Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Voltage behind Overkill: A Conversation with Bobby Blitz

When a man becomes completely synonymous with with his own work, it's a sure sign of a career well-heeled in both quality and legacy.  Such is the case with Bobby 'Blitz' Ellsworth, energetic frontman and part and parcel leader of Overkill, the New Jersey thrash veterans who refuse to recognize that the game has rules beyond their own.  It's been a whirlwind career of high success and scary battles for Blitz, but always he has been a perfect showman at the front of the band, thrilling crowd nation and world wide over the course of nearly thirty-five years.  We sat down with the iconic thrash singer before a recent show and talked a lot about dichotomies - the man and his band, the man and his image, the passion and the business, even East vs West.  Read on:

D.M: Out of all the Overkill records there’s ever been, two of your five most successful records have been the last two.  Did you ever imagine that thirty years ago, that three decades later you’d have that kind of success?

BOBBY BLITZ: You know something, I try not to figure the shit out, because I think I’ll ruin it if I do.  I really moreso just enjoy it.  I do know when people say to me, that have been around, following this band or this type of a scene for a thirty year period, they say ‘it’s not like the good old days.’  I say ‘you’re just not paying attention.’  These days are pretty good right now, too.  And I think the success of those last couple records really proved that for us.  I suppose with age can come good things.  This was supposed to be a young man’s game, but experience is obviously trumping the young angst.

D.M: Not that long ago I spoke with Steve Souza, who said that if he’s gained anything, it’s a sense of perspective and the ability to step outside himself and enjoy his success for the first time.  Does 
that resonate with you?  Is it less work than it used to be?

BB: I can’t necessarily say that, but I suppose with experience you know where you can take your shortcuts, where you can’t take your shortcuts.  D.D [Verni] and I manage the band, too, so we’re involved with this on a daily basis whether we’re touring or not touring.  It’s a multi-faceted thing, where it’s not just our careers, it’s our life.  I’ve never not enjoyed it, though.  If there was something for me that I thought of as stressful – I mean, I still get nervous before I play, I suppose that’s a good sign because it means something for me, those nerves are not because I’m afraid, those nerves are because I want to win.  I think that as time has passed, I’m not going to say I enjoy it more because I always have, but for sure I look at it a little differently as time has passed.

D.M: Is there a point at which you had to separate the music as your career versus the music as your passion?  Or have they always been one and the same?

BB: Boy, that’s a good question, and I think it’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that.  I think it’s always been one and the same for me.  Doing this, we came from a different era, we were pre-Internet.  You physically wore out your sneakers promoting yourself.  You would knock on doors, you would shake hands.  So, there was a passion in that, too.  But the music was the catalyst for all it.  So I can say for sure that I can separate the two because I love playing, that’s really my drug.  I really think of myself as selfish when I’m playing because I know that on some level, I’m doing it for myself, not doing it for anybody else.  So yeah, I can separate the passion from the business side of music.

D.M: After everything you personally have been through, what makes that passion continue?  Has there ever been a point when you said ‘I can’t do this anymore’ or ‘I don’t know if I should?’

BB: I was knocked down a few times, and it’s not good things, but everybody’s got a cross to bear.  If those things didn’t happen on the road, I would never have made them public.  When I got cancer, we had to cancel tours afterwards.  When I had a stroke it happened on stage.  When I got pneumonia, it happened while I was going to a show.  Otherwise I would keep those as my private life.  But I think that probably the testimony to that answer is that we’re in the process of releasing something called “Historikill,” it’s from the ‘90s, up until about 2007 and it’s really from the darker days of metal.  It’s never been an issue to D.D and I about stopping doing it.  It was ‘how could we do it now?’ and that’s when we decided to manage ourselves and start cutting our own deals and cutting down expenses and we still knew there was a market for us out there where we could exploit our passions.  So I think “Historikill” is a good statement to the fact that sure, it was hard but it was never undoable, and we never had a conversation with regard to stopping.

D.M: Speaking of “Historikill,” do you divide Overkill into different eras of its existence?  For example, ’81 to say ’91, then ’91 to ’07, and then ’07 to now?  You’re sort of recently revitalized, are there phases to Overkill to you?

