Interview: Dave Ellefson Of Megadeth
When I was around 11 years old my older cousin gave me a denim jean jacket with the sleeves cut off, and you better believe there was a Megadeth patch sewn on there. It was fucking badass. I loved it, even if my parents didn’t. Especially if my parents didn’t. At the time Megadeth, along with Kreator, Slayer, Exodus et al, were part of a vanguard of bands really pushing the envelope of Heavy Metal music. The suburbs were awash with the razor wire guitars and double kick drums of the thrash movement as a whole generation latched onto this intoxicating, liberating sound.
As the 80’s bled into the 90’s, Megadeth would go on to scale the heights of commercial success with their Countdown to Extinction LP peaking at #2 on the U.S. Billboard Charts. Since that time, they have continued to navigate the shifting waters of trends, phases, inter-band dramas, drug madness and lineup changes whilst continuing to tour and produce albums.
Throughout all of it, founding member and bass player Dave Ellefson has had a front row seat. Next week, he will share the whole sordid story via a series of spoken word shows throughout Australia. Collide called Dave to get the lowdown on what we can expect from the show.
The spoken words shows are set to encompass your entire career, so let’s start at the very beginning: what was it like moving from Minnesota into the belly of Los Angeles in the early days when you first hooked up with Dave Mustaine?
Honestly? It was completely brutal (laughs). It was such a radical step for me, because I grew up on this very wholesome Midwest farm where it was square mile upon square mile of open space and farmland. Then I moved to LA, which I knew I needed to do for music purposes, but man! There couldn’t have been a more 180 degree turn than that one.
I had this hunch when I was 16 years old living on the farm that I had to get out there. Van Halen had come out, Ozzy was starting to get his musicians out of LA and, all of a sudden, everything was brewing in LA. It was one of those moments where you know you have to do it, so you suck it up and make it work.
When did you first feel like you were making some headway? You must have been pretty chuffed when you came up with that intro bass hook to ‘Peace Sells’. Did you have an inkling at the time that you were creating one of the iconic metal songs?
Well, it was funny with 'Peace Sells' because you could tell right away that the song was going to be a hit. We’d written all these other songs - I mean, we had about 2 albums worth of material by the time we’d recorded ‘Killing is my Business’ – but 'Peace Sells' was a song that really turned a corner for us, and you could just feel it on the night the song came together in the rehearsal room.
What made you decide to undertake this spoken word tour? Is it something you’ve wanted to do for a while? It’s been touted in some corners as a ‘Motivational Speaking Tour’. It’s not gonna be some weird Anthony Robbins bullshit is it?
No, no, no! It’s not a motivational speaking tour by any means. If anything I’m going share my life and the things that I’ve been through, the transitions both as a person and musically as a member of Megadeth. This is not some preachy motivational conference! (laughs). We’re going to talk about Megadeth, we’re gonna talk about music, we’re gonna talk about the bass. We’re gonna open up some Q and A. I want it to be something for the rock and roll fans to enjoy.
Obviously a big part of your story is your falling into drug addiction and your redemption and escape from it. What was it that constituted your rock bottom? The point where you knew you couldn’t continue, and how did you find your way out of that?
My redemption? Well I guess like most Australians I was brought up in a Judeo-Christian culture. Church on Sunday. You’re either Protestant or Catholic. That’s really all it is.
My fall was when I crashed and burned from taking drugs. I used drugs from when I was 15 up untiI I was 25, and fortunately I crashed and burned young because it allowed me to start over and start my life just as we were going in to record the Rust in Peace album. It’s amazing, because when you’re on drugs you think you’re the only person whose life it affects, and in my experience, you really see once you get clean how many lives you do affect. I realised that Megadeth would have never survived had we not cleaned up back in those days. We wouldn’t have done the Rust in Peace record or the Clash of the Titans tour or any of the cool things that developed out of that.
To me all those things are part of what I like to call G.O.D. Good, Orderly Discipline. Suit up, show up, be clean, have your head together, have your chops tight, know the songs, know your parts, look good. And that’s what Megadeth during the Rust in Peace era was. Suit up, show up and be ready to kick ass in the name of Megadeth.
That was a super tight record. A lot of what seemed to fuel Megadeth especially in the early years was a cocktail of anger, spite and envy. Do you find that now, as somebody who’s comfortably well off, has accepted spirituality and the trappings of fame, is it difficult to conjure the same energy and viciousness that drove those albums?
(Laughs) Well it changes a bit! You know we’ve put out a lot of records, we’ve been able to sing about a lot of topics. See the world. Travelling the world is a great influence and inspiration for writing songs. For me, looking out the window of an aeroplane or a tour bus is very inspiring.
You’ve probably fielded a lot of these questions since Shawn and Chris left the band, but the rumour mill is going crazy with talk of a possible Rust in Peace era line-up reunion. Is there any truth to this, and what’s going on with the current state of Megadeth?
I’m not going to comment on any line-up talk right now. When the time comes, we’ll make a formal announcement about it - but I will say that right now we’re really working on the writing of the record and getting ready to go into the studio next month and starting pre-production.
What can we expect from the next record? A lot of people were put off by the more radio friendly sound of Supercollider. Do you think it’s a bit late in the game for an established act like Megadeth to break through to a more mainstream radio audience?
Well, I think the thing with Megadeth, or any band, is that the tours inspire the records. What you see, the feelings you have, sometimes even the transitions and shifts that are going on around you all work their way into your writing.
