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OVERKILL - Interview with Blitz
By Wojtek Gabriel,
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Overkill thrash metal band
I think everyone would agree that in this case any kind of introduction is totally pointless. The New Jersey thrashers are one of the most consistent metal bands ever. They've been recording and releasing quality albums for well over 30 years now; Blitz's has one of the most recognisable voices in metal and the band's punky thrash has been loved by many generations of headbangers. Their last record titled "The Grinding Wheel" has been hailed by many as the band's most diverse album to date and Blitz seems to agree with that opinion. Do you know what he's doing when he disappears from stage during gigs? No? Then read on!
It's been almost a year since "The Grinding Wheel" was out, so you have a good perspective. If you could change one thing about the album, anything, be it the artwork or an arrangement or a lyric, what would it be?
Oh, fuck me, that's an interesting question. I never thought of it that way, because, you know, what's satisfying for me to make records with the boys is making a record, not making necessarily a collection of songs. And I think that a year later I feel that "The Grinding Wheel" is a true record, that it's cohesive with regard from one song to the next. It shows many different elements of what Overkill's about and I don't think for instance we're a single-dimensional thrash band. I think we have rock 'n' roll in us and punk rock and some groove and even a little bit of doom etc. etc. and I think that this record shows it. So, I have never sat down and thought to myself, "I would change this in "Come Heavy" or I would change that in "The Long Road"". So, my point being is that it shows multi-dimensional facets of Overkill. To make a record is the goal. The record is about songs having individual personalities. Obviously, showing our influence and our style but making each song individual. And I think "The Grinding Wheel" contains this based on our influences being groove, thrash, rock 'n' roll, punk, traditional metal. So, I'm gonna say, a year into this I wouldn't change anything. I think we have made a record, a multi-dimensional record and I would have never thought of changing anything with regard to this record, well, until you asked me the question.
About the grinding wheels on the cover... My first interpretation was that Overkill has been grinding metal for almost 40 years now. Was this the idea behind the artwork?
For sure it is. The idea is that the thing we know most about in our lives is this band. This is the thing I've done the longest amount of time, so I think the guys like D.D. and myself and even Dave who's been in the band for almost 20 years think in terms of expressing ourselves, showing imagery that we consider matches to what is inside the record and is a reflection of ourselves, of the scene. So, for sure we've been grinding it out, slow but sure for 35 years now.
Like you're saying, it's about the band and a lot of your lyrics are actually about the band. Is that the subject you are the most comfortable writing about?
Yeah, it's not specifically about the band but I use metaphors with regard to making them more realistic from let's say my point of view, it's not all about that specifically. It's about taking it, owning it in "Green, Mean, Killing Machine", it's about taking what you want. Now I can apply that to the band, because again, that's what I know. But the real message of the song is getting everything you want no matter how far that may seem. "Red, White a nd Blue" for instance is a very reflective type military song, with an aggressive nature to it, someone who may see it from the front, someone who has only a job to do, in one moment in time.
Do you still collect ideas for lyrics on post-it notes?
Ha-ha! I guess you remember what I told you last time, ha-ha! You know, post-it notes are just the old-school way I have of reminding myself of the past year or so, things or situations I don't wanna forget or traces that come up in my head and I use them more so when I'm writing. Because I think that when you're writing, the ideas are fast, they're furious so, things can be forgotten because you're concentrating on something else. So, the post-it notes for sure help me to let's say, stay focused and not lose ideas.
You worked on the production and the mixes with Andy Sneap. I suppose it must have been a bit tricky, because Andy has a very specific style of producing, but you successfully avoided having the typical Andy sound on the album...
Oh, I can't give our specific secrets, but we've been producing our own records for years. And there's a certain method we have. And I think that, let's say to generalise it, we take what's out there and say, "OK, we have to be different than this" or "We have to be better than this". And Andy Sneap with his ears and abilities with guitars and drums and bass as well as the entire mix, made him a great choice. But I think that what we wanted to do was to have his expertise, let's say with our vision. And he rose to that occasion. We used different gear than would normally be used on records that he does. We used a blend of acoustic and triggered drums, we used different types of guitars, different types of pick-ups and speakers, because we knew we didn't want to have just a cookie cutter type production and Andy's abilities are fantastic, but we still wanted to sound like Overkill.
