DAVID ELLEFSON - “Dave’s Been Focused On MEGADETH For So Many Years, Album 16 Is Going To Be A Really Special Record”
May 13, 2020, 3 months ago
What a difference 18 months makes. That was roughly the time David Ellefson married myself and my lovely wife Sephora on a beach in Fort Lauderdale. And there were hopes of crossing paths again last summer, but Ozzy Osbourne’s illness put the kibosh on that. Then we have all the Dave Mustaine cancer drama, which put life in Megadeth on a worrying pause. Ellefson focused on his own music and flourishing label, EMP. And then the real-life “megadeath” took a literal stranglehold on the world. To say things are fucked up, is just scratching the surface. As the world finds strength and a new way of interacting and doing business, each day seems to mimic the previous. So it was time to give David a call and see how the pandemic is affecting his world in Arizona.
Despite the fact that bands have been forced off the road, people in the music industry have bound together like the family we are. And with strength in numbers the metal world will get back on track, although how that picture will look still remains to be seen.
“Man, I don’t think I’ve ever been as busy as I am right now,” Ellefson begins from his self-isolation studio compound. “We’re kind of the early adapters if you will, jumping right on board with stuff. You know we were supposed to do the Megadeth show at the Hell and Heaven Fest - we were going to headline that on the Sunday night mid-March, then Derek and I were going to head down to Nashville a week or so later to start cutting drum and bass tracks. It all happened so fast - we all took it day by day, but every day everything kept shutting down more and more, so we had to back out of doing the show. Kiko lives over in Helsinki where his wife is from so he’s stationed over there. He was probably the first one most affected because Finn Air, which is the main airline, completely shut down, just stopped flying anywhere. We were looking at flying him different routes to London to get to Mexico and then it wasn’t too long before all flights in and out of Europe were just shut down. And then of course we had to move Nashville back a few weeks. When me and Thom (Hazaert) started I was literally in the grocery store stocking up on supplies, and I’m not too much of a sky-is-falling, doomsday sayer, but I was stocking up when Thom called me and he said, “hey listen, why don’t we come up with a way that we can give some free lessons to all these kids - schools are closing all across the country and probably all across the world, things are shutting down, and that’s what started the whole school initiative, the David Ellefson Music Foundation. That kind of set the whole train in motion for everything we’ve been doing for the last month and a half.”
BraveWords: Well, you know what, not to sound cold or heartless, but the term “megadeath” (which is actually defined as one million deaths caused by a nuclear explosion) takes on a different meaning today. It is so terribly sad everywhere.
Ellefson: “I was thinking the same thing, I’m glad you said it! I wasn’t going to say it, but I was thinking that. Not to be glib about such an atrocity, but at the same time, nobody saw this coming. And of course now there’s guys like Bill Gates and other people, and you have to think some governments have thought about this, like this could happen one day. Yet, as much as anyone thought about it, it totally caught us off guard and we were certainly not prepared for it. It’s amazing that here we are with all these technological advances and biochemistry and everything that we have, and this just completely caught us off guard. But one thing that is for sure, the positive side of it, is that human beings are resilient and we have been since the beginning of time, or else we wouldn’t still be here as a species. On one level we have all of these advancements in technology like what you and me are doing right now - you’re in Canada and I’m in Arizona, and we’re talking over a couple of devices that are connecting us and I think if nothing else, it has probably forced everybody to stop. Go home, stay home, and get back in touch with things that are easy to avoid, ignore, or things that get away from us when we’re just constantly in motion and moving. I’m certainly the most guilty of it because I’m always in motion, moving somewhere around the planet. There’s a scripture that says “Be still and know that I am God” and sometimes being still and alone with your own thoughts, in that meditative state, is one of the hardest things for us in this century to do, especially in the modern developed western world. We are constantly on the move, moving to the next thing. We’ve been taught that you are what you have, you are what you’ve achieved, there are all these ideas we’ve been raised on the last century or so, and while they’re great and they can be enjoyed, let’s face it they’ve certainly distracted us from some of the more important things that we are forced to be getting back in touch with right now.”
BraveWords: Well I have to ask, and not to pry, but how much of a hit have you taken not going on the road?
