By Dr. Abner Mality
Well, I finally got to meet the man in person! I’m talking about Mr. Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth, who has spent about the last 35 years or so being the frontman for one of my very favorite metal bands, Overkill! Long time Wormwood fans will know that I’ve talked to Blitz a couple of times before over the phone and we had a great time. This time was special because I got to see the man in person.
At least he didn’t pretend to forget who he was talking to, like he did previously when he faked losing his memory due to a stroke. Quite a card, Mr. Blitz. I drove in to the new Chicago venue Concord Music Hall to see Overkill play with Nile and I was Bobby’s guest aboard the “Overbus”. He’s just as sharp and articulate and funny in person as over the phone.
Below is the rundown of our chat…I’ll be back afterwards for a look at the show itself...
WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: I notice you’re rocking a moustache now. You’ve got a very suave, continental look!
BOBBY BLITZ : I did it just for you. (laughs) It just showed up one day. I grew it out for a month and my wife was coming back from Europe and I was like, I better do something with this. It was sticking out in every direction so I just trimmed it down to this.
WC: With so many Overkill albums out now….I think “Grinding Wheel” is what, the 18th?
WC: It’s gotta be hell putting together a good set list. Do you have a method to it?
BB: There is no method. It’s just primarily a feel. I think that one of the things that we like to do is play the newer tunes. What I mean by newer is not just “The Grinding Wheel”, but the last few records like “Ironbound”, “White Devil Armory”, “The Electric Age”. We wanna get something from those records in there, too, so that this whole new era can be represented. So I think that what we do is grab some of the new one…I think we’ve got three off the one, one from all the others that recently came out and then fill the rest with whatever we see fit. There are some classics that will always be there…”Rotten To the Core”, “Elimination”, but hey man, let’s go back to “Horrorscope”, let’s grab a couple from that, let’s go back to “Feel The Fire”. So it’s really just a mish-mash. I don’t think you can ever please anybody when you’ve got 18 records. We’re not even playing 18 songs in an hour and a half. We do 15 or 16 in about 90 minutes.
WC: You’ve hop-scotched to a lot of different labels over the years. Do you think Nuclear Blast will be your final destination?
BB: Well, you know, I can hear the bell tolling. I can hear it off in the distance saying time is running out on us. I’m a realist and I think I always have been. I think it’s one of the reasons I can really enjoy this. I’m a realist about it and I don’t have these gigantic, unobtainable expectations. But I can tell you this. I like working with them because of their excited commitment. It’s one thing to be committed to a business partner…that can be contractual. But when you have personal excited commitment that is a part of how we do business, that to me is saying that we’re in the right spot. This morning we just got the record’s first week numbers from Germany and we charted at the highest position we ever had. We were number 10 on the German Billboard or the equivalent of it. We got congratulation letters from everybody at Nuclear Blast that we ever dealt with, including Markus, the owner. If you’re dealing with that kind of commitment and that kind of mentality, you’re probably in the right place.
WC: They are really close to being the world’s major label for heavy metal. Them, Century Media, maybe Metal Blade…
BB: Yup, no doubt, no doubt. They are really something special in this day and age.
WC: I just saw your new video for the song “Goddamn Trouble”, which seems to be a story about urban riff raff. A little bit autobiographical, is it?
BB: Well, you know, we really don’t have much to do in regard to how a director or screenwriter is going to see that. We talked about it loosely with Kevin Custer and my feeling was that it just reminded me of what it used to be. I remember doing our part, the performance part, and the rest of it was not done yet. None of the storyboard was worked out. I know we wanted to involve cops, we wanted a metalhead character involved. It’s gonna tell that story of the early days, kind of a punky youth thing. Kevin asked, you got anybody in mind? I looked around the room and there was a guy who was shooting the performance with us who had long hair and a moustache and work boots on. I said this guy here would be perfect! (laughs) That was my contribution to the video! So I don’t think we were trying to portray anything. We wanted to deliver a great performance and we wanted Kevin to have the artistic freedom to say, OK, this is how we interpret the lyrics and this is the storyboard for the video.
WC: That kind of answers the other question I had, which was how much input you had on the video.
BB: It’s one of the things especially about video, because we want to be involved in the creation of it, but I think there has to be trust. Kevin has done some great videos for us all the way back to “Ironbound” . He did “Electric Rattlesnake”, he did “Bring Me The Night”, he did “Bitter Pill” and “Armorist” from the last record. Now he’s done two for this record. You gotta give him his leeway. You know, you do this because you like doing it. What’s your ideas? As opposed to just our ideas.
WC: Your new album ends in kind of a curious way with “The Wheel” and then “The Grinding Wheel”. What’s the difference between the two and why was it set up like that?
