BOBBY 'BLITZ' ELLSWORTH And OVERKILL Reach 20-Album Milestone With 'Scorched': 'There Still Some F***ing Gas In The Tank'March 15, 2023
By David E. Gehlke
OVERKILL frontman Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth likes to refer to the band's post-Atlantic Records period (1996 through the early 2000s) as their "bowling alley years." Whereas many of the band's thrash peers either broke up, changed direction or went into creative hibernation, OVERKILL soldiered on and kept releasing albums. To do so, the New Jersey quintet had to take one on the chin and play smaller venues — like bowling alleys. Ellsworth jokes that it enabled his band members to increase their scoring averages, but something more significant was at stake: OVERKILL set themselves up for a long career that could withstand the natural ebbs and flows of the music industry simply by remaining productive.
As if additional proof of that is required, OVERKILL has returned with its 20th studio album, "Scorched". Delayed and altered because of the pandemic, "Scorched" heads down the same path as every OVERKILL effort since 2010's "Ironbound" behind Ellsworth's nitrous vocals and throttling thrash. "Scorched" shows that while OVERKILL may never need to tinker with its formula, a few unexpected years of pandemic-related self-examination went a long way toward meeting the band's high standards, something Ellsworth shared with BLABBERMOUTH.NET, among other topics, including when the venerable band may finally call it a day.
Blabbermouth: A lot of people had all sorts of epiphanies or lifestyle changes during the pandemic. Did anything similar happen to you?
Bobby: "It was a really strange time. It seemed like I was surrounded and motivated by what was happening in my head, which became insanity. The good side was that I got the demo for this record on the day everything shut down. Somewhere in that, I had normalcy in what was very abnormal. I could always go to that demo. It didn't seem like I was out of work or unproductive. It didn't seem like it was the end of the world. There was no 'I'm going to change my life.' Luckily, because of that, I had somewhere to go that was normal and continue my life. Obviously, my writing or part in that writing, the result is 'Scorched'."
Blabbermouth: OVERKILL has developed a rigid album and tour release schedule, which meant you were always busy. Did that feel odd not having those dates to hit on the calendar?
Bobby: "Sure. The band itself does other things, so there's that work ethic with us. We almost ran on a clock. Every 18 months or two years, you'd get an OVERKILL record followed by a tour, two U.S. runs, two European runs, a South American run, maybe go to Asia, then European summer festivals. It's how it was probably since the festivals started for us in the '90s. For three decades, that has been the way for us. You had to keep active in a different way. I wasn't singing at full-bore for two-and-a-half years. We were on the road when the pandemic happened. We were in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the Fillmore. You got the alert on the phone that Live Nation is 'thinking' about canceling it. Nobody thinks about canceling the entire world of shows. [Laughs] That was to soften the real blow. But from March 12, 2020, until 2021, I guess, November, I hadn't sung full-bore. It for sure took a toll on my voice and body."
Blabbermouth: Did your voice benefit at all from the unexpected rest?
Bobby: "It wasn't rest. I sing daily. That's one of the things I do, but not full-bore daily. I'm singing [OZZY OSBOURNE's] 'Over The Mountain'. I even throw in some Amy Winehouse. I listen to the deep south. I like the view of what singing is and that's because of how I was brought up. My mom cut a couple of records. She sang with Mitch Miller, did shows out of New York/New Jersey with him and had stints at the Copa. There was singing in my house all the time. I always remember my mother's singing voice before her speaking voice. She sang to all her babies. When the pandemic came, it's something comforting if it's what you've always known. I remember someone saying, 'Why did you become a singer?' I say, 'It has nothing to do with talent. It's all in how you present.' I'm not afraid of it. It was always happening in my house with my mother and sisters. Harmonizing in the kitchen was natural."
Blabbermouth: OVERKILL was never the darkest of the thrash bands. You have said you re-wrote "Scorched" because it started to take on a negative tone. Can you elaborate?
