Megadeth's David Ellefson on the new album, Big 4, corporate sponsors and the band's legacy
When Dave Mustaine was kicked out of Metallica, he decided to from his own band that would be bigger, faster and heavier. So with that in mind in 1984, he enlisted the help of an eighteen-year old Minnesota transplant named David Ellefson on bass and formed Megadeth. Over the years, Megadeth (whose current lineup includes former local guitarist Chris Broderick) has made some monumental music on classic albums such as Peace Sells... But Who's Buying? and Rust in Peace.
Nearly three decades later, the act is still going strong, and is about to release its yet to be titled thirteenth studio album, as well as playing a sting of Big 4 dates alongside Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax. In advance of the band's appearance this Sunday's at the Rockstar Energy Dink Mayhem Festival at Comfort Dental Amphitheater, we spoke with Ellefson about the new album.
Westword: How is the recording process for the new Megadeth album coming along?
David Ellefson: It's been good! It has been a fun process in large part because we are recording the album in between tours, which is very different from the way we did it years ago. We would take as much time as we needed, record an album, set it up for the release, release it and a tour would follow. We have had so many offers coming our way from touring and great opportunities. We came home from Europe, did the first Big 4 show here in the United States, and then we went right into the studio. It's funny, because the next show we are going to do is another Big 4 show next week in Europe. We are hoping to put the final bits on the album before we get out of town. The album will be mixed next month.
Do you find it difficult to go off the road and right into the studio, or has it become an easy transition at this point?
It's gotten to be a natural thing. I think when you are younger with less experience, it's a radical shift of mindset to write a bunch of songs, and then to go record them; then the ramp up for touring is a whole other mindset, as we have become more of a veteran status band. There is actually certain energy I like when coming off the road for a few days, or, in this case, a couple of months, and then getting right back on tour. That down time that it takes to sit at home and write and record a record without any tour dates to book into your life and make a definite finish date. When the schedule is tight, you get the work done quick.
Will Megadeth's thirteenth studio album follow the same blueprint of "Sudden Death"? [Sudden Death is a Megadeth song released in the 2010 music video game Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock]
Some of it for sure, absolutely. There are definitely some tracks that are really fast and some with various stuff. We made a conscious decision with our producer, Johnny K, that there is no reason to go and get to ostentatious with big lush arrangements and try to do all this orchestration. We really want this record to sound like four guys in your living room jamming and melting your face off.
Does you have a projected release date and an album title yet?
We don't. There are a couple of album titles being kicked around that we are going to confirm. As far as a release date, I have not heard anything yet. That is up to Roadrunner Records to cement the date.
Perhaps this fall for the release?
That's what I'm hoping for, to get the record done before we go in tour. It's really out of our hands, but we have done our part, as far as recording it. Johnny K has to mix it, and I know he will do quickly. I'm certain it will sound fantastic. Hopefully, it will be released in the fall, but you don't want to rush something like this that we have taken so much time and put so much work into. We want it to be great, we don't want to trip over the starting line. It's better to make sure it's locked and loaded. So when you fire it off, it's a success.
If you had to compare the upcoming CD to any previous Megadeth release, what would that be?
Until it's mixed, it's hard to make a comparison. Anything can change in the mix. The mix is such a vital part of the final creative stamp. Even to the next degree, mastering can add an extra explanation point at the end of the sentence. I would say it kind of fits in around the Countdown to Extinction album. What's ironic to me is that we just came off the 20th anniversary of the Rust in Peace tour, going into an album that would sound like an extension to that.
Countdown to Extinction is still a very relevant album, even today, with songs like "Foreclosure of a Dream" and "Symphony of Destruction," seeing what's going on in the world news right now...
It's funny isn't it: everything takes a twenty-year cycle. Well, it's not really funny at all. I remember when we came off the Rust in Peace tour, going into Countdown to Extinction, there was a lot going on politically. We were coming out of the Cold War, and Dave was on the floor of the Democratic National Convention being a roving reporter for MTV and the lyrical topics. Even the shit that started to develop in the band, we were really stepping up and starting to mature as musicians.
With this album, it's the first one with me being back into the fold after ten years [in 2002, Ellefson left Megadeth and returned in 2010]. Again, there is a level of maturity that clicked together really seamlessly. The process has flowed very naturally. Once Johnny K came up to produce and we set a schedule, he really took control of the session as far as workflow and organizing the ideas.
Will you be playing any of the new songs on the Mayhem Festival?
Hard to tell if we will. I think we will see about the release date. We completed a song for a video game. So, that is one song off the record that is finished, and it has been leaked out to the public that they heard. As far as choosing the single, ramping that up and getting that all ready to go, that is a process that will start to happen within the next couple of weeks, including the mix of it. Once that starts to develop, that will determine the song or songs we will we will play on the Mayhem Fest.
Do you think the huge presence of corporate sponsors at concerts takes away the experience for the fans?
As a fan, because occasionally I will go to a show. There is a way to do sponsorship where it is part of the experience, and it doesn't take away from it. With that said, ultimately fans go because they want to see the bands. The one exclusion from that would be the summer festivals. Because of the sponsorship, it allows bands to become part of a big summer festival. Sometimes on that level, the sponsorship helps bring it together.