BB: Lyrically, it became an opportunity for me. Everything’s kind of filled with phonetics but as “The Grinding Wheel” started coming together, I realized I was writing a song about grinding through and always being dependable with regard to a person’s work but simultaneously wearing down. And I thought that was maybe a unique way of presenting the band. That’s the title track and I started that first. Then I started working on “The Wheel” or at least my lyrical contribution to it. DD had a bunch of the music written and Dave added to it and I thought, what a heavy song. They’re almost like contrasts to each other, “The Grinding Wheel” and “The Wheel”. I started using the same character and I just him before “The Grinding Wheel”. And all it is is him and you sitting down together and all he says is I’d love to sit down and quit the war but I gotta get back to work! (laughs) I’d love to have a drink and talk about the good times with you, but I gotta get back to work. And then he goes back to work in “The Grinding Wheel”. Even though there was no concept through the album, it was a unique opportunity to pair the two and have more of an in-depth meaning than to say oh, it’s just some abstract idea. It’s the same character speaking in both songs.
WC: “The Grinding Wheel” is maybe the most epic song that Overkill has done, with the choir and the big build-up, would you agree with that?
BB: I would think so. Obviously, the outro for sure has an epic vibe to it. I was thinking when the ideas came across and the guys were working on it and I threw my opinion into the ring…it doesn’t say to me that it’s a funeral, it doesn’t say that it’s going away. It’s that church bell that you hear ringing in the distance that you hear again. I thought that was kind of a cool way to look at it, that the church bell continues to ring.
WC; I believe the current lineup of Overkill is the longest lasting in the history of the band. Or it’s got to be pretty close.
BB: For sure. But I have to tell you, Ron Lipnicki just left the band.(laughs)
WC: I did not know that, that’s news to me!
BB: We haven’t made an official announcement but Eddie Garcia has been playing drums on the road with us now for a year. He was our sound guy and it was an instant slide-over. Ron was never asked to leave, it was just a personal issue. He’s got an entire other life, he’s got a family and he doesn’t want to be away as much as we need to be away. He did play on “The Grinding Wheel” and we left the door open for him to come back but Eddie bailed us out instantly. We did Germany with Eddie, all the European tours with Eddie and the festivals. Eddie’s been our go-to guy for a year now. So up that time, yes, it was the longest lineup.
WC: I think on this album you eased up on the speed just a little bit and you emphasized the groove aspect a bit more, would you agree?
BB: I don’t know specifically so because I still hear the energy in it. That’s kind of our brand. You can tell it’s us not necessarily by my voice. It’s a type of energy we use. It’s not DD’s bass, it’s that type of energy we use. I hear traditional heavy metal in “The Long Road” or the center section of “Mean Green Killing Machine”, I hear punk rock all over “Goddamn Trouble” and “Let’s All Go to Hades”, I hear groove in “Come Heavy”, the epic stuff you were just talking about. I don’t think it’s a case of more groove and less thrash, but I think for sure it’s a record of diverse influence.
WC: A tour…
BB: It’s for sure a tour! We’ve done all those types of songs throughout our career but for some reason, 10 of them showed up on this and have individual identities from each other. I think that the unique thing about it. It’s really a metal record with our brand of energy on top of it.
WC: I think the song “Come Heavy” had that Sabbath, almost Pentagram groove to it.
BB: Dude, I hear Sabbath in there. A couple of spots on the records, the breakdowns, I hear some Iron Maiden, I hear some of that East Coast punk rock that we loved when we were kids, I hear the blues. It’s all over the map! To me, it’s saying how great is this, that it’s multi-dimensional instead of uni-dimensional? It’s pretty cool!
WC: Do you put yourself in a position where you have to top what you’ve done before or do you just let it flow with no regard?
BB: I always think that it’s good to compete against yourself and I think somewhere even in my subconscious that that urge exists. I’m not going to say I don’t give a shit. I don’t give a shit what other people are telling me while we’re doing it. I care what four other guys in Overkill are saying to me when we’re doing the record. That’s enough objectivity for me. But I think somewhere in the back of my head I’m competing against whatever the last record was. I’m trying not to repeat it. It’s more of a push from the inside and we’ll see what happens. We’ll put in some melodic vocals, some harmonies. We’ll put in really melodic guitar parts, we put in question and answer with guitar and vocals, the drums are more organic. I think these are all the pushes that you think when you’re competing against yourself, hey, maybe we’re gonna have something that is better. So for sure it’s part of my subconscious from where I sit.
WC: This may be the biggest question of all. Is there anything left for you to accomplish that you haven’t already done?
BB: You know what I always think about this is the beauty of this band is that it works well as a team. This is our main accomplishment. You don’t necessarily think of me or think of DD when you think of Overkill. We have just ground through everything for years and that accomplishment in itself becomes renewed with each opportunity. If you look at “The Grinding Wheel” and you compare it to “Ironbound”, they were both relative to the time they were released. 2010, 2017, like it or hate it, it’s still relevant. It’s got a fresh coat of paint on all of our influences and characteristics. To have the opportunity to do that again in the future, that’s unforeseen at this point. It still kinda feels like there’s another accomplishment to do. You get to number 18 and all 18 are relevant. You think we can do 19? I’m betting we can!(laughs) That’s what I’m betting but that feels like an accomplishment each time it happens.
