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David Ellefson - the megabassist of the megaband
All the questions have been answered by bassist David Ellefson face-to-face at Tuska Festival, 4th July, 2010
Band Homepage: Megadeth
David Ellefson can be considered one of the old stagers of heavy music by all means. He was in the front row of that small, but fierce and tight-knit army, which forged thrash metal the way we know it today. These guys have gone through a lot of things: P.M.R.C., enmity from the music press and critics, demetalling of youth, the grunge-burst in the 90s and so on. Back then they had no idea, that three decades later the whole world will know their songs by heart and crowds of people will fill huge stadiums just to see their idols.
Thrash metal doesnt stand any sissies, only the strongest ones survived to this day. Many fell while fighting their own demons, but David found his way out of the darkness. You cant help admiring the fact that so many years later this man is still in full vigour and at the pinnacle of his creativity.
Megadeth visited Finland on the 4th of July to headline Tuska Festival 2010 in Helsinki. We got to meet David and talk to him about various matters regarding the band and the state of the metal scene. The discussion could go on endlessly, but there wasnt much time left before the band had to go on stage, so we tried to make the most out of it.
When we last met, you told me that you came to Finland for the first time with Megadeth in 1988. Thats exactly 22 years ago. A lot of things have changed since then. You left Megadeth and came back. How did you yourself change over this time?
David: In a lot of ways. I was in a band from such a young age. I was 18 when I moved to L.A., met Dave [Mustaine] and we started Megadeth. So I was inside the confines of our own creation for so many years. It was fun to step outside and do a lot of other things musically: I went to college and got a degree, I did some work for Peavey, so I got to do a lot of other things. Of course, I am married, I have kids. All that stuff helped me develop a lot of sides of my life that I wouldve never done had I just only been playing inside a rock and roll band.
When Megadeth disbanded and you didnt come back after the band got active again, did you feel in a way that you were at a loss, because you wouldnt be able to participate in something as big anymore?
David: I had offers to go touring with some pretty big bands, but I didnt take those offers. Because I thought that if there was ever a time in my life to just step out and really be an artist and be creative, it was right now. That was the time, right after Megadeth. Because at that time the band was over, it was gone. I was happy doing what I was doing. I think, when Dave put the band back together, initially he really was thinking of doing a solo record which then ultimately became a Megadeth record. Personally I wouldve encouraged him to do a solo record, because it wouldve been a good plan to do something not under the Megadeth name. So I think that Risk album wouldve been a great Dave Mustaine solo record. Because as soon as you put Megadeth on it, people expect it to sound different, but there are some great songs on it. Dave wrote some amazing material on that record. You can also do things without having to leave the band. Thats something that maybe weve figured out now through all of this. You can creatively take some liberty to do some things, because they ultimately make you stronger when you come back to your band.
When you left the band, did you actually know that there will come a day when you will be back?
David: I did. I knew there would be a day. And I dont mean that to sound pompous that you can always come back, but I took the chance to do what I had to do. There was a chance that Megadeth will be fine without me and that might never happen again. But at the same time it was cool to create new music, play with new people and do something like Hail! We didnt create anything new, but it was fun all professional level guys basically being a garage band again.
Did you think that after everything that has been said and done during the time of your feud with Dave, you would be able to go on as if nothing happened? Had these old wounds left no scars?
David: We actually talked about it years ago. Back in the time we used to get together for dinner, and I told him that if I had to do it all over again, I wouldve done it. I wouldve driven over to his house, knocked on his door, you know, yell, beat each other, just to go through it (laughs). Dave and I certainly had our disagreements over the years, but that was like a fight we never had. So to a certain degree, yeah, you have these things and then you have to work it all out, move on and let go. We forgive each other for what happened and there is no point in coming back to it. The past is in the past, you cant change it, you cant fix it, you can only create the new future. So lets go create the new future.
What was the thing you missed the most when you werent a part of Megadeth?
David: I missed a lot just having Dave playing. Ive played with a lot of really good musicians: guys in F5, I did the Temple of Brutality record. But there is something about how he plays that I missed, theres a very original spark and charisma when it comes to his playing. While a lot of other musicians Ive played with were great players, they just didnt have some of the charisma that he has that pours out through the music. And Ive missed that about how he played.
What do you think about Megadeth albums on which you didnt participate?
