Q&A With Megadeth’s David Ellefson

The Megadeth bassist talks with Pollstar about this year’s , his early days in the digital universe, and which albums were true game-changers for the band.

For the 2013 edition of the band’s annual Gigantour Megadeth is traveling with Black Label Society, Hellyeah, Newsted and Death Division.

Along with helming Gigantour, Megadeth has new music to play.  The band’s Super Collider album arrived in June on Dave Mustaine’s Tradecraft imprint through Universal Music Enterprises.

When Pollstar connected with David Ellefson, the bassist was relaxing on the East Coast with his family and in-laws.  “Just chillin’ here for a few days before we get started next week on the tour,” he said, which provided us with an opening for our first question …

How do you balance the metal life with being a family man?

It’s an interesting dynamic and one that quite honestly I never ever thought I would mix together.  Especially as a young rock ’n’roller [when] the goal is to rock out against everything normal, wholesome, square and family-like. … I got married when I was 29, started having a family a couple years later.  Now here I am all these years later with teenage kids, one getting ready to go off to college in a year.  Somehow life just happens and it’s like the means for it are always provided.  It’s an interesting mix but I guess somehow it works.

Megadeth has a lot on its plate in the next few months.  What’s different about this year’s Gigantour compared to past years?

It seems that every one of them has had a different objective.  The first one, which I was not in the group at the time, was arranged around progressive musicianship and varying degrees of heaviness within the metal genre but extreme musicianship being the benchmark.

The second one dipped down into kind of, I would say, a generation behind Megadeth with the bands that participated in that.

Then last year, the first Gigantour I participated in, what was exciting was … I would say Motorhead were certainly the elder statesmen of the thrash genre, Megadeth [was] probably commercially the biggest band on the bill but then also bringing out Lacuna Coil who offered something different because of Cristina [Scabbia] being a female vocalist.  And then also Volbeat, who was I think probably the cool young upstart, at least here in the United States.  So far, those three Gigantours all offered something uniquely different as a package.

What I find really intriguing about this is everybody in these bands has had a prior history with other groups but also had success on their own, in their own merits.  Clearly Megadeth is part of the “Big Four.”  Zakk Wylde went from Ozzy to growing his own culture, is with Black Label Society.  Vinnie Paul reinvented himself with Hellyeah. Newsted is kind of the new kid on the block but certainly has earned the respect of everybody from his professional career with Metallica.

The thing about it that’s cool is that every band has, not only some name recognition from all their years in the business, but is doing something that’s new and fresh. To me, that’s probably the hook of this year, a new kind of metal union that we’re able to take around North America this year.

When Gigantour plays Oklahoma City at the Oklahoma City Zoo Amphitheatre July 16, the proceeds will be donated to the regional food bank of Oklahoma.  How did that come about?

I think that on every one of these tours we always look for some way that we can not only financially provide some proceeds to a cause but also bring attention to it, some publicity and hopefully goodwill.  With this particular one, being able to provide something in an area [where] a tragedy [has] happened so recently. 

We started a tour last November right after Hurricane Sandy came through.  Our experience has been that when you go to the epicenter of where there was a recent national disaster, on one hand you’re bringing entertainment to them which provides a little bit of relief, just emotionally.  But it’s great when you can also provide something back to them as well.  To give proceeds back, I think is something that leaves all of us feeling good and hopefully it’s something the community can benefit from.  In a way, [it helps] make heavy metal not always be the bad guy.

Also on that date, Megadeth and the other bands on the tour are participating in an all-star softball game.  What position do you play?

I’m OK in pretty much every position. I’ve pitched.  I’m probably not the greatest catcher.  I’m a pretty good pitcher, I’m a good first baseman, I’m pretty good on the infield and I’m not bad in the outfield. I’m just there to be of service.  So wherever they need me I’ll grab my glove and I’ll go.

So you’re a utility player.

I am a utility player for sure.  Pitching is often the most dangerous because [you might end up] having to go on stage the next night with a broken nose or a black eye from a ball hitting you.  So it’s probably my least favorite position but unfortunately I’ve found I’m actually pretty good at it.

As a musician, especially when touring or in the studio, do you take extra care to protect your hands?

