Even after 19 studio offerings (soon to be 20 with the release of Scorched), Overkill is still sometimes overlooked. But to their undying fans, the band means oh so much more than any level of influence or would-be status.
Through founding members Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth’s vocal stylings and D.D. Verni’s bass grooves, Overkill has linchpinned a generation of metalhead’s listening pleasure. And now, as New Jersey’s own begins to ramp up for what appears to be a roaring 2023, Overkill seems as poised as ever to rupture eardrums and inject its metal-laden venom into the bloodstreams of its adoring fans once more.
With bass in hand and the focus of a road-worn warrior, Overkill’s D.D. Verni dialed in with MetalSucks to discuss the band’s upcoming tour, the recording of Scorched, his memories of Under the Influence and I Hear Black, and what keeps Overkill going some 43 years after its inception.
With last year in your rearview mirror, what are some of your proudest moments of 2022?
Well, it was nice to get back out there on stage again. We played at a bunch of European festivals, and it was nice to see our friends back there again. We’ve been playing there for so many years now that it feels like a local gig, in a way. So, it was good to get out there and play shows again, and the other thing is finishing up this new record. So, 2022 wound up not being too bad in the scheme of things.
What are some of the most significant differences between playing to European and US metal audiences?
It’s not as different as you might think. For a band like Overkill, our European audiences have been with us for over 35 years, so the level of intensity is there just like it is here in the States. In a lot of ways, it’s the same in that you’ve got people who know our back catalog well and others who are just getting into it, you know? You’re always going to have hardcore people who want deep cuts, and maybe there’s a bit more room for that in Europe.
I will also say that maybe the Europeans are a little bit more vocal as far as singing and clapping than the fans in the US are. Now, that doesn’t mean US audiences aren’t into it, but the European crowd goes nuts and will be singing and that kind of thing. But other than that, they’re not really that different at this point.
You recently announced the Killfest 2023 Tour. Can you give me the rundown?
We’re very excited about it, but to be honest, we’re still trying to figure out exactly who’s gonna be on the bill. So, we’re looking around, talking to a bunch of people, and trying to set up something fun. But, yeah, that’ll be exciting for us because we will be touring for a brand-new record, and we can’t wait for people to hear the songs live. We’ve been doing a lot of makeshift festivals, so it’ll be nice to have our full crew out there and see the whole family again. But it’s always exciting to have a new record, have our real crew flying in with everybody getting on the bus.
It’s like a homecoming kind of thing. I really am excited to get back on the bus and get out there. But it’s tough because you never know what’s going to happen these days, which makes it challenging. We used to plan two years in advance, but now everything is written in pencil because who the heck knows what’s gonna happen? But we’re pumped to have a great record to support, and we’re gonna get a great bill together, get back out there, and have as much fun as possible.
What can you tell me about the new record, Scorched?
Like I said, it’s all done. We’re to the point now where we’re talking about singles, videos, and all that stuff. We actually had a good chunk of Scorched written before COVID hit, and a lot of the songs were done musically by the time COVID hit. Over the pandemic, I finished up the last couple musically, and then Blitz [Ellsworth] and the rest of us were sitting on it month after month, and then that turned into years.
Eventually, we decided to get moving with it because we didn’t know when the pandemic was gonna end, so we decided to work remotely the same way most bands did back then. We just said, “Let’s get this done,” and then Jason [Bittner] worked on his drums, and Dave [Linsk] and Derek [Tailer] started to do their thing, too. But it was weird because we kept waiting on it, and eventually, we got to the point where we realized we weren’t going to be able to get together to play these songs, which was totally different.
So, rather than start that process over again and scrap everything we were doing, we just moved forward with what we had. So, for that reason, I think Scorched is a different kind of record for us because we usually get together and play songs. But with this one, we obviously couldn’t, but I don’t know if that’s apparent or not. I don’t hear it on the record myself; it’s weird because I know our normal process didn’t happen.
So, you don’t feel Scorched’s vibe was altered due to recording remotely, then?
I don’t know… I don’t think so. I guess it’s always gonna be a little bit different, but I think we got pretty good at working remotely by this point. It also helps that we’ve had the same band together for so long, so the chemistry tends to carry us. We have a pretty good idea and formula for how we do things, and we were able to tailor that to the remote setting. Usually, I’ll put all the songs together and then send demos to everybody to learn the songs.
At that point, we all fly in, get in a room, and see what happens. Sometimes the song feels good, and we leave it, and other times we need to change them up quite a bit. When you’re in a room together, it’s a lot easier to figure those things out, but like I said, we’ve gotten pretty good at figuring those things out remotely, too. So, I don’t think it’s going to sound that different because of that, and I really think that some of the performances on this album are some of the best that Overkill has ever done.
