At this point in my "Headbangers" project, I had just finished a four-and-a-half hour straight interview with Michael Schenker and prior to that, three days with Joe Lynn Turner. I was starting to feel comfortable chatting with these reknowned musicians to the point I began chumming things up a bit.
I was a huge Overkill fan in the eighties and naturally they were high on my checklist to hit up for this project. I was unable to procure conversation time with any of the current members in 2003, though as I grew into a journalist role, I later enjoyed three hilarious chats with Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth and a couple with Rat Skates as well. I even caught Overkill at The Trocodero in Philly in 2006, a flippin' great gig, though as you'll read further, I was glancing upwards in the old theater looking for the water sprinklers and picturing what former guitarist Bobby Gustafson saw in a memorably-doused Overkill gig.
It was Gustafson who kindly opened communication with me in 2003. We'd emailed back-and-forth a number of times before officially setting up this laid-back interview. I remember being thrilled to pieces because like many fans, I'd been bummed back in the day he and Rat took off from Overkill. Life in a rock 'n roll band, as they say...
At the time of this conversation, Bobby was then in a Florida agro-thrash unit called Response Negative. Though I only have their five-song EP, you could tell the changeover from nu-metal to trad and thrash metal was eeking their way back into favor in the American underground just from this blazing EP. Though Bobby's no longer in the band, I recommend shagging down what you can of his time in Response Negative.
You can see I opened a number of different topics with Bobby, getting the dirty work out of the way first and then popping out non-Overkill topics. I was still fleshing out ideas and directions for the book, so I used the very-amicable Bobby Gustafson to try a few out, discussing things such as Headbangers Ball, Megaforce Records and tape trading.
In catching up with Bobby the past week and revisiting our old interview, he informed me he and Blitz have patched a few fences in 2010, this being the 25th anniversary of Feel the Fire's release. With the current inception of Overkill releasing their thrashiest album in years, Ironbound, the years of decay hopefully now mean more than the unfortunate split between Gustafson and his one-time Jersey brothers.
Ray Van Horn, Jr.: You played with Overkill through The Years of Decay album. Overkill was a real powerhouse in the eighties underground, but the press would always write the band off as being just shy of Megadeth, Anthrax or even Metallica when Overkill was still a pure thrash and NWOBHM band. Did it feel like you guys always had something to prove?
Bobby Gustafson: Yeah, it was kind of a weird feeling to feel a little left out behind the other bands since we really all started at the same time. It took us awhile to get to that first mountain. We really got signed in ’84 and Megaforce was doing all of their albums up at Pyramid, so we almost waited an entire year before we got our first album out and it seems just so much behind everybody else that we always felt like we were trying to play catch-up with everybody. We did what did and we felt we were always a little bit different just having the single guitar approach and being compatible with all the other bands, which had two. We didn’t try and outdo everybody else; we tried to outdo ourselves and make each album better than the last. It actually got us to about the fourth album (The Years of Decay) that we finally sounded the way we sounded and everyone would say we sounded so much better live. We always seemed to fall short in the studio, but live we kicked ass just as much as everybody else. We started to catch our groove on the third album (Under the Influence) and then got into that groove on the fourth and then everything kind of just fell apart after that. We didn’t have to prove anything to the other bands, just to ourselves, to get better ourselves, trying to write heavier than each last album.
RVH: It’s called shred now, but was there a lot of pressure on you as the lone guitarist to play in a “shred” style? I’d consider you one of the first metal guitarists to be considered a shredder by modern standards.
BG: As far as the writing, it seemed like it was just mostly me, but I always kind of felt I had to do both jobs. I was fine doing that, doing all the rhythm, doing all the lead and doing about ninety percent of the writing, even myself. I felt got better each time in the studio and everything kind of worked out. We got the right guy with Terry Day, who “got” our sound. It’s hard to say the way you felt so long ago, but I didn’t feel cornered. I didn’t really feel rushed and I got everything done in time for when we needed a new album. It was always there.
RVH: Since you’re on the core Overkill albums such as Taking Over, Feel the Fire, Under the Influence and The Years of Decay, what was that whole experience like for you being in that time and place when metal was in its healthiest stage of the eighties?
