David Ellefson of Megadeth: "We had punk attitude with metal chops"
Megadeth (due tonight at the Fillmore Auditorium) may be one of the Big Four of thrash, but in many ways, its frontman Dave Mustaine is largely responsible for the sound and aesthetic of three of the Big Four. As a member of Metallica before that band recorded its first full-length, Mustaine's name could still be seen on songwriting credits through Ride the Lightning.
With Megadeth, Mustaine had a chance to develop his vision for a kind of technically respectable yet raw and brutal sound more fully and his lyrics delved deep into places of personal darkness and exposed social ills with a sharp and poetic analysis rare in music generally.
We recently spoke with one of the band's founding members, David Ellefson, who came back to Megadeth after an eight-year absence, about the impact of Mustaine's guitar work on his peers, Penelope Spheeris and his reconciliation with Mustaine after a long hiatus from the band.
Westword: What got you started playing heavy music, and how did you get involved in playing in the world of live music early on?
David Ellefson: I grew up in the Midwest, so a lot of the stuff I heard was on the radio, stuff like Kiss, Styx, Foreigner, BTO. It was kind of the arena rock of those days. I heard it on the radio station WLS out of Chicago while I was riding the school bus as a kid, probably when I was about ten years old. By eleven, I got a bass guitar. By twelve, I put my first band together, and by thirteen, I was actually gigging professionally.
So, for me, the whole thing was that I wanted to play, because I wanted to go out and do it. I wanted to perform, I wanted to go do all this. To me, it wasn't about sitting around practicing in my bedroom, this is about get a bass, learn how to play, get in a band with some guys and let's go. That's basically what I've been doing ever since.
How did you end up playing music with Dave Mustaine in the beginning of Megadeth?
Five days after I graduated from high school, I moved out to Los Angeles from Minnesota. I happened to move into an apartment right underneath him. It was a couple of months after he left Metallica. We met up, and he started showing me some songs. He realized I could play, and basically, he and I moved forward, and here we are all these years later.
What kind of music were you both into then that you'd talked about before playing and during the early days of the band?
We talked about stuff that I knew in the Midwest: Iron Maiden, Scorpions, some of the more popular New Wave of British Heavy Metal stuff -- Motorhead, Venom, Tygers of Pan Tang. There was this whole movement of stuff. I'd known about it, I'd played a little bit of it in some bands I was in back in Minnesota. But Dave was really into it, and he really knew it, understood it and he was really versed in the scene with the stuff he had done with Metallica. The music he was writing was obviously going to be the next wave of what was going to happen.
It was good for me because as a bass player, I'd grown up in the clubs, I knew how to play, I knew how to put a band together, how to do all of this. But to have that opportunity where I could actually really create my own style and be part of the next wave of music, that's a Cinderalla story opportunity, you know?
For Dave, to have someone like me who would be his stalwart, right hand man over the years -- because it's not easy starting a band. Bands gobble guys up, man. It's a hard life. It's not like we had a bunch of money. We had opportunity, but that's about it. So Dave and I, I'd say our story is really kind of an American success story even on a business level:
Here's two guys that agreed that this is what we were going to go do and we started with nothing and turned it into something. On an artistic level, it's a cool story because we basically started with something that didn't even exist. It was a seed that grew into a plant. The plant became a tree and the tree became a forest.
How did you guys get Kerry King to play in the early live incarnations of the band?
We needed another guitar player to go do our debut shows up in the Bay Area in February and April of 1984. Dave made a huge impact on Kerry, when Kerry went to go Metallica at the Whiskey [a Go Go]. So he liked Dave, he liked his style, his style influenced how Kerry would then write as a guitar player. For Kerry, it was a thrill for him to be in Megadeth even though I think going up and doing those shows a lot of the fans were asking about Slayer so Kerry realized Slayer had a future.
So to some degree, those shows changed the course of Slayer. Then, of course, for us it meant we moved forward and added Chris Poland Gar Samuelson to the line-up -- they were the first recording line-up. But we've had fantastic guitar players ever since.
The band that played on the first two Megadeth records were Gar Samuelson and Chris Poland. How did you meet those guys and did their jazz background have any influence on the early songwriting?
Yeah, they had a manager who introduced us to them. That's how Gar got in the band. Gar and Chris had played in a really progressive fusion band called The New Yorkers that was kicking around L.A. and for whatever reason they never got signed but they had a big following. So they'd done clubs, knew the L.A. circuit.
Dave and I were the hard rock, metal guys, and they were a few years older than me and Dave, and they kind of were more Zeppelin, the Who, Jeff Beck and all the way over to even John McLaughlin. The kind of music we were writing was really technical and very progressive music so to bring guys in that had jazz-rock fusion chops to play that stuff, we were just clicking on a whole other level that I don't think anybody in our genre was doing at all. That was fun.