When we were writing records like Youthanasia, Cryptic Writings and Risk in the 90’s, metal was going through a LOT of changes. Seattle music was big and then the nu-metal movement came in and there were all these outside influences. Any artist who says they aren’t affected by outside influences is just flat out lying, because they always have an impact on you. I think every artist goes through those transitions, even the ones who tried to stay true to everything they do like The Ramones and Iron Maiden. Part of it is that you’re growing up, you’re growing up as a person, you’re growing up together as a team and a band. You reach these points where you want to try some other things. It’s fun to experiment and challenge each other. And once in a while you have some success with it.
Cryptic Writings was a perfect example of a very successful Megadeth record, whereas Risk was just a very odd time in music.
Oh man, everyone kind of did it at the time. Kreator, yourselves, Metallica... even the heavier bands like Carcass and Entombed were all reacting to some degree to that seismic shift in the 90’s.
Yeah, bands like Testament did different things, slower more melodic things with clean tones. I think bands that have an excess of musical talent inside of them are going to always want to push the limit of their capabilities. The easy route is just to bang out the same songs and say ‘Hey it worked out on the last album, let’s just do it again’. To me, that’s pandering to the masses.
I think that, as an artist, when you say ‘I don’t know if this is going work, I don’t know if my fans are going to like it, I don’t know if it’s going be successful, but I really feel that as a writer we should push the envelope and try some new stuff’ - that’s where the real ballsy risk comes in. To take some chances once in a while. With Megadeth, there’s some great risks we can take and then there’s certain songs we can write where we’ll say ‘Good tune, but not for Megadeth’.
I’ve been active with a variety of different groups over the years and a lot of times that’s where I get to express myself. Those things allow me to come back to Megadeth fresh and be focussed on Megadeth.
Going back to Supercollider, with the title of the record, are you guys interested in what’s going on with the large hadron collider and the search for the Higgs Boson, or so called ‘God Particle’?
I went over to Dave (Mustaine)’s hotel room in Atlantic City. New Jersey. We were on tour and he said "Why don’t you come over and listen to some of these new demo’s and ideas I’ve been laying down?". When I got over there, he said "I’ve already got the title and the artwork for the next album ready". He showed me the cover of the record and I thought ‘Wow. Very cool. A very Megadeth concept, atomic particles and splitting the atom. Very much in line with the theme of Megadeth'. Sometimes the concepts for a record will come together before the songs do.
Speaking of Dave, it’s well known that he’s shifted quite heavily to the right in his support of the Republican party. Where do you sit on that spectrum? Are politics a big part of your life?
Well, I think politics are part of everybody’s life to some degree, especially here in the States with this emphasis on a two party system.
Yeah - it’s incredibly polarised.
Exactly, and people tend to have this attitude of ‘You’re either with us, or you’re against us’ - which I think is bullshit, because none of us are totally conservative and none of us are totally liberal. As a creative guy I tend to be pretty liberal, because in order to create you have to let go of tradition. You can’t be too conservative or else you’re just going to create the same thing.
Yet at the same time, as a husband and a father and a home owner and a tax payer, I tend to be more conservative on some of those other standards. I think I’m a pretty good example of most people who aren’t one or the other, but a little of both. I think our media here in the states tends to throw people into one category or the other.
I tend to always be on the side of an open mind, because that’s where creativity happens. I’ve always been much more of a liberal mindse, and proudly so – I make no bones about it. But I’m not here to comment on the war, I’m not here to comment on the oil prices. That’s outside the scope of what I do. You can’t be all things to all people, so I stick to the few things I’m really good at and try to excel at those
Finally, looking back on all you’ve achieved. What are the moments or accomplishments of which you’re most proud?
Proudest moment? Well helping form the band is certainly part of it. Just to be there at the beginning right after Dave was coming off of the Metallica transition. I find I’m a person that’s pretty good with people during those transitional phases of their lives. Sometimes those transitional periods are very helpful and sometimes they aren’t meant to last forever.
The early days are probably some of my proudest, because they’re unsung. There’s not a lot of notoriety to those early days. Just keeping the band together during the moments when you have to decide, almost on a daily basis, "Am I in or am I out?". It’s easy to decide when you’re getting platinum records and being invited to the Grammys . Of course you’re in! Those are the fun moments. But it’s the moments when it isn’t so fun. When you’re starving. When you’ve just played a show and you didn’t get paid or a band member leaves or you’re having to fire a manager. Those moments where you ask yourself ‘What am I doing with my life?’. And then you say ‘Well, I’ll stick with it one more day’.
Your life really comes down to one day at a time. I’d been living one day at a time long before I understood the origins of that phrase. That’s what I’m most proud of.
DAVE ELLEFSON 'MY LIFE WITH DETH' SPOKEN WORD TOUR DATES
THURSDAY MARCH 19TH – THE HI FI, MELBOURNE 18+
Tickets available at www.oztix.com.au
FRIDAY MARCH 20TH THE FACTORY THEATRE SYDNEY 18+
Tickets available at www.oztix.com.au
SATURDAY MARCH 21ST – THE HI FI , BRISBANE 18+
Tickets available at www.oztix.com.au
SUNDAY MARCH 22nd –THE GOV, ADELAIDE 18+
Tickets available at www.oztix.com.au
WEDNESDAY MARCH 25TH –THE CIVIC HOTEL, PERTH 18+ Tickets available at www.oztix.com.au