Overkill: Rattlesnake Shake
06-Aug-2012 Words: Paul Southwell
Latest release: The Electric Age (Nuclear Blast/Riot!)
New Jersey thrash metal band Overkill has always been a force to be reckoned with both live and in recorded form. From the late 70s and with various lineups, their strength lies in the partnership of vocalist Bobby 'Blitz' Ellsworth and bassist D.D.Verni, weathering more trends and trials than most bands can endure. Years ago, their eye catching album artwork in import shops grabbed attention with imagery that ranged from antagonistic to gothic styled creativity. It still does. Thrash metal is at their core and with a massive back catalogue, the latest release The Electric Age is bottled thrash energy that puts some young, old school pilfering bands to shame. Loud managed to grab a phone chat with Blitz. Listen to your elders, kids!
The new album The Electric Age is full on. How are you feeling about it with so many albums in the back catalogue and as part of the Overkill legacy?
It is too new to even assess, I don’t want to be one of those guys who is going to tell you that this is the best shit since canned beer because I don’t really know yet. It has a lot of energy and I was happy with the songwriting and vocals. It becomes explosive at times so I suppose I am going to be happy with it as time passes.
How did you find the time to record and produce?
We work on a cycle, on the clock. It has been two years since the last record Ironbound, but there are always riffs being collected as long as we are working on that clock of two decades-plus now, which is write, record, release, tour.
How about producing? Are you in that chair?
Not me specifically, D.D. [Verni - bassist] owns the studio. I obviously help and do the vocal end of everything. I work with a different engineer but we all get together once a week with regard to fitting in. I find that if we do it this way then there is a certain spontaneity that happens. If I’m involved with how the riffs are coming along, how the arrangements are coming along and the bass tracks, there is not a hell of a lot that I can do but if I am down at another studio, changing some stuff vocally, it can seem to spark a song and then once a week, I’ll go to DD’s place and we’ll look at the whole thing collectively.
Over the years you’ve worked with producers such as Terry Date [Pantera] and Colin Richardson [Slipknot]. Did you learn a lot from them or did you share ideas?
Production is about organisation. If you can get the sounds that you want on the front end, it is quite easy. It is about staying organised from that point on. It is also about trying to be objective about yourself. We hand the record over to somebody else to mix so if we have the right sounds and performances we want, the mix should be easy. Once you get the tones, just stay organised.
For the two live albums that you’ve done, did you tamper with them much after the fact?
It is a combination. Sometimes the tracks stand up but occasionally, somebody will fall out and you do a fix or you add a guitar. Primarily the vocal and drums will stay the same. At those times it was Tim Mallare playing drums. I’m not going to re-do the vocals to try to keep that live feel but sometimes there’ll be an extra guitar added.
Is it difficult to get clarity added from a live recording in metal?
It depends on where you’re playing. You always want a close or direct mic but you want that room vibe and that changes the sound. If a place like an old theatre was made for non-amplified instruments, it is not easy because there is ambience once you start involving the crowd with those live mics that can overwhelm what comes off the stage. In more controlled or modern venues it is less hard because they are constructed for amplified sound. That’s why it sounds good in the back, where the sound-man is and in the front.
For your recent shows in Australia, you’re still running around a lot during your performance. How do you keep the sound down or tight?
That is just from years of doing this and when we first went out, this [energy] was our thing. You cannot Pro Tools that energy and there are plenty of bands that can do it but I think that technology happens with regards to recording and performance to some degree. If you can’t play then it is just no fucking good live, so I think that energy comes from us doing it over and over again. We’re probably up at around four thousand shows.
So with all of the bands that come and go, have you got a philosophical viewpoint about touring?
It is all in hindsight. It is a good combination between D.D. and myself. He is the planner whereas I have more of an immediacy about opportunity. Both of those things together makes us planned and making the best of each day. Being self-managed, that is a good combo and is one of the reasons why there is longevity here.
The big four thrash bands plus Exodus, Testament and of course Overkill are still around. Would you put that down to having a vision from the start?