You spoke at length in the movie The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. And you didn't embarrass yourself unlike some of the other artists. How did you get to be a part of that and what was it like working with Penelope Spheeris on that movie?
Penelope really liked us, she loved Dave. She really liked Dave's approach, that it was just raw, edgy, sort of unrefined--there's just a real animal quality that she liked about Dave's style. That was kind of how she was. She was this sort of unrefined filmmaker. That's why she liked doing punk and rock and roll movies.
Megadeth, we weren't a glossy, glitzy...
Interview continues on Page 2.
Megadeth, we weren't a glossy, glitzy, rock and roll band. We were a really raw, basically a punk and metal band, which is what became thrash. We had punk attitude with metal chops. That's what lead to that. We did "No More Mr. Nice Guy" and before that "In My Darkest Hour" and the movie and stuff so we had kind of a nice little run of stuff that we did with her.
You wrote that book Making Music Your Business many years ago. Why did you feel compelled to write that book and if you had to write an update for it, what might you add that you've learned since 1997?
I was reading a lot of different types of books around that period. A lot of self-development and personal growth type of books. We were recording the Youthanasia record then we did a tour cycle behind that. That was time period when I wrote the book. It just turned into this thing where I thought, "You know, I've been blessed with having a really good career up to this point."
It was kind of a way to give something back to our fans. Especially the musicians who, like all of us...You can't really go to school to learn it. Everybody's career path is different. But there's so much in the business that you figure out on your own and I thought it would be a cool way to give something back, that was my motive behind it.
As far as the actual book itself, I've been asked to write a follow-up for years. So what I did was start up David Ellefson's Rock Shop on YouTube. You can look those up and those are basically a series of videos -- and I continue to do them -- intended to explain music business things and even going over playing and performance and different things pertaining to [being a bassist and a musician in general].
You played B.C. Rich and Modulus basses for years. Why did you switch to Jacksons and what is it about them that you prefer to other basses as you've obviously played pretty much everything at some point?
I've played a lot of different stuff. That Fender Precision Bass into an SVT that was kind of the classic rock and roll set-up? For whatever reason that never worked for me. It never worked for how I played. It never worked for the tone that I always heard in the bands that I was in. So I've always been on this eternal search for tone. I liked a lot of the Gibsons, Rickenbackers, Dan Armstrongs, B.C. Riches and by the time I landed on playing Jackson instruments playing through, at the time Hartke cabinets and [Gallien-Krueger] heads, in 1987, that was birth of my tone.
Peace Sells was on a B.C. Rich and things like that. What you hear throughout my career is the development of the tone. A lot of it is the band's sound has changed and the band's instruments have changed. You can't just be a lone wolf and change what you want. In a band setting you have to play what's appropriate within the ensemble of the group. I've had situations where the band sounds great and one day the drummer wants to change his drum kit. Next thing you know, my bass sounds like shit.
I realized that any time one thing changes on that stage, it can potentially change everything. I think now the ultimate goal, and I went through this when I came back to Megadeth a couple of years ago, was finding the right instrument, the right amps, the right speaker combinations, the right strings, the thickness of my picks--I went right down to every detail to make sure that everything that I use is the perfect fit for how Megadeth sounds today.
Dave's tone is different. His amplifiers are more high tech. Chris [Broderick] uses very high tech stuff, the drums are made out of different wood. Even though initially we were recreating Rust in Peace, Rust in Peace in 2012 has a different level of mechanical engineering behind it than when we recorded it on more vintage equipment twenty years [prior].
What thickness of picks and what kinds of picks do you use?
I use the Jim Dunlop Tortex picks and I've been using the .88. Because we're breaking out a lot of older, thrashier stuff on this tour, I'm going to start using one millimeter thickness because they're a little thicker, a little stiffer and they help me play the older thrash stuff a little better. The thinner pick is good for some of the slower tempo, groovier stuff but when you really start playing fast, I find that there's not enough space between the notes for that pick to be moving. I need the pick to be really firm and stiff.
When you rejoined Megadeth, what did you and Mustaine say to each other to kind of seal the deal and be able to work together again in a productive way?
We had talked several times over the years. It wasn't like we were total strangers to each other. We got on the phone and Dave was like, "Look, this is what it is, this is where the band is at today and this is basically what we can do to make it work." I said, "You know what? Sounds good."
Because, quite honestly I was sort of like, "Let's get together and see if this works." He said, "I'd love to have you here if you want to be here." And I said, "Well, I'd love to be there." That was it. I drove over, we rehearsed, it sounded great and it was a done deal. It was really simple and it was something that took what it took and it took the time that it took and when it took, it took. From there on were just said, let's just close the door on the past, let's just keep our eyes on the future and let's move forward. And that's what we've done ever since.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.