So, I don’t know, maybe something cool about it caused that. The fact that it was so fresh and felt great, it was to the point that when we were listening back, I was like, “Wow, this is incredible.” So, maybe there’s something to be said about how we did it. Time will tell, but I do feel that we caught a real spark here. But we’ll see what we all think years from now when we all listen back again. Will we say, “Wow, that sounds different,” or will it be, “Wow, I don’t notice anything at all?”
How has Overkill’s creative process evolved from its earlier years?
In the early years, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. [Laughs]. With those early records, man, we’d show up at rehearsal, throw a bunch of beers in the fridge, and then have a few beers. It was like, “Oh, I have a riff; let’s jam on that”… “Okay, I like that. What’s next?”…. “That sounds good. Let’s put that here and try this.” There was no rhyme or reason, just, “Oh, that sounded cool. Let’s grab onto that and see where it goes.”
It wasn’t until our fourth or fifth record that we started to refine the whole process. It was around that time that I took over writing the music, and Blitz wrote all the lyrics, and that’s been our formula since, which was like ’89 or ’90. From that point on, the process has been I demo everything up, and like I said before, I give everything to the guys, and we build it from there. And by doing that, we’ve gotten much better at writing songs over the years.
We need to make fewer changes throughout the process because we get it close to right the first time. And we’ve also got a great group of guys who all understand their roles and play them to perfection. I think about it as a basketball team where everybody’s got to be cool with their role in the band. You can’t have five point guards, and you can’t have five centers, everybody has to play their position, and we do that really well.
Under the Influence turns 35 years old this year. How do you measure its importance?
That was recorded during a weird transitionary period because Rat [Skates] had just left the band. He left just after Taking Over, so Under the Influence was our first record with Sid [Falck], which was a different experience. We were still a young band, and our feet were to the fire at that point. With the first record, we’d been playing them for years in clubs before we recorded them, so we’d been banging them out and knew them by heart.
And then, when we did Taking Over, there was a bunch of songs that didn’t make it onto Feel the Fire, so we had a good leg up on those songs, too. But with Under the Influence, Rat was gone, and we were doing our first record from scratch. It was like, “Okay, we have nothing. What the hell do we do now?” The way it was back in the day was we just wanted to tour, and we only went into the studio to make a record because we had to. We’d be like, “I guess the last record ran outta gas; we’re gonna have to make another.”
So, we’d be like, “If we wanna tour, we’re gonna have to go back and make a record; let’s do that.” But now, we enjoy making records more because we’ve done thousands of shows since then. But anyway, the way I look back on Under the Influence is we had new guys in the band, and it was our first record where we had to come up with an album worth of material that was completely new to us. We also had Michael Wagener mix it, which we were stoked about at the time. To have the guy that mixed Master of Puppets working with us to mix our record, man, that was cool. I have a lot of fond memories of Under the Influence.
I’ve always felt like I Hear Black is an outlier in the Overkill discography. It’s celebrating its 30th this year; what are your retrospective musings?
That record is probably the biggest oddball record of ours that we’ve ever done. When we were doing that one, I can remember our mindset was all over the place, or at least; it was different from where it had been prior. I think back, and I think to myself, “What the hell were we thinking?” [Laughs]. But I think our thought process was that we wanted to ensure that we didn’t do anything we had done before. If it felt like something we had done before, even if it was great, we would push it aside.
So, we kept trying to push all the things we’d done before off, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but it wasn’t. What we learned was that there was a reason that the things we did worked and that we should keep doing those things instead of trying to reinvent ourselves. We don’t need to reinvent ourselves; we already invented ourselves, so we said, “Let’s just try and be great at that.”
Did grunge coming to prominence affect the decision to alter your course?
I look back at I Hear Black, and honestly, it doesn’t feel much like an Overkill record to me, but it had nothing to do with grunge. People have asked me if it had to do with grunge and all that, and it didn’t. Grunge wasn’t on my radar, and it honestly didn’t mean anything to me. It didn’t feel like metal was anything less than it was years before because all the bands we came up with, like Exodus and Testament, were still playing. It felt like thrash metal was just as popular and relevant as ever.
You can go back even further with all the hair bands; it was the same as grunge; they weren’t even on the map to me. As far as I was concerned, that stuff didn’t even exist. I was in my little world of thrash metal, making albums, touring, and taking on what was happening. So, hair metal and then grunge, that stuff didn’t even register for me. I Hear Black was our sixth record, and it was a hard record to write and a hard record to make because of how we went about it. We tried to reinvent the wheel, and there are not a ton of good memories associated with it.
