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Interview: Dave Ellefson won’t rust in peace

By Ben Hansen
Special to the Hard News Cafe

Ben – Now that you’re back with Megadeth, are we officially allowed to call you “Junior” again?

Dave (laughs) – People have been calling me that since the beginning of the band, I guess it’s my nickname. In the beginning I didn’t like it; I was always the younger “Dave”. Then after several years, it became a term of endearment. I’ve been called worse.

Ben – You played on the Big 4 tour this last summer. What was it like being part of that?

Dave – That was something that I think was the most exciting thing for all of us – bands and fans included. That was definitely the shot heard around the world, to the degree now that everyone is asking, “When are we next?” “When are you going to come to the US…South America…Australia?” We definitely set the bar pretty high for what could be an amazing extravaganza – I think the best of the best of the thrash genre.

Ben – Is there any validity to these hopes?

Dave – There is nothing on the books right now. For right now, on Nov. 2, the DVD, Blue Ray, and CD box set of the show comes out. That is really cool, with a ton of great stuff. Whatever people saw in the movie theaters, there is a lot more in addition to that, plus all of the backstage stuff. They captured some moments that you would have had to have been there to witness. That makes for a good Christmas present.

Ben – Was it a rush playing, “Am I Evil” with Tom (Araya/Slayer), Robert (Trujillo/Metallica), and all the other guys on that tour?

Dave – It was. We all had our time on that exact same stage. It wasn’t like there was a headliner with three other bands. Metallica went in with the attitude of, “We’re just another one of the bands on the bill.” That was really a commendable position for them to take, because it took away hierarchy and the inevitable mindset that goes with that. They were very gracious, and as a result, when someone gives, no one wants to take. I thought that there was a real maturity with all of us.

That’s probably why this has not happened until now. “Do you ever see this happening? Could this have happened? Why did it take so long?”…well, that’s why. There’s a maturity that happens at this point for all of us. We’ve lived this long to be able to do that. It’s like that saying we had in Skin O’ My Teeth, “That which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” Whatever didn’t kill us off back in our earlier days has now definitely seasoned us and made us stronger, put us in a position where we can do those things and make it work, because we all want to make it work.

Ben – I remember when you guys came through town in support of the Rust in Peace album at the raceway 20 years ago on the Clash of the Titans tour. What was the most memorable part of that tour?

Dave – There were select dates that were pretty memorable. Then again, that whole period was. It really hit me that it was the biggest that thrash metal was going to be. Probably up until the Big Four shows that we just did, that was as big as it ever got. It took the combined forces of all three of us (Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax) to put together a tour. Keep in mind, back in those days like bands from a same genre didn’t go do tours together. Shortly thereafter, we got…Lollapalooza, but even Lollapalooza and even Ozzfest to some degree started to broaden and got some bands from outside the genre. Ozzy would be the Elder Statesman. He was the oldest guy out there – everyone grew up a fan of his. When Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax came out, we were all yoked together. For the three of us to put egos and all of the stuff aside…we were younger, so we were still full of a lot of piss and vinegar, and hadn’t yet seen the top of the mountain. When we were able to put that aside and combined forces, it helped us get to the top of the mountain together. It was one of those periods that was probably beyond what we were. There was a maturity that happened on that tour that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Once we did it, we realized, “Look at how huge that was.” I don’t remember the events of it as much as I remember the feeling of it being that this is the biggest that this (thrash metal) has been and it is the biggest that it might ever be.

Ben – What was it that Dave M said? “Metal hasn’t gone away; it’s just gone underground and will be back up for some air and to kick some ass again?”

Dave – Metal, is a genre, and thrash is a genre within, like a sub-genre. It packs a pretty potent punch. By nature, it’s not a trend or fad, so it’s not going to be popular. There’s the “Mall version” of metal where you can go to the mall and just buy the T shirt…kind of wish you were there or pretend that you were there. That’s what I think is so cool about this tour that we’re doing right now. This is not the mall version; it is the real thing. There are a lot of people coming out to see the show that they saw twenty years ago.

Dave – There’s also a lot of younger fans growing up that get to say, “That’s the tour that I heard about,” or “I was only two when that show happened,” or “I wasn’t even born yet when that tour came out, but I always hear my dad talking about it.” Now this is that tour! It’s cool for us to be able to take this out around the track again.