BG: It was weird; my part in the band, at least for the first two albums, we had the original lineup with Rat (Skates) and everything from day one was equal. Just because those two (Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth and DD Verni) are the only two that are left in the band, it made it seem like it was their band and that everyone else was just a hired hand or whatever. It wasn’t like that at all. We were all four even members until the third and fourth albums where Rat had left, which kind of separated the band into thirds. We all still had equal say; no one outsaid anyone else as far as anything else, but it happened to be that for some of the ideas, the song titles, album covers, the music itself, most of the work was done by me. I don’t know if they were losing control of the band or if I was stepping on their toes. Once we got our management in there, I seemed to work closer with them a lot more than anybody else, and I think they just got intimidated by that.
RVH: I guess that’s essentially the path that led to the falling out?
BG: I find out more and more stuff as time goes on, but initially it seems to me--even if you look at their DVD that came out a year or two ago (then) (Wrecking Everything – Live)--they just seemed to have their minds set on money, and I think that’s what it really came down to. We were going to get a merchandise and publishing deal, which was all going to happen for that next album that I was going to be on. I think Blitz and DD realized ‘Hey, we may not be able to do this forever, so why split something three ways when we can split it fifty-fifty?’ I think that sort of played in their minds a bit, as well as an argument I had gotten into about doing a one-off goofy Halloween show at L’Amours in Brooklyn. I’m not into that. I’m not into that with my current (in 2003) band, Response Negative, and I wasn’t with Overkill. I take the shows seriously and we did a sold-out show at The Ritz and Studio 54 in Manhattan, and that was our last impression of the area. I wanted to go into the fifth album with that impression, not some wacky Halloween show where we play some cover songs and everyone got drunk! That wasn’t what I wanted our final lasting image to be, so that kind of got us into an argument between me and DD. It got blown out of proportion and then I find out they’re trying to get me kicked out and all this other shit, so I said to hell with it, you know?
RVH: The Fuck You EP is something I remember the mainstream actually took note of for the wrong reasons naturally, but it was such an anthem for the rest of us fans. I’m sure this is obvious, but what kind of heat did you guys take for that EP? I personally remember one day buying it with the middle finger cover shown on display in the case, and later seeing it with a black cover overtop. Now that it’s been re-released on CD, they leave the middle finger be. Amazing how society’s moral brackets change over time, eh?
BG: Yeah, I think when it first came out we actually had to put it in the black sheath or they wouldn’t carry it in the stores. We got it on the t-shirts and the shirts were getting banned; kids were getting thrown out of school, that whole bit.
RVH: I remember! Glad I wore the Taking Over shirt! (laughs)
BG: We loved it! Even now, when you think about it, it would be kind of shocking to do it in this day and age, but to do it back in 1987, it was like, ‘Holy crap, we pulled it off!’ We reissued it a couple of years later with a couple more songs on it. I guess when you’re just a young kid, you don’t think much about it, but once you get older and you look back, you’re like ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe we did that!’ That’s the one thing people remember a lot, is that big finger and the shirt, that whole thing. It’s really cool. We had the big banners onstage with the middle finger too and kids just ate that t-shirt up!
RVH: Speaking of a ‘fuck you moment,’ this is my favorite Overkill memory I’d like to share with you...my buddy and I back in the day were at this pretty conservative 4th of July picnic, hot as balls outside, wearing our traditional torn jeans and black metal shirts, real scuzzball appearance. We carried my boom box all over the grounds with “Deny the Cross” blaring! We loved the expressions of people passing us by who were so shocked at us, and then I’d give them the finger for looking at us! That was our fan attitude. How about being in a metal band, when people would walk past you and maybe think ‘Freak?’
BG: Oh, absolutely! It was everything, from the long hair to the black leather jackets, to the music. It was weird; I kind of look at it now from my parents’ point-of-view. They let me get away with all of that, like here’s my kid with hair down to his ass and a big finger on his shirt and everything else--who knows what the hell they might’ve been thinking? That was just the attitude and it was the time. When I graduated high school, I think there might’ve been one other guy in our class that had long hair! You’re still talking back in ’83 and still it was a really strange thing. Once you went out to the club, you realize ‘shit, there’s so many people just like me here,’ and it just took off. It wasn’t such a odd thing to have long hair, leather jacket with spikes and studs and a belt to match, stuff like that. But we were like, ‘Hey, this is what we do and this is metal!’ That was the start of it with Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with the leather and studs. You’re not going to take it away from us, this is our youth and these are the clothes we’re wearing right now!
