People outside the music industry think that being a music journalist is exciting and glamorous because we get to hear music before it is released to the general public, we receive invites to exclusive parties and events, and we have backstage passes to hang out with rock stars at concerts. Sounds cool, right? The reality is that advance music happens most of the time, the parties occasionally, and backstage passes very rarely.
However, the real benefit of being a music journalist is that we have the opportunity to relate to an artist on a deeper, peer-to-peer basis than the average fan. The average music fan may, if they have shelled out enough money to buy a meet ‘n greet package, get a few minutes to shake hands and take a photo with their idol, after which they are quickly shuffled away, leaving little time for meaningful conversation.
Provided that the journalist has done the necessary prep work, the conversation can run deep: What was the inspiration for a particular song? What was the songwriting and recording process like? Is touring a joy, or can it be a grind? Do the band members all get along, or is there friction?
Some musicians are more forthcoming than others. There’s the dreaded “one-word-answer” types at one end, and the “ask a question and I’ll talk for 20 minutes” at the other. David Ellefson is at the good end of the spectrum–and beyond. Yes, he does love to talk, but it is meaningful conversation, not just idle chatter. He doesn’t shy away from a subject and freely discusses sensitive issues that some would balk at. He is so articulate and patient that were he not a heavy metal musician, one could easily picture him as a kindly, helpful college professor.
Ellefson is best known as the bass player and founding member of Megadeth, but he also heads an artist management company, an indie record label and booking agency, as well as a coffee company. When asked if he has any time to catch his breath and relax, he replies, “This is me in a relaxed state right now. I think there’s a couple things for me in that I’m lucky that I get to do as an adult the very thing that I set out to do as a teenager, which are my dreams and passions of being in music and the music business. So quite honestly, I am living the dream right now. To me it’s not work when every day you get to show up and play.”
The conversation turns to how fortunate he is to be able to make a living doing something he loves. Many people work because they need to make money and joy or passion has little to do with that. That is a shame, as there is a rather macabre expression, “You’d better enjoy life because you’re dead a long, long time.” Ellefson mulls over the phrase for a moment before responding, “Well, another interesting thing is that my father died years ago in 1994, my brother passed away from cancer, I think four years ago, and my mother passed two years ago. And so I’m the last one standing of my immediate family from back in Minnesota. It was interesting because my mother brought me into this world and I got to see her go out of this world and be there at her death bed for her last breath. It just made me realize that one minute you’re breathing and the next minute you’re not.”
“I’m at this really beautiful moment in my life where this convergence of all my past experiences and opportunities and the current and future opportunities are all kind of meeting at the X and the Y axis of my life. And my attitude is, ‘If not now, when?’ I think I kind of learned that by watching my brother go through his cancer and from my dear, sweet mother, who was 80 when she passed. You know, this isn’t a trial run, this is it. This is the only one you’ve got, and you don’t know how long you’re gonna be here. I’ve gotten to do all kinds of really awesome, amazing things in my life. Most of these other things that we do with coffee and the record label and now the touring agency and management, it’s all about helping the next generation. And I’m firmly of the belief that if you’re living life, take all you can out of it. When you die, it’s over. But when you continue to give something back to the next generation, it’s as if your legacy and contribution keeps living on. So I think probably at this point in my life, that is the driving force behind all of it.”
Ellefson was recently honored at the Indie Entertainment Summit (IES) in Hollywood where he received the “Trailblazer of the Year Award” for his work in Megadeth, as well as his record label, management and booking agency and the Ellefson Coffee Company. He also shared the stage with fellow IES honoree Kevin Lyman, creator of the Warped Tour. “I saw the headlines and the press release with me and Kevin Lyman being mentioned in the same sentence. I was literally just with Kevin a couple days before that as they wound down the final Warped Tour in Florida. Kevin is another trailblazer and a leader and visionary for a genre. It is a different genre than mine, but he essentially helped me break in Doll Skin, who is a group that really was the impetus of why I formed the EMP Label Group and why I formed the management company. I told them, ‘Look, if you want to go from the high school auditoriums to the stadiums, I’ve done it and I know how to do it. Get in line, follow along.’ And that’s exactly what we did with them.”
