In 1980, the seeds were sown for one of the most enduring bands in metal history.
Hailing from New Jersey, it was the punk roots of bassist D.D. Verni, as well as founding drummer and ex-member Rat Skates that first bound the group together. From touring around New York clubs and releasing the Overkill EP (1984), the band rapidly established a reputation leading to the release of first album Feel the Fire with Megaforce Records.
While having experienced a stack of lineup changes over the decades, Overkill‘s infusion of punk and thrash, combined with a huge live presence remains intact. 18th record The Grinding Wheel is no exception, and the band is stronger than ever.
I sat down with frontman Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth to chat about second record Taking Over turning 30, not answering the phone when the industry called to close the door on metal, and the conversation giving him courage while he struggled through cancer.
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“I think pride is one of the things that Overkill has always had over these 18 records. But the thing that gets my excitement up is the fact that it has current-day value… It’s not about what we were but what we are, and The Grinding Wheel is that in 2017.”
That’s how powerfully yet simply Ellsworth described the record as I opened our chat, and that elation felt tangible.
What? Grinding Wheel? Of course! https://t.co/lchAVDQbLl
— Dave Mustaine (@DaveMustaine) February 25, 2017
What I admire about the musician is that even after 37 years, he still finds it “necessary” to be the student and as he articulated, “This actually enhances the journey that we’re on as a band.”
“So if I can learn a few new things or tricks from record to record, whether that be dropping harmonies or singing softly, using pop vocal lines or turning them into thrash ones… You actually get something that excites one of the guys in the band to perform even more, because it seems like a first-time experience.”
For a band always immersed in the production side of things, The Grinding Wheel was all about delivering that extra kick behind the guitars and with it a rawer drum sound. Legendary British songwriter and producer Andy Sneap [Testament, Megadeth], who mixed the album, certainly brought that home for Ellsworth.
“He said, ‘This is going to be a little different for 2017, where the guitar’s going to come more from the gut as opposed to the nose’. So to get a good relationship with that fresh-faced 1992 sound, an organic drum would be the right way to ply with that; it would have a subliminal ‘old is new’ when you’re listening to it. He [Sneap] took a good project and made it great with as simple a guideline as I gave you right there.
“We’ve had some great experience with guys mixing and even fully producing records. Early on, we’d worked with Terry Date during The Year of Decay (1989) and Horrorscope (1991). Colin Richardson came in and mixed From the Underground and Below (1997) for us. I remember picking him up from the airport and we’re standing with D.D. [Verni, bassist]… Colin was listening to the tracks and standing in the middle of the room, doing a Pete Townshend [The Who lead vocalist] guitar circle with his arm. I said, ‘D.D., he’s either a fucking genius or we’re fucked’ (laughs). But it turned out to be something outstanding. So it’s a pretty good legacy to say Terry Date, Colin Richardson, Andy Perialas and Andy Sneap – I’d say these are the top guys.”
Although the band had management up through the Atlantic era, according to Ellsworth, “We wanted involvement at a higher level. I think it groomed us to manage ourselves during the mean times of the ‘90s. The music business made calls to many of the metal and thrash bands and said, ‘Listen, metal’s over. Go home, pack up your tents and go work for your parents. Grunge is now the popular genre'”.
“We obviously didn’t answer the phone. Every time it rang, I would say, ‘D.D., don’t answer the fucking thing. It’s the music business telling us that we’re over’. So I think that grooming prior to it and being involved gave us a unique understanding of how to retool our business. We took on self-management and cut our expenses by 20% right off the top by getting rid of these guys (chuckles), and pushed through that darker era of metal from 1995 all the way up to 2005. But that’s the era I feel the most proud of. As others did go home and sit in the basement and smoked cigarettes playing the guitar, wondering why nobody appreciated their genius, we were getting gigs.”
“It went from a crowded room to you could get a seat anywhere in 1995 (chuckles).”
Here I drew Ellsworth’s attention back to 2017, and one of my personal favourites on the new album ‘Our Finest Hour’, a true hard-hitter speaking to those who’ve stuck by us through our darkest times. After inviting the singer to reflect on someone in his life that’s been there for him, our chat turned unexpectedly intimate.
“I’ve had a couple of bumps like all of us have, and a couple of those have been made public in the press. Honestly I’m more of a private person, it’s just that some of those issues happen onstage for instance (chuckles).
“But I remember I was riding in a bike club back in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and I ran into an issue where I had cancer. It was in my face and had been heading in through my skull, the nasal cavities, and it had attached to the brain. I’m riding a bike with this cat – he’s an older dude – and we stop somewhere. We’re sitting by this river and he goes, ‘All you’re doing is complaining. There’re two sides to every problem. All you have to do is go through it, and just because you don’t like the answer on the other side doesn’t mean you can’t face it’. So I think I owe him for an optimistic outlook on life, and maybe a little more courage than I had in the bottle for myself.”
This certainly hasn’t been the only sizeable struggle in Ellsworths’ life, with the vocalist discovering polyps on his vocal chords back on the Feel of Fire tour in 1985 and ’86 from singing incorrectly. Unlike vocalists such as Trivium‘s Matt Heafy though, he caught it early, and he reflected on a visit to New York City that “really just opened the door for the next 35 years after that”.
“I went to a guy named Don Lawrence – I know James Hetfield went to him for a while – and just a really simplified way of getting me to sing correctly wore the coming of the nodes on my vocal chords away… I really don’t worry about my voice, I kind of think of it as an on-off type thing. The only things I use to take care of it are those warm-up tapes from the late ‘80s, and I warm up for about 15 minutes before I sing. That’s the simplicity of the whole approach to it.”
One of the quintet’s earliest albums showing just how much Lawrence’s lessons helped was sophomore release Taking Over. As for exactly how it did this, Ellsworth said simply, “We started understanding”.
“Feel the Fire (1985) was based on chaos. We were excited but didn’t know what we were doing. It was just a whole bunch of ideas and we could barely tune our guitars, but we made it happen. By Taking Over we could tune (chuckles), and we wanted to understand that people could understand us as a signature sound. So we started building walls of guitars. On a personal level, between the two records I went from a punkier approach on Feel the Fire to having a cleaner voice because of Don and those vocal lessons. But I think we were also just as fucking nuts as on Feel the Fire. Now we had a record under our belt and were signed to do another one, we were in our young 20s…”
“It’s like giving young men a licence to be assholes – ‘You can’t arrest me, I’m in a band!’ (laughs).”
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Keep an eye out for when Overkill eventually come back to Aussie shores for the second time in their careers, and grab The Grinding Wheel here.