WC: I’ve got every record of yours…
BB: Well then, you know. And you know our biggest motivation is our pride. (laughs) When number 19 comes our way as an opportunity and we’re all still walking the face of this Earth and enjoying what we do, that’s going to be the unconquered territory or what is next to be conquered in our history.
WC: Any thing special planned for the Chicago fans tonight?
BB: What do ya mean, like deep dish pizza or something?(laughs)
WC: You’ve played here a ton of times…
BB: We’re early on in this tour and the principle we have is get the machine up and get the machine rolling. The way you do that is repetition. This is only the fourth show in. It’s not going to be much different than last night, except maybe a better performance.
WC: Been pretty good so far?
BB: So far, so good. Full houses so far, which I was kind of surprised at. The Nile guys are bringing something different to the tour. I’ve been doing this business long enough to realize that all I gotta do is sell a lot of tickets and then a lot of T-shirts! (laughs) How many did you sell? That’s as simple as it is. If I get a number there, I can compared Nile and Overkill to just Overkill. Those guys are worth tickets. They’re actually helping this tour, y’know. Helping it succeed at the level it has so far.
WC: Got it down to an absolute science.
BB: To some degree, yes.
WC: Any words or messages for the longtime faithful?
BB: Just press play. (laughs)
Time to exit the “Overbus” to accommodate the next journalist! But in less than an hour, I got to check this out:
February 17, 2017
Concord Music Hall Chicago
Concord Music Hall is a nice and very new midsize venue only a couple of blocks away from the crumbling Congress Theater, which hosted many a metal and punk gig over the years. The sight lines are great and I appreciate the row of comfy seats in the back, where I could park my weary carcass.
More than ten years ago, the first Overkill show I ever saw was at Joe’s also in Chicago. And opening for them that night was a local band called Fatal Order who threw some smoking covers into their set. Now years later, Fatal Order was again opening the show.
These guys are kinda the ultimate bar band. That’s not an insult, because that’s exactly what they’re aiming for. Perfect band to play at a local sports bar on a rowdy Friday night. They mixed crowd pleasers like Priest’s “Electric Eye” and Soundgarden’s “Outshined” with some of their own tunes like “Kicked In the Balls”, which some people in the crowd actually called for. Fatal Order did their duty and got things rolling.
Nile, of course, is on a different level as far as heaviness and brutality goes. They have undergone some major lineup changes recenty, with the departure of long-time member Dallas Toller-Wade. A couple of bangers I spoke to in the crowd were of the opinion that the band would never be the same. I’m willing to at least give replacement Brian Kingsland a chance.
One thing’s for sure, the band hasn’t given up an inch as far as intensity goes. They hit right out of the gate with vicious death metal insanity ala Cannibal Corpse. With Karl Sanders, bassist Brad Parris and Kingsland all capable of guttural vocals, their 3 pronged vocal attack is pretty potent. I thought Kingsland did a fine job, especially on lead guitar, but yes, Dallas is missed on vocals.
The dudes crushed it with faves like “Black Seeds of Vengeance” and “Sacrifice to Sebek” and also some rarely played tunes like “At The Gate of Sethu”. I felt Brad Parris’ stage banter left something to be desired…how many times can you say “Fuck yeah” before it gets old…and the relentless brutality can be wearying, but Nile seemed determined, energetic and happy to be opening for Overkill. And before I forget it, the drumming of George Kollias has to be seen to be believed.
That left the Jersey boys of the green and black to hit the stage once more. The relationship Overkill has with Chicago fans is almost symbiotic…they feed off each other. Overkill has never disappointed me live and I’m quite sure that they never will. As expected, they opened with the first track off their latest LP, “Mean Green Killing Machine” and we were off to the races.
If you read the interview I did with Blitz above (and if you haven’t, then why not?), you’ll remember I asked him about how Overkill puts a set list together. For a band with 18 albums, it’s impossible to play everything. But for the show they did tonight, I have to say their selection was quite excellent. Some tunes like “Elimination” and “Rotten to the Core” you knew had to be there. But others like “Nice Day For a Funeral” and “Hello From The Gutter” were like friendly faces not seen in a while. And then we got a real surprise when a thrashed up cover of Thin Lizzy’s greatest song “Emerald” was unleashed. That was a very welcome addition to the set.
Overkill is such a well oiled machine, it becomes a contest to try and spot anything off. There was only one thing about the show that disappointed me…no encore. We wound up with the predictable crowd pleaser “Fuck You”…and then nothing else. These guys should have had at least one encore.
Still, a great show and another entertaining night from the boys in Overkill. I think they know that church bell is ringing in the distance…but it’s still a long way off.