I've read a few reviews of "The Grinding Wheel" and a lot of people say that it's your most diverse album. But the truth is you've always had a huge variety of influences in your music, like you said, from classic metal to punk and hardcore. So, would you actually say that in fact it is your most diverse release?
I don't know if it's the most, but for sure it is diverse. But again, it's cohesive. Each song really depends on the next. But when you get into "Goddamn Trouble" or "Let's All Go to Hades" you know that we come from the punk rock era. You get into "Come Heavy" and you know that we listened to Sabbath when we were kids and classic rock 'n' roll to some degree. "Mean, Green, Killing Machine" with a bluesy breakdown for the thrashy riff, so diversity was for sure the key. But it wasn't something we had set out to do verbally before the project started, it just started taking shape. When I started getting involved, D.D. was coming with riffs and I said, "That's groovy, that's rock 'n' roll, OK, that's punky" and then it just started taking shape on its own. So, I think that its success in my mind is that it happened naturally as opposed to being forced.
US thrash band Overkill
Having all the different influences in your music, have you ever considered including some out of your comfort zone stuff on the albums like, I don't know, fusion or jazz?
You know it's funny, Overkill doesn't talk much about music, we talk more so about sports, ha-ha! Usually we let the music happen on its own. I wouldn't be averse to trying it but I think it would have to come naturally. I think it would have to come out of a jam in a rehearsal room, but I have never sat down and seriously thought about jazzy-kill.
Which song was the hardest to record for you as a singer?
This would have to be "Our Finest Hour". I have to think back to when I was having or what I was having trouble with. I mean stuff like "Hades" came right out of my mouth with no problem, "Mean, Green" came out of my mouth with no problem... Probably for me was, and this was based on the timing issue I was having, was "Our Finest Hour". The song rhythmically is played the way I sing it. I've always tried to sing within the beat of the song as opposed to forcing my lyric around or over it. I like to be the part of the drums, I have to get into the drums. I kept losing the beat in the chorus and kept placing the tag line "our finest hour" in the wrong spot. So, I almost had to re-learn the part. So, that for me was probably the hardest.
"Come Heavy" is a weird song. At first it sounded to me like a few random parts put together. Can you tell me a few words about writing this particular tune?
Oh, it's D.D. Verni riffs, it was arranged by D.D. and Dave and also myself. You know, my end of this song was that there were parts of it that came very easy to me, there were parts of it that seemed like it was a little bit disjointed and I remember I was watching a movie, it was an old Gary Oldman movie called "Leon: The Professional" and he plays this insane part of a crazy cocaine cop and I remember watching it going, "What a disjointed fuckin' movie this is. Oh shit, that's it, the song." So, it was for me to understand this song "Come Heavy", I wrote a song almost about Gary Oldman's character in that movie.
Whose concept was the storyline behind "Goddamn Trouble" video? Was it the band's idea?
Oh no, no, no. We're not those people. We gave that to our director Kevin Custer, we said old-school, we said leather jacket. I remember we shot the performance, it was about a year ago right now, it was one of the coldest days in the New York / New Jersey area for a long time. We were in an old warehouse in Paterson, New Jersey and we just finished and Kevin said, "I'm working on a character for the vid, a metal guy" and I said, "Like this guy?", and Kevin said, "Hey, you wanna be the actor in the video?" So that guy actually worked on the crew for the videos. But generally, it was up to Kevin Custer, our director.
You've always played and recorded covers. Why did you choose Thin Lizzy this time around?
To me it kind of fit the record. You know, this wasn't my vote when it was happening, I remember we were talking about doing "Sanctuary" by Iron Maiden which we did record for "The Grinding Wheel" sessions and I was looking to do another punk song and Dave Linsk kept saying "We gotta do Thin Lizzy's "Emerald"", and we would play it at rehearsals and it just kept getting better and better and I could see Dave just wanted to rip out those solos, so to me it kind of worked because of his commitment to it more so than my own. And I think it was a really good choice for a cover.
OK, last question about the album. My fave song from "The Grinding Wheel" is "Mean, Green, Killing Machine". What's your least favourite song off the album?
