New Jersey thrash metallers Overkill talk guns, grooves and mascots

Monday 21st, September 2015 / 16:06
By James Barager
See Overkill in Canada this September! Photo: Hakon Grav

See Overkill in Canada this September!
Photo: Hakon Grav

CALGARY — “Yes, those were real guns on the cover of [1987’s] Taking Over. When we showed up to the photo shoot, there was a guy brought in and he brought all these guns. Pistols, rifles, shotguns. We chose the rifles. I’m no gun expert, so I couldn’t tell you which guns, specifically.”

So begins the frontman of American underground thrash legends Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth. He is referring to the bright, glammy cover of their second album, which features the band members with big hair, bigger bullet belts and the biggest guns. Inside, you’ll hear simple yet raging palm-muted thrash whose production was far better than that heard on their fantastic debut Feel the Fire. As if the ferocious music didn’t do the talking already, there lies more evidence that this New Jersey quintet have never been the type to fuck around.

“I hate that fuckin’ cover though. Like it was cool at the time, I guess, but looking back on it, it’s become one of those ‘man what the hell were we thinking’ sort of things,” he says, laughing. “In my opinion, it’s gotta be one of the top 10 worst album covers in metal. It’s just so cheesy.”
Hey man, the ‘80s were a weird time for everyone, right? (Allegedly.) At least Overkill was delivering good tunes.

“Every album since, well The Years of Decay [1989] was the first album that really had it,” he says.

“Like the song ‘Skullcrusher,’ especially. All of our albums since then have been a good mix of groove and like you said, full on, fast as you can thrash, even the new stuff. But on [1991’s] Horrorscope, that’s really when it came in full force. Cause on there, you’ve got songs like ‘Thanx for Nothing’ and ‘New Machine’ which are groovier and slower.” Overkill’s output in the ‘90s and 2000s was a product of its times: that is, a thrash band trying to stay relevant when thrash was on its way out. Pantera-esque groove metal was the name of the game, so it was there at Overkill cast their lot. While comparing 1999’s Necroshine to their arguable best (89’s The Years of Decay) is hardly fair, but truth be told, most of the ‘Kill’s albums from those times are at worst, mediocre, (except ReliXIV and Immortalis, but we don’t talk about those ones,) and at best, great heavy metal albums worthy of the name. Overkill has always been remarkably catchy and energetic, thanks especially to Bobby’s vocals. He always sounds like he’s giving it everything he’s got, and having one hell of a great time doing it.

Although they never truly strayed too far to return, with 2010’s fantastic Ironbound, Overkill made a triumphant return to their roots. For a fit allegory, take a collector and restorer of classic cars. Pretend that Horrorscope was a ’71 Mustang, a gorgeously well-tuned creation of meticulous construction, built for speed as well as relaxing cruises down the ocean side highway, that had fallen into disrepair. Over the years, it had been driven too much. So, they took out every original part, tuned it to the utmost perfection and cleaned the whole thing to a sterling shine and gave it a shiny classic black paint job to make the neighbours weep in envy and brought it out for the world to admire. That machine is Ironbound. It’s a classic thrash album with new life breathed into it, done by a band that only two albums before seemed world weary and like they were simply going through the motions.

“Every album has kind of a code word. For Ironbound, it was ‘Iron,’” says Ellsworth, bringing us to the present.

“For [2012’s] The Electric Age, it was ‘Electric.’ For [2014’s] White Devil Armory, it was ‘Armory.’ D.D. [Verni, bassist and only original member besides Bobby] said to me one day ‘well, what about this one…. Armory.’ So we started fooling around with it for a little while. I came up with ‘White Devil’ and we knew that was it. White Devil Armory. It’s like a Tarantino movie. I did some research on it, and the only thing I could really find in regards to the term ‘white devil’ being having even a remote racial connotation to it was during the French-Indian War. That’s what the Natives called the French. So there’s no particular deeper meaning to it.”

Therein lies a large part of Overkill’s appeal. There’s no deeper meaning. There’s no bullshit. They’re not larger than life rock stars, they’re ordinary guys who are just incredibly passionate about what they do. It’s simply all about the metal, about kicking ass and saying “FUCK OFF!” to the people who sneer down their noses at the longhairs. They’re a metal band for the working class, for those who enjoy the simple things in life; a nice cold beer on the deck after a hard day at work and a nice, simple red hot guitar riff played with a touch of class that would make Motörhead proud. Similar to Motörhead, they’ve even got a mascot, though theirs is a skull with bat-like wings.

“Our mascot, Chaly, (say Charlie with a New Joisey accent) has been up there with us from the beginning. When we were first starting out, we were coming up with cool shit for the band, and we decided that hey, Iron Maiden has a mascot. We need one too!”

While Chaly is not as iconic or ubiquitous as Iron Maiden’s Eddie or Motörhead’s Snaggletooth, the character has adorned Overkill’s merchandise and album covers since their demo days. Thankfully, Overkill’s name or logo has never adorned less deserving merch the way that band’s like KISS or Misfits tend to. For a perfect example, think coffins. KISS has that market cornered (stay classy, Gene).
By remaining authentic and savage, Overkill has managed to do what very few metal bands can. They actually make a living doing only the band. That said it’s a constant battle.

“Our last show there [in Calgary], I don’t remember it being a mediocre reception. I remember it being a mediocre turnout. The promoter ended up losing money on that show. There’s not many metal bands that actually makes a living doing this, and you can’t send a bunch of 50-year-old-men home broke,” laments Ellsworth.

It’s hardly anything new that a classic underground metal band is seen as a bad investment, but that’s the sad state of affairs. No matter, like they declare in the triumphant track “In Union We Stand” (the one with the silly artwork), “A peaceful co-existence is dropping out of sight/ So band together, together we will fight/ Blasting the resistance, marching to the top/ They started this, we say when it stops,” the band won’t quit till they decide it’s time to.

“What’s next? Well, a new album,” declares Ellsworth.

“No idea when. We’re constantly working on new shit. We’re currently all at the point where we all think we’re the smartest person in the band, where we all think our ideas are the best, but it gets like that when we’re writing songs for a new album.”

Overkill play Park Theatre in Winnipeg on September 27th and MacEwan Hall in Calgary on September 29th, sharing the co-headliner spot with fellow New Jersey band, Symphony X. The same bill hits Edmonton’s Union Hall on September 30th.

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