RVH: It’s funny seeing it all recycled by today’s generation, particularly so many girls wearing studded belts...
BG: As if it just got invented! (laughs)
RVH: (laughs) I want to tell these kids, come see my old denim vest!
BG: Or I had longer hair than you! (laughs) Now it’s cool again! Everything goes in a cycle; the only thing that hasn’t changed is Europe, because they never got out of the denim vest with all the patches and the wristbands, the whole bit. They’re just stuck in the eighties, and that’s really what held onto a lot of this, because American MTV and American radio will just go from week-to-week with a new band, these buzz-type bands, and that changes what the kids listen to. They really have no clue. Luckily we have a thrash documentary to show people what it was like back in the day. There’s even a lot of Scandinavian bands that never lost that evil with the black makeup, the black clothes and the studs; they’re still holding onto it. There’s little pockets of the old days that are just holding on and maybe it’ll make kind of a resurgence, because kids are kids! When we were in our twenties, we were indestructible and energetic as well, you know, and I think kids are the same. When they rediscover speed metal or whatever, they say ‘Wow, this is a whole different type of music!’
RVH: Back in the day there was no internet; you had pen pals...
BG: Exactly! That’s another amazing thing about that time period, is that we got ourselves like Metallica did in the magazines and got our name out just by tape trading and doing everything by mail! Now it’s just boom! A whole different age with computers and it’s just so weird to be a part of that. Everything was so slow and full of word-of-mouth. You had to buy a magazine to see what band had a demo out and everything else. (sighs) To be making music in both of those time periods, then and right now, it’s just a very strange thing. We even switched over from vinyl to CD between our second and third albums, which was a major change!
RVH: My European and Japanese pen pals in the day, I remember it took like six weeks to get tapes back and forth to each other, and that was considered a good relay time! (laughs)
BG: And that’s why the shows over there were so diehard because they knew they weren’t going to see you for another year. The contact wasn’t there unless you called someone on the phone or wrote them a letter. Now I’ve talked to people since they’ve found out I’m in Response Negative. I’ve gotten emails from Russia, Germany, Singapore and South America, and I can instantly let all four corners of the earth know what I’m doing and what’s going on with the band, as opposed to before. If you wanted to put an advertisement that your album was coming out, you had to pay for your page in the magazine and you had to wait for it to come out. It was all a matter of timing, and people didn’t know what the hell was going on until you had the announcements in some of these fanzines, you know? It was great. That was our information highway.
RVH: Slow as it was! (laughs)
BG: (laughs) A lot of stuff from back in the day has changed; clubs have changed, the way people advertise has changed. Even down here (Florida) it’s really weird, because up in New York, you used to fight to be the last band, the closing band. Being the headliner was a really big deal. You’d struggle to get big and to get to that point, while down here, it’s just strange. A lot of the time, the headlining bands has one band after them, so if the club is open long enough they want to bop or whatever, the headlining band is going on somewhere between 11 and 12. It’s just really strange to have a band play after, almost to close the show; it’s a real L.A. thing to do, but people just don’t stay out all night like we used to. I think that was strange.
RVH: Also interesting to note is how the guitar solo has found its favor once again after being vilified by kids of the nu-metal scene. I think, ironically enough, it’s been the resurged Headbangers Ball that put choice songs on its playlist a year or so ago to help the guitar solos come back.
BG: It’s a part of this music! I think where the solos disappeared was when all of these buzz-type bands started coming about, with Nirvana just not sticking the solos in there; well, then, that’s the new thing, so everyone just started to not put solos in their songs.
RVH: I always thought of it as a cop-out, with young players trying to learn as quickly as possible to play some power chords and bang, you’re a guitarist!