BB: That’s a good point there, sure there are.  Because I kind of categorize them with regard to lineups.  That first lineup, minus Rat Skates did four records together, and that’s the first chapter of our existence.  Then in came [Rob] Cannavino and [Merritt] Gant, and that was the second.  Then two more guys, [Sebastian] Marino and [Joe] Comeau, and now Derek [Tailer] and Dave [Linsk].  These are all different chapters.  But probably, as time goes on, one of the things I enjoy about touring is the people I tour with.  When you get together with these guys it’s not heavy, so this chapter, or this segment of the band is really kind of fun to be on the road with.  Not that the others didn’t have great points to them, and there’s always something charming about the startup, but there’s also something charming about today.  And I say that probably because I like being known for the moment or for the day as opposed to the past.  If you’re relative in 2015, it’s testimony to doing the right thing all the way through for yourself and for your career.  So sure, there are chapters, but this most current one is probably one of faves.

D.M: You and D.D have been the only two constants in this band since 1981.  How is your relationship, just you and he, as two people?  It’s rare in music as a whole but in this genre in particular that two people can coexist peacefully for that long.

BB: You know something, his wife brought it up once, she’s very insightful.  I’ve known her as long
as I’ve known him.  She was his girlfriend in 1981.  So maybe that says the kind of people we are, you know what I mean?  She says it’s amazing but it’s not un-understandable because you come from the same background, you come from the same type of families, you both come from brothers and sisters and doing the right thing for them.  And I think that’s why this relationship works with D.D and I.  You put the guy before the band, the band takes care of itself, it’s really simple.  It’s great to have that relationship.  I’ve known him longer than I’ve been married.  I mean, the only people I’ve known longer than him are my brothers and sisters and my mother [laughs].

D.M: After so long, what keeps Overkill passionate for this kind of music?  Plenty of your contemporaries have faded away or changed their style, but you’ve always been Overkill, it’s always been thrash, what keeps it fresh for you, what’s your inspiration these days?

BB: Well, you know, we never had an identity crisis, we’re Jersey guys, we keep our secrets to yourselves, we like playing.  This is my drug, this is where I get high, so I think that’s where that passion is always reignited.  And you’re in it to win.  I like the competition of my contemporaries, I like the young guys who come along.  I like the older bands.  I love competing against Exodus, for instance.  Sharing a stage with Exodus for me is like the perfect thing, because I want to bury them [laughs].  But If I’m going out there with that attitude, I obviously have passion for it, and I think that’s my point, I’m just trying to highlight your question with attitude.

D.M: A few years back, there was a big to-do about the ‘Big 4’ playing shows together [Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax].  Was there any sense of resentment on your part, like a ‘where’s my invite?’ because you guys were there, so was Testament and Exodus and Nuclear Assault.

BB: Yeah, fuck those guys! [laughs]  Didn’t expect that one, did you?  You know, not really.  I mean, we know what we are, and relating to the previous answer of not having an identity crisis, I think that that goes beyond thrash, we know what we are when it comes to business, too.  We like our business.  There’s not a resentment factor.  Would I have liked the opportunity?  Abso-fucking-lutely I would have liked the opportunity, but that’s the business side of me talking.  It has nothing to do with the passion, it doesn’t change a thing with regard to how you look at your day.  It’s not anything I’ve ever pined over, you know?  When somebody asks me something like that, I always go ‘who?’ Am I not paying attention, the big what? [laughs].

D.M: Going way back, when people think of the origin of thrash, I think they always think of the Bay Area, or just down the coast in Los Angeles.  But you and Anthrax and a couple others came from the New York area, what separated East Coast thrash from West back in then?  Was the world just bigger and it was harder to get stuff coast to coast?  Did that make space for two scenes?

BB: Well, that’s a good point, there was no instant information then.  You had to go by snail mail to get somebody’s tapes and trade them, but I think the Bay Area, as an example, they created a style, maybe Metallica, and somebody’s who’s a historian would tell me somebody else did it before them, but I think all the Bay Area bands used that as a blue print.  Where you see different approaches to Overkill, Anthrax, Carnivore, Type O Negative came out of Carnivore, Biohazard was kind of a thrash band.  All those bands are very different from each other.  I think the main difference is that in California, they were exposed to New Wave of British Heavy Metal and California punk, while in New York we were exposed to New Wave of British Heavy Metal and East Coast punk.  I was at Max’s Kansas City.  I’m nineteen years old, I’m in college and I saw the New York Dolls play.  I’d see the Ramones on the street, or I’d go to the Mudd Club and see the Heartbreakers when the Dolls broke up.  I think we were exposed to that, and they were exposed more to the Dead Kennedys.  To some degree, I think there’s that punky attitude and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and you mix that with a bag of methamphetamines, and you get thrash [laughs].  That’s probably the only different element, is that punk scene.  We were huge Dead Boys fans.  When the Dead Boys moved from Cleveland to New York, it was like they were ours now.  You’d go see them, and they’d do gigs without all the band members!  ‘Hey, we don’t have our bass player tonight, but we need the money.’ It was like ‘how fucking great is this?’ [laughs]   I think that was our difference between east and west and it gave us a lot more individuality as opposed to the West Coast blueprint.