David: They sounded to me like Dave Mustaine solo records and I say that, because he was the only original guy with three other people. And its not the same what they did that would have the characteristics of Megadeth. Because Dave was singing and playing and writing, to some degree 50% of it was Dave Mustaine. But Id say that on Endgame there are parts of that sound of most of the Megadeth records, because theres heaviness. I think Andy Sneap was the producer, he fundamentally understands how to get Megadeth sound right and he worked really well with the band to bring that out. There are some things on The System Has Failed that had a couple of pretty cool Megadeth tracks. And then there were moments where I really felt that Dave was trying to break out and do some of his own stuff, which again, I would always encourage him to do a solo record. I think it would be good for him. He would enjoy it without having to do it within the confines of Megadeth. To some degree as big as Megadeth is, there are restrictions on it. It has to sound a certain way, otherwise the fans will be pissed.
When Megadeth was still a young and not so famous band, have you ever been oppressed by bigger bands?
David: Oh yeah. Especially when touring with other bands. I remember, years ago we did a lot of stuff with Iron Maiden. The band was always very good to us, but at the same time it was their show, clearly. We were just kind of a young up and comer. So we had our little 45 minutes of play and then just got off the stage and it was an Iron Maiden show. Probably one of the more difficult experiences we had years ago was with Motörhead on the Orgasmatron tour. We brought on Peace Sells We just got signed with Capitol Records; it was our first big tour, not arena level, but 5000 seat venues pretty big. They [Motörhead] had this drum set which had a train track that would come out. As a result there was nowhere for us to set our gear up, so we had to set up our drums offside. It made the set look sucky. I remember there was a big disagreement over that. Its funny, because were friends with Motörhead now; weve played together a lot. We can only laugh about that now, but at that time, yeah They were the headliners (laughs). Anyways, weve worked some things over the years about how we want our show to be. But not to the point that we ever wanted to infringe upon these bands that open for us, because we know what its like to be in that position. So Id like to think that weve been good stewards of our stage for other bands that play before us.
So what can you say about the fact that Megadeth wont play on the same stage with anti-Christian bands?
David: I wasnt in the band when that whole thing happened. But, you know, sometimes youve got to stand up for stuff. Dave and I are both Christians now. If there ever were two people in rock and roll who walked on the dark side, it was us. So to come out of that and to proclaim a faith in something good is, I think, a good thing. I was born and raised as a Lutheran kid, which, I think, most Scandinavians are, nothing fanatical, nothing crazy. So for me, coming out of the dark side of drinking and partying and everything that I did which almost killed me coming out of that to come back to the mainstream and get kind of in the middle of the road with a family and being healthy... If anybody sees that as a bad thing that is not good. You dont have to be goody two-shoes, but you also dont have to lead people down the bad road. I think at one point Dave said that he is not going to play with bands that are doing this kind of stuff, because it goes directly in violation to his beliefs. He is pretty lenient about most stuff, but in that particular situation he said No, thats not ok. So we learned that you have to respect the headliners, you have to have respect for the people on whose stage you technically are. And on that particular day youll have to be respectful, if youre not (claps his hands)
You are David Ellefson of Megadeth, its basically a part of your name right now. So how does David Ellefson in Megadeth differ from David Ellefson outside the band: a husband, a father, a businessman?
David: Im pretty much the same guy. When you walk on the stage, youve got your game face on just like anywhere else: on a soccer field or a basketball court, youre going to have your game face on, youre focused. But personality-wise Im pretty much the same guy. I try to have one set of principles that applies to everything that I do. Honestly, for me thats the goal to try and be the same guy I am on and off the stage, because that is a big part of what Megadeth is about. Megadeth is not a theatrical act, where we would paint our faces or wear masks, or we do one thing on stage and then we come off and [do the opposite]. The guy who was great at that is Alice Cooper. He was also pretty open about his Christian faith, got saved after all the alcohol and drugs lifestyle he led at one point years ago. He is able to go on stage and be this character named Alice, the evil villain. Then come off stage, wipe the makeup off and go play golf, hang out with his wife and kids and be a stand up family guy. Weve been on tour with him many years ago and he has been a very good mentor, a role model of how to do show business: to be in showbiz, but not of showbiz.
Are you planning to return to Hail!?
David: Yeah, Id like to. Of course its really hard to find some time off now. But yeah, thats a fun band and as I was one of the founding members, I really hope there will be a time for me to go back to play with Hail!
Many of the old bands are still popular - thats why the recent Big Four shows were so successful. People tend to cling to things like that, as there is still no worthy replacement. There wasnt a single band to appear in the new millennium which wouldve had the potential of being out there for decades and generations ahead. Is there any hope for metal music in the future?
