Interview: Overkill’s Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth on The Grinding Wheel

Thrash veterans, Overkill, have just released their 18th album of incendiary, hard-driving metal. Mixed by Andy Sneap (Testament, Exodus, Kreator, Opeth) and self-produced, The Grinding Wheel is set to become a firm favourite in the band’s formidable catalogue. The ten blistering tracks range in flavour from new wave of British heavy metal through to straightforward thrash, with a dash of punk and a couple of epic, anthemic numbers thrown in for good measure. The Grinding Wheel is a must-have for all fans of  the energetic Jersey outfit that is itself a monument to high-voltage, riff-laden thrash. Thanks to our good friend, John Howarth of Nuclear Blast, we had the great pleasure of chatting with the band’s amicable, passionate vocalist, Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth. Enjoy!

SR: You guys have been metal giants for more than 35 years now. What do you most love about your profession, and what are some of the things you’re less excited about, as the industry’s changed over time?

BE: Metal giants? Wow! Well, I mean I just stood up. I just stood up when you said that!

(Both laugh)

BE:  I’m feeling very tall and my chest is full of air. Well, first of all, the way to achieve it is obviously to not think of yourself as such, you know? It’s funny, you know, I do this thing whenever we play live. I have this one rule: I’m in charge. And obviously, that’s for the show and I don’t think this band has ever thought of itself as such. But I do understand what you mean with regard to our longevity. And there’s been a ton of changes. We entered this pre-social media… pre-Internet! Our social media was wearing out our Converse shaking hands and handing out flyers. I think that’s the biggest change, but that’s a world change. It obviously affected the music industry like it affected everything else.

We’ve embraced it and obviously reinvented ourselves to use it as one of the tools to promote ourselves etcetera. But I think it’s had a huge change on the industry in general, because I think though it appears to give the newcomer to the scene a great chance of promotion, of a sightline, of views, clicks…there are so many views and clicks available that a lot of the good ones get lost. And I think it’s a shame that it’s just an overabundance. I think that’s the biggest change – just riding alongside technology and trying to make it work when it didn’t even exist when we first started.

SR: I’ve heard you say it’s important to never take yourself too seriously. How have you managed to keep your ego in check, especially as a frontman?

BE: (Laughs) I think that the first couple of minutes of our conversation probably gave you a good idea of that, you know? I’m for sure the guy who’s looking for a laugh and to enjoy myself; but, you know, I think there’s great passion in doing that. I mean, I love doing this but I also understand that there are other facets of it – it is also a business. So to pursue the passion, I’m involved in the business end of it. I think that the business end of it is egoless. It’s really about counting the beans and making sure the revenue stream’s positive, and also making sure the promotion’s in the right place and the scheduling is correct, for instance. So, between the two, it sure deletes the ego. And you couple that with the fact that it’s the metal community, you know? I mean, myself and the guys in the band are fans as much as we are in the band. But I think it’s easy to keep it in check when you take all those variables into play.

SR: Let’s talk about this fantastic album, The Grinding Wheel, which you produced and Andy Sneap mixed. Can you tell us about the writing and production processes behind this release?

BE: Well, we have a process and it starts with a riff. It’s very simple. And those riffs can be collected over the course of time from the last release up until when we start assembling them. But it really starts with D. D. Verni – he’s really the brainchild behind the direction of the project. And I think when I first heard this project – or those infantile-type riffs, you know, before they developed – I recognised more of a traditional heavy metal record here. It was going into things like the new wave of British heavy metal and some of the hardcore from the nineties, and I think my contribution was to give it a fresh face – that, coupled with production. And production is a main part, or a main cog, or main element to staying vital in the current day. You don’t necessarily want to release something that sounds like, you know, 1988. You might want to have that passion and that energy on it, but you need to update it; because, whatever else is out there is something that it can be compared to. And it’s great that a record like Taking Over existed in 1987, but that is not necessary, in our opinion, in 2017.