Ben – That’s quite a diverse crowd.

Dave – One of the things that is the coolest for all of us is seeing that it stood the test of time, that as angry and snotty and punky as it was years ago, that we’re able to take this back out and put on a show again for everyone that missed it the first time around.

Matt – Coming to a show like this brings back a certain sense of nostalgia. Through all of these years, 20 plus years, what is it at this point in your career that makes touring and playing music interesting?

Dave – Playing the Rust in Piece album top to bottom is not something that we ever did before. Even though we’ve been doing it all year, it’s not quite as new as it was back in March the first time we did it. We’ve never played an album from top to bottom on a tour, so it’s the first time that we’ve ever done that. To do this album, which was such a big fan favorite, for us to do this for our fans, as opposed to us intentionally doing a big show – where are we, who else is on the bill…we’ve played in festivals in Europe where there has been pop bands like REM and Sheryl Crow. We have enough of what we call our greatest hits that you see on TV or hear on the radio on a regular basis. We pull those out, and we can go head to head with the biggest of pop bands and play on that bill and not be out of character. That’s what’s cool about Megadeth – sometimes you strip all of the loudness and distortion and the aggression away and play our tunes on an acoustic guitar, it will still sound like the same song, which is the basis of a good song. On the flip-side is to go so narrowly focused and play one album that is just entirely off-the-chain thrash metal and very progressive. This isn’t the only album. In my opinion, there are a few albums in our catalogue – So Far, So Good, So What, Rust in Peace, and Peace Sells that are of the early days, they are the foundation of Megadeth’s music. Those are always the ones that fans go back and reference as their favorites. It’s cool to not get bored touring, to not have to play those same ten or twelve songs over and over again. It’s fun on this one, because now we really get to go deep and pull some of the goods out. That keeps it fresh.

Matt – So it’s not like you’re going through the motions. There’s real enthusiasm there?

Dave – Absolutely! For instance, I’ll start with the beginning to Poison was the Cure. There’s a bass intro riff at the start. Some of the fans that would only know Megadeth from the radio songs that will be at the show won’t know that song…I don’t expect this to be an eehhww, ahhhh, whole-arena-resonating-type thing. There are a handful of select fans that get it. Those are the ones, on this particular tour; we’re playing this album for you. It’s cool to feel the room while you’re performing. “Those people, over there, cheering…they know what time it is on this particular tour.”

Ben – After playing it thousands of times, do you ever have your intro riff to “Peace Sells” loop in the background music of your everyday life?

Dave – (laughs) No. That’s not the easiest riff to play, either. I kind of have to pay attention to when I play it. There are times when my strap is too low, and, Man, I just boinked the riff on that, or I wasn’t holding my pick right, or I turned my volume up or went into it to quick or wasn’t positioned right. It’s not one of those riffs that I can take for granted. As much as I’ve played it a lot, I realize that people want me to play it right. There is an expectation. I can always tell the nights when I really nail it. It’s a pretty instant response – it’s one of those “lighter in the air” rock moments.

Ben – I know that initially you played without guitar picks, and then you started moving towards them. What do you do when you noodle on your own?

Dave – A little bit of both. It depends on what I’m practicing. I’ve got a Bach Suites Cello books, .Cello is written in great keys, which reminds me of bass guitar because of the scale of the notes. That I’ll play with fingers.

Dave – Sometimes I’ll sit at home and turn my drum machine on to whatever happens to eat. It could be a boss nova thing, it could be some 6/8 thing, or it could be rock groove. I’ll just start playing along, just ad-libbing and making stuff up. It gets me out of playing just metal. Depending on what I’m playing or the situation I’m playing in – jamming with buddies or sitting in a room on session – I’ll definitely always play so that it sounds the best in that setting. The pick works a lot in recording, with clarity of tone. I try not to walk in and go, “Here I am. This is how I play. Take it or leave it.” I try, “How can I make this sound better? That serves a tune rather than make it sort of me.