Overkill predates the “Big Four of Thrash Metal.” Do you feel the band is given its due in terms of its role in creating thrash metal?
I’m not sure we get any credit, but I don’t think about it much. I always felt like “The Big Four” were singled out because they sold more. I don’t think it’s about their influence; it’s about their sales. They told the most records, so that’s why they’re “The Big Four.” Because Overkill, Exodus, and Testament were just as crucial in forming the genre, we’re often referred to as the next wave, and that’s because we didn’t sell as much. If we sold more records, then we would have been up there.
I think all of us were creating the genre at the same time. We were all in the mix, but they were just more popular for whatever reason. I don’t feel Overkill’s contribution to thrash is any less than theirs; we were doing it right when they were doing it. Our records came out simultaneously, and we were building the genre together. But they just sold more records than us, and that’s great. Good for them, that’s the idea. But I’ve never felt like the “Big Four” bands influenced things more; they just sold more.
As the genre kicked off, what do you feel Overkill brought to the party that set you apart from the pack?
As for what we brought specifically, Blitz’s voice was always completely unique. You can put on an Overkill record, and you’ll know it’s his voice in a split second, so that was one thing. And probably another thing was my bass style and tone, which you didn’t hear on thrash records back then. There’s something specific that Overkill lent to the thrash sound that was different from the rest, but that was the case with all those bands. It could be us, or it could be Anthrax, those records that we made have stood the rest of time, and I love those bands and that music even after all these years.
How would you describe your approach to the bass, and how has that evolved to where it is today?
One thing that was different about us when we first started was that we only had one guitar. Most thrash bands back then had two guitars, but we didn’t, so that made us different right off the bat. So, Bobby [Gustafson] would be playing solos, and when he played a solo, it would then just be me playing bass, and Rat playing drums playing with the drums, so a lot of that bass sound I had was developed out of necessity. It was like, “Well, people gotta hear it, so I need to do something with a good feel and sound.”
I never gave a shit about “feeling” the bass, I mean, that’s just bottom end, and you can get bottom end from guitars or kick drums. I wanted to hear the bass, I wanted to hear the notes, I wanted to hear what I was playing, so when Bobby would take a solo, I was essentially playing the rhythm with my bass. So, I developed a faster picking that would carry the band while Bobby was soloing. So, it was just about the low end; it was about carrying the band with my bass because there was no other guitar playing. So, with that, I had to develop a different tone to do that, which set me apart.
Once we got two guitar players, it was more of a challenge because it was like, “Okay, now how do I fit in?” I needed to compliment the songs differently once the second guitar player came in. Now we had walls of guitars on both sides, and it’s like, “Holy shit, how am I gonna be heard through all this?” I had to find a way to work with the guitars while keeping our ethos of having everything be as loud as possible. I don’t care if it’s drums, guitar, bass, or vocals; if it’s on an Overkill record, we play it as aggressively as possible. We ended up putting the big boy pants on and competing a bit. Otherwise, you’re gonna be left behind.
To what does Overkill owe its longevity?
We’re still here because we’ve never stopped having fun. The way I see it is that I’ve never had a real job in my life. I mean, I would do this for free, so that fact that I get paid to play music, that’s a bonus. So, why would anyone ever want to stop doing that? Why would you stop if you suddenly no longer enjoy it or don’t have anything left to say? But if I’m having fun and am creatively challenged, I don’t see any point in stopping. And I know a lot of people hate touring, but truthfully, I don’t get it.
To me, touring is not difficult at all. I don’t know what kind of touring they do, but to me, touring is a paid vacation. I mean, your crew works; they work hard. They work long days to make it all happen, but the band… you gotta be kidding me. When I’m on tour, I sleep ’til noon; I hang out, make some calls, do a quick sound check, and then have dinner, and then do it again the next day. That’s hard?
I guess for some guys, it can be hard being away from your loved ones and being away from home, but I love being out on the road. I love the guys; we laugh all day, constantly. It’s like a sleepaway camp for old guys at this point. [Laughs]. We get together; we run around the world, playing music, laughing, and having fun. What could be better?
It could be that we’ve settled into a nice schedule where we don’t have to grind it out anymore. We don’t do crazy tours anymore; we tour in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming. So, the longevity comes from us being lucky enough to set up our releases and touring schedule in a way that works for us. And then, having guys that genuinely like each other in the band, so it doesn’t feel like it’s a problem being out there, helps, too. So, if that continues, I don’t see us stopping anytime soon.