The truth is, everyone has been bit by the economy, especially here in the United States, and corporate sponsors can help improve a situation. In this case, with the Mayhem Festival, it helps bring in A-list level bands into town all under one ticket. If you're a metal fan, you can go see it all at the Mayhem Festival. If you want to go see a show and save some money, make Mayhem that show.
Apple may be developing technology that automatically turns off the iPhone's video camera when it's shooting a concert. What is your opinion on this?
It really comes down to a copyright issue more than how accessible everything has become. It used to be you would not take a photo without someone's permission, because that is the kind thoughtful thing to do, especially if you are going to plaster it all over the internet. But, in this day and age, people take a picture of whomever, whenever and however. To some degree, it's a bit of a breach of people's privacy when it comes to copyright material, just posting things on the internet.
I don't know if it's the artists getting weird about it. It's probably the people who own the copyright, like the record companies and the music publishers. They are essentially losing out on money. I'll say from an artist's point of view, I think it's cool. I walk around the world with my video camera and post them up on YouTube and Megadeth.com. For me, it's a great way to take the fans on tour with us. From a fan point of view, I like it when I can see a clip of something like that.
For me, I find it kind of a cool thing. It's a great way to check out a band I'm not that familiar with, and if I'm thinking about going, I can check out clips. That ultimately sells me a concert ticket. You gotta look at the big picture of it. When fans go to a show, they are excited and in the moment. They are shooting little clips so they can take it home and show their friends. Less and less people are putting them up on the internet and are doing it for their own archival keepsake.
The Big 4 has a NYC date in September. When will the U.S. see more dates? Any discussion of bringing the Big 4 to South America and Australia?
All four of us do our own stuff, and we get together sporadically and do the Big 4 Festival shows. That's what keeps it unique. I do know that Lars has said he does not want to do this as a tour. I think they like the idea that when it's done as a massive festival setting, not only is it more of a bigger, special event, it also goes to show how big the genre is. The genre is worthy of putting inside a football or baseball stadium. In Europe, everything we do is all in soccer stadiums and massive fields. I get the indication that we can keep doing this for as long as we want, and there may be some dates coming up. Rather then doing it as a tour, we will do it as these specialized one offs.
Between giving lectures, bass clinics, seminars and your rock shop videos, have you given any thought to pitching to a network for a show?
[laughs] A lot of people say that. I think it would be a cool thing, man. I'm a fan of those shows. I love the travel network and the food network. People have made shows from food, to choppers, to fixing homes and things that sort of would otherwise be mundane, have turned into television shows on networks. I think it's cool. Our fans are so dedicated and are interested in what we do and where we go. For me, it's like piling everyone on the tour bus and taking everyone on tour when I do my video clips.
How important is it to stay grounded in the music business? I always see comments about you on blabbermouth.net and megadeth.com about how genuinely nice you are. Do you think that is something many of the new bands today are lacking?
I think a lot of it for me comes back to how I was raised. I was raised on a farm in Minnesota. We went to church on Sundays, my family was of good stock, and I didn't come from a broken home. So things were very wholesome and complete in my live. To me, I see that as very important. It's weird in rock and roll, because part of what is exciting is the danger and the unstable nature of it. It can all blow up as you are watching it.
To some degree, fans like that. Fans like to see something. They can tough for a minute, then they get to go home and don't have to deal with the fallout of it. Being a musician and having to clean up the explosions can wear you out. Eventually, that become so much at the forefront for at lot of artists that it has superseded their music, and it has turned into becoming tragic celebrity. It's almost like living in the gutter of rock and roll. I was there for a short period in the late 1980s, and I never want to go back there. I would rather have my life be how it is today then to lay in the gutters of celebrity.
Last year was a monumental year for Megadeth with your return, the Big 4 and the Rust in Peace 20th anniversary. Was last year even more exciting for you and Dave Mustaine as when first forming Megadeth?
It's hard to tell. When we started, there was a lot of excitement around the band. People were excited to see what Dave was going to do after Metallica, and people were excited to see who I was. The last bass player Dave worked with was Cliff Burton when he was in Metallica. It was very exciting times, because I was eighteen years old. I wanted to prove myself to the world, and I wanted to give it my best. It was a time where everyone got to thrive and showcase the best of what they had.
At the time, our genre was being invented and created, certainly by the Big 4 and a hand full of other bands at the time, as well. I think in some of our bigger years, when thrash metal with Megadeth was really popular, those were exciting times, too. We had never been up the mountain that high before. What was cool coming back in 2010 is that we all had been to the top of the mountain. We know what the view looks like, and we also know where the slippery slopes are. To some degree, I think that's what made it more stable this time, because we know what works, and we know what doesn't work.
When looking back at your career, what is the one single moment that is your proudest achievement, and what was the most disappointing?
One of my proudest achievement, as far as songwriting goes, would be doing "Dawn Patrol" on the Rust in Peace album, because it's a song with a bass riff. It's not often that those songs work, so I was thrilled that we got to play it all last year on the Rust in Peace setlist. It was a lot of fun to play that live. As far as monumental big things go, I think being able to sell millions of albums [laughs]. As far as setbacks go, I was coming out of my dark days, with my partying and addictions. 1989 was a bad year. It was hard to be productive and to get anything done, but it's always the darkest before the dawn. What followed after that was the most successful years of Megadeth.
What would you like the everlasting legacy of Megadeth to be? How would you like to be remembered fifty years from now?
I would say for doing exactly what we are doing right now.