So, as these songs developed, we saw that as we got our tones in order for production, we saw that it needed a more organic production, but with a fresh coat of paint. So we wanted 1992 guitars, we wanted guitars that came from the stomach instead of the nose. We wanted more organic drums. And this already gives us a sort of basis for working with Andy. So, if we start with those tones, he has a much easier job to, let’s say, fulfil the wishes that we have with regard to vision…and that fresh coat of paint, or validity, in 2017. So, it was a pretty simple process for us and it developed with song writing, we knew that it needed that old school production with a fresh face.

SR: When you’re collecting riffs, do you hang on to them and work on them when you get together for sessions, or do you email files to each other whenever you have something?

BE: We do a combination. Good question. You know, we have to sweat in a room together…we have to demo together…we have to rehearse together… You know, somebody brings a pizza, somebody brings some beer, there’s a pin up girl on the wall. (Laughs). Then all of a sudden you’re going back to why you first started doing this in a band. You’re in that room, getting that vibe. But then, I think embracing technology and having a…well, I have a small Pro Tools set up in my office, and with D. D. having a full studio… the exchange of ideas becomes easier because they can come at any time. There is no waiting.

And there’s the positive thing about the current day with regards to technology, you know? I mean, I get an idea at midnight and say, ‘Hmm, have we done this before? Let me bounce it off D. D. If he’s still up, he’ll get back to me with an answer.’ So, I think it’s cool to have both facets to approaching writing in our music.

SR: You’ve got a pretty diverse range of songs on this album, from the anthemic Mean, Green, Killing Machine, more classic Overkill-type tracks like Come Heavy and Red, White and Blue, and then you’ve got a punk feel to Let’s All Go To Hades. Did you intend your next project to showcase some diversity, or did it just evolve this way naturally?

BE: Well, there was no talking about it. You know, when I heard those riffs in their purest forms and then they kind of morphed into arrangements and secondary parts and then, you know, a bridge was added, I think we all heard that they were heading in those directions. And you know, everybody was really on the same page – and you could tell by the way they were pushing it. You could tell that the punk became just a little punkier, and The Long Road, which is new wave of British heavy metal, was like – you know something? Fuck it. If you’re gonna do it, do it all the way. And that was kind of the feeling behind whatever tickled our fancy and we said, ‘Oh! That reminds me of something and it works’…We always pushed a little bit further.

And I think that one of the things I noticed, as the tempos to the songs started changing… I started off with slower tempos than we finished with. So it gave me all this room to kinda drop melodies in. And, you know, one of the staples of the record with regard to saying, ‘Well, it is a little bit more melodic, like the new wave of British heavy metal, and it is a little bit more punky’… You know, some of my favourite punk tunes are like pop punk tunes, and Let’s All Go to Hades has got that kind of singalong vibe to it. So I think we started pushing them in those directions as they started revealing themselves as having one characteristic or another.

SR: I noticed that some of the tracks are definitely lengthier than your standard on this album. Did you just allow yourself more latitude, that way, too? Were you aware that they were longer songs?

BE:  No, it was just that simple ‘we don’t really care’.

(Both laugh)

BE: I don’t mean to sound disconnected, but it was like, if it feels right, just kinda do it. That was the thing. And I think somewhere in our subconscious, we were all like, ‘Oh, this needs another introduction’, or, you know, ‘We could take that intro longer here or take the outro longer here.’ So, the subconscious kind of ruled that. And when it was right, it was just right. There was no editing. This was the way the songs were written. And you know, it’s funny – in the mixes, I didn’t realise that were three songs as long as there were. I knew two of them were really long, but I was like, ‘Oh, that one’s also seven minutes!’ It was kind of a surprise to me. So I wasn’t really paying attention, but in my opinion, it worked out because there’s really a freedom to not giving a shit, you know? I mean, as long as you’re not stamping your feet and throwing something against the wall. If you just say, ‘You know, I don’t give a shit – I’m just going to do what I want to do’, there’s a great freedom, and I think that was really the approach to this.

SR: Your vocals are more powerful than ever on this album, which is no mean feat. Have you ever taken vocal training or done anything in particular to look after your voice?

BE: Oh, this is because I’m a monster of metal, right?

(Both laugh)

SR: A giant of metal! Not a monster!

BE: (Laughing) My mother was right – I am special! Oh, you know, I stopped smoking before The Electric Age – that was huge for me. I mean, I smoked for 35 years. I would smoke onstage, you know? I would have a lit Marlboro between my fingers that would be burning while I was singing. Not always, but I smoked a lot. And that’s probably one of the bigger changes for me – that I probably just have a bit more lung power. Because I’m not smoking, I also have a bit more resilience and can last longer and do more things. I can get higher and I can also get lower. One of the problems with my voice has always been trying to sing low because my speaking voice is high. When I try to sing low, it becomes rubbery. If you can picture a rubber band, going in and out or back and forth, it doesn’t hold a note. But now I can and I think it’s probably because I’m not smoking. I took lessons early on – I took instruction between the first two records. I still warm up before I sing. But I’m not like one of these neurotic guys. You know, I’ll ride my motorcycle in the winter without a scarf. I think that most of the problems, when it comes to vocalists, are psychosomatic. So it’s like, ‘Hey, you – you want a shot of vodka or whisky?’ and I’ll be like, ‘Why don’t you put both out and I’ll decide later.’

(Both laugh)

BE: But I mean, I think that’s a better approach – it just works for me. I don’t know if it works for everybody. But for me, just taking it as if it’s just part of life has always been my approach to it.

SR: You’ve got a set of European dates ahead of you. How does it feel when it’s time to get out and tour the new album each time?

BE: Well, I mean it’s exciting. I mean, business as usual is a good thing after 35 years, you know? It still means it’s relevant. It’s valid and it’s been accepted. The dates are booked. I mean, we do well in the U.S. We do as well in the U. S as we do in Europe. And in some places, we do better. It’s just a great thing that it still rolls, you know? The machine is still oiled and ready to perform. And you know, this is my biggest high… It’s being on stage. You know, it still has risk and reward, it still involves instantaneous gratification, and there’s still the possibility of failure. And I think that’s really exciting. I mean, nobody wants to go up and fail. You want to go in to win. But the idea is that those feelings still exist. So I really look forward to going out touring, and especially when it’s new material.

SR: I’m sure you must be fairly confident that audiences are going to lap this material up, though.

BE: I mean, I’m thinkin’ yeah. I’m thinkin’ it’s good. I mean, there’s a lot of excitement here. You can probably tell in my voice that I’m obviously proud of it. And, on a personal level, pride is my biggest motivator but it’s also my biggest sin. But at least I know that, you know what I’m saying? So, going out there, I’m going out with that chest full of air, but I know that there’s that possibility of failure. I mean, it’s probably not likely, but it still exists.

SR: I take your point, but that’s not going to happen. It’s a fantastic album.

BE: Well, I don’t think so either. But you know, you never know when you’re going to fuck a song up, so that’s still a possibility. But I look forward to this tour and I’m one of those guys who looks at it like, you know, the next show is my most important. I take that from day to day and I think that’s where some of the success comes from.

SR: When do you think you’ll be coming back to Australia?

BE: We just got two offers, which is unique. We turned one down and we’re going to see if the other one can work out for us once we get it through the bean counters. It would be a package – we’d connect that to a package to the Pacific Rim and hit some of the Asian cities, also.

SR: Do you have a message you’d like to send out to your Australian fans?

BE: You know, I just had a great experience. I was just on 70000TONS of Metal, right? So, I’m talkin’ to an Aussie, and I’m talkin’ to a New Zealander, right? They’re both just sittin’ there and they got my head spinnin’ back and forth – it’s, like, teetering on my neck as each talks. They’re explaining the difference between Australia and New Zealand. And finally, the guy from New Zealand goes, ‘Well, I know this – if you walk out onto that promenade, (where everybody’s drinkin’ beer), and you yell “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie”, they’re gonna go, “Oi! Oi! Oi!” (Laughs loudly).

BE: So I did! So my message is: OI! OI! OI!