Interview By Arto Lehtinen / Transcription by Blake Wolfe
Overkill is definitely and without any doubt one of the longest running and the most hard working touring thrash bands around today. The legendary New York thrash metal squad haven?t slowed down any inch. They just keeping on thrashing year after year. Even though our Canadian collegue Lord Of The WasteLand did a real massive in-depth interview with the frontman of Overkill Bobby Ellsworth, but I couldn?t turn down an opportunity of doing another interview with Ellsworth who politely answered a few questions.
Let?s start with the line-up changes. You recently had some line-up changes in the band, as Tim Mallare left and you got the former Hades drummer. What?s his name?
Why did Tim leave ? He was in the band for a very long time? 14 or 15 years?
It?s always personal reasons. I mean, nobody?s been thrown out of this band. Bobby Gustafon was asked to leave back in the 80s. Everyone else has left to get married or left to make babies. Tim recently married, started a business, and couldn?t do two things. It?s really that simple. There doesn?t seem to be any hard feelings. He left quite abruptly, which is maybe the only hard feeling I have. He left four days before the last tour. He could?ve gave us a little bit more notice, but in retrospect, it was 14 good years with Tim. I, of course, wish him the best and I?m sure I?ll be in touch with him in the future. It?s not really a problem with that. But he wants to do his business and he wants to be with his wife and these are the decisions that men make. This isn?t for everybody to do for a 20-year period. Tim has been here 14 years and that?s a really high level of commitment. The other side of it is, a guy like Ron comes in, he changes the feel of the band maybe a little bit more. He?s a really good drummer, he?s a drummer?s drummer. He can bring us to a new level of tightness, and we?re looking to, let?s say exploit, his talents.
I guess you found him very quick. What was the first priority in your mind when you were looking for a new drummer?
I?m a good friend of Dan Lorenzo from Hades. We knew Tim was having troubles with personal things in his business, and he cancelled a show in October. Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater sat in on that show, in New York. He did the whole show, so we didn?t have to cancel. Tim cancelled again in February, when we had a festival in Spain.
As soon as that happened, I called Dan and said ?Put me in touch with Ron.? I said ?Come down and audition, ?cause if there?s a problem, we want you to be able to walk into this band.? And he said ?Hey, that?s what I want to do.? Tim gave us ?I can?t come on the last European tour,? which was in May. I called Ron and said ?Do you have a passport?? He said no, I said ?Let?s get you one, and get your ass on that plane with us, so don?t have to cancel anything.? So it was really about being prepared, because we saw this coming with Tim. So it wasn?t that we went after him aggressively, we just wanted to be prepared.
He played on only one Hades album.
I didn?t find any background information on him. He must have played in other bands before Hades ?
He?s a local Jersey guy. Done a lot of other bands that recorded. I know he did something with HavocHate out of New Jersey. More of a studio guy, cover bands, but really a metalhead, into this kind of stuff. Quite obviously, if you saw the show yesterday, the problems are minimum with him. This is his 11th show with Overkill, and he?s playing like that, so it?s a good thing! (laughs).
But you didn?t try to lure Mike Portnoy to join Overkill, heh ?
I think if there was 48 hours in a day, I think Mike Portnoy would be in Overkill! (laughs). Because then he could work one day with Dream Theatre, one day with Overkill. Mike is a closet thrash-head. I even said that on stage. Mike was at many of the shows we did in New York in the early days. He?s a local guy. When we did the show in New York at the end of last year, he knew a lot of these songs off the top of his head. He knew the first three records cold. So he?s into it.
Actually, there was some kind of video link of your show, where Mike plays that show with you. I found it via?Surprise, surprise? Blabbermouth.
Oh really? Yeah, we did some covers, we did some Overkill. We did some of the stuff that we did on Coverkill, like Hymn 43, Motorhead?s Overkill, the AC/DC song we did yesterday ?Dirty Deeds? and then probably eight or ten Overkill tunes, so it was a good gig.
In general, when someone?s going to ask about the line-up changes, like why some person left are so on. Are you basically tired of answering all this?