“Kevin was absolutely a crucial and critical player in that trajectory for them. And I think that’s… as we’re in the trenches doing the work, sometimes it seems tireless, and you’re just constantly grinding away. It was great to be there with Kevin, to watch Pennywise play the last final songs of their final Warped Tour, and to see his legacy just explode with accolades for all that he did and how many artists and people that he helped. To me that’s just such a cool thing to see and now I’m part of that in a small way with Doll Skin. And you know, I think probably as much as being entrepreneurial and all the rest of this stuff, it’s really great when you see rock n’ roll people really come together and unite and unify and believe in others. It’s similar to what concert promoter, Danny Wimmer, did for me by helping me get Ellefson Coffee out at his festivals over the last year.”
This year marks the 35th anniversary of Megadeth. That mark is an incredible measure of success, especially in the notoriously fickle music industry. The band’s original fans now have children of their own who are also fans of the band. “I think that being known as a trailblazer is really, really cool,” says Ellefson. “Because as much as I’m in the group Megadeth, who trail-blazed a genre 35 years ago, it’s nice that 35 years later I’m still able to have more gas in my tank than ever, with more inspiration and clarity in life probably than I’ve ever had. It’s no doubt that our industry is in a state of constant reinvention and I think that more than ever our industry is one of being entrepreneurial.”
“To me great music is great music, no matter what it is. I was actually just texting a little bit with rapper, Post Malone. He’s got a ‘So Far, So Good… So What!’ tattoo and a Dimebag Darrell tattoo and he’s a big Megadeth fan. And here he is, having this huge career as this amazing hip-hop star, and yet, he’s also a metalhead. And I am a metalhead working with basically a young, female alternative-rock act over on the Warped Tour. When music is in your blood, you’re all about music. And it’s important that genres stay…the blood lines stay somewhat pure, because that’s sort of the family blood line, if you will. But at the same time, young people always drive the future of music. In thrash-metal we were the first kids…it was a converging moment in time. We were the first generation to own punk rock and heavy metal kids and that’s how we invented thrash metal.”
“Then you see young artists come up like Post, who grew up a heavy metal fan in a hip-hop world. And there’s now another genre of kind of EDM kids who grew up on EDM and Slipknot, and they’re merging those worlds. So the family tree starts and the branches kind of start to grow together and over each other and I just think it’s super-cool to see that. I’ve got kids who are now…my daughter’s 19, my son’s 22, and I’ve seen the stuff that they’re into and it’s cool. The youth helps keep all of us youthful. “
Experimenting with different blends in music is very similar to tinkering with different blends of coffee. It is also remarked that the coffee business is parallel to the music business in that there is a great deal of competition, but only a few make it big. Everyone knows Starbucks, but there are many micro-roasters who have devoted followings. Everyone knows Metallica, but there are lots of lesser known bands who have rabid supporters. Ellefson says the Ellefson Coffee Company is doing quite well, thank you.
“Things always transition and go through all kinds of different growth periods. I think the cool thing now is that I have a roaster over in the U.K. and we have a partner there called The Motley Brew, which is essentially a tea company. They go out across the U.K. and vend tea and now our coffee, at festivals.
We were just at Bloodstock Open Air a couple weeks back and we’re gonna be at the Stonedeaf Festival this weekend. One of our artists is Skid Row, who we do a signature roast with. They’re going to be performing there, so we’ll have their coffee there for them. Again, it’s super cool that I get to have my own coffee company and I get to have my name on the door. But at one point, Tom, Ellefson’s partner, and I started saying, ‘Let’s open it up and start doing signature roasts for other artists.’ So now others get to enjoy the coffee experience. They get to have their name on a bag of coffee. And we started doing that as a way to have our friends join the party.”