D.M: It’s been much publicized that Black Sabbath is heading out for “The End” and Judas Priest kinda-sorta retired and other bands seem like they’re heading that way.  Do you see an eventual end of the line for Overkill?

BB: Well, we’re realists.  I certainly don’t want to die out here.  I’ve had three bumps in the road over thirty years, which is really not a lot when you think about it.  But it’s thirty fucking years, everybody’s gonna have something.  We all have crosses to bear.  But I really don’t want to die out here, that’s not my thing.  I’ve always enjoyed it, and part of the reason I enjoy it is because in my head it’s bigger, you know what I’m saying?  ‘Honey, I’m not gonna answer you unless you call me Bobby Blitz!’ [laughs]  You can picture an old man sitting around tattooed, right?  Watching old fucking videos, banging his fucking bald head and everything.  I got to be realistic about it, and being realistic says I just might not be able to anymore, and that’s okay with me, because I was able to do it.

D.M: After so long, what’s separates Bobby Blitz from Robert Ellsworth?

BB: You know, a kid said to me once, he goes – he was eastern European, we’re doing this interview, and they’re so fucking stiff, these people.  They don’t understand our sense of humor.  I mean, I can tell you’re from the East Coast, you know, just because we’re getting each other.  And he goes ‘oh, finally I have my phone call with a legend,’ and I tell him ‘you got to see a legend on Saturday mowing his fucking lawn.’ [laughs]  Just blows the whole thing right out.  In reality, one of the reasons this band’s been able to continue, and we’ve been able to keep our secrets to ourselves and not air our dirty laundry because there’s not that much of it, is that we’re pretty down-to-Earth dudes.  We like doing this shit.  We’re family guys who love our families.  The only reason a guy can do this for thirty years is because he’s got a great fucking wife who says ‘do whatever you want, whatever makes you happy.’  So if you have that as the basis of your life or existence, it’s not hard to separate.  Bobby Blitz is on the stage, you’re talking to Robert Ellsworth, it’s totally different.  I could be having this conversation on my deck with a beer grilling burgers.  When I look at it in hindsight, that’s always been one of our assets, is that we don’t really care about all of that other shit.  If we have a problem, we face the problem, we go through the problem.  If we have problems with each other, we face them, obviously with kid gloves sometimes because D.D and I are managers, but if you’re grounded you can have that separation easily.

D.M: Switching topics – how do you protect your voice?

BB: I gave up tobacco, but I smoked like a fucking chimney for probably thirty-five years, about three years ago I gave it up.  I warm up a little bit.  I take two anti-inflammatorys right before I go on.  That’s probably the biggest secret.  And they’re just Aleves. The idea is that if you go out there with an anti-inflammatory in your system – it’s like if you take a couple before you work out, the muscles stay loose and don’t swell up or anything.  It’s the same idea here with vocal chords that if I take them before I go out there, even though I’m abusing them for ninety minutes, they’ll stay loose and be okay.

D.M: My wife and I are both big fans of The Cursed.  Is that done?  Was that a one-and-done project, or will we ever see that again?

BB: You know, Dan [Lorenzo] is a great guy to play with, he’s not like anyone else I’ve ever worked with in that he’s the only person I know who can just dream up a riff and then play it perfectly.  I’m in contact with Dan all the time, I hang out with him a lot, me and him and his wife and my wife go out to dinner as couples.  I talk to him all the time.  We had a ton of fun doing that record.  But will it ever come around again?  Maybe not.  But I had a great time doing it, and I would like to do it again.  It was fun, all that saxophone and me singing like a fucking crooner [laughs].  When I first played that for my wife, I played her “Evil in the Bag,” and she said ‘that is the sexiest music I have ever heard from you,’ I said hey, that’s great, I better keep this one around! [laughs]

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