David: The thing is that you have to be original and you have to innovate. Without innovation there is no future.
Yeah, but people have already come up with everything possible by now.
David: I think they might start cutting two or three strings off their guitars and see what happens. We got up to 7 strings, now we should go the other way.
So what do you listen to these days? If you listen to music at all.
David: Yeah, thats the thing. I dont listen to music, especially right now, because everythings been so intense with the Megadeth tour. Most of the stuff Ive been listening to is Megadeth music, just kind of staying up on that. Actually I recently bought Rush Hemispheres album. Very old one, so I bought it on ITunes.
Do you think that a certain geographical location can have an impact on the music created there? For example, Seattle will always be associated with grunge, Los Angeles with glam, San Francisco Bay Area with thrash, etc.
David: Absolutely. Theres a spirit that occurs in certain areas. Getting back to the question of what would be the future of music, it would probably be culturally driven rather than musically driven.
Megadeth came out from L.A., which was a glam sanctuary at that time. Spandex, glitter and make-up were the law. How did you end up being so different?
David: Dave met Metallica guys James [Hetfield] and Lars [Ulrich] in L.A. They quickly saw there was a scene in San Francisco and relocated there. They went where they saw the scene being planted and then ironically became the driving force of that scene. So with Megadeth Dave was like Fuck L.A.! Were not playing in L.A.! And thank god we didnt. We would take the long drives to San Francisco and play there. It was so much better for Megadeth, they really loved us up there. San Francisco scene produced the Grateful Dead, years later it produced Montrose which was Sammy Hagars [2nd Van Halen vocalist] first band, and then years later thrash metal. There have been full generational scenes coming out of San Francisco. There must be something in the water up there.
Back in the days there was kind of a competition among thrash metal bands - who is the fastest. So who is the fastest in your opinion now?
David: Exodus are fast. Kerry King [Slayer guitarist] would always say that Tom Hunting from Exodus is the fastest drummer. He had probably told Dave Lombardo [Slayer drummer] all the time Dude, Huntings faster, we gotta be the fastest! So Kerry wants to be the fastest. Maybe Slayer might have some of the faster breaks, faster parts of the show. I dont know if it makes them the fastest. Exodus are still probably one of the fastest.
Nowadays the image of a band is more important than the music this band makes. Back in the old days people used to care if the band actually rocked. Do you think this would affect further development of the metal music? Whether it will deteriorate in quality as the image is preferred over the music?
David: Music is about a lot more than just the notes, its about a lifestyle. I remember watching Korn, when they came out, and we took them on their first big tour. Their whole look, their style and their hair, they sang songs for an entire generation that related to it. So its about a lot more than just the music. Its like identifying when you go to see the band play. Its more about the scene and a movement now rather than it was in the old days when I was going to see Kiss or then Rush or Van Halen. They were all different bands, but there werent 8 other bands just like them to be a part of the scene. That kind of started with thrash metal. It started with the Big Four and then Overkill and Exodus. There was a bunch of us that started a scene and we all moved as a big tribe. And since then there were GunsnRoses, there was a bunch of McCoys and their glam bands, punk bands: Sum 41, Blink 182, Green Day theyre all a part of the scene.
Youre a legendary bass-player, basically an icon. Are there any secrets or magical tricks that you would share with a beginner?
David: Youve got to practice number one. It doesnt just happen. A lot of people, who want to be rock stars, have no idea how to go on being a successful rock musician big difference. A lot of people who go to work every day wish they could be rock stars. Then they never have to work again and they can have all the champagne and all the girls that they ever wanted. Who wouldnt want that, right? Thats the figure of being a rock star that people want. But a lot of people either wont know how to go on about it or are not disciplined enough, or they are just too lazy to go and get it. Being successful is about a lot more than just learning the parts; its about a lot more than the notes. And I think that people who figured that out are the ones who actually get to have some success.
What would you consider to be the absolute highlight of the whole Megadeth history?
David: I think were living it right now.
Shortly after the interview Megadeth went on stage and proved by action why its greatness is indisputable.
It is the blood and flesh of thrash metal. It is timeless.
P.S. We would like to thank David for his time and patience.
Also lifetime praise with cream on top goes to Mark Abbattista for making this happen.
Interview: Tanja Caciur | Photo: Jana Blomqvist
You may not copy, modify or use this interview anywhere without permission.
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