You’ve got to admire a rock star who uses the word “serendipitous” in conversation. Of course, Dave Ellefson isn’t your average rock star. He has a bachelor’s degree in business, is a published author and is studying to be an ordained minister in the Lutheran church. Given that, chatting with him goes beyond the usual “let’s talk about your latest album” banter, which makes for a fascinating and entertaining interview.
Ellefson’s connection with Screamer Magazine goes back to when Screamer was a print publication in the late 80’s. He wrote a column for the magazine in the pre-Internet era, when fax machines were considered cutting-edge technology. The technology has increased exponentially since then, but Ellefson’s love of communicating with his fans has remained constant. “I like being a communicator,” he says. “That’s why I shoot videos while I’m on tour around the world, and put them up on YouTube for the fans to see. A few years ago, people were asking me to write a follow-up to the Making Music Your Business book, [Making Music Your Business, A Guide For Young Musicians, Miller Freeman Books, 1997] and knowing how much time it takes to write, edit and publish a book, I started doing David Ellefson’s Rock Shop and put those clips up on YouTube, and quite honestly it was easier. As ideas came to me and fans sent me letters about things, I’d bust out my little video camera, film a clip, post it on YouTube and it was a lot quicker for me and quicker for the fans to be able to watch.”
“We all started out as fans. When I was a young KISS fan, if Gene Simmons could have taken me on tour via video, I’d be watching it every day. To take the fans with us, via video, I think is cool.” Ellefson’s attitude is clearly geared towards making their fans part of the Megadeth crew. “Our whole thrash metal scene–we were just one of the gang. We were the band ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ kind of mentality. That’s the way our scene started out with the underground tape trading, back and forth. I remember our three-song demo being played on KMET [a Los Angeles radio station at the time]. When I moved to L.A. in 1983, the rock and metal scene was just going full-on. It was a great time to be there. That fervor doesn’t exist anymore, but it doesn’t mean the fans aren’t wanting that, so the good thing is the Internet made the music business much more D.I.Y., and while it may have crippled record sales, one thing it did do was put the tools in our hands. My attitude is ‘I’m on the road, I’ve got a computer, I’ve got a video camera,’ and although it requires a little extra effort on my part, I have a great time doing it, and the fans dig it.”
In keeping with the subject of multimedia, Ellefson is working on a project that promises to be unusual and thought-provoking, along the lines of Jim Morrison in the 60’s publishing a book of his poetry. “I’m also self-publishing a book called Unsung Words and Images, which are lyrics I’ve written. Instead of putting them to music, I’m using some really thought-provoking images alongside the lyrics.”
The conversation eventually turns to the band that Ellefson is inextricably linked to. Before talking about what’s going on currently, Ellefson takes us back to stormier times. “The ending of Megadeth was a pretty dark season. When I got the phone call that Dave [Mustaine] was stepping away from the band, essentially we were done at that point. I was in my 30’s and no way ready to retire at all, and I had too much energy and too many things I had never done in my life. I began doing consulting for Peavey, doing artist liaison work for them, doing product development and design, quite honestly, I needed time away from music and being in a band. Not so much time away from music, but when you’re in a band, especially the same group for so long, it becomes your identity, it becomes your character, it becomes your source of income, it kind of becomes your entire life. When that just goes away, it’s no different from when a company closes its doors and you’re unemployed. It rocks the foundation of everything you know in your life. I was married, I had young kids, and I had no idea how to put a band together. I told myself ‘I’m done with bands,’ and I want some time away.
“I got some offers to tour with big bands, but I thought ‘would my fans, Megadeth fans, would they come to see this?’ and I thought ‘uh…probably not.’ I passed on some things, quite honestly, because of my loyalty to my fans. When you’re in Megadeth for 20 years, you grow a fan base. That’s how they know you. [I thought] let me use this time to stretch myself out creatively, and I’m glad I did. I became the leader of those projects, because I was the one with the most experience, so people defaulted to me, and I enjoyed it.”
Then there’s the slight matter of the notorious feud with Megadeth founder Dave Mustaine. Legendary for its intensity, the two Daves have resolved their issues, no doubt to the delight of Megadeth fans. “Dave Mustaine and I have talked at length now, and in hindsight, we both see the benefit of both of us having some time off the Megadeth campus. As being the leader of those groups I was in, it gave me a much greater appreciation of what Dave has to go through being the leader of Megadeth. Him being in Metallica was probably a lot of fun, because he was just one of four guys, but when it came time to form a new group, he became the de facto leader of Megadeth, and as much as I was his right-hand man and he could count on me, he was the leader, and it was his vision and his leadership, and now I know–being the boss isn’t always a lot of fun! You may be the brightest star, and get most of the credit, but there’s a lot of weight that falls on your shoulders. And I got the chance to tell Dave that, just say ‘I appreciate everything you’ve done, and continue to do with Megadeth.’ I came back to the band a much better person, and I’d like to think a much better bass player, musician and songwriter. I brought something better back to Megadeth than the guy I was when the band broke up years earlier.
“When I returned in 2010, it was the right time, and it was great that we were able to come back during such a big, celebratory tour for the 20th anniversary of Rust in Peace, which is probably our single most fan-favorite record ever. For me to return to the group, and play that album top-to-bottom, and for what was to be a one-month tour to become a world tour, wow…it was just unbelievable. That led to the new record TH1RT3EN, and that led us to where we are, touring in support of that.
“One of the great things about us coming back is that we’re serious about what we do, but we don’t have to take ourselves too seriously.” A perfect example is the video to Public Enemy No.1, which has chimpanzees in the lead role of gangsters and molls. “Dave [Mustaine] was so excited when he saw the treatment for that. He ran it by us and said ‘Here’s the treatments, I know which one I’m picking.’ My scene was in the bedroom, and my wife said ‘You cheated on me with a monkey!?’ I don’t know…” Ellefson’s voice trails off into a deep chuckle. “Is it cheating if it’s with an animal?” No Dave, that’s twisted!
When asked the secret to the staying power of Megadeth, Ellefson once again comes back to the fans. Many musicians give lip service to their fan base, but when talking to Ellefson, it’s clear he dearly respects, admires and adores the fans. “We grew up with both punk rock and metal in our record collections. We had the Sex Pistols and KISS, and that had never happened before, because punk and metal were two different cultures. Thrash metal was the converging of both cultures. Our fans are the reason the Big Four concerts happened in huge stadiums. There’s so many of us that are part of this culture, so that’s why we can fill arenas. To me, it all comes back to the fans and us–we’re all one and the same. It’s not like some kinds of music where there’s the rock star, and there’s the fans. We’re really all one and the same.”
Prompted as to what his greatest personal accomplishment is, Ellefson pauses–but only for a brief moment. “You know, I think to be able to be the same guy I was put on the planet to be. It’s just listening to my gut, and following my dreams. Every one of us has a reason we’re here. At 11, I had this desire to play the bass. At 16, I had the instinct, ‘I’ve got to get to California.’ The whole West Coast was just blowing up with hard rock and metal. At 18, I followed those dreams and went there and met Dave Mustaine and start Medadeth, and here we are, all these years later. Hindsight is always 20/20, but looking back, there’s this nice thread that was woven through my life, and when I look back it’s because I really listened to my gut instinct. As I call it, it’s the G.O.D.–the Good Orderly Direction.
“Things have come full circle. Things were a lot of fun in the early days. As heavy as the music and the lyrics were, there was a lightness in the personalities, and I’m glad that it’s returned.”