Ellefson: “Right now, not much - because there wasn’t much on the calendar, to-date. There was a couple of weeks in the studio which we are rescheduling for sometime in the weeks ahead, and there’s only one tour date so it wasn’t such a big deal. But in the summer coming up, we have a big Megadeth/Lamb of God tour and we’ve got two legs of it, June-July, October-November, and then of course in our line of work you’re always just setting things in motion for future things. And I did have an Ellefson solo tour date to go to Japan and Australia that I was going to go with Chris (Poland) so those have gotten pushed back now until 2021. So what’s coming up is probably where my losses are going to be. Yet, at the same time, this has opened up a season to create some new things and write and develop. I think what we’ve tried to do here on team Ellefson is get proactive. We’ve got this David Ellefson Music Foundation that we formed in 2018 - we formed it, we did an event in my little hometown of Jackson, Minnesota back on what is now David Ellefson Day - October 9th. It was really cool and if nothing else, we had a structure in place to be able to go do some things and be helpful. To try and bring something beneficial to the table here, in these times. So I think if anything, having our mind set on how do we help others, and what can we give and what can we bring - when you’re constantly giving and bringing, it quickly pulls you out of any self-pity, it pulls you out of woe-is-me, and it starts to bring a real sense of gratitude for how blessed we really are. Not just material things, but number one just to be healthy, and that we’ve got some mechanism in place that we can bring some benefit to help some other people that are stuck in this thing.”
BraveWords: You always say some of the greatest, most poignant things. Love that - no self pity. You’ve gotta wonder, we’ve both been in the scene a long time, but how can this industry rebound? It’s still a waiting game. You’ve gotta feel for the bands though - all the merch was pressed, and for bands that are a lot smaller than Megadeth the losses are just insurmountable.
Ellefson: “People see four or five of us on the stage, but behind us there’s 20 or 30 other people who are employed in order to make that thing happen. From bus drivers, truck drivers, technicians, merchandisers, catering, plus all of the local promoter staff who have worked every day for months putting these things together and working hard the day of the show, so there’s a huge infrastructure. We’ll know more in the coming weeks as to how the Megadeth tour is going to play out. It’s weird, it’s kind of a two-fold thing - it’s probably good for a reason that were all forced to just be a little more solitary. Then of course maybe we’re with family, with loved ones, and forced to be there in that dynamic. There’s another scripture that says “No man is an island unto himself” so at the same time we crave fellowship with other people. We just do, we’re wired by our Creator to have fellowship. I mean it doesn’t have to be tens of thousands of people in a stadium, but if you can do that why not? That’s fun too. It’s just an interesting ebb and flow. I have to believe “This too shall pass”, we’ve had other pandemics historically, but this one is obviously one to be taken seriously. You’re right in our industry we are probably hit, I hate to say the most, but at least one of the most. Our whole industry of live music is to put as many people in as big a building as possible, and we are commanded to do the exact opposite of that right now. There have been some creative things, we’ve all done these live streams, we’ve done other things because again there’s our natural human desire for fellowship, to create together. As much as it’s okay to sit by yourself and come up with ideas, at some point you want to show them to somebody, you want to play them. I think for all of us even if you’re a recording artist it’s fun to create and record, but a lot of us we’re performers - we like to go out and perform and play our music and get that connection with people. I know for us we’ve been doing a lot of these live streams, we’ve taken events with the new Foundation, and now Thom and I will jump on every few days and go live like we did last night and connect. It’s funny, the people in Europe are still asleep, the people in South America are getting ready to go to bed, people in New Zealand are just waking up - it’s an innovative time. You have to get creative and come up with some other methods now.”
BraveWords: One last political question - what do you think about this big debate about people’s health versus opening up the economy?
