An interview with Dave Ellefson of Megadeth - June 21st, 2011
By Mike Bax
Press photo by Stephanie Cabral
Although Dave Ellefson is a founding member of Megadeth, he and frontman Dave Mustaine had a falling out in 2002 that actually disbanded the group for a time. When Megadeth re-formed shortly after, Ellefson was not in the line-up. Early last year, the Daves (Ellefson and Mustaine) patched up their differences and Ellefson was back in the band as bassist, weeks before the band would embark on the Rust In Peace tour and subsequent dates with The Big Four in Europe. (Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax are dubbed ‘The Big Four’ bands that came out of the 1980’s thrash metal movement).
With both Megadeth and Slayer headlining this years Mayhem Festival, and Megadeth performing at Heavy TO (with Slayer and Anthrax), Toronto area fans can see the band up close and personal. Anyone who has seen The Big 4 DVD, or the recently released Rust In Peace DVD, already know that the band are performing at the top of their game at the moment. Don’t wuss-out and miss what will surely be one of the best two days of live music this year at Heavy TO!!!
Dave Ellefson was good enough to give me twenty minutes of his time to chat about being back in Megadeth. The gist of our conversation follows the links below.
Watch for Megadeth at Heavy TO this summer in Toronto, and on the Mayhem Festival in North America for the rest of this Summer. Megadeth play the Heavy TO festival in Toronto on July 23rd.
Line Up: http://lineup.heavyto.com/
Mike: Hey, Dave. Where are you at right now?
Dave: Hey, Mike. I’m in California, heading in to do some album photos tomorrow. Then we’re heading over to Europe next week to get going again.
Mike: Crazy. I’m going to Europe tomorrow.
Dave: Oh, cool. Right on.
Mike: Going to see the Graspop Metal Meeting.
Dave: Nice. You going to hang in there for some of the Sonisphere shows, or are you just there for a few days?
Mike: Just for Graspop and a few days in Amsterdam. Knebworth Sonisphere was tempting, man. Reeeeally tempting. And with Heavy TO coming up right here in Toronto, I’m going to get to see a pretty awesome metal festival right in my backyard, so to speak.
Dave: Cool man. True enough.
Mike: 2010 was an interesting year for thrash metal - your return to Megadeth, along with the first run of dates with Anthrax, Slayer and Metallica. It felt like a real group hug year from the outside looking in.
Dave: Yeah, it was a good time to come back. There were discussions we’d been having for a while on our side, and it all just lined right up for us. And you’re right - 2010 really was a monumental year, not just for Megadeth, but for the entire genre. For us to be able to do the Rust In Peace tour was amazing. We’d never done a themed album tour like that before, so to do one of those and be able to film that for the Rust In Peace live DVD and, of course, then rolling right into The Big Four shows and live DVD with that as well. It was really just a real true homecoming on all fronts for all of us.
Mike: Your departure and return to Megadeth must carry a bit of baggage with it. Was it weird coming back to the band, or was it business as usual for everyone involved from day one.
Dave: You know what? I think on my side of it I mentally tried to not go back to where the baggage was. I mean, you can’t change anything from the past. All you can do is hopefully learn from it and you move forward. I think that to not have learned from your past is probably the worst mistake you could ever make in your life (Laughs) because none of us are perfect. And certainly in rock and roll bands you are all very close to each other because of the creative aspect of making music. Then there is the business side of it. The time you spend in the yellow submarine and the iron lung – the airplanes and tour buses and backstages (Laughs) it’s those close confines where you seem to sacrifice a little bit of your personal space for the betterment of the group.
And I think that one of the things that was nice in my time away from Megadeth was getting to develop other sides of my life. When I came back I felt like I'd got to spread my wings a bit, and then come back to the band willing to make some personal sacrifices again. In a group setting, the individual thrives only if the group thrives. Getting that team mentality going again has been something that I have quite honestly really enjoyed over the past year.
Mike: That’s really cool. You know, I chatted with Dave Lombardo last year - the last night of Canadian Carnage, actually - and his feelings were very similar to yours on returning to the fold with Slayer. He said he came back with new perspective.
Dave: Yeah, you know, I think that some people are out of groups for a little while and often they wind up never to be heard from again. On my side, it was actually quite liberating to be out of the confines of the band, only because we’d done it for so many years, you know? All human beings need to have a bit of ‘me time’. I think even for Dave, you know? He got to have Megadeth as his own for three albums before I came back, so he got to have that experience… I think for both of us, we were both very thankful for each other and I think for both of us, we really enjoy being Megadeth together again now.
Mike: Do you find that you approach your playing differently in any way now that you are back with the band in earnest?