Ray's note: since 2003, I'll take the stance a considerable number of today's guitarists have excellent chops; this opinion was cast at the tail-end of nu-metal
BG: Yeah, I can’t name anybody off the top of my head, but I wouldn’t doubt some of the musicians were sub-par and never made it to the solo end of playing, to just play chords. I wouldn’t doubt that at all.
RVH: It’s gotten better as a whole recently, but there’s so many bands right now, many with no real prayer to make it because you’re expected to produce right away. You have no development time as a band.
BG: A lot of them are just young, flavor-of-the-week-type bands that they know they’ll sink a little bit of money into, they’re a bunch of little teeny-bop boys or girls they’re all going to go crazy for. They make their money back right away and then boom, they’re dropped! You never hear from them again or nothing. There isn’t the plan on signing some of these bands with longevity, bands that might make a musical statement in the long run. It’s just a quick return, a quick fix for these labels, and then they’re on to the next one.
RVH: Speaking of labels, seeing Megaforce return brings to mind it was one of the most prominent metal labels of the eighties, particularly due to the partnership with Atlantic Records. They were comparable to Roadrunner today, who was as underground as it got back then. What were some of your experiences working with the once-monstrous Megaforce Records?
BG: I think with Megaforce and also Metal Blade--maybe even Metal Blade before Megaforce--were pretty much at the same time the premiere labels. Roadrunner came along a little bit later...
RVH: Mostly in the late eighties...
BG: Yeah, the early eighties was Metal Blade and then Megaforce released the Metallica album (Kill ‘Em All), which I guess was their first release. We were even talking to Johnny Z (Zazula) back then, like ‘Oh, you’ve got to check out this new band from California,’ which we had listened to their demo tape (No Life ‘til Leather) of and it ended up being Metallica!
RVH: And the rest is history...
BG: Yeah. We had a good working relationship with Megaforce. I can honestly say I don’t have any money from the older albums, and I think a lot of that has to do with Johnny Z and I think some of the other bands I keep in contact with are running into the same problem, that I don’t think they’re getting the money they're supposed to get. That’s the hard part about it, knowing that it’s still being out there and it’s still being sold and the money is going somewhere.
RVH: I can imagine.
GB: Just recently Missy Callazzo, who owns Megaforce Records now--Johnny sold it to her--about a year ago, I finally got some information about Feel the Fire by accident that it had recouped, so I’m finally making a little bit off of that album and it’s not our biggest-selling album, but it’s good to see something. Missy’s honest about that. We submitted our demos to everybody at the time; I think we were on Metal Blade for one song when they did their Metal Massacre compilations. Track six, I believe. (“No Holds Barred” from Metal Massacre II) Combat Records, that was the other one at just about the same time. We got a contract from Combat--we didn’t get one from Metal Blade--and we got a contract from Megaforce. Combat’s was like three pages long and Megaforce’s was about thirty!
RVH: (laughs) What a headache!
BG: So we were like, ‘Okay, it seems like Megaforce has got their shit together a little bit more, let’s go with them!’ But he (Johnny Zazula) gave us the money to do the albums and he got behind us as much as he could and then he comes up with Atlantic and we had the second, third and fourth albums on Atlantic. So we had a lot of their staff helping and I think the only downfall was that we didn’t stay out on the road long enough. We did our little four-week tour with Slayer and maybe a little tiny jaunt on the east coast here and there for two weeks and then they wanted another album.
RVH: Literally, band on the run. Overkill had some really classic videos on MTV and the original Headbangers Ball like “In Union We Stand,” “Hello From the Gutter” and “Elimination.” Do you feel MTV helped Overkill break at all, considering it was one of the few thrash acts that got played with any regularity back then?
BG: Absolutely! When we did “In Union We Stand,” we counted it! It was played like sixteen weeks straight, the same thing for Megadeth and “Wake Up Dead.” Those two videos were the most-played videos... Headbangers Ball really helped. It was funny, because when it just started was when Taking Over came out, and when Headbamgers Ball started, not enough bands had videos yet to be played, so that’s why they played ours for so many weeks in a row! Yeah, that really helped, because people got to know those songs. After we did “Hello From the Gutter,” they has something called Smash Or Trash, which would’ve had a video being played in the day and they did that with “Hello From the Gutter.”