Matt – When you talked about Elder Statesmen, you mentioned Ozzy. We think about you guys! We honestly think about the Big Four. Metal is your bread and butter – let’s face it. We listen to your songs, we can hear moments of classical, maybe a little middle-eastern riff here or there. Is there ever any desire or pressure to do anything different, or to go out there away from metal?

Dave – We tried something like that on the Risk album, and that showed us that with our fans, when it (the album) says Megadeth on it, they want it to sound like this right here (draws a box). Don’t go too far over here; don’t go too far over there. There is a quality about it that they expect because it has that name on it.

Dave – It’s interesting the music that you reference. We’re an interesting age group because of the moment in time that we grew up in. The fact that we grew up with Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden records, but we also had Sex Pistols records. We were the first generation to have that. Most people were either into alternative and punk, or they were into Zeppelin/Purple/Sabbath kind of stoner rock with heavy guitar riffs. Even Sabbath was plodding, trudging, kind of post-60’s, but loud and heavy guitar stuff. We also great up hearing what would become the neo-classical thing. We had this different harmonic minor, using diminished chords and notations. All of a sudden, instead of playing this straight pentatonic riff which sounds rock and roll, we started adding these half-steps, which made it sound demonic, dark, and kind of evil. That became part of our signature, especially for Megadeth for sure, of what we do. A lot of that just happens to be the point in time we were born. It’s just that simple, the influences that were around us, we just started grabbing them and pulling them in. That’s what created thrash metal, which went one step beyond the metal of previous – Maiden, Saxon, and some of the other New Wave of British Heavy Metal guys were doing.

Ben – We’ve heard a rumor that you are playing bass for the Lutheran church…tell us a bit about the Megalife Ministries Worship Services.

Dave – It’s funny with that. In 1999, when we were in Nashville making the Risk album, both my son and daughter had been born. They were really young, so by nature, my wife and started going, “Our parents took us to church. We should probably do the same thing.” I was raised Lutheran. The Lutherans – they’re not fanatic at all. They are pretty middle of the road, not “Fire and Brimstone”, and all of that. So it was a pretty easy way to grow up. Now suddenly I’ve got kids, and I’m up to bat as a parent, which makes you realize that your parents actually did know what they were doing. And most of the shit that we were getting away with, we actually weren’t, right?

Dave – So we’re Nashville, and all of these people started coming at me, asking me about my Christian faith. I realize that I was in Nashville, which is the buckle of the Bible belt. This is the core of that – a lot of the Christian music industry is in that town. It’s weird that this is happening, so I call my wife to tell her, and she says, “Well, that’s funny. The Worship Leader at the church that we’re going to called and asked if you could sit in next week and play bass for him.” There are moments when you realize that God is up to some funny business, and since God is bigger, he wins. So I’m in, and to be honest with you, I liked it. It’s low-key and off the radar, which I enjoy. In Megadeth, none of us had ever done any solo albums. We never went off and did anything outside the confines of the band. If I’m going to be in church with my family anyways, I might as well bring my bass, and I’ll get to play.

Dave – That’s how the whole thing started. That was the journey starting. More and more, I got asked, “Hey Dave, can you come to Nashville and play on this record for us?” It was a musical evolution for me. When people call you, they’re hoping that you’ll say yes, whether you play in a metal band or a church album. I had to be careful because I played in a big, heavy rock band. I’d made a lot of life changes into sobriety, stopping drinking, and partying. The evidence has shown itself that when I stopped that and lived a clean life, life really took off. This is when I had my biggest success as a musician. I didn’t talk that much about it, I just walked the talk.

Dave – Once I started playing in church, the whole thing musically came together. When the pastor asked me about helping to start MegaLife Ministries because he knew that I was musically active and well connected, it was cool. We actually purchased a new church. It is now part of a church and a school – there is a school for the kids. It’s now really this whole community thing.

Dave – When I was home on Sunday, I went there. I’m not the worship leader while we’re on tour. I’ve been able to bring other people in. Even in the spirit of rotation, I’ve been able to call on other people, and get others involved while I’m still involved as an elder. It’s interesting in the mainstream music setting, that type of calling on people to serve with their talents and gifts stops a little bit. Kind of a spiritual setting, that really opens up. I was able to get a lot of people involved that normally wouldn’t go to church. People that had broken homes, broken families, marriages that were on the brink, and we’d bring them in. It really just lit their lives up.

