MEGADETH’s David Ellefson - Heavy Metal’s “Disciple At Large”
September 7, 2017, 10 months ago
Strangely enough, this is the first time I’ve chatted with “Junior”, normally going right to the top with “Mega-Dave”. But a crucial reason why the pristine Megadeth machine works is the opposites-attract theory. Contrary to the normally serious-mannered Dave Mustaine, David Ellefson’s bouncy and overly positive outlook on life/deth is immediately apparent. He has literally been deep, deep in a bottomless hole, and with great effort, clawed himself back to a place in life where you look in the mirror with complete satisfaction and vigour. Getting clean was ultimately the key as he explains below. Spiritually, he saw the light in 1990 and revisited his Christian upbringing, and has now embraced it fully and completely.
In an email after the interview, he explained the whole God “thing” as part of his daily regime: “As for the pastoral duties, that's mostly something I do now as a sort of ‘disciple at large’ rather than a pastoral vocation. In other words, just try to be helpful whenever, wherever with things like encouraging words to fans, the occasional wedding and/or message (like at Boot Camp). It's kinda like an evangelistic lifestyle of care for mankind, rather than an official church pastoral position now. What I learned in seminary training and beyond, is that Rach and every one of us are all called to carry a message of love for our fellows in all walks of life, regardless of our profession. To me, that is the greater mission of pastoral ministry.”
Doesn’t that warm the soul? But do beliefs really matter? Do his beliefs really matter? Of course they do. And what truly matters is your own personal spiritual preference. But sure as hell, don’t push yours on me and I most certainly won’t force mine on yours!
Still, I truly believe some would like to see Megadeth turn the cross upside-down sometimes, in a manner of speaking. But we will get to “The Conjuring” later.
So I caught up with the very friendly Junior a few weeks back at Germany’s Summer Breeze Festival, just prior to my Mustaine chat which you can read here.
Defending the faith, read on…
BraveWords: Standing here on German soil, there is a much different vibe than at home for both of us. What’s your take?
Ellefson: “There are two parts of the festivals; one is the June festivals which are Graspop, Hellfest, Doningtion, Download. They are kind of the big mainstream festivals if you will. Intertwined with Gods Of Metal in Italy and that kind of stuff. The second half of the summer is stuff like Bloodstock UK, Summer Breeze here - which I don’t remember us playing before - and we did Legends Of Metal in Spain, which is very much a power metal festival. Everything from Arch Enemy to Hammerfall to UFO. Last year it was a lot of ‘Megadeth’s new record, Disturbed’s new record, Nikki Sixx’ new record, Korn’s new record.’ And this year we come back and do a lot more of the more metal festivals. More pure European metal festivals. And it’s nice to be able to do both. And we can do both.”
BraveWords: It’s kinda strange growing up with Megadeth and now seeing you as virtually mainstream.
Ellefson: “(Laughs), yeah I know! I was talking to Kiko (Loureiro) and Dirk (Verbeuren) in the bus about how the old school was back in the day, playing the Aragon Ballroom (in Chicago) and the guys would show up for the the show with cocaine and whatever other drugs. And it was a very different show than what was planned, because once the cocaine showed up it was a whole different day. Versus now, where many years later we’ve refined, defined and perfected what Megadeth is. And now it’s everything we envisioned it to be, having started it in 1983.”
BraveWords: There was a time when you and Dave were offended by some of the more extreme bands of the community, although Megadeth planted the seed in these younger minds.
Ellefson: “Sub genres started to come along like the black metal thing. It’s always fun to go up to Norway and study it. Kiko and I went to the Viking museum - which I realize has nothing to do with black metal - just to study all the pre-Christian Viking stuff. We have a song called “Post American World” and it could easily be a post-Christian world. There are a lot of things that we grew up with with our parents - either Americans or Canadians - that you look around the world and they’ve greatly changed. Metal music, all music has those nuances that reflect those changes. And there’s always this revolt against it, like the black metal thing, which is certainly extreme in its nature. And all the occult metal stuff. And some people truly live the life. It’s not really believable unless you do. Even at Wacken they have the infamous black metal chef. I think he’s vegan. The contradiction of terms you know. It’s the metal world we live in.”