Kind of. Yeah, it becomes repetitive, kinda becomes boring. Y?know, Joe left for Annihilator, it was that simple. ?I want to do Overkill and Annihilator.? I said ?You can?t.? I said ?It?s that simple, you?ve gotta make a choice.? You can?t be touring with one and touring with the other at the same time. My opinion is that eventually, you become kind of a music whore. You?ll do anything, and you don?t pay attention to what your thing is. If you have a side project, like Dave and Speed Kill Hate, it?s his focus and that?s another thing. But if you?re a guy in Annihilator and a guy in Overkill, which are bands almost at the same level, it makes no fuckin? sense.
Have these line-up changes caused any legal problems for you?
Joe Comeau tried to sue me. I told him I was gonna kill him (laughs). And he stopped (laughs). I said ?I can squeeze your fat head without even leaving my office.?
Speed Kill Hate, it?s Dave Linsk and Tim Mallare?s band. Were you surprised when you found out that Dave formed Speed Kill Hate?
Dave had been wanting to write on a higher level for Overkill since he joined. This is quite obviously his love. It?s more of an extreme or death approach to things. Our feeling is that sure, we could tailor it to Overkill, but it?s not really Overkill if you start adjusting it to what Overkill should be. Dave kind of agreed with that ? ?I don?t want my songs adjusted, I want my songs to be my songs.? So I wasn?t surprised. My opinion is that it?s a very close cousin to what Overkill is, ?cause it?s Dave?s input, and it gives him an outlet for his songs. So with regards to support for something like that., I do it at a high level. I really hope it?s successful. I don?t hope that Dave is not successful. Dave?s a member of this band. I want to see him succeed. We really don?t have a lot of rules. Don?t sue us and that?s one rule (laughs). And when you?re with Overkill, give it at the highest level.
But how do they share time between the two bands? I guess they want to go on tour with Speed Kill Hate.
I?m sure they will.
But you?re on the road all the time.
If we tour 125 shows a year, that year is really over the life of a record, so it?s more than a year, it?s possibly 14 or 16 months. If we can have everything laid out for these guys for what times we need them, and then they can kind of fill in on the other side, whenever the openings are. And quite obviously, I hope it works for them. I don?t hope it doesn?t work for them. I think I?d be a hypocrite to say ?I want the best from you, as long as your band doesn?t succeed.? There?s not really a rule when it comes to that here. You live once. You?re a man, do what you want, it?s your life (laughs).
But have you ever thought of doing on your own, something like a solo album?
Me ? No, no? I?ve got too many criminal activities at home. Prostitution?.(laughs). No, I?ve done some solo work with other guys. To me, unless it can be done at a high level, it?s not worth it. The European market is so over-saturated with bands. Band! Band! Band! Every time you turn around, you?re talking with someone in a band. I don?t wanna be that other guy who has six solo projects, and Overkill. To me, Overkill?s been very successful for me because I?ve paid attention to it over a 20-year period. It?s my job, it?s what I do. I don?t paint houses, I don?t work on computers, and I don?t have a delivery business at home. I do Overkill. If I?m gonna do another project, it?s gotta be at a level that I can present it, at least at the Overkill level. Not like ?Here?s 20,000 Euros ? go do a record on ProTools.? That?s not the way I work.
I?m kind of an old-school mentality. I?ve gotta be in a studio. I worked with Chris Caffrey. Chris said the same thing : ?I agree with you. It can?t be done unless it?s done at a high level.? So we set a price for the demos : ?If you want the demos, it?s gonna cost you that much.? And immediately, everybody says ?We want them, but we?ll only give you this much.? I said ?Forget it. I?m not doing it.?
But D.D. Verni still plays in Bronx Casket Co., right?
Is it like gothic stuff?
Kind of. Gothic-poppish.
But they are not that active, because Jack Frost is busy with his own band.
And I think that?s my point with regard to rules. People should do what they want to do, as individuals. My feeling about a solo project is much different from D.D.?s feeling about a solo project. But the idea is that D.D.?s focus is always on Overkill too. If D.D. focused on the Bronx Casket Co., he?d be hugely successful. But he?s the motivation for why Overkill happens. He?s the principle songwriter. He?s fantastic with production and helping to set up the tour. He really knows the ins and outs of what a good show is. He?s a great business guy. So he and I working together over a 20-year period, managing this band, we must be doing something right (laughs). I mean really, ?those guys.? Fuck those guys! We manage ourselves. We get these fuckin? shows, and we work with good people. We work with a good record company, we work with a good booking agent. But all the decisions that are made about this band go across my desk and go across D.D.?s desk. That?s a full time job. That?s a lot of work.