RVH: I remember that!
BG: “Hello From the Gutter” got more votes than any other video for being Smash, and they never played it! They said ‘What, are you kidding me? We can’t play this during the day!’ We like, ‘But we won! You just told us we got more votes than anything that you’ve ever had on this contest!’ So we were pissed off! We could’ve broke out into the daytime where more people could’ve seen us instead of 12 -3 in the morning. We were like, ‘You know what? You guys are a fucking sham!’ That’s the bottom line. Then we did “Elimination,” which was the best video out of all of them and they pretty much did the same thing. I was very proud of that because that whole thing was my concept and I also got a chance to sit in, which we didn’t get a chance to do with the other two videos. I actually sat in while the guy edited it. It took like twelve hours to edit it together and that was just a fantastic experience. Even Megaforce came out and said ‘This is the best video we’ve ever released.’ But we got a really good push from MTV, we got to be on as guests three times, and Headbangers now to me just doesn’t have that same excitement. It’s nice to see the heavy bands and I’m all for it, but that whole thing...we would actually sit in and have parties at people’s houses just to watch Headbangers Ball! You know, you were there!
RVH: It was religion, man. For me, it was either hightail it home, or if we were at a party, the straights would go to their side and the grits would go to the other side and put on The Ball.
BG: And that was the music for the party, The Ball!
RVH: And the straights and preppies had to deal with it! (laughs)
RVH: And it was such a big thrill to see bands like Overkill, Manowar, Anthrax or Mercyful Fate break through the commercial bands who I’ve finally in my later years come to terms with. Back then, I was all about ‘Fuck the poser bands, to hell with the hair bands,’ and like everyone else, I’d sit through all of those hours just waiting for Overkill, Metal Church or Slayer and it was worth it. Now that I’m older I actually like the majority of it now. It’s like Cinderella said, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.
BG: Yeah, it was like they were invading our territory! It was like ‘How dare these bands be on Headbangers Ball!’ That’s not headbanging music! Being a little older now, you can look at it differently and appreciate it if you look past the hairspray and the bright colors they were all wearing onstage. You know what? Some of those songs are pretty cool if you don’t remember what they look like! You hear it on the radio once in awhile and it’s like ‘Oh yeah, I remember that song! That’s not too bad. I don’t know why I hated those guys that much! I never met them!’ (laughs) But the fact is, you were a metalhead. You wore black and you wore studs and you didn’t look like a girl, because when you did, you hated it! That’s just the way it was! (laughs) It was like you were defending the heavy metal honor, you know? It was like a battle. You couldn’t just let these guys invade your territory!
RVH: It was a huge rivalry, man. The only time I feel bad for any of that was there was this guy we knew who we called a poser because he liked Bon Jovi but also Queensryche, and at the time Queensryche had Rage For Order which was a bit hard for us to accept for some reason. Queensryche wasn’t a big force then, so we slammed this guy merciliessly, and then Operation Mindcrime came along... It changed everything. That guy ended up being right about them.
BG: You can still hate Bon Jovi! Queensryche I have more respect for! (laughs)
BG: But I look back now and not feel so threatened by posers and hairspray and all that stuff. Some it is decent. I can see now why people actually liked that stuff.
RVH: Yeah, things and attitudes somehow change, especially when you’re older and suddenly the youth has taken the scene that was once yours! Everything is relative then.
BG: You really can’t go out there (laughs) in pink spandex and a pot belly, you know? (laughs)
RVH: (laughs) No way, dude, it’s not happening! As long as we’re on this thread, when you think of being in a metal band in the eighties, what automatically comes to your mind?
BG: That’s a pretty wide-open question! God, wow, just the amount of people when we’d play! It was great, you know? Just so many memories, man. Early on, just being tough, sleeping on top of luggage in people’s cars driving down to shows and just slowly getting bigger, then having more fun getting into a camper and having someone other than the band driving us, actually having a driver. Getting guys to lift your equipment and finally getting a tour bus. Every little outing just got a little bit bigger and things got a little bit better and it was a lot of fun. The best time was being on that stage and playing. I loved that. I still love that now. It’s still my favorite thing. Everything else is just a headache and then you’ve got that one hour where you’re playing and it’s just the greatest. The girls and the spiked hair, people lined up down the block waiting to get into L’Amours in Brooklyn to see us and spending every weekend at L’Amours. You’d go there every Friday night and you’d go there Saturday night. It didn’t matter who was playing. If it was a metal band, you were there. The place was packed and it was just really, really cool. There was no place to park, but you’d get 1100-1200 people in there; they’d find some way to park!