I do. I grew up in Minnesota and the closest ski slope was probably a manmade mountain of dirt.  But I never participated in skateboarding, skiing, anything I could break an arm or fracture a wrist because my whole life was dedicated to playing bass.  And I’m still like that.  I’ve obviously done some more extreme sports like sky diving and parasailing and things like that over the years, but the closest I ever got to snowboarding was that I sand-boarded over in Dubai last year.  You take a snowboard and go down a bunny slope of sand at about one mile per hour.  It’s not very dangerous.

I’ve always avoided extreme sports where you can injure body parts because, to me, you save the goods to take on stage.  Softball is pretty low risk.  Bowling is pretty low risk.  I think that’s why sometimes on tours, years ago, we did sky diving and MTV was out there covering that.  I always say skydiving is a one shot.  You either make it or you don’t. 

How old were you when you decided music was going to be your life?

I was 11 years old.  I grew up on a farm in Minnesota. … I had about an hour bus ride – from pickup on the farm to the little town of Jackson, Minn., where I went to school – more times than not, WLS-AM [Chicago] was on the radio.  That’s when I started hearing KISS, Styx, Sweet and some of the heavier hard rock music of the day.  Once I heard it I got the bug.  I picked up an electric bass at 11 years old. Even before I picked up the bass I knew it was what I wanted to do. Once I got the bass it was “game on” and I never looked back.

What makes for a good bass player?

I think there are a couple of things.  To be a good sideman bass player, I think it’s all about versatility and being able to just really play in the pocket and create a great feel.  I think if you want to be a rock star bass player, and you’re on stage, make it known that you’re there for a reason.  I think that makes a big difference.

For me, I’ve learned how to do both because there’s a time when it’s required.  We just came out of the studio and that’s a time when you take the rock star hat off and go in and play your butt off. You dig deep and come up with things you’ve never done before.  For me, making records is that time when you go to a whole other space that you’ve never tapped into before to make something that’s a compelling record.

But when you take it out on the stage, you don’t want to be standing there staring at your fingerboard thinking about the notes. … The notes and the music are second nature so you can be a performer.  I think, to me, that’s what people pay to come out and see.  They want to see a rock show.

Photo: Lance Murphy / Memphis In May
Beale Street Music Festival, Tom Lee Park, Memphis, Tenn.

What is a Megadeth recording session like?  From what you’ve said it sounds like four guys working their asses off.

It is.  I think for the most part … we’re like a real working band.  We don’t get grandiose with our lifestyle in the studio, especially in recent years.  The band owns its own studio, Vic’s Garage, so we’re able to go in and take the time writing and putting those performances down and not have to worry about like in the old days where you’re cranking $1,000, $1,500 a day in a big room studio in the big cities like Los Angeles or Nashville.

To some degree, we go into it very focused.  We know the kind of record we want to make.  Of course, there are moments that happen … these serendipitous moments that produce a new turn in the road.  Which are exciting moments, of course, but by and large we go into it with a vision of where we want the end to go with.

So you and the band aren’t really surprised when hearing the playbacks?

Exactly.  For every band it’s different.  Of course, when you’re working with a producer, especially when it’s your first time with that producer, that’s kind of a gig to get to know each other.  Lots of times … we’ll make two records with a producer.  That first one is that exciting getting-to-know-each-other.  The second time is, “Ok.  Now we know how he works, he knows how we work.  Now that that part is out of the way, we can really work on honing this record to go to another level and take it to a different place.”

And I think that’s been a productive way for us to work.  And those second records are often records that are the game-changers and corner-turning records for Megadeth’s sound.

From your own personal view, how many game-changing albums has Megadeth put out over the years?

It’s a twofold question.  You could ask the fans and they’d give you an answer, you could ask the band and we’d probably give you a different answer.

I think by and large our fans like Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying?, Rust In Peace – those always end up in the top metal albums of all time [lists].  To me, Countdown To Extinction was a huge game-changer for Megadeth.  Musically, internally with the band, that was an album that was very focused between the four musicians and our management and even Capitol Records at the time.  It was a very much aligned team … it was a strategic record and everybody knew it was time to bring their A-game like they’ve never brought it. … I think we went into it knowing the kind of the record we wanted to make, knowing the kind of record, quite honestly, we needed to make.  And walking out of it with something that I think was even greater than the sum of its parts.

I think another game-changing record was probably when we went to Nashville and did Cryptic Writings with Dann Huff. I think it was only the second record production he had ever done. It was risk for us, a risk for him, and quite honestly probably risk for Nashville to have a band called Megadeth in town at that point in time.  In 1996 we were probably one of the only heavy metal bands to record a record there. 