I have noticed that you put out a new Overkill record every second year. Is that some sort of timeline for you?
I think we?ve becomes comfortable with that timeline because we work in a cycle, and that cycle is to write, record, produce, mix. promote, tour. It only takes so much time, and we do it within our timeframe. But I think that?s necessary, because we don?t have the benefit of radio play, especially through Europe. We don?t have the benefit of wide-scale video play here, so the idea to stay visible is to keep fresh material. If you can?t come up with 10 thrash songs over a 14-month period, you?re an idiot (laughs). ?I need more time!? Well quite obviously, we?ve heard this shit over a 20-year period.
But you used to release albums much quicker in the late 80s.
Did we do them quicker?
Yeah, I guess so.
Every 16 months or so, an Overkill record is out. I think the longest was two years.
Is it somehow difficult and complicated for you to top the previous album when you record a new album?
I think we know what we are ? we?re a thrash band, we present ourselves the way we present ourselves. I don?t think there?s a conflict in our own heads with what we?re about. We are this ? do it at a high standard, do it at a high level. This is, I think, the key to our success or our longevity. I don?t think it?s really about topping what we?ve done in the past. If that happens, good. The idea is to go in and be surprised by the record. Write it, and then see how it takes form in production. We don?t know when we?re doing the record that it?s going to be better than KILLBOX or better than YEARS OF DECAY or better than FEEL THE FIRE. We only know that we?re doing it at the highest level we possibly can, with regard to finance, with regard to time, with regard to input.
Was it difficult to write and compose new material for RELIX IV?
Nah, this was easy to write, this one. This was real easy.
But when you?re writing music do you have to think how the old songs sound, and ?this one has to sound this way,? and thinking about the Overkill sound?
I don?t really ever do that. I never compare what I?ve done in the past. If I?m using a certain phrase, or a certain line, a certain word, or a certain theme, with regard to lyrical content, it usually comes to mind. I?ll say ?Boy, this reminds of something?,? and I?ll go ?It?s FROM THE UNDERGROUND AND BELOW,? and I really have to take myself in a different direction. But I don?t really have to compare . I don?t think it?s about that. I think that when you see that there?s an Overkill release coming – you read about it – and then you have the opportunity to hear it, you can kind of anticipate what kind of a record it?s going to be. And I think that that?s a good thing. Now, where it falls over the scope of 20 years is up to the listener, not up to Overkill. So I think that what we do is just do the best we can with what we have, and that?s again at a high standard.
As for the Old School song, some people must have said that it sounds like punk.
Sure. That was written by D.D.. He sent it to me. The chorus was already sung on it. He was laughing when we were talking about it over the phone. He said ?Let?s use it as a B-side for the Japanese.? I said ?Let?s use it as a regular song on the record.? We can do whatever we want, ?cause we?ve been here for 20 years. It can deviate from the formula, just to be fun. And the idea to do a song like that is to have fun, is to say ?Hey, we?re still enjoying what we?re doing.? But when it comes to punk and it comes to Overkill, it?s shown it?s head for a long time in our band, it?s shown it?s face. They?re not straight-ahead punk songs, but songs like Hello From The Gutter, songs like Certifiable have a punky-type bounce to them.
You do have a strong punk background?
Yeah, we were a cover band and were doing punk songs. We released COVERKILL and there?s Ramones and the Dead Boys and the Sex Pistols. I think we?ve always taken that punk energy into our performance. That?s maybe the X factor, what makes Overkill different from the other thrash bands. Maybe that?s the reason, that we?ve incorporated that kind of a punk feel, that kind of us-against-them, that kind of high level of energy into every performance. Every performance over 20 fuckin? years. I guess it?s actually part of us (laughs)!