Dave: Absolutely, very much so. You know, in my time away I did so many different music related projects – bands that I formed and bands that I was asked to join – a ton of session work, along with a lot of my own writing. So one of the things I realized in 2002 was I was kind of dated stylistically in my playing and my song-writing, and by hooking up with some younger guys in some different settings and writing for younger bands and being a part of that, it really opened my eyes to some things - how guys tune their guitars for instance. These guys weren’t tuning their guitars in standard A4 tuning anymore, and to a large degree that really was a game changer. It was like someone threw a whole bunch of new paint into my easel for me to paint some new pictures with.
Mike: Was the decision to play Rust In Peace in entirety last year partially due to your return to Megadeth?
Dave: Actually, that was announced before I was going to come back, and in some ways it may have been the final nudge to make it all happen.
When I first had the press release for that come through my email, I was in New York and it come through my BlackBerry forwarded to me from my publicist, and I gotta be honest with you here, my heart sank. I just remember thinking, “Man, I should be there for that”, you know? That album was a monumental thing for us and I really felt like I should be a part of it. And as things turned out, within a couple of weeks from reading that email, there I was playing Rust In Peace with Megadeth. (Laughs) It’s funny how much better I seem to play Rust In Peace now as compared to twenty years ago. I think my experience as a player and a recording artist and a live performing bassist have matured, and with the new line-up in Megadeth, as well. Shawn Drover is a fantastic drummer. He has a really good feel to how he plays. He intrinsically understands all of the fundamentals of Megadeth’s music as he grew up listening to our records. He seems to just ‘get it’ from all sides, and as a rhythm section that really made Rust In Peace a really enjoyable tour last year.
Mike: You know, from a technical standpoint, this is most obvious on The Big 4 Bulgaria Blu-ray. All of the performances are wonderful to watch, but the Megadeth performance captured on that Blu-ray is flawless, Dave. It’s a real showpiece for the band, I'm sure.
Dave: (Laughs) I appreciate that, thanks. I mean, that’s one of the things that I notice coming back to Megadeth. There was an incredible work ethic from the band right through to the crews. Everybody was really into it. Chris Broderick plays his guitar for eight hours, and THEN he goes and lives his life. That’s how he is every single day. (Laughs) It’s amazing; that’s why he’s such a fantastic guitar player. We would sometimes run through the entire set backstage before we would go onstage to play it for an audience. Our approach was like a marathon runner… if you are required to run ten miles, then you had better be able to run twelve. You need the extra gas in the tank to be able to run that ten miles efficiently.
Mike: That makes sense. How are Shaun and Chris to write with? This will be your first studio work with them both, correct?
Dave: It’s really been good, actually. It’s a much different process than I’ve ever done before with Megadeth, but it’s a collaborative environment I’ve done with other bands, so I am certainly comfortable with it. It’s really gone well, honestly. Johnny K is a fantastic producer – I’m really happy we were able to get him involved. He and Dave seem to have a good working relationship. Kind of like we came off of Rust in Peace and went right into Countdown To Extinction, that’s kind of how I feel about the new album. We came off the Rust In Peace 20th Anniversary and went right into what could theoretically be our next Countdown to Extinction, just twenty years later.
Mike: I realized today that I have primarily only ever seen Megadeth live with you in the band, Dave. I think I saw one live date with James (LoMenzo) in 2007 on a Gigantour. Four other live dates have all been with you. I kind of floundered with Megadeth after you left and have found myself re-invested after seeing Rust In Peace performed live twice last year. I’m looking forward to seeing you again this summer at Heavy TO and hearing some of the new stuff.
Dave: Well, thank you, I appreciate that. There is something about the true nature of a live recording, when the guys who were there putting it all together – writing and recording and producing it all – when they are the ones back there on stage playing it again. Certainly for Megadeth, with Dave and I being the consistent factor for the first almost twenty years of the band, that became a big hook to our legacy. It’s funny that when I came back, that very first rehearsal we played, ‘Symphony Of Destruction’ was our first song that day – and as soon as we played it, my bass with Dave’s guitar… it INSTANTLY sounded like vintage Megadeth.
Mike: One of the things I think Megadeth has always been able to boast is a technical proficiency few other bands can touch. I'm sure most musicians would trip over some of the bars of music in Megadeth material. It must be challenging to reproduce some Megadeth material live on stage.
Dave: Yeah, it is. It’s interesting because I grew up playing like that. I met Dave as he was first composing, and some of that stuff at first was some really slow and heavy riffs. Then the material got sped up very quickly and we seemed to start writing more and more progressively from there. I had a moment early on there where I was really glad I’d learned to play bass the way that I did, you know? Even in our original line-up with Gar Samuelson and Chris Poland, they originally came from a jazz-fusion-rock background kind of a Mahavishnu Orchestra meets The Who sound… they were a little bit older than me and Dave, and they had some different life experiences behind them coming into the band.