There was certainly an unspoken blood oath back then, you know, I remember being in Brooklyn, New York, seeing the first Megadeth show that came east and you had that feeling when you’re having a beer with these guys that you’re all in it for life with the same goal. If we are all honest about it, Metallica opened some huge doors for people. They changed the face of music and pop music. They are one of the biggest bands in the world with regard to their impact and that is an amazing feat. To some degree, that helps those that were cut from that same cloth, you cannot deny that fact and say they had nothing to do with it. They took huge strides.
What’s curious about that time is that you had vinyl and tape trading whereas now you’ve got downloads. If you were to start out now, would you cut through?
That is hard to say as the competition is much fiercer now. Not everybody can make a good sounding song or record. That can happen for not a lot of cost whereas back then, all of the work went in prior. It was all of that tape trading and saving money to get ten or twenty hours of studio time but now it can be made in a bedroom. Instant information is great but then there is the downloads so people do not pay as much attention to so many good bands that are out there because there is just too much shit. I mean, it is just everywhere. We were more focused on it back then so I don’t think so, I am too old school with regard to what we do. I’m a good balance of what was and what is for promotion and that helps. Younger bands are tipping their hat to the old school. I don’t think that these guys are going to be making any money from record sales or even advances but it does help keep the scene around. We like Evile, Warbringer, Suicidal Angels and Gama Bomb. We’ve had them all out on the road with us and it is a slick business move. It exposes the younger bands to the old school and if the younger bands are tipping their hat to the old school now, the person who pays for the ticket can see where it comes from.
What are you looking forward to in the next couple or so upcoming years?
We’re going to tour The Electric Age; we think it deserves it and we can still measure up. When we can’t we’ll be the ones to say that but I think we’ll know. Down the road, there are a few horizons to see in parts of Asia. China has now opened up and I’d love to be in these places, very much like Australia being a new horizon for the Ironbound record, I’d like to have some new horizons for The Electric Age. So if we can get that Pacific Rim in there, we’ve been to Japan and Korea but if we could add half a dozen other countries and then pop down to Australia five or six shows, I don’t think it would be overkill (laughs) to say that we’ve done nine shows in Australia in 28 years.
On the latest album, songs like ‘Black Daze’ have a groove going on. The speed and aggression that goes into the solos seems to fit. Is that all improvised for your guitarist?
Oh for Dave [Linsk – lead guitar], yeah, of course. One of the things that Dave brings to the party is a natural purity when it comes to guitar. He can work pieces out but he can make them sound as if they are off the top of his head and that is the beauty of it. On ‘Black Daze’ demos, as it was developing and I gave him a poke in the ribs and said, ‘it sounds like Deep Purple on steroids’ and he said, ‘I’m breaking out the Strat’. He is the kind of guy who uses that to taking it a step further with regards to working it out.
One thing I admire about the guitar solos is how many different styles are within them.
He is somebody who should be recognised in this genre, he is one of the best. He will not play a note out of key, when we are doing mixes, he is so dialed into it that he is such an asset for us. I think that he is such an asset for this whole scene. I have been singing his praises for a long time. Mike Portnoy [ex-Dream Theater drummer] is like a closest thrash head and he filled in for one of our guys a few years back. Now every time we’re at the same festival, he shows up with his drum sticks in his back pocket. Now he’s bringing the guitar player with him [to chat] with respect for Dave’s work for this type of music.
How do you keep in time with the snare going so quickly?
I write everything to the drums. If you listen to the way I write, it sounds very melodic but the first thing I write to is to the beat. If I understand the beat, it is really simple for me. If I write to the beat and drop every other phonetic out, I can start putting melody into it. So, I start that way. I don’t start listening to the guitars or the key, it is all about understanding what Ron’s [Lipnicki – drums] hands and feet are doing. So the idea is that I’m performing to the drums so that I can write to the drums.
Any chance of another tour to Australia?
I would hope so. I’m pushing this whole Pacific thing. We have the US setup and some of the good European festivals; stuff in the East and after that it is a European tour that takes us into November. I want to try to get down your way prior to the holidays.
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