This time you produced the album on your own, from beginning to end. But why didn?t you trust any outsiders, like Colin Richardson or someone like that?
Well, it?s also to mix it up. You?ve gotta stay interested in what you?re doing. It can?t be totally, strictly formula. Within that formula, you?ve gotta change things. We?ve done W.F.O., did full production on that. We?ve taken half-production all the way through our career. We produce the tracks, we don?t always mix. But this one, we just decided to do it. It was part keeping interested, part finance. Quite obviously, you think that saving the money from not having Colin come in would be a large amount, but it takes us twice as long to mix the record as it does for Colin. It kind of becomes a wash, or even by the end. The idea behind this was a little bit of pride, a little bit of interest, a little bit of changing things ? changing the idea behind what we wanted to do with things. When it came to the production on this record, we looked at songs like Old School, we looked at songs like A Pound Of Flesh, Loaded Rack ? they had an older feel to them. We were looking for that old-school production, so we really based the production on performance as opposed to computerized, as opposed to ?Let?s play a riff so we can repeat that riff through a computer.? We played all thee notes on this, so that was the idea behind the production and an older approach to a new record.
But there is always a trademark in the Overkill sound where you can immediately recognize this is Overkill.
It?s certainly a trademark. Actually, I hear that, and I?ve been here 20 years. I also hear D.D.?s songwriting, his riffing, his bass sound. I hear other things that make Overkill Overkill. When it comes to thrash, when it comes to what type of music this is, what sets Overkill apart is that we don?t write really complicated songs. We write really meat-and-potatoes songs. They?re not complicated by other things. They?re just really a straight-ahead version, is what this is. I think that?s a simple method, with those trademarks I mentioned, make it unique.
If I were to ask you what is the most important album to you, would you say RELIX IV?
No, of course not. Probably the HORRORSCOPE record.
It?s the first time D.D. and I took it on just by ourselves. Bobby Gustafson was an integral part of the songwriting up until then, but the idea was now we were without one third of what the songwriting team was. It was really the first time in a long time. Having that as the unknown was to me the jumping off point to what Overkill was since its career change. So HORRORSCOPE to me is probably my favourite record. Second record is probably From The Underground And Below. I don?t know where RELIX IV falls in. It?s too new. It?s not fair to say where it falls in with regard to its value in our history. Next year I?ll give you a better answer.
Does it bother you that old-school people come to say that the most important Overkill albums are TAKING OVER and the first one FEEL THE FIRE ?
You have to realize that when someone talks about FEEL THE FIRE and TAKING OVER, the impact it had was huge because it was unknown to that point. So it comes out of the dark – ?Oh my god, what am I hearing?!? Even with the resurgence of interest in this type of music, it will never have the same impact because it?s been heard for over a 20-year period. Whether it?s us, whether it?s Anthrax, Megadeth, whoever it may be. It?s all been heard before. It can be a great record, a great release. Look at the last Exodus release, the last Kreator release – great releases, but surprising? Only surprising because they?re so great. But not surprising because I?ve never heard it before. I?ve heard that for a 20-year fuckin? period.
I guess it?s the same problem with Kreator, because people are expecting another PLEASURE TO KILL from them.
Sure, but this was a great record.
The same thing with Slayer, they?re expecting a new REIGN IN BLOOD.
But you?re not gonna get it (laughs). You?re not going to get it (laughs). But you get high-level records, don?t get me wrong. I think the idea is that we?re missing the impact of it being the unknown, or its introduction to your ear, or to the listener?s ears. FEEL THE FIRE was an introduction to your ears ? ?Oh my god, what?s this?? KILLING IS MY BUSINESS ? that was an introduction to your ears., then PLEASURE TO KILL?
FISTFUL OF METAL?
And on and on. It?s never going to have the impact, based on that.
But is it hard on you to pick the right setlist, because people are expecting the old stuff, and of course, you?ve got to do the new stuff? Is it a problem to make an equal set?
I don?t think so. I think we know what to do. You don?t over think it. We know what needs to be in there, especially when we?re doing a festival. Of course, we want the impact. We want to go in there and win. We?re not coming into lose, or coming into say ?Oh, you were good,? we?re coming into win. I think that?s the way we play the stage. We don?t walk on that stage and say ?Well, we gotta be good.? We have to be accepted and have everybody say that we?re not the worst band. That?s playing not to lose. We?re playing to win (laughs)! Totally different mentality.
