New Jersey’s Overkill have been blasting fast and loud for more than 30 years. The thrash pioneers released their 16th studio album, The Electric Age, last year, and are showing no signs of mellowing with age. When you buy an Overkill album, you know exactly what you’re getting: full-on thrash with class. But even better is the live experience. Currently on tour as part of the Dark Roots Of Thrash package with Testament, Flotsam And Jetsam and 4ARM, they invade New York City once again on Valentine’s Day. We caught up with Overkill mainman Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth on his tour bus way out west to discuss The Electric Age, Dark Roots Of Thrash tour, and more. The transcription is below:
Hello, Blitz. How’s the tour going?
We’re in Tempe, AZ. Third night of the tour. Things are going quite well. It’s nice to get out of the cold Northeast during February.
Even though Overkill and Testament were on Megaforce Records together in the ‘80s, you hadn’t played a lot of shows together, right?
I just had this conversation with Chuck [Billy, vocalist] from Testament. We only did a short run back in ‘87 where both bands hooked up for about a week. We’ve never been on any of the same shows since that time, not even festivals.
The tour hits NYC on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, which is interesting because you and your wife own a shop called Chocolaterie (chocolaterie-nj.com). Was that intentional so you can try and cash in?
(Laughs) I always gotta plug it. I think I’m going to give some chocolates away through WDHA with tickets on the metal show there and I think Eddie Trunk is going to give away a few boxes, too. But yes, I do import chocolates with my wife. We’re located up in Nyack, NY. I got involved in this through my wife’s interest for it, she’s a European girl. Things have changed. It’s no longer Hershey’s for me.
The production on The Electric Age is brutally heavy. Who’s responsible for it?
It’s produced by the band. We do all of our work since 2004 down at [bassist] D.D. Verni’s studio. He’s down in the Red Bank area. When the studio’s in the family, the clock is not running. We can come in with ideas anytime we want. One of the things I’m most proud about with this record is its production. I think it’s a record that sounds loud at three.
Did anyone in the band have problems due to Hurricane Sandy?
D.D.’s a half-mile from the beach. His town was pretty devastated. He’s on the west side of Route 35. He’s okay, his town wasn’t. Derek [Tailer, guitarist] is down in Neptune. He’s okay, but his town wasn’t. I’m up in northwest NJ, and the extent of our damage was power outages. My area was out for about 10 days. I was only out for two but had a lot of fallen trees.
Getting back to the recording of your latest album, I read that you did tracking in between tours. Do you think that’s reason it’s so heavy and live sounding?
I think so. We’d get the drums finished, then shoot over to Europe and do three shows. Then you come back and you’re adding guitars. Your last experience prior to recording has been on the stage. You can’t feign that type of energy. I think that when we do live shows in between tracking that it really seems to translate over to tape.
You and D.D. write most of the material?
It starts with D.D. and ends with me.
You seem to be selling more concert tickets now and to younger fans of the new thrash bands.
Yeah, no doubt. We’re selling more tickets because we’re incorporating younger people into this. On a tour like this, you get to see what was then and what is now at the same time. I think that’s where that interest comes from and therefore, selling more tickets. It’s cool. Plus it’s a great kick in the ass to the older guys. It works out to our advantage for motivation.
The first time I saw Overkill at L’Amour in Brooklyn in 1984, you definitely raised the bar on what I expected from bands on stage, especially in terms of volume.
We are an aptly named band. There’s always been a high quality of presentation. We were like the house band at L’Amour. We’d bring in all of our production and, let’s say, more power than was necessary. It was great to start with excess, not work our way up to it.
One of the loudest things I’ve ever experienced was an explosion you guys let off on stage that was just terrifying.
It scared the shit out of us, too. I remember this explosion. We had a guy working for us who loved doing “the bombs.” He had done it before in other places but this time he over packed it with gunpowder. If I remember correctly, it took a few minutes to get the P.A. back on because it was just so loud that it blanked out all the mics.
Younger bands today can’t afford triple stacks and explosions like that.
