Entering the Overkill fold in the wake of Bobby Gustafson’s departure couldn’t have been easy for Merrit James Gant.
Nevertheless, the shredding six-stringer made his presence known immediately as Horrorscope (1991) proved to be yet another bone-crushing affair for the New Jersey-based thrash titans. Paired up with fellow guitar-toating beast of unladen fury, Rob Cannavino, Gant helped change Overkill’s dynamic, playing one part of a duo in a band previously known to host Gustafson as a lone gunman.
If Horrorscope established Gant as a worthy inductee of the scene, I Hear Black (1993) – despite its wild change in direction – and W.F.O. (1994) deeply etched the Millville native’s stylings across the hearts of Overkill’s fanbase. But despite his success, after the release of Overkill’s live record, Wrecking Your Neck (1995), Gant departed for personal reasons.
Gant has maintained a low profile in the years since, experimenting with electronics and technology in the studio, building guitars, and continuing to perpetuate the good word of guitar-driven antics through his teaching. Gant harbors no regrets and looks back on his time with Overkill fondly, citing his accomplishments with the thrash legends as some of his finest work.
Taking a moment from his busy schedule, Merritt James Gant plugged in with ClassicRockHistory.com for a rare interview where he recounts his early musings on guitar, his initiation into Overkill, his approach across Horrorscope and I Hear Black, and what his plans are as he moves forward.
What first inspired you to pick up the guitar?
My older brothers. One played bass, the other drums. They played a lot of classic rock stuff like KISS, Nazareth, and UFO. They always had bands in the basement. I was too young to join in at the time, but I always looked up to them.
Can you recall your first guitar?
My first guitar was a full-sized acoustic dreadnought. I’m left-handed, but they didn’t have any, so I learned right-handed. I was 7, and my grandmother paid for the lessons and the rental fee. After about six months of renting, I saved some money and bought a used Fender Musicmaster from a friend. A buddy of mine still has the guitar. It has been modified so many times that it’s not even recognizable anymore.
What was the first riff you learned?
The first riff I remember learning was “Rebel Rebel” by Bowie. One of the guitarists that used to hang out with my brothers taught it to me. I played that riff over and over! I used to torture my guitar teacher with new songs and solos to learn every week. The poor guy would sit and tab out solos for me with a cassette player, manuscript book, and pencil. He would limit me to one cassette per month of lessons. So, for the other three weeks, I had to memorize chords, voicings, scales, and sequences.
Who most influenced your sound, and how is that best illustrated in your style?
I was and still am a Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen fan. I used to listen to vinyl with headphones studying their tone and style. To this day, Van Halen and Ozzy are still at the top of my playlists.
Tell me about any original music you’re working on.
Currently, I have been writing and releasing solo instrumental stuff. The songs aren’t really songs; they’re more like musical doodles. I’ll start with a concept like a triad exercise or something, and then I’ll record real drums and continue to mix at home. From there, I’ll usually send out a couple of MP3s to some friends for feedback. Most of my new stuff gets released to online streaming platforms.
What songs and recordings that you’ve done so far mean the most to you, and why?
I would have to say the solo work I did on the Overkill records mainly because it was the most notable contribution I have made to date. But also because I spent a lot of time working on those solos, layering, harmonizing, etc. It’s crazy how much time you can devote to just 20 seconds of audio.
I wanted to hit on Overkill. How did you first enter the fold?
I heard about the audition while playing in a band called Faith or Fear. The band was breaking up, and management gave me the number to call. I borrowed a hundred bucks from my mom to buy their CDs so that I could learn 20 songs in two weeks. Me and a friend drove my van with my gear to a rehearsal studio in North Jersey.
When we got there, the lobby had a couple of guys auditioning. I never thought it would go anywhere. When they called me into the rehearsal room, I could tell they were tired of hearing guys play their songs. So, I just went nuts trying to play as tight as I could, shredding solos. Then they called me back with a new assignment to write solos for what would become Horrorscope.
What were some of the challenges in replacing Bobby Gustafson for Horrorscope?
I felt like Bobby and D.D. [Verni] were getting a lot of pressure from Johnny and Marsha Z to use two guitar players. They already had Rob [Cannavino], who had worked for Bobby G and knew the stuff. He was totally capable, but they needed to satisfy the label. D.D. already had most of the songs written, and they had a demo of a couple of the tunes. So, the big challenge for me was walking in late and trying to prove myself to an already-established brotherhood. To prove my worth, I just learned the stuff to the best of my ability and focused on writing killer solos.
I Hear Black represented a major sonic shift for Overkill. D.D. told me he regretted it and that the change in sound was overwrought. Would you agree?
I Hear Black was an odd record for us because the approach was different. D.D. had some of the songs written, and he was leaning towards more of a groove-oriented Black Sabbath-type thing. With the success of Horrorscope, we felt as though we could take liberties with the sound of the band and explore other directions.
So, we all had an opportunity to write songs on that record. It sounds like a great idea with all this new talent, but it was a huge mistake. Overkill has a very distinct sound: D.D.’s riffs and Bobby’s vocals. We messed up a tried and true formula. I Hear Black was a dark time for everyone personally, too. Everyone was going through something. I don’t think any of us would look back upon that studio session or record fondly.
What led you to move on from Overkill?
I did Horrorscope, I Hear Black, WFO, and Wrecking Your Neck Live. I had to leave the band after about five years for my own well-being and financial reasons. Touring wasn’t fun anymore. Budgets were getting trimmed, and I just wasn’t willing to sacrifice my livelihood for the band anymore.
Tell me about Blood Audio, which formed after your time in Overkill.
Blood Audio was an experimental project I did when computer audio became available to the masses in the mid-90s. The editing, loops, and effects fascinated me. Most of that stuff was just me learning the technology and trying out new toys.
How do you balance the want to craft quality songs with the desire to shred?
I try to write things that will make other guitar players smile. I like quirky ear candy. Songwriting is an art all in itself, and composition fascinates me. For me, the shred stuff is just something I’ll throw in to prove my ability and keep my chops sharp.
What guitars, gear, pedals, amps, and effects are you using these days?
Lately, I have been having fun building my own guitars. I get unfinished bodies and necks. I’ll level and contour the neck and fret with stainless steel. I like experimenting with different finishes but usually prefer lacquer or hand-rubbed oils. I’m also a passive pickup guy. Actives feel sterile to me.
I used EMGs in Overkill because that was the tone. Dimarzio or Seymour Duncan’s are in most of my guitars now. I also prefer medium-output pickups. For amps, I usually use a Marshall tube head with a miked cab for my online lessons and recording. For heavy stuff, I’ll use a Tube Screamer in front of the amp. I like to stack boost pedals, too, for other textures.
What are your most immediate goals, and how do you plan to make them a reality?
My main goal is to continue to evolve as a teacher. Instructing others is a thrill for me. Teaching keeps me sharp and fresh. I continue to become a better musician in return for helping others. I’ll definitely be releasing more solo instrumentals and building more guitars. I hope to keep learning new things and sharing them with my students.
An Interview with Merritt James Gant, formerly of Overkill
By Andrew Daly
Merritt James Gant: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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