Metal Special: Megadeth
David Ellefson, founding member and bassist, on being back in Megadeth, the new album and why they’ve lasted
As one of the Big 4 of thrash, Megadeth can lay claim to creating some of the most memorable ”“ and bonecrushing ”“ songs in the history of metal. Over 25 years after their debut record, 1985’s Killing Is My Business”¦ And Business Is Good!, the band has just released their thirteenth studio album. Thirteen is also the first Megadeth album in ten years to feature founding member and bassist, David Ellefson, who returned to the band early last year. Early last month, Ellefson spoke to us in the run-up to the release about the new album.
Are you in between concerts right now, David? Where are you at?
Yes, right now, I am at my home in the United States in the state of Arizona. And we are just preparing for the new album to come out November 1st. And then we start a South American tour in early November.
So the recording is all done, is that right?
Well, the recording is all done. The first single’s just gone out to radio, and we are just finishing shooting a video for the first single.
That would be ”˜Public Enemy No. 1’?
Yes, we have a new video for ”˜Public Enemy No. 1’ that we are just finishing up and the album comes out November 1st. So we are busy with a lot of preparations; we are going through that and then we are getting ready to prepare for a world tour starting down in Argentina in November.
If we can talk a bit about the album, David”¦ What’s the sound like, if you can compare it to any other Megadeth album?
In a lot of ways, if I had to do a direct comparison, I would probably compare it to Countdown to Extinction. It has that very organic sound, very natural sound”¦ it sounds very much like four guys in a room playing. And whereas Countdown to Extinction was very kinda mechanical and robotic-sounding at times, Thirteen has a very loose, a very natural feel to it. It sounds like four guys in a rock band standing in your living room, ready to kick your teeth in.
If we can just go back in time a bit, how is it being back in Megadeth? When you returned, it’s been a few years. So had you and the band changed as people, as musicians?
It’s really been a great experience. I think our time apart, it really matured us a lot. [frontman] Dave [Mustaine] had Megadeth by himself for a few years and obviously in my time away, I did a lot of other musical projects and played on a lot of records, did a lot of songwriting with other people. So it gave me a chance to do some things and explore some opportunities that just were not available to me while I was in Megadeth fulltime years ago. But at the same time, coming back into Megadeth, I was able to bring all my experiences back into the band and I think for us to get back on stage with the celebration of Rust in Peace, there couldn’t have been any more perfect time for me to come back into the band.
Since we are on ”˜Rust in Peace’, way back in 1980, did you have any inkling about how important and how huge that album was going to be?
No, we didn’t [laughs]. To be honest with you, we wrote that album in probably the darkest, most dysfunctional days ever of the band. There was a lot of drug addiction, the band went through a complete line-up change. To a large degree, the Rust in Peace line-up was almost a reforming of Megadeth in a lot of ways. Dave and I obviously were two of the consistents but you know while doing So Far, So Good”¦ So What!, we knew the change was made, and we sort of put together a line-up to record and tour. You know, things really almost came to an end for Megadeth before we recorded Rust in Peace. And you know, with Dave and I completely changing our lifestyles and being drug and alcohol free, that gave us a whole new clarity at a very young age to go in and really make just a ferocious sounding album. The songs were already written, and then bringing [drummer] Nick Menza in and [guitarist] Marty Freidman in right before we recorded the album, that there was just such an ambitious dynamic in the group at that time that helped to make a very lively sounding album. And then the touring that followed that was really the pinnacle of thrash metal. And it was evidenced by finishing it off with the United States Clash of the Titans tour, with Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax. That really was as big as thrash metal was ever gonna get until now, at last over 20 years later to the Big 4. And now we get to join forces with the four biggest heavy metal bands ever to come out of the United States. And we get to celebrate with our fans all the work that we all did together and all the fun that we had. It’s like a big family reunion again and a big homecoming again.
Throughout the years, many have predicted and reported the death of thrash metal. But here we are, 20-30 years down the line, and it’s still around. We have newer bands like Baptized in Blood which are releasing kickass thrash albums. Why do you think thrash has lasted, David?
You know, thrash is obviously written by the bands but it has always continued because of the fans. And that is evidenced with the Big 4. These people, the fans of thrash, never went away. And in fact to a large degree, the fans of thrash had to endure some really shitty music over the years from some ugly genres like Seattle music [laughs] and a lot of other stuff that quite honestly almost killed thrash metal. You know, the Nineties were not a fun time for thrash bands and thrash fans. Because we had to turn on TV and watch some really bad music forced down our throats, that we didn’t like, we didn’t want and quite honestly was only made popular because TV stations decided that’s what was going to be popular. And fortunately most of those TV stations don’t even play music anymore which is good. Because they are probably the worst judges of music that should ever be played on there anyway.