You’re not kidding. Things have changed. We were kids back then. Kids playing with gunpowder.
How’s your hearing?
What? (Laughs) As loud as this band has always been, it’s much louder out front. I have some low and high-end loss, but the amount of shows I’ve done is in excess of 5,000. I should be deaf but I’m not and I suppose that’s because of where I’ve stood on the stage all these years, with the drums at my back and away from the audible death zone. I think I have more damage overall from individual shows I’ve attended out in front. Before we got into a band, we were fans of this. I would never go to a show and stand on the side of the stage and watch it. I wanted to see Motörhead from the front of the stage, or Metallica or Armored Saint. I think that’s where my hearing loss comes from, being a fan.
Most venues today have decibel limits.
Depends where. It varies from state to state and country to country. When we go to Switzerland, I think it can only go to 102 dB at the board, and that’s low. That’s not a lot at all.
Overkill recently played its first metal cruise. How was that? Do you have plans to do more of those?
It was about a year ago. It was one of those situations that I was never attracted to; I never wanted to do a cruise. But once you got out there, how can you not get with it? I remember getting to my room and looking at the schedule of bands playing—Exciter, Venom. I really enjoyed it. The only downside is that it’s so vacation like, and I like a little bit of tension before a show. I like to have that nervous energy. You don’t get that sitting in the sun and drinking Foster’s.
So it’s a bit more civilized than a German metal fest in the summertime?
Yup. Very different. You know what the cool thing about it is? It was very social. You’re hanging out with people that paid to be on the cruise. Some bands lock themselves away but that’s never been our ride. We’ve always been Jersey guys; “Hey, how ya doin’?” Shaking hands, hanging out. It was a blast. I really had a good time.
I was re-watching the Get Thrashed documentary that you’re in while getting ready for this interview. Recently there’s been a lot of books documenting the origins of this kind of metal. How do you feel about that?
It’s really cool that there’s interest at such a high level. There’s still value in this music in 2013. Again, younger people are being incorporated into it. They have an interest not only in the music but to know what it was like to be on the streets. And to know how it was like to promote yourself pre-internet. I mean, we’re talking about taking out ads in The Aquarian for our own shows.
Venom came to New York [in April 1983] and we had a gig somewhere the following week on Staten Island. We were dying to see Venom but we worked for two hours before the show putting fliers under all the windshield wipers around The Paramount Theatre. That was the way you did it.
Speaking of explosions, didn’t Venom blow a hole in the stage of The Paramount at that show from their pyro?
Right in the first song. They had to stop the show, go back off, then come out again.
Overkill played a few years ago in NYC with Accept. What was it like seeing Mark Tornillo of TT Quick singing with them?
We’d done shows prior to that with Accept, but not in the U.S. We were in Europe and they were on some of the same festivals. When he came walking out of the dressing room, he went, “Blitz, what’s going on?” I went over and put my arm around him and said, “Nothing makes me prouder than a Jersey guy in a band I always loved.” I love Mark’s voice. He fits that band perfectly.
Have you ever thought of collaborating with another band or artist?
That’s a good question. I never really thought of that. Motörhead would be great to do it with, or at least Lemmy. I had an opportunity in 2007 to do a duet with him in Berlin. That was mind-blowing for me. I was so nervous before I got out there. He asked me to sing the song “Overkill” with them. I wrote the first word of each verse on my forearm so I wouldn’t screw up. I knew if I got the first word I’d be fine. I was nervous but I had actually performed the song a ton of times, so it wasn’t like a big issue. I looked down at my forearm as the song started and the first words out of his mouth are, as loud as it was up there, right in my ear, “Cheat notes.” It was really a great experience. He’d have to be the one because I love his whole rock ‘n’ roll vibe. So let’s say Motörhead and Lemmy. I would love to do that.
Overkill will play at The Trocadero, in Philly, on Feb. 13, NYC’s Best Buy Theater on Feb. 14, and The Paramount, in Huntington, NY, on Feb. 15. For more information, go to wreckingcrew.com.