“When I was walking in here, I was telling Dirk, this looks exactly like Jackson, Minnesota where I grew up. Rows of corn. The Germans and the Scandinavians - the Protestants and the Catholics of this area - all moved to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa. It all looks the same. It’s funny with my whole religious thing, I grew up on the farm, went to church on Sunday. It was just that simple. Mine was not this radical, born again conversion, which is why I’m pretty steady-eddy walking through that. So you know, when I got clean in 1990, sobered up, off the drugs, that was really the conversion. And even that was no fanatical, born again moment where I thought I’d have to save everyone from drinking alcohol. I have never been a witch-burner about that stuff. Do what you do. We got to festivals and people are swigging Jäger and Red Bull and doing their thing. And we have Megadeth beer, which is part of the lifestyle of the heavy metal culture. I don’t drink it because something very bizarre happens when I do drink it. But that doesn’t mean its not part of our culture and it’s around us. It’s more of what happens when it goes into my body, opposed to what it does when it goes into your body. That’s up to you.”
BraveWords: So do you miss those days?
Ellefson: “No, I don’t. To be honest with you, I get to enjoy the same day, but the lights are fully on.”
BraveWords: What is your drug then?
Ellefson: “Well, I drink coffee, but I don’t consider that a drug. It’s funny, when I first got clean, I remember sitting in my apartment and my fingers were hurting touching my strings, because I was coming off of opiates and stuff. The nature of that kind of achy feeling. So I remember touching my bass and saying, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore’. And a thought hit me saying, ‘dude, you started doing this at 10/11 years-old, long before you discovered drugs. And I really thought that was a moment of clarity. A divine pebble being thrown at me - hey man, the booze just got in the way. That was just a distraction, taking you away from what you are really here to do. Which is rock, play tunes and in this case, play in Megadeth. So get it back to the purity and joy of playing. Last night we had a long drive and tonight we will too, so there are certainly obstacles that get in the way. But I know when we all get into that room, put your stage clothes on, it’s kinda like going into the telephone booth and coming out as Superman. And when you walk to the stage and they hand you that guitar, and there’s thousands of people, there’s an adrenaline that hits you, and it’s just incredible. It doesn’t have to be thousands of people, it could just be hundreds. We played at St. Vitus in New York and people were jammed into our face. It’s all the same feeling. Megadeth music has always been very interactive, from the very first shows that we did. I remember a fan years ago grabbing my A-string during ‘Devil’s Island’ and that’s the only string I use on that song! So my point is, it’s an interactive experience with the fans. And that same thing happens at the festivals. That’s what we try to create, to come full-circle with your question. That’s what we try to bring to these festivals, this intimate, personal experience, with us and 50,000 people. So it can feel like The Stone in San Francisco like we were in the beginning.”
BraveWords: You can also compare it to a sports professional who must perform or he won’t get paid if they are stoned.
Ellefson: “As much as you think swinging a White Russian or a Screwdriver on stage gave you that euphoric (Tim pipes in: or during!) feeling, whereas now, you are totally present and in the moment. When you are young and are partying and are rocking out, it’s what you did as fans and musicians. But for me, there just came a point where I’d way rather be totally present right now. Especially today, people pay a lot of money to see shows, I should give them my best. They paid to see our best, I feel it’s my obligation to them to give them my best. And that’s what I’m here to do, rock the house and play some kick ass songs.”
BraveWords: Although I probably sound like a broken record, can we talk about the debate around why Megadeth won’t play “The Conjuring”?
