David Ellefson can be considered one of the veterans of heavy music. He was in the frontlines of that small but fierce and tight-knit army, who forged heavy metal into what it is today. These guys have gone through a lot of things: P.M.R.C., enmity from the music press and critics, “de-metalling” of the youth, the grunge-burst in the ’90s, and so on. Back then, they had no idea that three decades later the whole world would know their songs by heart and crowds of people will fill huge stadiums just to see them play.
Heavy metal doesn’t tolerate any wimps, and only the strongest bands have survived to this day. Many fell while fighting their own demons, but David found his way out of the darkness. You can’t help admiring the fact that so many years later, this man is still in full vigor and at the pinnacle of his creativity.
MEGADETH visited Finland on the 4th of July to headline Tuska Open Air 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’ve gone on endlessly, but there wasn’t 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. That’s 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?
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 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 would’ve never done had I just only been playing inside a rock ‘n’ roll band.
When MEGADETH disbanded and you didn’t come back after the band got active again, did you feel in a way that you were at a loss, because you wouldn’t be able to participate in something as big anymore?
I had offers to go touring with some pretty big bands, but I didn’t take those offers. 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 would’ve encouraged him to do a solo record because it would’ve been a good plan to do something not under the MEGADETH name. So I think that the “Risk” album would’ve been a great Dave Mustaine solo record. 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. That’s something that maybe we’ve 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?
I did. I knew there would be a day. And I don’t 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 would 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 didn’t 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?
We actually talked about it years ago. Back at the time, we used to get together for dinner and I told him that if I had to do it all over again, I would’ve done it. I would’ve driven over to his house, knocked on his door, you know, yelled, 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 can’t change it, you can’t fix it, you can only create the new future. So let’s go create the new future.
What was the thing you missed the most when you weren’t a part of MEGADETH?
I missed just having Dave playing. I’ve played with a lot of really good musicians: the guys in F5, I did the “Temple of Brutality” record. But there is something about how he plays that I missed; there’s a very original spark and charisma when it comes to his playing. While a lot of other musicians I’ve played with were great players, they just didn’t have the charisma that he has that pours out through the music. And I’ve missed that about how he played.
What do you think of the MEGADETH albums that you didn’t take part in?
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 it’s not the same. What they did would have the characteristics of MEGADETH because Dave was singing and playing and writing; to some degree 50% of it was Dave Mustaine. But I’d say that on “Endgame” there are parts of it that sound like most of the MEGADETH records, because there’s heaviness. I think Andy Sneap was the producer; he fundamentally understands how to get the 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, had you ever been oppressed by bigger bands?
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 out “Peace Sells…” We had just got signed with Capitol Records; it was our first big tour, not arena level, but five thousand seat venues – pretty big. [MOTÖRHEAD] had this drum set that 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. It’s funny, because we’re friends with MOTÖRHEAD now; we’ve played together a lot. We can only laugh about that now, but at that time, yeah… they were the headliners [laughs]. Anyways, we’ve worked out 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 it’s like to be in that position. So I’d like to think that we’ve been good stewards of our stage for other bands that play before us.
So what can you say about the fact that MEGADETH won’t play on the same stage with anti-Christian bands?
I wasn’t in the band when that whole thing happened. But, you know, sometimes you’ve 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 don’t have to be goody-two-shoes, but you also don’t 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, that’s 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 you’ll have to be respectful, if you’re not… [claps hands].
You are “David Ellefson of MEGADETH“… it’s basically a part of your name right now. So how does David Ellefson in MEGADETH differ from David Ellefson outside the band, David Ellefson the husband, father, and businessman?
I’m pretty much the same guy. When you walk on the stage, you’ve got your game face on just like anywhere else: on a soccer field or a basketball court, you’re going to have your game face on, you’re focused. But personality-wise I’m pretty much the same guy. I try to have one set of principles that applies to everything that I do. Honestly, for me that’s 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 is 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. We’ve 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!?
Yeah, I’d like to. Of course it’s really hard to find some time off now. But yeah, that’s 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 – that’s 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 wasn’t a single band to appear in the new millennium which would’ve had the potential of being out there for decades and generations ahead. Is there any hope for metal music in the future?
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.
I think they might start cutting two or three strings off their guitars and see what happens. We got up to seven strings, now we should go the other way.
So what do you listen to these days? If you listen to music at all.
Yeah, that’s the thing. I don’t listen to music, especially right now, because everything’s been so intense with the MEGADETH tour. Most of the stuff I’ve been listening to is MEGADETH music, just kind of staying up on that. Actually, I recently bought RUSH‘s “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.
Absolutely. There’s 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 makeup were the law. How did you end up being so different?
Dave met the 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.! We’re not playing in L.A.! ” And thank God we didn’t. 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. The San Francisco scene produced the GRATEFUL DEAD, years later it produced Montrose which was Sammy Hagar’s 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?
EXODUS are fast. Kerry King would always say that Tom Hunting from EXODUS is the fastest drummer. He had probably told Dave Lombardo all the time, “Dude, Hunting’s 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 don’t know if it makes them the fastest. EXODUS are still probably one of the fastest.
Nowadays, the image of a band seems to be more important than the music itself. Back in the old days, people used to care whether or not the band actually rocked. Do you think this would affect the further development of metal music? Whether it will deteriorate in quality as the image is preferred over the music?
Music is about a lot more than just the notes, it’s 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 it’s about a lot more than just the music. It’s like identifying when you go to see the band play. It’s 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 weren’t eight 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 has been GUNS ‘N’ ROSES, there was a bunch of McCoys and their glam bands, punk bands like SUM 41, BLINK 182, GREEN DAY – they’re all a part of the scene.
You’re a legendary bass-player, basically an icon. Are there any secrets or magical tricks that you would share with a beginner?
You’ve got to practice, number one. It doesn’t just happen. A lot of people who want to be rock stars have no idea how to go about being a successful rock musician – big difference. A lot of people 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 wouldn’t want that, right? That’s the figure of being a rock star that people want. But a lot of people either won’t 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; it’s 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?
I think we’re living it right now.
Interview by Tanja Caciur