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Kerby’s Exclusive Interview with Former Megadeth Bassist Dave Ellefson

By Jeff Kerby, Contributor
Thursday, November 10, 2005 @ 1:44 PM


We Grew Up With Thrash-Metal.

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"Dave Mustaine is a stupid self righteous prick, and I hope someday he comes to realize that despite what happened in Metallica, he went on to form another great band in Megadeth—he should just be thankful for that instead of whining and bitching about what could have been."

Dang, I wish sometimes Dave Ellefson would break out with a quote like that…but…alas, it ain’t gonna happen.

Ever.

The former bassist and founding member of Megadeth is far too measured a personality to simply go around venting to the press. That makes sense, and it actually shows an enormous amount of restraint on his part simply because an individual would have to be lacking a pulse not to be more than a little angered at being jettisoned from a band that he helped create and had been so closely identified with over the years. Instead of indiscriminately spewing vitriol at all who will listen though, Ellefson has consistently proven himself to be nothing less than an intrinsically thoughtful musician concerned primarily with the music he is currently making while at the same time being very conscious of not discussing his Megadeth experience or Dave Mustaine in anything less than favorable terms. Given the proven litigious nature of the lead singer/guitarist and his continued sustained power within the genre of metal, it probably makes sense at least from an economic standpoint for Ellefson to temper his public statements even if the reality isn’t quite as rose colored as the tint suggests. That being said, a person can still go perilously close to overdoing it. On this press junket in support of F5, Ellefson has made some statements that a cynic would have to interpret as having come from a person lacking a certain degree of self-respect. People don’t really want to hear that Ellefson would instantly bury the hatchet and happily go back to Megadeth any time Mustaine were to snap his incessantly-blogging, Born Again fingers…but he would, and that is his decision, and at least he is honest about it.

Today, Ellefson is involved in a myriad of projects that range from the recently released F5 record to enhancing his thrash metal legacy with a band called Temple of Brutality, and if that isn’t enough, he has also appeared with Max Cavalera on some recent Soulfly material. In all, Dave simply sounds like a guy who is trying to do his best to move in a productive direction while at the same time remaining positive about his future whether it includes Megadeth or not. Maybe his hesitance to utter negativity ends up saying more about him than if he had ever expressed the words we might wish he’d say—in any case, Dave Ellefson has contributed an enormous amount to the metal/thrash metal scene of the eighties and was such an enormous part of the musical development of so many people. Here’s hoping Mustaine eventually realizes that Megadeth was always much more than a solo band and that regardless of the musicianship of those he currently enlists to share the stage, the spirit and vibe of vintage Megadeth can never be recreated without the presence of Ellefson.

KNAC.COM: At what point in your life do you think you were happiest making music, and was that also the most enjoyable time of your life, period?

ELLEFSON: You know…I would say….hmm. Let me answer the second question first. Usually, when I’m happy making music--that is when I’m happiest in my life. That happens mostly when I’m able to just think about music, and I’m not having to worry about logistics like having enough money to pay the rent or just those life things that we all have to think about at some point. Usually, when I’m happy playing music, I’m living in the moment--I think that is the best place to be regardless of what you do. Recently, I’ve enjoyed being on a handful of records that I’ve been on like the F5 album. That was an enjoyable process right from the beginning. There were some struggles once we got into the studio with the producer, but that’s always a stressful time because everyone is constantly challenging everyone else in an effort to make some part better. The problem with that though is that you really don’t want to untie something that was perfectly fine to start with, but once we were in there and it was sounding so good, that was a good moment. I would say that when I went in and did the couple of Soulfly records that I’ve been on, that was very cool too. There have been a few of them over the last couple of years that I have really enjoyed.

KNAC.COM: Of course Soulfly means Max, and his travails with Sepultura have been well documented--do you think he has gotten a bad rap in the metal court of opinion?

ELLEFSON: Well, look, I’ve been under some scrutiny with recent departures that I’ve had, and all I can say is that often times what gets put out there isn’t even close to what really happened. That’s just the way it is with any type of media. There are just times when you can’t rely on any of those sources because as they say, “there are three sides to every story--yours, mine and someplace in the middle where you’d probably find the real hard truth of the message.” What I know about Max is that he has always been cool with me. He has always been cool and a really creative person to work with—and that’s all I can really speak to is what I’ve seen. I have no idea what really happened with the Sepultura thing. What’s important though is that he’s moved on and been pretty successful with his new band. I give a lot of credit to anyone who even just goes out and tries. That’s half of it is just putting your neck on the chopping block--especially those people who may have had a large fan base before but that now for whatever reason happens to be trying to move forward in another direction. There are always going to be those who love what you do and those that hate what you do, and then there will also be some in the middle. I guess it’s your job as a musician to convince them that it’s worthwhile, I guess. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Tell me if I’m reading too much into this, but it seems as if the Sepultura situation is a bit different in than yours in that with his situation, Max generally gets labeled the bad guy, but in yours it seems as if many in the metal community perceive you as the “cool” one or the “level-headed” one. Do you feel that most people seem to have that attitude in mind?

ELLEFSON: Look, that’s always nice to hear. My thing though is that all of that is water under the bridge at this point, and I don’t want to go digging all of that stuff up.

KNAC.COM: Has it been a constant revisiting for you? Like every time you talk about it, it’s like opening an old wound…

ELLEFSON: To a large degree, I think all of us want to move on or go forward. I know I certainly do. With that said, for me, I have just wanted to get on with playing music. That is why I have become involved in all of the things that I’ve become involved in with over the last couple of years. Quite honestly, my phone has been ringing, and I’ve been saying “yes” because I think people always want to hear “yes” rather than “no.” It kind of goes back to that idea of it’s better to have tried and failed rather than not to have tried at all. For me, it’s playing music—not brain surgery. No one is going to die on the table if something isn’t successful. We’re talking about rock bands here—nothing that serious. It’s just a case where if I’m enjoying myself and having fun playing something, then hopefully the people who listen will enjoy it too.

KNAC.COM: How long did it take you to realize that even though music may not be brain surgery, that when something you create isn’t accepted the hurt feelings can still be awfully traumatic and painful? Is venturing out still worth the risk when that happens—especially when people can slam it almost instantaneously on the Internet?

ELLEFSON: Yeah, now with the Internet, everything happens really quickly. You can pretty much find out if you’re loved or hated within the span of a couple of mouse clicks. At the same time, I think your past doesn’t always have to equal your future. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. For me, musically speaking, some people think F5 is a little bit different for me, but that doesn’t mean that I have to do everything the same way in the future. There are some other things I’m doing now though like the Temple of Brutality and the Killing Machine record we did this past year that are pretty aggressive. Those are on the way, but the first thing up is this F5 album, and we’re looking to do a few shows with that. It has been a labor of love for me, and the other guys in the band have worked really hard on it. Even though I get called to do other things, I don’t want it to seem like I’m turning my back on something that I worked really hard on as well for the last couple of years. I also know that I am realistic enough to understand that when I was 18, I had nothing to lose, so I kind of left it all on the table so to speak for one cause, one mission, one era and one culture. That is something a lot of us grew up with which was the thrash-speed metal culture. Today’s world isn’t quite like that anymore. It is more of a "remote control" and "click of the mouse" type of society. People just don’t invest that much into growing up with a culture anymore. I kinda just try to write some songs and put them out and maybe do some shows and have some fun with it. If it turns into something more, then great--if not, then it seems like there is always something else coming along behind it.

KNAC.COM: How prehistoric does it seem when you think about the old days when maybe you did an interview with Hit Parader or some other metal magazine, and the story might not see print for three months?

ELLEFSON: Sometimes I would even forget that I did the interview. Then, I would be like, “I said that?”

KNAC.COM: Does that make it harder to go through any kind of controversy with chance for verbal volleying being so much quicker now?

ELLEFSON: Well, I don’t know. I know that when speaking specifically about music, it’s cool in a way because you can record a song and get it out really quickly into the world. What happens too though is that the brightest star also burns the quickest. Whatever is out there can be reacted on immediately, but it can also be forgotten about much quicker as well.

KNAC.COM: Your burnout factor is that much greater too, isn’t it?

ELLEFSON: It is, and what I’m finding out is that my level of productivity has to be that much higher because of it. I just know that with F5, it took a year to put the band together. Then, there was at least a year or so more tied up in recording and pre-production. Looking back, we did pretty well to get ours out in a couple of year’s time. While all that was happening, I was doing other projects as well, but what I have found is that those other endeavors tend to hit the Internet way before they are ready to be talked about. I no sooner unplug my bass and hit the airport before it’s already on the Internet. It’s all good though, because the Internet and all of that kind of reminds me of when I first came out to California in 83’ and there was this whole underground metal tape-trading scene. There were also those little black and white newspaper type fanzines out there. I loved that when it was going on and thought it was so cool because this love of a particular type of music had actually turned into a culture.

KNAC.COM: There is no way the success of that scene could have occurred without that grassroots support either, could it?

ELLEFSON: In this day and age everything just moves so quickly, but when I was growing up, there was kind of this 70’s hard rock thing going on and before that there was kind of acid rock or your hippies. There was power metal and thrash metal in the 80’s though that made up a society or a tribe of people that sort of hung together no matter what. It is still there, but metal is a lot more of a broad category now--there are just a lot more different types of metal happening.

KNAC.COM: Has the airing of all the shows that VH-1 has devoted to revisiting portions of that era been a positive because of commercial jumpstart it has given to certain artists, or has it been more of a negative influence due to the skewed kind of narrow, homogenized image they portray of that time?

ELLEFSON: I think you are right on both counts. On one hand, it has helped revitalize some careers that were pretty much done and over. Some guys have actually been able to resurrect it and get out on the road in the summer with some great success, but at the same time a lot of those shows kind of have a slant on them where it it’s like “oh my, do you remember how ridiculous we were when we were doing that back then?” At that point, we all just have to have a sense of humor. The embarrassing moments are always the funniest ones and seem to last the longest.

KNAC.COM: Ok, well, were you as pissed off and angry as you looked some of the time in the videos when you had that scowl on and were standing around shirtless? I mean, talking to you, you seem pretty down to Earth…were you like that most of the time?

ELLEFSON: I was pretty pissed off--especially in those days. I was coming off a pretty serious drug addiction issue that I had run into, and boy, when you’re coming off of that, you’re just a raw nerve! (laughs) That’s what a lot of that was for me, but at the same time so much of metal is based on that. Today, I don’t generally go around fighting darkness with more darkness or try to take people down—it doesn’t become your M.O. anymore for everything you do in life. You do develop appreciation for other people and all that stuff. At the same time though when your head is down and you’re down in the trenches playing metal, it does emit an energy and attitude with it. You can be the peaceful warrior most of the time which is what I try to be, but when you get onstage and you’re rockin’, it just brings out that emotion that is just a part of you--it really is a part of you. I think what happens, if you want to use the word “maturity”, is that you sort of learn how to channel that energy for the appropriate setting. You really try to channel it into writing powerful music, and when you leave the stage, you realize you don’t have to be a maniac waving a machete either. It’s just a lifestyle and attitude.

KNAC.COM: Exactly--Alice Cooper was saying that awhile back too where he was describing the point in his life where he realized that although he needed to be one thing onstage, if he tried to carry that recklessness into other factions of his life, he wouldn’t be around very long

. ELLEFSON: That’s exactly who I was thinking of too or even the Kiss guys, but certainly Alice because he is the ultimate veteran of rock n roll.

KNAC.COM: Well, in those two situations those guys wear makeup or attire that they probably wouldn’t wear going to the mall, so in a way, maybe that makes the break between the stage and reality easier to discern. With Megadeth though, you guys didn’t indulge in a lot of gimmicks with regard to fashion or theatrics--did that make it harder for you?

ELLEFSON: Well…we did take the bullet belts off--we didn’t wear those to the airport or anything. (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Yeah, but you weren’t rocking the teased hair or eyeliner..

ELLEFSON: No no no, it is interesting though because when you’re getting ready to go onstage, you do put your game face on and stuff. If you look at hockey players or even Steve Nash of the Suns, he looks like a cool guy and all, but when he gets on the court, he’s on a mission. He plays his ass off, and you can see it in his face. When you’re getting ready to go on stage, it’s kind of the same thing--you’re there for a mission. When you’re in the zone or batter’s box, that isn’t the time to start talking about the wife. You’re there to cut heads and get it on, so no matter who you are, when that intro tape starts, the mask goes on, and you’re ready to hit it. It’s a transition that I think happens for any performer that goes on stage.

KNAC.COM: What do you think gives you the resolve to not succumb the type of negativity--at least publicly--that so many people would associate with a situation such as the one you have just been through? That type of restraint had to be something that was acquired over a long period of time.

ELLEFSON: It’s funny, when I was growing up, I was listening to a lot of 70’s rock like Kiss, Aerosmith and Ted Nugent--

KNAC.COM: And Foghat, right?

ELLEFSON: Yeah, yeah--of course. (laughs) Those were just the bands that were part of my life when I was 12 or 13 and going out and buying records. I remember when Unleashed in the East came out and I saw that cover and I saw KK with the Flying V over his head and I thought, “now that’s really something.” There are monumental moments in any metal fan’s life, you know, there are just certain records or events that really change the course of what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. You know, a record like that can end up in your lap and--

KNAC.COM: Your destiny is altered forever!

ELLEFSON: Yeah, your whole life changes. (laughs) That’s how I relate to it when some fan comes up and tells me that a certain bass line or album changed their life. I understand. I get it. I do understand when people say that something influenced them so profoundly. I never take that for granted.

KNAC.COM: Did you always appreciate that though?

ELLEFSON: Yeah, yeah, unless years ago I was too sloshed to think about it. When you’re younger you don’t really think about it.

KNAC.COM: You couldn’t be expected to understand it that profoundly at 22 though could you? Isn’t that just a type of wisdom that comes with age and life experience?

ELLEFSON: Well, in my particular case, there is a legacy that has been heralded by the fans and other contemporary musicians. Sometimes people you wouldn’t expect have been touched by your music--they appreciate it, and that stuff is just really cool. Its times like that you realize that what you’re doing may extend beyond the 1500-1800 people who were at the gig that night. When you’re able to let your music reach that many people that always makes me feel like I’m twelve years old again. Musically, that’s how I always want to feel because that’s when it was all beginning for me.

KNAC.COM: Why do you think that metal has always been so provincial in that at one time metal heads thought that anything that wasn’t hard or powerful was basically puss music and you might as well wear a dress if you listened to it?

ELLEFSON: I’m with you. I hate to say that I’m kind of an…”educated player", but I have studied my instrument and my craft and songwriting. I think that part of becoming a better writer means stepping outside the realm of things you create. You listen to other types of music and other types of writers--you listen to Paul McCartney. How could you not? The guy has written some of the biggest songs ever. At the same time, you can listen to the latest death metal record and understand that too. I know what you mean though, when I was younger and the scene was blowing up, your head was kind of on the chopping block if it wasn’t Motorhead or Venom. Again, that goes back to what we were talking about initially--that was the scene or the hang. That is what we were all about and what we were creating.

KNAC.COM: Can that type of devotion to a grass roots movement in music wherein it starts out slowly, but then still maintains enough momentum to support some of its artists for decades ever happen again with society as it is now?

ELLEFSON: No, and I’ve got to tell you that it was really cool to be a part of that when it was happening. That was an era that started a couple of years before I got into it in ‘83 and went on really up until ‘93 and ‘94. That was back when KNAC was a brick and mortar radio station in Long Beach, and we were all playing Long Beach Arena. We were all playing it and living large. It’s amazing how that scene all changed by the mid nineties. Everyone wants to say that Nirvana ended it, but Nirvana didn’t end it. One band doesn’t change it--the media and the record companies changed it. To be quite honest, I think people were looking for something else.

KNAC.COM: It’s interesting that you say that because by musicians saying, “Nirvana killed it”, it seems to release them from any responsibility for the scene ending. The fact is that some of the groups from that time just flat out sucked and simply by association, they embarrassed all of metal and those associated with it.

ELLEFSON: No, it doesn’t surprise me that the Pearl Jams and the Nirvanas came along and just spit in the face of metal because you’re right--there was a lot of bad metal by the mid-nineties. That’s just kind of the way it went, but for those of us who were in it, we weren’t a part of that anyway. That did usher in difficult times for metal though and goal at that point was just trying to get through it.

KNAC.COM: But you guys did though—about as well as anyone--is that because you didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator?

ELLEFSON: Yeah, but I think that now, what has happened is that bands like Lamb of God and Trivium have kind of taken the torch and ushered in a new era. They always make it really clear who their influences were, but now they’re kind of creating their own scene. I think it’s cool. At some point there has to be a new generation that comes in and gives life to some of the metal from yesteryear.

KNAC.COM: As someone who appreciates good songwriting, I’m sure you’re pretty well acquainted with Paul Simon--I’ve got to ask you--was his music ever good enough that he should have been able to pull a chick like Edie Brickell?

ELLEFSON: (Laughs) I’ve got no idea on that one, man.

KNAC.COM: See, that was what I wanted to know even more than, “gee, Dave why did F5 decide to cover ‘What I Am’”. You know, I just can’t get past the marriage thing. She was hot, man. He’s fat.

ELLEFSON: He has a pretty big publishing industry, I guess.

KNAC.COM: Ok, so if you write good enough songs and have a big enough…uh, catalogue, you too can land a hottie like Edie Brickell?

ELLEFSON: Well…yeah. I guess so.

KNAC.COM: So you’re telling me that the whole time F5 was covering “What I Am” that you never had a big philosophical discussion about Edie Brickell? How is that possible?

ELLEFSON: Hmm. No. Actually, the first issue was, “do we dare play this song?” It’s funny, but I think most bands talk about doing cover songs, but it’s usually a Sabbath tune or a Motorhead song, and you just go there. I’ve always enjoyed taking a song that seems kind of unassuming and tweak it a little and make it something different. It’s like whether they love it or hate it, they pay attention to it because it deviates from the norm. Outside, of Pantera’s cover of “Cat Scratch Fever” I normally don’t like when a band covers a song and it ends up sounding virtually the same.

KNAC.COM: Kind of like, “why do it?”

ELLEFSON: Yeah. It was good to begin with—so…

KNAC.COM: So, what you’re saying is that you thought maybe Edie was missing something with this? She was missing that golden Dave Ellefson touch?

ELLEFSON: To be honest, I didn’t even think about Edie Brickell until I heard that first little riff thing and that came out where you heard it and you were like…that sounds like so and so. It’s cool to have something about a song where people instantly identify it.

KNAC.COM: That song was so pervasive for a time too. You couldn’t go anywhere without coming in contact with it.

ELLEFSON: The funny thing is that on the next song--

KNAC.COM: She had more than one?

ELLEFSON: Yeah, it wasn’t a single or anything. It was just the next song on the record…I think it was that record…anyway, it was like this cutesy girl rock song. Well, it sounded like that is what it was, but when you listened to the words, it was something about “shooting up junk in the bathroom.” I was like, “whoa, ok, this chick knows what’s up.” It reminded me of an old Rickie Lee Jones song or something. Here is someone who, despite some of the pop polishing these tunes have, proves as a person and lyricist to be someone who has at some time walked over in the dark side. To me, as a writer, I always like it when people can sort of lay out the dark side.

KNAC.COM: Ok, I just figured it out---Paul Simon, or I mean more like his girth—is serving as a type of metaphoric anchor that kind of keeps Edie from sliding over into the dark side where she might go back to shooting junk in the bathroom. It’s just as well--she really looked to sweet for that type of thing anyway.

ELLEFSON: There ya go, so Paul is almost a father figure or the cool, calm and collected one?

KNAC.COM: Yeah, and really…how much more of a stabilizing figure could you ever hope to find? He’s your “Bridge Over Troubled Water”--that alone would have to put your mind at ease if you were just this poor, timid, junk-shooting girl in search of the light. Well…at least until you woke up the next morning and light came through the window, and you realize that the ‘bridge‘ is a little fleshy.

ELLEFSON: I think you might have a theory there. I’m sure we could go back and forth about it all day, but we’ll just run with that. (laughs)


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