Overkill’s Rob Cannavino Corrects the Record on ‘Horrorscope’
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Guitarist Rob Cannavino played in seminal New Jersey thrash outfit Overkill from 1990 to 1995. Invisible Oranges called him and guitarist Merritt Grant one of the best metal guitar duos of all time. He reached out to Invisible Oranges in early 2017 regarding our previous in-depth feature with Overkill vocalist Bobby Blitz, “The Only Overkill Interview You Ever Need to Read”. Cannavino wished to expand upon his contributions to the band during that time, especially on the album Horrorscope, which remains one of Overkill’s most lauded records. The band played “Nice Day for a Funeral” from that record on their most recent tour in support of The Grinding Wheel.
Cannavino was kind enough to sit on the phone with us for some time to illuminate his long history with the band, shed a light on the way the industry treated metal bands in the late 80s and early 90s, and even talk about T.T. quick guitarist David DiPietro’s uncredited contribution to the band.
We reached out to Overkill through their current label Nuclear Blast for comment on this interview. The band has not replied.
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I've read back through the sections of "The Only Overkill Interview You Ever Need to Read" that deal with the albums that you played on. You said that you felt there were some factual inaccuracies in that interview. What is not accurate?
I haven't been involved with the scene for a long time. My friend actually stayed up on it; this guy drove around with this interview in his car for two years before he dropped it on the table one day and I just started thumbing through it. I think Blitz has got his facts fairly correct except for some of the timelines, and on Horroscope there's some stuff that he… I don't know if he didn't know or he chose not to include.
I thought it was ironic back in the day that Megaforce was having all these questions about us and probably me in particular because when Gustafson first left, I was the only one there for weeks. I was primed and ready to take that spot way back in '87. A friend of mine had turned me onto the guitar tech gig and I basically lied my way into it and told them I knew what I was doing. Then I got out there and said, "Holy shit, I don't know what the hell I'm doing at all."
But I did know was their sound guy at the time, a guy by the name of Kerry Wittig, who gracefully gave me and a whole bunch of other people in this area of the country a start in this business. He said, "Do me a favor and just learn, like, four or five of those songs because sooner or later the guitar player's gonna fuck up and they're gonna need you to sound check or something." He couldn't have written it any better because that's exactly what happened.
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Okay, so that's how you got to join Overkill. So you joined for a few weeks before Merritt Grant?
Yes, actually probably longer than that. We went through a lot of different guitar players. First of all, Sid and I wanted one guitarist still. Thinking back to that I wonder, well who am I to say? But I had already known these guys for years. I worked for the original line-up. Eighty-seven was a great time for this band.
Afterward, I stayed in touch with them. I was actually working for another band under their Loud and Proud management, which was White Lion. Between the management company they shared crews with bands. I ended up with White Lion, mostly as a bass tech, for about two years, and then right at the end of that run with them, D.D. got in contact with me.
I actually had a band when I was working for Overkill. A lot of these riffs and the entire song "Infectious" was written right here in Elmira. Tim Mallare was in the band back then, so even before he got into Overkill, we were jamming. These songs on Horrorscope, a lot of them came from those sessions. I don't know if Blitz even knew that.
I was getting ready to move to L.A. because I couldn't find anything here in New York. I just wanted to stay on the east coast, but nothing was coming up. So I was getting ready to move and lo and behold, D.D. calls me one night and says, "We're looking to make changes and we wanna know if you wanna jam." And I jumped at it.
So he sent me some cassettes, and it was amazing how similar our songs were. I think at the first conversation Tim and I said, "You know what song I always wanted to play? ‘Frankenstein'" And he said, "Holy shit, man. You took the words right out of my mouth."
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What songs on "Horrorscope" did you write?
The song "Infectious" was totally mine music-wise. I just brought that to the table from this band called The Night, which was a garage band up here in our home town. "Infectious" was also the first single that Megaforce had picked.
In the article Blitz is talking about this audition we had to do for the record company. I remember that and I remember them coming back and saying, "Man, that 'Infectious' tune kicks ass." I thought, "Well, you're saying that to the dude that wrote it but you didn't have any confidence that I could.” And I guess rightfully so. Who was I? But those guys had groomed me from when I was about 18 years old. They called me "the thrasher" because I was so into the heavier stuff.
Another one was the opening riff of "Horrorscope." D.D. and I really got together on that one. He was so open-minded and cool with me. Then it was a video. I remember thinking, "Dude, people are liking my stuff." I sold that song to them. They said, "Hey, we'll hire you to be a songwriter and you get a steady paycheck. Everybody else in the band doesn't get paid until we work." So I jumped at that because I was living in Jersey and trying to afford that whole deal.
I just don't know if Blitz knew that because a lot of times we'd bring Blitz finished songs and then he'd run with the vocals for a few weeks.