Ben – Junior as a missionary. Awesome!

Dave – Yeah, Apostle Dave! That makes what I do in Megadeth more rewarding for me. When you think that doing, whether it’s being a journalist or a musician, when you think that it’s all that you do it can be a burden. All of a sudden, it doesn’t own you. When you realize that something doesn’t own you, you’re free. You really blossom. This was really what my journey, even in the eight years away from Megadeth, was really about; playing with a lot of people, playing on another records, writing a lot, being involved with other people. I did artist relations for Peavey. I got a business degree. All these things were happening, which also made going back to Megadeth sweeter, because I happened to know most of the songs. It’s cool to have a whole bunch of other stuff that really enriched my life, because it makes the Megadeth journey just a part of it instead of all of it. That’s a free place for me to be right now.

Ben – Tell us a little about the song you wrote for the Youthanasia album, Family Tree.

Dave – For Family Tree, I wrote the riff on a piano, and basically transposed it over to the guitar. Sometimes a different instrument gives you a different starting point to create a riff or an idea. I’ve written some things on acoustic guitar, and all of a sudden an amazing lush melody or chord structure falls out. I could pick up an electric guitar, plug it in to a Marshall stack, move it around, and wow…that’s a pretty slammin’ metal riff.

I try not to be limited, and like to have a lot of instruments sitting around the house.

Ben – One of the musicians that we have spent some time with has actually written a lot of his stuff on the recorder.

Dave – (laughs) – Exactly!

Dave – Any instrument can do that. I went on a guitar collecting phase back in 92. Not buying expensive guitars; just cool guitars. When I’d pick them up and play them, it was almost like a bunch of songs just fell out of them. Old beat-up ones, dented, scratched, necks broken, and I bought a couple of new ones. I just went through this creative phase where the music was just falling out of me left and right, and I just needed different tools to do it. Each one was a different paintbrush with a different color. It was like, “Woah! Look at the painting now – it’s really cool!” I’ve learned to never look at an instrument with disdain.

Ben – Now that you’ve joined forces with Dave Sr. again, are there plans to record another album?

Dave – During this time, we’ve already started writing and composing, collecting riffs and lyrics. Dave and I have been having a lot of fun with it. It’s bringing a lot of ideas to the table and putting them out there. I think that the band’s last album, Endgame, really started to focus the band back to where it should be again. Dave had to do a lot of that on his own. Shawn Drover started to make some contributions, and Shawn’s very much a metal head. He really gets the focus of Megadeth. I’d love to hear more of Chris’ influence as being one of those unorthodox, really “out there” guitar players. That’s a dynamic that has worked really well with Megadeth, especially in the earlier years. It’s a fun time right now, and I assume after the first of the year we’ll get more serious about officially recording.

Ben – With all of the success that you’ve seen in the metal scene, what advice would you can give to aspiring young musicians to help them be successful?

Dave – Most of the stuff that you go back to later in life are the things that you learn and developed in your formative years as a musician. With that being said, it’s important to be broad, and to learn a lot, to not just be pigeon-holed into one thing. If you are going to pursue it professionally, you are then going to have to get more focused. It’s like when you go to school as a kid. You learn a little bit about everything…a little biology, a little English, a little math. Then, as you go to college, you start to focus more into what your major is.

It’s kind of like that with music. When you’re young, try all of it! You never know what thing you might like. You might say, “I love jazz, but I’m great at metal.” Or, “I love metal, but I can sure write a great pop tune.” Everyone has to make a living, so maybe writing pop tunes is where it’s at for you, and then play metal for fun. Music is a very literal kind of thing. Don’t put a box around it, especially in your formative years.

If you’re going to make a living out of it, now you’ve got a lot of other things to think about. It’s about getting focused, finding people that you can work with, and marketing. At that point, once you get into bands and try to do it to make a living, you realize that so little of it is really about playing the music, even though the perception is that music is what you do all day long. More and more of it is about a lot of marketing, promotion, and those types of things. At that point, you’re not going to have the time to sit around and practice, as there are a lot of other distractions. When you’re younger, you should really focus on trying to get the curriculum of your musical senses together.