RVH: Can’t keep ‘em down, you know? The whole club scene had a million stories and events like that, I’m sure.
BG: The last time I played the Trocodero in Philadelphia, some kid put his lighter near the fire sprinkler system. We got three songs into it and it just started pouring down water. It was flooded out, man.
RVH: Yow! Did your equipment short-circuit from that?
BG: No, it was really strange! It seemed like most of the water came down over the soundboard and the stage wasn’t getting wet. We were still playing, wondering what the hell was going on! (laughs) We still had electricity at one point and then suddenly it was out completely! We came back and rescheduled; water was just pouring down everywhere.
RVH: That’s what the scene was all about, man.
BG: It was a scene, not just a short little fad. It lasted a good ten years almost. I was just fortunate enough to be at the right age at the right time.
RVH: How did you end up in the Cycle Sluts From Hell, man? After all these years I finally picked up the CD just because you’re on it.
BG: I got sick of playing with boys! (laughs) So I joined a girl band! I knew one of the members, Betty (Kallas), who used to come out every once in awhile and come see us play. I just became friends with them and stayed friends through the years. What actually happened was that they were in the studio recording their first album and they had a guy who quit or they threw him out and he was a guitar player. They still had some work left to do on the album, so they said ‘Would you please come in and play a solo for us?’ I said ‘Sure, no problem,’ so I did that and then they wound up having a two-month tour with Motorhead. It just funny that two bands we played with in Overkill were Motorhead and Slayer for some reason, and here I am in a different band and I’m still opening for Motorhead!
RVH: (laughs) Karma, I think.
BG: We had a two month tour in Europe and they said ‘Would you come out and play? Do want to do it? Do you want to do it?’ and I said ‘Sure,’ since at the time I was putting Eye For An Eye together but I didn’t really have anything concrete as far as full members, so the girls were friends of mine and that was tight. That was really fun. I had a really good time with them. I didn’t record on the album or nothing; I just put down two solos, I think. There wasn’t much to do; they had most of it recorded already, and I think one of the songs didn’t even make it to the album, so I really only had the one solo on there. I just helped them play and then they got blackballed from Epic because of someone higher than whoever had Cycle Sluts From Hell wanted someone else to open up for Motorhead, so they got forced into being dropped, which is too bad because they were a good band. They worked really hard; I would’ve loved to have seen them do a second record.
RVH: They’ve all gone way underground to where no one can find them, haven’t they?
BG: Yeah, Betty did something with a band called Hanzel and Gretyl for a little while and that’s about it. I lost contact with all of them completely.
RVH: And after your time in Eye For An Eye, Screw and other projects, here you are now with Response Negative.
BG: I came down here to Florida and I wasn’t really pursuing music at all and then I just happened to make a couple of friends here and there, some who had a band, some that were this and that, and before I knew it I was back into again with Response Negative. I started writing the music for them and kind of stayed with their original pattern of style, which was power metal with death metal vocals, but I just took the whole writing level up to my level of experience, which is what they wanted me to do. We’ve gotten ten times better than when I started. We’ve got a tighter band, the lineup is steady and we’re doing really well. We’ve been pushing the demo around and haven’t gotten any responses yet, but we have gotten such rave reviews from fanzines and internet magazines and everyone who we’ve sent it to or has bought it from us has just flipped out about it saying ‘I can’t believe you guys aren’t signed! What the hell’s going on?’ So we’re kind of just in limbo and amazed at the fact that we haven’t at least had any offers, but we’re just going to continue to write. We’ve got enough songs to do a full album, so we’re just going to play around here and see where it goes.
Transcript (c) Ray Van Horn, Jr.
Photos courtesy of Bobby Gustafson and www.blood-metal-donors.de