But when you fused me and Dave, the metal guys, with those two guys… we had a completely unique sound. It was interesting because everyone around us had this much heavier (pauses) ‘metal’ sound… like an eighties metal sound. Sometimes I would be kind of envious of it, too. I would hear Anthrax records and they would have these great drum tones and these thick guitars, and obviously Metallica records… Metallica records would always have great drum tone with a lot of bottom end and slick guitar tones. It took us several records to completely haul our tone in. We played our stuff differently than the other guys, you know? Out of The Big Four, every one of us has a very unique sound, and I think that’s so cool about what we are doing as The Big Four on tour now – we have such a unique individuality - each one of our styles, the way we write music and the way we play. These things are likely all elements we struggled with in the early days, trying to hone our sound, and it really became the basis of our individuality.
Mike: Any Megadeth live show is going to be jam packed with blistering guitar work. Does it get harder as you get older to play this fast? It's not like Megadeth have many ballads. There's no breather during 'Honky Tonk Woman' for you guys, right?
Dave: I’d say to a large degree that the Megadeth stuff requires not only musical prowess and the technical efficiency to perform it; it also requires an overall health and wellness maintenance - and stamina. And if you don’t have that, I don’t know how anyone could possibly play the material. Basically you can’t be out smokin’ and drinkin’ and burning the candle at both ends every day (Laughs) you’d never be able to pull it off. And that’s kind of cool, you know? Obviously we have our history of running and gunning in our wilder younger days… the truth of it is certainly by Rust In Peace, things really turned around to the point where we became a very physically, healthy, high-stamina kind of band. Playing Megadeth music is more like an athletic event.
Mike: I'm guessing you've been playing music for over thirty years now, Dave. Megadeth is certainly pushing close to being thirty now. When you reflect on your career in music, what things sit with you as milestones?
Dave: As far as the Megadeth stuff?
Mike: Not necessarily. Just in general, when you reflect on your career to date in music, what makes you smile?
Dave: I think for me, probably the beginning. The starting of a band is always a fun process. It’s a blank canvass, and you can really do anything that you want to do. I think one of the fun things in Megadeth is that Dave always had a very clear vision right from the very beginning of what he wanted it to be and what he wanted it to sound like. He is also a guy who is very good about following his intuitions as things changed. Often times being the leader of a band isn’t about being the boss, it’s about being able to make quick decisions as new things come your way. That overall mindset has been a fun thing to be a part of in Megadeth.
For me and my time away from the band, I think the fact that I didn’t just limit myself to only playing on heavy metal records was probably one of my most liberating experiences. It allowed me to really flourish and develop as a musician so that when I did come back to Megadeth I essentially came back as a much better musician.
Mike: Having a Jackson Dave Ellefson signature bass HAS to vindicate your musical pursuits a bit, right?
Dave: Yes. It’s funny, because in our genre - what we play and what we wear - it’s all part of the lifestyle of a band. That’s really what bands represent. Bands are a lot more than just the songs and the music they play, they represent a lifestyle. So for me, the Jackson bass thing… for them to reach out to me and for us to have such a great partnership again like we did so many years ago is a cool thing. When someone wants to put your name on their instrument because they know they can then sell them, it's not only a great honour, but for me it's really about me coming back and the fans going, “This is the return to the glory days that we liked, and Dave Ellefson within Megadeth”.
Mike: You penned a book called Making Music Your Business: A Guide for Young Musicians in the late 1990s. How relevant do you think that book is now? Would you ever consider updating it for this generation of musicians, even if it was something done electronically?
Dave: You know, it’s interesting that you say that because I have been asked to write something updated, maybe like a Volume Two or something, and there is some stuff in it (Volume One) for sure that might be considered out-dated now. The music industry has changed so much now. If anything, what I could do is develop more about the last 15 years. One of the last chapters that I wrote was on the internet. (Note: Ellefson’s book was published in 1997) It’s funny that that is now one of the main ways for a band to reach their audience. It’s funny that I ended with that in the book, because that would essentially be the beginning of the next volume.
The internet ultimately changed all of the rules in that book. That’s why I started to do a lot of stuff just on YouTube. It’s so time consuming to actually sit down and write a book and get it published. And as fast are things are changing, the information in the book might just be irrelevant by the time it’s published. I started Dave Ellefson’s Rock Shop on YouTube as a way to just sit in front of the camera and very quickly get some ideas and concepts out there which essentially represents a revision of the book in a lot of ways.
Mike: Cool man. I think I have now absorbed enough of your time this afternoon. I appreciate your candor, and I look forward to seeing you in Toronto at Heavy TO in about a month.
Dave: Cool. Thanks, Mike.