Aaahh, maybe the title track. Which is also another hard song for me to sing. Not necessarily to sing but to get my head around it, to understand it. It went from that doomy sadness and pounding metal to extreme thrash, it had all those elements in one particular song. And the idea for a song for me is to make it understandable. So, I had to understand these different parts and try to make it happen. I'm glad with the outcome, but probably my least favourite song from the record would be "The Grinding Wheel".
You've released a split 7" single with Kreator. Was it the label's idea?
No, it was Rock Hard. Rock Hard came to me and asked me. Holgar Strattman who owns the magazine, he said he had heard Johnny Cash cut, that D.D. and I had done and he said he wanted to do a 7" with us on one side, Kreator on the other. And Kreator are great friends of ours so for us it was kind of an honour to be on the same dics as them. And I actually saw Speesy last month and he said the same thing to me. So, it was kind of a cool thing. I mean we kind of are cut from the same cloth with regard to our approach and delivery.
Ron was with the band for 12 years, but he left earlier this year. What happened?
You know, I don't think we all really know yet. We know it had to do with personal issue with regard to being home and the amount of touring that we do, but it was never really discussed. We left the door open for him for over a year to work out these issues, and kept it private. We had Eddy Garcia who's our soundman sit in for that year but Eddy had told us and we told him from the get go it was going to be temporary. But there was no bad blood or anything. He just took his drums home one day and he said, "I can't do the April tour in 2016". But it had to happen because we had scheduled it, and Eddy stepped in before Ron would work out his issues but still he was not able to tour after. I mean obviously he is not totally gone, he's played with D.D. Verni in side projects. It was not necessarily a matter of "Hey, you have to go", it was his decision.
You got Jason from Shadows Fall to fill in for Ron. I've read somewhere that you had been friends with him long before?
Yeah, he went to Berkeley School of Music in States here and he was a good friend of Tim Mallare's who was our drummer through the '90s until Ron, probably the longest standing drummer in Overkill. Jason would come up and see Tim and had a pair of sticks in his back pocket and he was just always looking to sit in, always looking to soundcheck, always looking to thrash you know, that kind of thing. We stayed in touch over the years and it was really a natural choice for us when Ron said no and Jason, he's bombastic, he's explosive, he's in. He understands the genre, he's got great timing and he understands us. You know, there's nothing worse than touring with people you don't like. When you get stuck on a bus for a month with somebody you don't like, that's not good. But when you sit on a bus with a bunch of guys you like, all of a sudden it becomes a vacation and Jason kind of fits, and that's a huge plus.
Overkill US thrash metal
You're not teenagers anymore, but I've never seen an Overkill show where you gave less than 100% to the cause. So how hard is life on the road for you these days?
Well, I mean you have to adjust in the present, ha-ha! I'm not up until 6 in the morning drinking beer anymore, ha-ha, because then the next show is gonna suffer. And you know, we have a lot of pride and I think that pride is motivation. We're proud men, proud of what we have done, and what we belong to. I don't wanna let me down, maybe that's my motivation, I don't wanna let myself down. And I've said it for years, you know, if I can't do this at a level that I think is the highest level, stop, it's just that simple. It's just because it makes me feel good, it's about doing it at the top.
Talking about gigs, you regularly disappear from stage when not singing. What do you do back there, if that's not secret?
Cocaine, ha-ha! There's been so many rumours about that over the years. "I think he's back there doing cocaine. He must be. He's got too much energy to not be doing cocaine." You know, it was something that I stole and adapted. I didn't create this, I just stole the good stuff from others who preceded me. That's really it. But that was something that when I was a kid, that Dee Snider, he used to do that, from Twisted Sister. Growing up in the New Jersey area we had a lot of opportunities to see Twisted Sister and he would walk off stage constantly through the set and come back. When I started playing in Overkill there was a great feeling of empowerment, of excitement, but there was also stage fright, which diminished over time. And I think it was a bit of stage fright; when I wasn't singing I felt like I had to get out of here, so I started leaving the stage in the early days and I've made it part of my routine now for 32 years of touring.
Last time I spoke to you I asked you about the longevity of your relationship with D.D. and you said that you owed him a lot of money so you had no choice but to work with him, ha-ha! Is it still the case?
Ha-ha! I've paid him back, ha-ha! Now I'm working with him because I want to.