Ellefson is asked about how much input the recording artists have when it comes to their signature roasts. It seems natural that some of them would be really into it and want to take an active role, while others say “Okay, Dave. You roasted that, so just put my name on it.”
“It’s a little bit of both, actually,” replies Ellefson. “Michael Wilton from Queensryche, already had a coffee roast before, and obviously living in Seattle, he’s kind of in the Mecca of the coffee explosion. So he was pretty specific about exactly what he wanted, like a French roast, but a darker French to Italian kind of texture and flavor combination. The Autograph guys just wanted good, nice, bold coffee. Of course, the name of it is ‘Get Off Your Ass,’ which is also the name of their album. And Skid Row’s blend is, ‘Slave to the Grind.’ They weren’t as particular about the nuances of the coffee, but they wanted a really great tasting coffee because obviously it’s got their brand and their name on it.”
“So some people, like me, are really into the details of the coffee. Again, at first I was gonna do the same thing, I just wanted to put my name on some coffee and let someone else deal with all the rest of it. But then as things turn out in my life, I end up being the guy who somehow…it kind of lands in my lap and I’m like, ‘Well, I guess it’s my turn to pick up the ball and run with this one.’ That’s how my name ended up being on the door, and actually owning an entire coffee company. In hindsight, I’m glad it happened that way. Because now I’ve learned a lot about the company: how to be an owner, the roasting, the supply chain, the sales, marketing, and distribution. I’ve learned the coffee business the same way I learned the rock n’ roll business. You pick up a bass, you get in a band and you learn the business. It’s the same thing here. Pick up some coffee and put your name on the bag and next thing you know, you’re in the coffee business.”
In the opening of this article, it was mentioned that music journalists are granted special access to a recording artist that others aren’t. A generic question such as “So…tell me about your new album” will get you a canned response. However, if we use our privilege wisely, discretely and responsibly, we may get a glimpse into that artist’s soul. As the conversation with David Ellefson progresses beyond music and coffee, that window begins to open.
“I guess we all get certain gifts put upon us,” he remarks. “I learned early on that I was a pretty good public speaker; I was able to communicate thoughts and ideas pretty well to audiences. Sometimes you do that through a lyric you do it through a vocal. Sometimes you communicate it with an instrument or through a song, other times it’s through…I’ve authored books, so sometimes it’s by way of a pen, through a story, or literary work. Sometimes it’s just like this, doing an interview. It’s talking about your life to someone who, like yourself, is using your own skills and abilities as a journalist to communicate that.”
“So I think for me, I love being a communicator. I tried doing the dark, tortured artist thing and it basically landed me into a heroin addiction years ago. Coming out of that, I went, ‘Yeah, that’s not the road I want to go down.’ I’m lucky that I got out of it, because a lot don’t. And I think by having a rebirth in sobriety, it was brought to my attention that I got to live two lives in one lifetime. The one where I went down those roads and the one where I got to try it again, to hit the reset button. I think when I remain in that gratitude, for being able to get a mulligan at age 25 and start my life over, I’ve had the best years of my career as a musician, as an artist, as a songwriter, as a recording artist. And now, in these middle years of my life, I get to enjoy talking record labels and management.”
As for his own work playing bass, Ellefson brings us up to speed: “The Metal Allegiance album is coming out [note: this interview was conducted on August 23] on Nuclear Blast in two weeks, September 7th. We have a CD release show at the Gramercy in New York on September 6th. Frank Bello and I have a new album coming out under our Altitudes & Attitude banner, that will be coming out in January. And of course, we’re working on a new Megadeth album right now, and that’s quite a bit, actually. Keeping busy right now.”
“And you know that expression, ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop?’ So why give the devil an advantage? I look at all the things that I’m doing that are truly blessings from the good Lord, and just move ahead. Go tend to the blessings, you know?”