"Thanks for Nothing" was another one and that was words and music. I thought we did a great job. I thought Blitz did a great job with it. But I remember writing that in Jersey and saying, "Hey, we need a couple more songs." We were doing some detuned stuff and I said, "Well, I'm gonna run with that." Those guys were so cool with just going, "Hey, man, run with it and see what we come up with. No holds barred, just bring everything you can."
I'm a pack rat, I saved all that stuff. I've got old demos, I've got old cassette tapes, I've got micro cassettes. I've got this book that I call "the bible," which is just all of our ideas, all of our album titles, production notes, all kinds of stuff. So it's fun to go back and check all that out.
I just saw that article, and I know that it's an old article. But my girl just had a baby. I've got a newborn now and I'm thinking about my history and saying, "Hey, I want people to know that some of these songs that they're calling classics were really just brought down from this small town in upstate New York."
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I don't blame you for trying to clarify. You are not credited for "Infectious" and "Thanks for Nothing" in Horroscope as a songwriter in the booklet.
No, everything was Overkill. That was the agreement. I've got regrets about that. Still they're calling it some of their best work. But no, that was the deal. Those guys said, "That's what you're gonna do. You're gonna write songs for us and you're in Overkill." They made me a full part of the band, which was mind-blowing for me. Once you spend a few months on the road in the back of a van with all these guys you create a little brotherhood. there. We probably had three quarters of Horrorscope written by the time Merritt even joined the band. It was just a real cool time because that's the opportunity that I wanted and I knew I had some strong riffs and that if D.D. and I put the riffs together and we'd make a song. Obviously it's D.D.'s band. He was doing the songwriting but he wasn't the sole songwriter until probably W.F.O.
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But you're on W.F.O.
Yes. That's when we started realizing what our forte was. We experimented on I Hear Black, and everybody contributed to that album. And as cool as it could've been, I guess it speaks for itself. Sometimes I was into it, but if somebody plays some of it for me I cringe. It was just uncharted territory for us and we were playing live in the studio, trying to get like an old Sabbath-y feel behind everything, which worked sometimes and sometimes didn't. After that we let D.D. take the reins. Merritt played the solos and I played all the rhythms.
I do have a song on there that's an ode to our friend Chris Oliva, who passed away while we were getting ready to record. Other than that, D.D. wrote most of that record and that's when I would say he became the sole songwriter. Horrorscope and I Hear Black are different stories.
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What's the one song that you wrote on W.F.O.?
I just wrote some riffs on "R.I.P." Like I said, by that point D.D. was really taking over as the sole songwriter.
What was cool about W.F.O. was that Blitz and I started riding our bikes together up to rehearsals and back. He started really getting into it. I was racing with my friend in my off-time. And just the adrenaline and just how focused you had to be… we're talking motorcycle road racing, so there's a very small margin of error there. I started taking tape recorders to the race track. Blitz got really fired up about it so he started asking me some terms and I said, "One of them is ‘W.F.O.’” And he's like, "What's that?" And I said, "Wide Fuckin' Open." And he said, "Yeah, I like that idea. Let's run with that." So concept-wise [and] art direction, I remember doing a lot for that [for W.F.O.].
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The motorcycle aesthetic is still very much a big part of Overkill today. The first song on their new record is about a motorcycle.
That's news to me, but I'm not surprised. Blitz would say, "Man, this shit's in your blood. What is going on with you? Every waking moment you're talking about these bikes and you're watching it on TV." And I said, "Well, I'm taking the guitar to the track with me and then when we get off the track I get right on the guitar and start writing riffs while that adrenaline's still pumping through me." Each one was feeding on each other. So the music was inspired and I was realizing that the music inspires the riders, too.
Do you still receive royalties for the songs that you wrote?
No, I signed it all away just to get paid. If I had it to do over again knowing what I know now I might not have done that, but we were struggling so much that I just needed a paycheck. I was living with my girlfriend down there in Jersey and everything was three times as much as I was used to. So when those guys said, "If you go home and just write songs and that's what it's for, we're gonna pay you all year." And I said, "Well, that's a great deal. I love writing songs. Actually I've got riffs coming out my ass. I'm ready to do this."
So I remember the night I signed that all away and I actually talked to D.D. about it. I said, "Hey, man, it's been years and years. Why don't you give me a couple of those songs back that were totally mine?" And he said "No."
I'm not trying to take anything away from those guys. Obviously, being around all these years, they're doing something right.
One thing that they did do was teach me how to work at something, as far as everybody's dream. If you play in a band, you want to make it, you want to make videos, you need to be on a record label. But it doesn't get handed to you. They showed me from day one that if you want anything, you're going to work your ass off for it.
I was 21 when I started playing with those guys. I was young, impressionable and I was listening to them and watching how they did things. So I'm not trying to piss anybody off. I'm just trying to get the history corrected because it does say, "All songs written by Overkill." And that's a long list of people right now. If you ask D.D. he'd probably say, "Oh yeah, those were Rob's songs. He brought them down from The Night."