Bobby: "There's always positive aggression about us. There are darker sides to be used as a dynamic; there are darker songs. The general feeling is not that of depression when finished with ten cuts of a new OVERKILL record. I think this is very much in line with one of your first questions: The pandemic affected people in different ways and this is how it affected me. I was still on my motorcycle. I was still riding. I would see my buddies and we'd have a beer in the parking lot a few feet from each other. We were socializing, but it felt like someone was chaining us down. It came out in the lyrics, like 'I'm a prisoner of this circumstance.' I said, 'That's not us.' That's why there were teardowns. I kept some of the early stuff, but the idea was to break the chains and push back. That would be more the OVERKILL persona with regard to adversity. You hear me talk in this day and age and it sounds like I'm the voice of maturity to some degree. That's what this fucking record has. We know what we are. I've sat here and said, 'We've known what we are for a long time and it's not depressive.' That's why I tore that record down a few times."
Blabbermouth: And playing the victim has never been in the OVERKILL style, either.
Bobby: "I fucking love this. I can sometimes write like a 14-year-old eighth grader in middle school. You can't be totally profound every time you're writing something. Sometimes it's a gut reaction but in a positive feeling with regard to where we're going. It might be negative or small, but it's to show that there other things. It's to show you write in black to show there's white. You write a little negativity to show that aggression can be positive. When it's all said and done on 'Scorched', that was accomplished."
Blabbermouth: What was it like not being in the same room as the band putting the songs together?
Bobby: "It was, 'This is going to be peculiar.' It was never fear. We got into modern technology years ago. You have to understand D.D. [Verni, bass] had a studio we would record in for years. We would go down there. This is as recent as [ex-drummer] Ron Lipnicki. We needed it for the drum tracks. For me, if that was the foundation of the record, the drum tracks, scratch guitars and vocals, we had contact and eye contact. Somebody got a couple of pizzas, six-packs, Coca-Cola and blah, blah, we're in the room together. With this record, I thought, 'This is going to be weird.' That fear and I don't know if it was a fear, it was more of an observation, but that observation flipped itself once I started getting results. The first results were by June 2020. I had finished drum tracks from Jason Bittner."
Blabbermouth: Did you run into snags where D.D. presented a song and needed to adjust a vocal line, but you couldn't bring it up in person?
Bobby: "I don't think so. It's a skeletal demo. It usually starts with D.D. and ends with me. It goes through the course of the other guys, obviously, Jason after D.D. because of the drum tracks. That's how you build your house with a foundation. I didn't think that. I think we embraced the technology more and just tried to use it for all its worth. It made it interesting for us because it was different. We had to eat the pizza and drink the beer by ourselves that particular evening and go, 'Bro. I heard this track and this specific part. Were you thinking of highlighting vocals with the crash cymbals?' Jason goes, 'I threw it in there just in case.' I go, 'Fuck!' The forethought he had with regard to the crash cymbals, I don't know if we could have pulled off in the room together."
Blabbermouth: Jason has proven himself to be a real asset, hasn't he?
Bobby: "Jason is a songwriter. Beyond that, he's a super-talented drummer. He's a fucking clock. You can depend on him. If it's 12 o'clock Jason time, it's 12 o'clock Jason time. That happens day to day to day to day, which is immeasurable with regard to its value. It keeps the band tight in a live situation. He still surprises you. When we did 'The Wings Of War', we played for approximately two years. I forget where we were when I knew the band had changed. We were maybe in Europe — Ukraine or Russia — one of the fighting countries. I said, 'Shit. The fucking band has changed.' It's because of this guy. Now, he's been playing with us for five years. It's not just the band that has changed. He's picked up on all the nuances of the other four guys around him. I think that's an intangible. You can't pick it up on the record unless somebody tells you it's there."
Blabbermouth: You have it at the album's end, but "Bag O' Bones" sticks out. I always thought OVERKILL did "fun" songs like this well, especially going back to "Welcome To The Garden State" on "The Wings Of War".