Ellefson: “I’m binge watching Netflix right now. I finished watching Mad Men and now I’m watching House of Cards. A lot of these great shows that have been on, I missed them because I was on tour, so now I’m getting caught up. There’s a really good one that J.K. Simmons narrates and it was about the corona virus, the facts, what it is. They showed a moment in another pandemic, maybe the H1N1, and showed the difference between St. Louis and Philadelphia - St. Louis shut down to flatten the curve and it lasted longer but they had less fatalities, whereas Philadelphia had a parade and lots of people came out and they got hit super hard, super quick. So there’s probably a couple of approaches to it, but I think from what we can tell that this is the kind of thing that overtakes our immune system, and our immune system is our only line of defence against the disease, period. It’s sort of like taking down our own internal military. If you take down your internal military, you’re done. So how important is it? I know the monetary aspects and the economy is important, obviously - but it’s all important, it’s not like one is more important than the other. Some argue that if they’re gonna die at least they’d rather be out doing what they want to do. That’s easy to say when you’re healthy. And I think we’ve been warned. Look at Italy, they sent the first warning to America, they said take this seriously, don’t do what we did - we let it get away from us. Then they were scrambling to catch up to it. And I think Italy’s also been a good example, they’ve been able to flatten the thing out and it seems like they had to hang tough but they’re going to come out of it, as best we can tell. It’s like that saying, the smart man learns from the mistakes of others. Now is the time to use wisdom. It’s hard for us in North America - I don’t know about you Canadians but in America it’s hard for us to sit still and do nothing. Sometimes the best thing you can do is do nothing, but that’s very hard for us to do as a culture.”
BraveWords: When was the last time you were actually in the studio with Mr. Mustaine?
Ellefson: “When we were doing the tour with Megadeth, Five Finger Death Punch, Bad Wolves, that was January and February. We did our last show February 23rd in Sophia, Bulgaria, and that next morning we all flew home. Actually, I went to London for a couple of days after that, so that was the last time we saw each other. Of course we were expected to be in Mexico three weeks later at the Hell And Heaven fest, and we expected to be in the studio at the end of March, so despite all that we’ve been in touch of course. We talk pretty regularly, email, by phone, etc., exchanging ideas on songs. There’s a lot of back and forth between us. And I think there’s a real urgency, we want to get going on recording this record. We want to anyway, and we would certainly like to just because it sets up 2021 and beyond with the new Megadeth record. Now it’s just a matter of being diligent, being wise, working around the conditions that we’re in right now. The good news is the record is coming along well as far as writing goes, were ready to start laying the tracks and get this thing going now.”
BraveWords: You got a good feeling about the new material?
Ellefson: “Yeah, absolutely. It’s nice too because we run it by management and there’s a handful of people in management - they’re young, they’re into metal, they get it. Probably a few of them inside the company grew up fans of Megadeth and know our earlier stuff so they can benchmark it. It’s even interesting having Dirk and Kiko in the band because they’re a little bit younger than Dave and I, and they have their own sort of Megadeth fan history growing up as musicians in foreign countries. Kiko grew up in Brazil, Dirk is Belgian and grew up in France so he’s got a European view of the band and also how Megadeth fit in to the metal landscape across Europe. It’s cool to have their third person view on things. It’s a different perspective. The thing with Dave and I is that we are very critical of what we’ve written, and now probably more than anything it’s about not repeating ourselves. We don’t just want to make Peace Sells part two, it’s important that the lyrics are fresh, rich, new. We don’t want anyone saying “Oh man, that sound like something from Countdown to Extinction”. We want to always keep innovating and creating, but by album 16 we’ve written a lot of songs, had a lot of productivity and a lot of output, so that’s probably our own personal, internal challenge to always outdo ourselves.”
BraveWords: How did the terrible cancer episode affect this record? Musically, lyrically, the whole tone.
Ellefson: “We were going strong, if you think about it a year ago we were getting ready to go into the Ozzy Osborne/Megadeth tour. Ozzy had to step away from that and at the time it was a postponement. We quickly regrouped, it was literally a month almost to the day, and we said let’s get to Nashville and get everybody in a room and let’s get this record moving together now as a band and let that process work, let it play out. So we did that for June, July of last year. That was great because I think that really connected us as a band. Then of course, Dave had just gotten word of cancer, and he was researching his different treatment options. He was surprisingly - or maybe not surprisingly because it’s Dave - productive, despite what would certainly be considered a distraction with something so major as a health issue like that. But I think at the same time, for Dave, having the album to focus on and all of us there together it probably gave some structure and maybe much needed forward focus. Sad that we had to cancel a whole bunch of dates, actually we had a pretty big year of touring between Ozzy and big festivals and the Megacruise which we were able to keep fortunately. At some point when we were together in July, we rallied and we said we’ve got to let this tour go and Dave’s got to go through his treatments now and get well. So we all went home and went our separate ways but at that point a big huge portion of the album was done. As we went home to let Dave go through his next several weeks and months of treatments at least I think we felt like we had something. The record was really taking shape. Lyrically, that’s something that’s in motion now. It’s kind of interesting to watch it develop now. My feeling was that you can’t go through something like what Dave went through and not be a bit introspective. So it’s cool, it’s fun to watch the lyrics start to really play themselves out now.”