I just I got out of it and went in a totally different direction. But I never stopped playing and I never stopped caring about hearing these songs. I'm very proud to be a part of it and I'm glad these guys are still going. It's unbelievable actually that this is still going on. I tell D.D. that every chance I can.
So I'm not ungrateful for that. I’m pretty proud of those songs. I'm looking at this description right now about the title track and one of metal's heaviest groups, and I'm just proud of that. I want people to know where it came from.
How did you leave the band?
It probably wasn't as friendly as it could've been. By that point there was a lot of pressure on the band and things were just going away fast. Reading this article brought that back. We were picked up on Atlantic for one record and then boom, the bottom just dropped out. We wanted to do metal. I just didn't think that we were gonna go any further to be honest with you. I don't think I would do any differently, but it was a point in time and we were all not very happy. I didn't leave in a bad way but I definitely left Blitz with a bad taste in his mouth because I just up and left. I don't think he understood. D.D. and I saw a little bit more eye-to-eye on it. I probably could've done better than I did do.
Blitz does say some nice things about you in this interview. He calls you a "rock solid rhythm player."
Yeah, absolutely. And this isn't a beef really. It's just maybe clearing up some of the credits, especially on Horroscope, that's the main thing. People love that record.
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Overkill experienced a bit of a revival in the early 2000’s that they’re still riding. They had Randy Blythe guest on a song, and when Headbanger’s Ball reruns began airing on VH1, people were able to be exposed to the band on TV again. But those reruns only covered the albums before you joined. I think Overkill, like many thrash bands, still hasn’t been fairly evaluated for the material they did in the 90s when the genre was more underground.
Oh yeah, you're right. The first couple albums were laying some new ground. And then there were so many fish in the sea that the few rose above all that.
What I was most proud of was that I was writing songs in the vein of the first Overkill record, because that was my first real experience on the road, and especially with thrash. There's always been cover bands and rock bands around. We grew up listening to that stuff. But these guys were the first ones to rip my face off and own the crowd.
I'm having a little renaissance myself and now I'm digging up some of this stuff. We had videos from just about every show back in the day. Some of the shows were just brutal. We had so much energy and we were hungry, and things were just clicking. By the time I got out maybe some of those things weren't clicking and we all came to an agreement. But it was never really ugly. It was never "Fuck you, I'm outta here." It was just kind of the fuse had burned out.
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Have you ever thought about putting those videos up yourself? People would love to see that stuff.
Maybe this is the beginning of putting some of that stuff back together. I still joke with D.D.; One of the last things we said to each other was, "I don't think this is the last time we're gonna work together." But that gets a little dimmer every day, because we just keep moving in different directions. Then again, I talked to him not too long ago and said, "Keep me in mind if you ever wanna revisit those riffs. Because I still got all of them from back in those days."
This is the most stable their line-up's been probably ever.
We've talked about reunions, but then Blitz said he's got too much respect for the new guys. I respect that too, but the fans would also go nuts, and I'm not even just talking about us. I'm talking about the original line-up, I'd love to see that.
You mentioned that one of the other guitarists that was being considered for Overkill was David DiPietro from T.T. Quick?
Yeah, we had a meeting at Johnny Zazula’s office one day. They wanted to meet me. "Who's this guy? Why do you think he can replace Bobby Gustafson?" I'm sitting there and I'm a nervous wreck because this is everything I'd wanted and worked for. Here I am thinking that all the funding behind the record and everything is all hinged on this meeting with me.
I'm doing my best to be cool and just answering questions. And [Zazula] goes, "I think David DiPietro would be a better fit." I looked at D.D. and Blitz, and they looked at me and they were like, "Really? T.T. Quick? He doesn't even play thrash. What are you talking about?" "No, he's just a great guitar player." I can't dispute that. He was one of the best I've ever heard. But I'm standing right here in front of you telling you that I'm the guy, and the members of Overkill are telling me I'm the guy. That's how ruthless the music business is.
Dave DiPietro actually played on I Hear Black, on the song “World of Hurt”. He showed up at the studio one night while we were doing those sessions. By that point I wanted Dave DiPiero to play on this record. I heard he was in town and said, "Come on over and play on it."
So we sat there and got drunk one night and he played. He finally said, "Oh, I'm too drunk. Don't put that on the record. But you can take anything you want out of that solo." I took it back to the apartment we were staying in, and then learned Dave DiPietro's parts almost note-for-note and put that in the song.
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What is your proudest memory of being in Overkill?
I'll tell you what, man, I'm proud of it all. The thing I'm proudest of is, the whole audition that I had to do for Megaforce. Here we are having a private show for 10 or 15 people from the record company who have zero confidence in the band but especially in me. By that point, Merritt was fully on board. We just went out and killed. Like Blitz says in the article, "We wanted to shove it straight up his ass," and I remember him saying that, and it just got me so fired up because it's like these guys didn't have to believe in me or Merritt, but they did, they felt the magic and it wasn't a mistake.
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