Bobby: "I'm with you. It's the one that stands out next to the other nine. We've always been a ten-track band. When D.D. writes, he mocks the titles of the album. He mocked titled 'Scorched' as the opener. It's just because he put that intro in front of it. He said, 'It's going to be an intro here. Dave [Linsk, guitar] will figure it out. This is where I hear it.' 'Bag O' Bones' was mock-titled as 'Last One'. I was on the phone with D.D., embracing technology or on Zoom. I said, 'Is this the last one you wrote?' He goes, 'No, no.' I said, 'It stands out from all the other tunes. It should be somewhere on itself. It should be the last one when we think of the record. It's one of the first songs I attacked. It was so easy and fun to do. It was just fucking groovy. That's one of the heaviest grooves we've ever done. Throwing the vocals over the top, it's like a journey over the stratosphere. I suppose if you're looking for a meaning for it, it was about the journey and the joy in the journey. 'Send me west with all their best.' It's just a fun kind of tune."
Blabbermouth: Rob Halford usually posts pictures of himself with a bunch of dictionaries and thesauruses when he's writing lyrics for a JUDAS PRIEST album. Are you the same kind of guy?
Bobby: "I use a site called RhymeZone. I think of a guy who writes lyrics and I'd attribute it to somebody like Halford and he'd probably concur you collect words. You collect them like jewels. Some mean more to you than others. The problem in my case and why I use RhymeZone — I'm not just looking to fill the line. I'm looking not to repeat myself. After 20 records, that becomes a task in itself. There's a fine line between style and plagiarism. You can even plagiarize yourself. Have I done it? I probably have somewhere, but I try like hell not to. RhymeZone is the thing that keeps me afloat or at least on the right path."
Blabbermouth: Do you recall any times when it's happened? If so, does anyone in the band help you remember?
Bobby: "I don't even go to D.D. I go to Dave. The guy is a riff and lyric magnet. I go, 'Hey, man. Did you hear that cut I sent you?' He goes, 'Yup. It's 'Good Night' off 'The Electric Age'. I go, 'Alright!' It's not like he has to look it up! He is our degree of heavy. Everybody thinks this band is a bunch of thrash lunkheads. Not everybody, but I'm exaggerating. If we're a bunch of thrash lunkheads, I grew up riffing like on [new OVERKILL song] 'Wicked Place'. I grew up with Columbia Records House. I got 12 platters for a penny when I was a paper boy. I got FOGHAT, LED ZEPPELIN and BLACK SABBATH — all the bands with the chunky riffs. I come from that era. D.D. is eclectic. He loves punk. He's playing in a band that does rockabilly [D.D. VERNI AND THE CADILLAC BAND]. He did the BRONX CASKET CO., which is a gothic thing. Dave is the 'Ambassador Of Heavy'. He is the one that pushes everything to the heavier end of things. I'm not going to say death metal riffs, but almost to the end of it. You put those three guys together: The '70s, eclectic and the 'Ambassador Of Heavy'. You get quite a unique way of interpreting your own music. Somewhere in there, it's one of the reasons the three of us have worked together for this many years. It's always interesting. It's not all the same dude. It's not three guys who think exactly the same. You're always surprised about what the other one says."
Blabbermouth: You've been at this since the early '80s and now have 20 studio albums under your belt. Nobody is getting any younger, either. Have you thought about a logical end to OVERKILL?
Bobby: "I think it will show itself. I'm quite aware that I have more time behind me than in front of me. I'm totally into that. I've said all the way down through the years I will do this as long as I enjoy it and can do it at a high level and not become a novelty. The thing for me is relevance in the current day. 'Scorched' holds that. I know it's a dirty word; it was dirty in my '50s. It holds maturity. It holds spirit. How do you sow these riffs together seamlessly? That is the important thing. It shows there's still some fucking gas in the tank. It's not about going until death. I don't have that. I want to present OVERKILL as OVERKILL should be presented. It will show itself when it's time. I don't know if it's next year. We don't discuss these records in-depth about where we're going with them. They form around us. I had a conversation with D.D. and he goes, 'What do you think?' I said, 'Just write it like it's the last record. If you write like it's the last record, you'll take bigger chances.' He said, 'You're probably right.' If that's the mentality, there could be a few more. Who the fuck knows?"
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