”?
Bobby: I turned “Rocketman” off on the plane the other day, it was too much of a musical to me. I watched it until he was a kid when he went to the conservatory to learn the piano and I went “tick!”. (laughs)
I enjoyed the Queen movie, I thought that some of the scenes are just spectacular. The Live Aid concert scene for instance was killer.
“The Dirt” was more of a comedy I think. (laughs) Remember the old there was a couple of movies out that became classic American films. (thinking as he didn’t remember the names of the movies). It was not Ferris Bueller. Anyway, “The Dirt” came across and it was something like this. I mean, it was more goofy than it was informative.
I’m a lot into history and stuff like that, documentaries. One of my favorite producer/director is Ken Burns.
The guy who did the great Vietnam War documentary?
Bobby: Yeah. He does Vietnam, he does the Civil War, baseball. A lot of things that are based on the American history but showing where it happened like Vietnam, how the French were there prior. I love these series.
So you more into baseball than football?
Bobby: Yeah, I’m a big baseball fan. I think that probably the game that excites me the most is hockey. I’m a big New Jersey Devils fan. I usually buy a package of tickets every year, depending on when I’m touring, like twelve games. Actually, at one point they were looking for a new goal song, and I submitted “Electric Rattlesnake”! (laughs) But they didn’t pick it!
Is there a non-musician person who is (or was) an inspiration to you?
Bobby: One of the things that I’ve always loved about my pop is that he was… he just wanted to see me happy. And my mother, the same. She was musical, you know? My father was an attorney and my mother was a singer. So I knew I was gonna be okay. (laughs) If all they wanted was me to be happy. I’ll always remember when I was very young, I was my mother’s first, so she was a new mom and loved me very much, but I was a problem kid you know? I was always trouble, I was always that guy speaking when I shouldn’t have, etc. And my mother said: “You wait until your father comes home! When you father comes home, it’ll all gonna change!”. Then I went upstairs, waiting on the bed, and my father came in, took his tie off, and said: “Bobby, there’s one rule: Do not upset your mother”. (laughs)
Do you have a new passion or center of interest which is very recent?
Bobby: I like cars and motorcycles. The feeling of adventure when in them. The historical kind of thing: I have a 1967 Chevelle SS, you burn the tires off of it on a parking lot because it’s so fast. I also have a really old Harley-Davidson that I use probably 2000 miles a week in the summer and that I keep it up all winter. The oil, the tune-ups, the wiring, stuff like that. It keeps me kind of leveled. I like doing that kind of work.
Finally, we’re “RockUrLife”, so what rocks your life?
Bobby: Touring I suppose. Playing live is what I love the most. It’s what keeps me going, that give me the fuel to continue. I’m gonna do this as long I could do it at a decent level. It became a part of me. It’s not a career, I’m kind of a lifer in this. It’s what wakes me up. It has given me everything that is positive in my life. And some negative (laughs). Until I can’t do it anymore at a high level.