On the previous album you had Mark from Accept sing one song with you. How did it come about?
We were talking about doing a cover song an0d we wanted to do a Nazareth song and we were thinking about asking Dan McCafferty from Nazareth to do it with us, Scottish born obviously. And we started talking about it and thinking to ourselves, "We don't want this to get out of hand", because we talked through management etc. etc. and we said you know, "This is going to be too much of the pain in the ass, he wants this, he was only gonna do it in one take, he was only going to do this, it has to be that way", and we wanted to make it Overkill. I mean no bad feelings, it's his song but Mark has always been a friend and we were sitting in the studio one day after we had recorded "Miss Misery" and decided that we would go another way from the Dan McCafferty situation and we asked Mark. D.D said Tornillo would be perfect and I agreed. He had recently been added to Accept, I think he was doing the second or third record with them and he immediately said yes. It's just based on friendship. Mark and I were involved in some benefits for muscular dystrophy you know, we put together line-ups, he runs one year, I run the next year so we have a close relationship. It was not a "can you help us out" kind of thing, I think the conversation took 5 minutes, "Yeah, just send the tracks down to Andy Sneap, we're down there next week and I'll take care of that."
What's your view on the young thrash bands and young fans dressing like it's 1985 again?
I think it gives the scene a boost of energy, I think it gives it new life. I think that when you appeal to multiple generations that you're upholding something valuable. And I'm talking about the scene and the music itself. So, I think it's necessary. I like that the younger thrash bands want to emulate this, I think that that shows its value, its staying power. I do think that many of them need to find an original path that will take them somewhere different. This is not a place for old men, this is really a place for young angst filled musicians and fans. But experienced bands give them what they need, but at the same time I think the experience of the '80s thrash bands gives us an edge with regard to what we do, 'cause what we did is real to us.
My fave Overkill album is "Horrorscope", probably because it was the first of your albums I heard, I had just started getting into metal when it was out. Do you have any cool memories from the "Horrorscope" times?
Actually, I do. It was different for us, Bobby Gustafson had recently left the band, D.D. and I became the writing team, we brought in Merritt Gant and Rob Cannavino, Sid Falck on the drums, it was Sid's third record, and he had become a great thrash drummer. He didn't come from thrash but I think that's what gave him the advantage, because he understood drumming from a totally different perspective, but then applied thrash to it so, I think it was a great record for us. "Horrorscope" gave us the feeling that we felt renewed, that it was all going to be fresh again and that's the way we approached it. We didn't overthink it, we didn't overtalk it, we did it. We wrote the songs and recorded those songs. And I think that that energy came out on stage.
If you had to show someone what Overkill is about by playing them just one complete album, which one would you pick?
It's really hard to say because I mean, there's so many records, so many different chapters. Maybe I could pick the chapters. I would pick "Years of Decay" for the first chapter, "Horrorscope" for the second and for the third chapter I'd pick "Ironbound".
I spoke to Schmier from Destruction half an hour ago and he asked me to ask you when are you going to shave your moustache?
Ha-ha! I just saw him at Z7 in Switzerland, he came down to the show and we've been close for a long time, he told me, "You look like a fuckin' cop!" Ha-ha! Tell him I'll shave if he takes his piercings out of his face, ha-ha!
OK, let's wrap-up. Have you already started collecting ideas for the next album or are you focusing on gigging just now?
No, we're always working. It's funny, I set-up this interview today because we have record colds in New Jersey. When I woke-up this morning it was - 10 degrees Fahrenheit, so I knew this was gonna happen and when I was told you wanted an interview I said, "Well, I'm gonna have nothing to do on Saturday, except music and talk to someone" so, I set-up the interview. But just before I called you I just sent D.D. what I call brainstorming, about 25 different titles of possible songs so yes, we're working.
Interview by Wojtek Gabriel
Photos by Mark Weiss

Official Overkill website:
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Tags: Overkill, thrash metal, Blitz, Bobby Ellsworth, Grinding Wheel
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© 1997-2020 Wojtek Gabriel. All rights reserved.
Unauthorised use of any works published on this website is prohibited.
Materials may not be reproduced in whole or in part by persons, organisations
or corporations without the prior written permission.