You know, heavy metal has gotten into the mainstream various times but it’s been accepted into the mainstream almost begrudgingly by the mainstream. And thrash metal is a music by the people, of the people, for the people. Us guys in thrash bands, we are no different than our fans. And that’s the thing that brings us together. So even though we go out as the Big 4 now and we play baseball stadiums, the truth of it is the guys up on the stage in the bands playing the music are no different from our fans. And quite honestly the only other genre of music like that is probably jam bands or maybe jazz musicians [laughs] where it’s like it’s our fans that make us popular, not the bands that make it popular.
So are there any new bands that you have heard in the recent few years which have really impressed you, in metal, in thrash metal?
Ummm”¦. You know, the one band that I probably took a liking to was Disturbed and I didn’t really listen to their first album very much. I kinda became a fan of them on their second album, the album Believe. And that was because the album just seemed like it was just perfect. It had that very ferocious attack and energy to it much the same way like the Rust in Peace album did. Or the same way that [Metallica’s] Master of Puppets did. But here was a band all these years later doing something that was very heavy, with great guitar-playing, ferocious drums, great singing”¦ it was just fabulous. That album probably made one of the bigger impacts on me in recent years, as far as a new band to come along and do something dynamic.
Speaking about the Big 4 tour, when I see videos of you guys jamming on stage, the backstage photos, there’s obviously a great sense of camaraderie between all four bands. All the reported and rumoured bad blood, all that seems to be a thing of the past. How easy was it getting over that?
You know, I think that when the idea was presented to all of us, we were so excited. And I think, I can only speak from coming back to Megadeth, there comes a point when it’s too much effort to hang under the past, so you kinda wanna let it go, you know what I mean? You wanna just drop it [laughs], let it go. And it lightens the burden and it makes your life so much lighter and more fun and more enjoyable. And I think it’s from there, having an eye toward the future and the fun you can have, that just being involved is so much more enjoyable. And I think the same thing happened with the Big 4. At some point the whole grudges become a lot of work. And it’s not fun and no one enjoys it and you go, “You know, we gonna let go of that,” and we just get up on stage and we all play together. Look at how much fun we all get to have, look at the smiles on everybody’s faces, standing out there in front of tens of thousands of people in the stadiums who are just losing their minds. And at a time when the economies aren’t that good around the world and the ticket prices are expensive, to offer fans an opportunity to buy one ticket and come and see their four favourite bands on the same stage – it really was the right thing to do for our fans too.
And unfortunately towards the end of the Big 4 series of concerts, Dave had this problem with his neck. How is he doing now?
Yeah”¦ he is doing good now. He started to really get some severe pain with it in August, while we were finishing up the US tour. And unfortunately the Big 4 show happened right in the middle of when he needed to be getting some medical treatment for it. So he had to kinda suffer through the [New York] Yankee Stadium show but he did a great job. And once that show was over, he went home and now he’s getting his medical treatment and everything seems to be doing really really good.
Just another jump back into the past, David. Of the present band, it’s you and Dave who started Megadeth almost 30 years back. When you started Megadeth, did you expect it to last so long? Here we are in 2011 and you are about to release the 13th album.
To be honest with you, man, I don’t think any of us knew how long it would ever last. It was not like we got into this with a career plan or something. We just did it because we loved the music. I think the only difference is that with Megadeth, we really had a vision, It wasn’t something that we just made up as we went along. I remember sitting in Dave’s apartment and we were actually planning what the look is”¦ the logo, the stage set. And we really thought through everything, so we had a vision. And we didn’t get distracted and didn’t get knocked off or anything. We actually had a target that we were shooting for. So I think for us, just the way we were wired, that was a great thing.
While that is said, there’s a lot of guys who sit around their basement planning for rock stardom but never ever get out of their basement [laughs]. For us, to have it, to be as big as we got, we are very blessed. And we are very lucky. We did our part with working as hard as we could, writing the best songs that we could and try and get the right people, management and record companies and people to understand there’s a lot of this thing that’s out of your control. So at some point you sit back. I think that’s what all of us did at Big 4. We all just stood back and looked at how big this was and just really I think we were all smiling [laughs], realising how lucky we were.
Nowadays, when you are playing songs from the last three albums, the albums you were not on, what is the most fun song for you play from these three albums?
For me, I think my favourite one is ”˜Headcrusher’. That’s probably my favourite song. When I heard Endgame, I just went, “Wow, that’s a very cool song.” I am happy that [drummer] Shawn Drover had a hand in writing that. Because Shawn is a really good guitar player, he’s a good songwriter. So I was happy to hear that he was able to make some contribution to Megadeth’s music because he’s such a good friend to Megadeth. The fans don’t even know how good they got it with a guy like Shawn. I mean, Shawn helped me get back in Megadeth [laughs]. You know, he is just a fan of Megadeth, he really gets it. And being a member of Megadeth now, he really understands how the band works and the dynamics of it and stuff, so he’s really been a blessing to have in the group.
When do we see Megadeth next in India?
You know, I hope that with this new album, Thirteen, coming out, this will trigger a whole world tour. So I certainly hope we can get to India. I’ve never been there before and the band had raving things to say about the show there in 2008. So I really hope that this next year we can get back down there and play for you guys.