Ellefson: “Here’s the funny thing, nobody cared about ‘The Conjuring’. I remember when Jimmy DeGrasso was in the band, we’d put that song in, we’d play it once and then we’d always pull it back out. Some songs are great listening songs on a record, and some tunes just respond better live. Something like “Symphony Of Destruction’ has this great vibe live. There are some songs on Dystopia like ‘Fatal Illusion’, ‘Lying In State’, which are great riffing tunes, but sometimes don’t translate so well live. ‘Dystopia’ comes across great. ‘The Threat Is Real’ comes across great. And ‘The Conjuring’ is one of those songs. There was a day when we only had a dozen songs to play and we played everything. And as more records came out, we became more selective if a song really responded well live. And ‘The Conjuring’ was one of those tunes and nobody thought about it until Dave said I’m not going to play it anymore because it is his lyrics in it and he doesn’t feel comfortable singing it because of the content. Now look, he wrote the song, he wrote the lyrics, he wrote the music, and he has to stand on stage and sing that. One thing that I’ve learned with Dave’s vocal style - we were there when the singer flaked out and Dave stepped up to the mic and huffed his way through the first Megadeth song ever as the vocalist, and I turned to him and said ‘dude, that’s awesome, you should be the singer’ and he became the singer. Dave will say admittedly that ‘I’m not a great singer.’ But to me what defines a great singer is believability. When Dave stands there singing ‘hello me, meet the real me’, there is nothing more believable. That is the true essence of Dave, the same way Klaus Meine sings ‘Rock You Like A Hurricane’ or Bruce Dickinson singing ‘Number Of The Beast’. Guys just have their sweet spot. I think that is the biggest part of being a great vocalist, especially in metal, is believability. Conviction man. And if if Dave can’t stand up there and be one hundred percent in his heart, singing a song, then by all means, he certainly has the right to scratch it off the list.”
BraveWords: Or maybe go back and rewrite the lyrics or have someone else sing it? Ellefson gets my joke.
Ellefson: “Can you imagine ‘The Conjuring’ with different lyrics? It just wouldn’t work (laughs). We aren’t that band and we aren’t that desperate for that attention. In all seriousness, from day one, there has been an absolute conviction to what we do.”
BraveWords: How do you think the catalog has weathered over time? Do you revisit it?
Ellefson: “I do! It’s funny I remember a time when Shawn Drover was in the band and he would always talk about Youthanasia, and I would go, ‘Really?’ And then there came the time we started to do the 20th anniversary of Youthanasia, then Rust In Peace, then Countdown. Anyway, I had to start listening to Youthanasia again, and it wasn’t a record I listened to very much. I’m going, ‘we were friggin’ good man’, because we recorded those tracks live. We didn’t punch the shit out of that to make that work. That’s the band in the room playing. And Dave and Marty went in and cut a second guitar track. But those are the real tracks. And they aren’t Pro-tooled, edited or chopped up. I just thought, ‘man, we were friggin’ good.’”
BraveWords: And that snowball was building…
Ellefson: “Yeah, but that was the making of Rust In Peace, the touring of Rust In Peace and the writing of Countdown and the touring of Countdown. And that led to a third record and you could just really hear how really great the band was becoming, because we worked together all the time. And it’s feeling like that now, with this line-up. We are excited about and talking about getting back together in November to start working on the new record. And there is a real sense of excitement about it. We are getting pumped about the next step. We aren’t even sure what that is. Just talking about it is part of the process of doing it. You are setting the intention of doing it. Kiko and I were on the bus talking about that very thing and it’s exciting to hear him say that.”
BraveWords: Any band nervousness around the revolving door in Megadeth? Like maybe I won’t be on the new album?
Ellefson: “It could happen. I feel pretty confident I’m going to be on it. I feel pretty good about that. I only think the thing that changes people at this stage are physical limitations. We’ve had some people that have just had to move on because of legitimate physical limitations and not being able play. And that’s the reality of playing this music at the level. The other part of it is, we are older guys and different lifestyle things come up. Guys are married, have kids - things happen and those are realities of being grown men and mature. We go to great lengths to try and be comfortable out here, try to take care of ourselves. Like right now I’m headed to get a massage.”