In a lot of ways, it was musically a record that set Megadeth on a new course.  We had four big radio singles off of that record.  One of them was a No. 1 – “Trust.”  To be out of the environment of Los Angeles and places we had recorded before, to just relocate the entire organization to Nashville for six months to record, it was refreshing for us.  As musicians we learned a lot because of the quality of musicianship that resides in Nashville.

Other musicians from genres other than country have commented about the level of excellence among Nashville’s musician community.  Some have even said they were surprised at just how extremely talented Nashville session players are.

Every music city has its own culture. No matter what, we go into town …  and it’s a lockdown. We’re under the Cone of Silence and it’s a total lockdown when we come into the studio.  So you’re very much walking into a Megadeth session but it was interesting  having that [country music] environment around us.

I think another game-changing record was Endgame.  I wasn’t even in the group when that record was made but I think that was a record Megadeth needed to make to really plant the flag of owning its thrash metal origin again.  From there, Super Collider is a very different record.  It’s probably one of our more controversial records we’ve ever made.

I think a lot of the controversy has come from within our own fan base.  Which, quite honestly, I think is kind of cool.  We’re kind of a cult legend kind of a band at this point for no other reason than we’ve been around for 30 years, actually 30 years this month [June].  Because of that – we’ve made so many records and they’ve had such variety to them – I think Super Collider offers a little bit of something for all of our fans.  We have a lot of fans who came to know the band at various points along the last 30 years.  Fans from the early days, they want a certain sound.  Fans of the ’90s are used to a different sound and I think the fans who came along maybe in the last 10 or 12 years are used to a whole variety of Megadeth sounds. 

So I think with Super Collider, we went into it with a goal of the kind of record we wanted to make and I think we came out of it meeting that goal.  I think it’s cool to hear the response and hear the criticisms as well as the accolades we’ve gotten from it.  I will say this, I haven’t heard the paying customers complain.  That’s one thing in this day and age with the internet.  A lot of stuff goes out on the internet and if you don’t have to pay for it, you can sit behind your computer screen and make all kinds of comments about it.  But when you put your money where your mouth is, you tend to usually get a different reaction.  Also, because of the internet, the [reaction] is very immediate and it’s very interactive between us and the fans. I personally like seeing and reading and getting that immediate feedback from our fans.  Megadeth records, certain songs are one-listen songs but I think overall Megadeth records are two and three listen records. And then there are the kind of records you can’t get out of your iPod or CD player.

Megadeth records are top-to-bottom listening experiences.  As much as we have singles, we’re not a singles band – we’re an album band. When we do one song, you can really take the entire record out of context and get the wrong idea of what the record is about.  I think as individual singles were released, initially people started forming opinions, but once they bought the record and listened to it top-to-bottom they’re like, “Wow!  I was blown away.  This is not what I was expecting.  This record was a totally different listening experience than it was when just heard one song.”

I keep going back to “Super Collider” title track, which was the album’s lead single.  There’s the line, “’Til the world explodes just like a super collider.”  I just love hearing that line because I never would have thought someone would put super colliders in that context.

If you’re a longtime Megadeth fan and you got used to hearing “Black Friday” and “Bad Omen” and all of a sudden you’re hearing a song that has major chords, uplifting, positive lyrics that actually gives you goose bumps because it moves you to a place of actually putting a smile on your face – that’s not the kind of sound you expect from Megadeth.  That was one of those songs, that was the challenge song.

The song actually wrote itself pretty quickly and Dave [Mustaine] was totally committed to that song.  I think as an artist, you tend to have a vision of things even when other people aren’t totally on board yet.  I think that was one of those songs, critics be damned, that was going to lead the charts for the record.  When I hear the entire flow of the record, “Super Collider” has an entirely different context when listening to the entire record top-to-bottom.  That reminds me that when we go to make records, we record individual songs, but those songs are always part of a package.  We never just go, “This song is going to be the one.”  We always listen to it as, “ This song is going to [sound] really cool with these other 9 or 10 songs that we have.”  For us it’s always a body of work, not just an individual track.

Wasn’t Megadeth one of the first major label bands to really dive into the internet?  I recall the band’s first website receiving praise from the tech press for its design, artwork and versatility.

Capitol Records did the “Megadeth, Arizona” website.  It was very elaborate. Dave and I got into computers before … by around 1990 Dave had bought a Macintosh computer. Those things at that time were thousands of dollars.  Then I got one and we started writing a lot of our lyrics on them.  By 1991 Dave and I were very computer prolific.  Of course, it was all Mac stuff, being in L.A. at the time.  So by the time we were recording and ready to launch Youthanasia in 1994, Capitol was very much on the front end of internet technology.  Very clearly I remember having discussions with management, the band and Capitol sitting there. “What is the internet? What do you do?  What is the goal?  How does it work?”

There was a loose description of what it was but it was very clear, everybody was like, “It’s still the Wild, Wild West but we think we should go for it.” As a band we were very much into it.

I remember being down in South America.  We launched our world tour in Chile, Argentina and Brazil.  I remember sitting in hotel rooms, particularly in Argentina, with our Macintosh laptops, calling the janitor from the hotel to come up to the room and rip apart the wall phone jacks so we could integrate our 56k phone line from the United States into the wall because we wanted to do a fan chat through our Megadeth, Arizona, website. All of the old FTP, we had our first email addresses and stuff, it was exciting.  The band was in a huge upswing, it was really our sweet spot of our development of the band on a major label, to have this immediate interaction.  It reminded me of the days when the band started in the early ’80s and the underground tape trading.  That’s how we all got known. We all did three-to-five song demos, we traded them back and forth, the magazines picked them up across the world and that’s how our bands all got famous in thrash metal.  That’s how the fans got to know who we were. To me, the internet 10-15 years later was the modern version of tape trading.

Back in 1983 when Megadeth was just starting out, did you ever think it would last 30 years?

You know … Megadeth is one of these bands that I just had a feeling it was going to be big [but] I knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight and that we were going to have to work tooth-and-nail for every single bit of success we were ever going to have. 

Which brought it back to, “Why are we doing this?”  You do it for the love of heavy metal.  You do it for the love of your songs. You do it for the love of the community, of the fans and the band together.  No where in the world do I ever feel that more prevalent worldwide than I do with heavy metal.  It makes me proud to be part of that as a result.  And hopefully a guy who has made some good contributions back to what we’ve been so graciously given. 

Once we started Megadeth, I never saw it ending.  Even though there have been obstacles and there have been things along the way that make you think, “My God.  The other shoe is going to drop.  This is it.  Now I have to go and get a day job.” For some reason, Megadeth has been very blessed from the beginning.  It seems like it’s something that was meant to be, it was meant to have happened.  With that, that casts a vision for us moving forward.  That we need to suit up, show up and keep doing what we’re doing.

Photo: Myriam Santos

There are still plenty of opportunities for you to see Megadeth on this year’s Gigantour.  Here’s the schedule:

July 12 – Dallas, Texas, Gexa Energy Pavilion
July 13 – Lubbock, Texas, The Pavilion @ Lone Star Event Ctr.
July 14 – Corpus Christi, Texas, Concrete Street Amphitheater
July 16 – Oklahoma City, Okla., Oklahoma City Zoo Amphitheatre
July 18 – Bloomington, Ill., U.S. Cellular Coliseum
July 19 – Milwaukee, Wis., The Rave Eagles Club
July 22 – Winnipeg, Manitoba, MTS Centre
July 23 – Regina, Saskatchewan, Brandt Centre
July 25 – Calgary, Alberta, Stampede Corral
July 26 – Edmonton, Alberta,  Rexall Place
July 27 – Dawson Creek, British Columbia, EnCana Event Centre
July 29 – Abbotsford, British Columbia, Abbotsford Ent’ment & Sports Centre
July 30 – Everett, Wash., Comcast Arena At Everett
Aug. 1 – Salt Lake City, Utah, Maverik Center
Aug. 2 – Broomfield, Colo., 1stBank Center
Aug. 4 – Fargo, N.D., Scheels Arena
Aug. 6 – New York, N.Y., Hammerstein Ballroom / Grand Ballroom
Aug. 7 – New York, N.Y., Hammerstein Ballroom / Grand Ballroom
Aug. 9 – Camden, N.J.  Susquehanna Bank Center
Aug. 11 – Toronto, Ontario, Molson Canadian Amphitheatre 

Megadeth and several Gigantour bands will also appear at Rock Fest in Cadott, Wis., July 20 and Heavy MTL in Montreal Aug. 10. 

For more information, please click here for the Gigantour website and here for Megadeth’s digital domain.