But everybody is quite not that pleased?
No, not everybody. Some people go ?Oh, it?s a festival ? I gotta play not to lose.? We go on there and say ?This is ours. This fuckin? 90 minutes is ours.?
There?s a lot of other bands at festivals like at Swedenrock and Wacken that are coming to stage to win the audience on their side and of course get their attention and make a great show like you are doing. How hard is it on you then at festivals ?!
Is it hard to do? For us, it?s just the norm. It?s just normal for us to go up there and try to win. If you go up there with that attitude, jetlagged or not, your mouth starts watering, your eyes get smaller (laughs). You feel everything pumping through your body and it?s unbelievable! I stopped doing drugs and drinking years ago. I haven?t been drunk in ten years, and this is the best high I ever get, still, is walking on a stage, like I did yesterday.
Speaking of videos, when I was a kid I remember seeing a lot of Overkill?s videos in rotation on MTV Headbanger?s Ball, stuff like that. But nowadays, nothing. I guess it doesn?t make sense to make videos nowadays or? ?
It?s one of the hardest things in managing in making this happen is to coordinate record companies and what their idea of good promotion is. The European company wanted a video. The American company didn?t want a video. It?s based on outlet and you have a better outlet over here for it. The Americans are following this scene right now. Usually a lot of scenes are created in the States, but this is, let?s say a resurgence, of this.
There?s some video shows specifically for this?
Like Headbanger?s Ball 2
Yeah? MTV2, Uranium, and these are high level shows, but the American label didn?t want a video. The European label didn?t want to pay for a video that the Americans were going to use. It becomes politics. My feeling is that the best way to experience Overkill is to get close enough to smell them (laughs).
You?re putting all your old videos on the DVD ?
We?ll see what happens. With Atlantic, that?s another. It?s politics, it?s business. Do the people want to give up the rights to these videos? Probably not.
So do you have some problems with your old record labels then?
Sure we do. Every relationship was shit after its over (laughs).
What went wrong with Atlantic?
They don?t want to give up anything. Instead of giving us the rights to the record, they?d rather give those rights to someone else who they can make more money from. I tried to get back everything from TAKING OVER up to W.F.O. I?ve been trying that for years, and all the way along they said ?It?s active product ? we?re still making this.? The last time they said ?You should?ve called last week, because we just sold all the rights to another label.? Like, you?re fuckin? bullshitting me?
You went to Japan with Flotsam & Jetsam and Death Angel. I did the interview with drummer for Flotsam & Jetsam and they were really excited about that. Were you thrilled?
Was I excited? Yeah, it was a good tour. It?s good to see Death Angel back. The Flotsam guys are a good band, good guys. It was three shows. For me it was exciting to be able to do it. I like going to Japan. It was our third time there.
I asked John Bush from Anthrax this question a couple years ago in Sweden that when will Anthrax, Agent Steel and Overkill make another speed metal attack tour like you did in the 80?s?
That?d be pretty cool, wouldn?t it? Maybe on our 25-year anniversary. That?d be 2011. It?d be fun. I?d want to have John Cyriis back in that band now (laughs).
You had a stroke a couple of years ago. Did it bring any limits, and did you have to reduce touring commitments? Did you have to change your outlook on life?
The beauty of a stroke is that you don?t remember. I don?t know what it changed, because I forget how it used to be(laughs). Occasionally I piss my pants when somebody turns a microwave on(laughs). I?m riding my motorcycle. I still swim, I work out. The idea is that when you have a problem, there?s two ways to look at it ? you can live in the problem or you can live through the problem. For me, I just lived through it. I thought very soon afterwards if it had actually killed me, I said ?Wouldn?t it be something to die in the middle of an Overkill show??(laughs).
I guess our time is up right now.
Alright. I had a good time.
Thank you very much, and hopefully Overkill will be in Finland sometime.
I hope so.
The newest OverKill album : RELIX IV
***Thanks to Per Bussman from Regain Records for arranging the interview.