BraveWords: Thank you so much for that insight. I haven’t talked to Dave in about a year or so.
Ellefson: “It’s interesting you know, I’m always kind of out on the front lines. Dave has pulled back a little bit, but that’s good. I think he’s focusing on the kind of things that he wanted to focus on - his health, his family. Sometimes these moments hit us, what Dave went through affected everybody on some level. It makes you stop and slow down. These moments, especially with the pandemic that we’re in globally now, it pulls everybody back. It has a different effect when it hits somebody close to you. It all kind of a theory until it gets into your own spirit and your own domain and then you can’t help but think about these things differently. It’s been an interesting journey on this part of the road. Dave and me have worked with Megadeth for so long, Dave’s been so singularly focused on Megadeth for so many years, his life mission and what he’s done, so album 16 is going to be a really special record.”
BraveWords: Can I end things on a non-Megadeth, Ellefson note? I’d love to get a quote. I know its a few months after the fact, but I was on 70000 Tons of Metal, and on the Sunday I heard about one of the most tragic deaths in music and that was that Neil Pearl had died. How did that hit you?
Ellefson: I was shocked! In hindsight, they’d retired and they hadn’t really said anything about it, I hit Mike (Portnoy) right away because Mike had put out a post - he was one of the very few people that Peart let in to his inner sanctum. And I remember when we were writing the Euthanasia record here in Phoenix, Rush came into town and Nick (Menza) went to see them and he was trying to get back to say hello to Neil. He at least got to the back stage area, I think Nick brought him a drum head, and then some intermediary took the drum head, went into the dressing room, closed the door, and a little while later out comes the drum head with a signature from Neil and it said ‘Dear Nick, have a Mega-life’ so I think Nick was shocked and he was like, ‘did he dis me? Mega-life/Megadeth? Was he being kind?’ Neil is so cryptic. It’s funny, there’s two documentaries that came out - one was the Iron Maiden Flight 666 and the other was the Rush documentary (Beyond the Lighted Stage), both done by the same guys (Banger Productions). It’s interesting that they went after those two bands. Obviously we’re all big fans of both groups, but it’s funny that those two bands are bands that you really couldn’t get to. The Maiden guys were always friendly, toured with a tonne of people but they had an organization that was very much locked down and clearly part of their success. They have a very singular focus on being Iron Maiden. And the same could be said with Rush. You really didn’t know Rush until you saw that movie. These guys were childhood friends, it reminded me of my good friend Greg (Handevidt) we grew up together in Jackson, we moved to Hollywood together, Greg is also the other founding member of Megadeth, it was actually his idea to call the band Megadeth, so that was sort of my Geddy/Alex moment, me and Greg. Then you see how an original member with John (Rutsey) and Neil Peart comes in and they’re sort of busting his chops, Neil’s still the new guy. I remember when Marty and Nick were in the band, and sometimes I’d bust on Marty telling him, ‘you’re still the new guy.’ You realize we’re all the same. The bands are all the same, there are certain personalities that make up rock groups, and I think it takes that chemistry to make it work. When Neil passed it was shocking. It was like a Canadian ambassador passing, like at that level. He was a representative of Canada. Neil really spoke his life through his lyrics. In a lot of ways, apart from him being an amazing drummer, he invaded all of our consciousnesses and elevated us to a higher level of thinking through his lyrics. I think that has probably played over into Megadeth, maybe not consciously from Neil, but Neil set a higher bar - that you can write about much more than sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and have it be compelling. No greater rhythm section in my opinion than Geddy and Neil. So many notes that they played yet it was tight, it had groove, and yet it was mystifying because it was so amazingly good. And almost impossible to replicate.”
(Photos by Annalisa Russo and Joe Kleon)
Ellefson, featuring Megadeth bassist David Ellefson and his EMP partner and singer Thöm Häzäert recently released their "Simple Truth" EP, exclusively via Bandcamp. Listen to the song below: