David Ellefson of Megadeth: "We had punk attitude with metal chops"
Megadeth (due tonight at the Fillmore Auditorium) may be one of the Big Four of thrash, but in many ways, its frontman Dave Mustaine is largely responsible for the sound and aesthetic of three of the Big Four. As a member of Metallica before that band recorded its first full-length, Mustaine's name could still be seen on songwriting credits through Ride the Lightning.
With Megadeth, Mustaine had a chance to develop his vision for a kind of technically respectable yet raw and brutal sound more fully and his lyrics delved deep into places of personal darkness and exposed social ills with a sharp and poetic analysis rare in music generally.
We recently spoke with one of the band's founding members, David Ellefson, who came back to Megadeth after an eight-year absence, about the impact of Mustaine's guitar work on his peers, Penelope Spheeris and his reconciliation with Mustaine after a long hiatus from the band.
Westword: What got you started playing heavy music, and how did you get involved in playing in the world of live music early on?
David Ellefson: I grew up in the Midwest, so a lot of the stuff I heard was on the radio, stuff like Kiss, Styx, Foreigner, BTO. It was kind of the arena rock of those days. I heard it on the radio station WLS out of Chicago while I was riding the school bus as a kid, probably when I was about ten years old. By eleven, I got a bass guitar. By twelve, I put my first band together, and by thirteen, I was actually gigging professionally.
So, for me, the whole thing was that I wanted to play, because I wanted to go out and do it. I wanted to perform, I wanted to go do all this. To me, it wasn't about sitting around practicing in my bedroom, this is about get a bass, learn how to play, get in a band with some guys and let's go. That's basically what I've been doing ever since.
How did you end up playing music with Dave Mustaine in the beginning of Megadeth?
Five days after I graduated from high school, I moved out to Los Angeles from Minnesota. I happened to move into an apartment right underneath him. It was a couple of months after he left Metallica. We met up, and he started showing me some songs. He realized I could play, and basically, he and I moved forward, and here we are all these years later.
What kind of music were you both into then that you'd talked about before playing and during the early days of the band?
We talked about stuff that I knew in the Midwest: Iron Maiden, Scorpions, some of the more popular New Wave of British Heavy Metal stuff -- Motorhead, Venom, Tygers of Pan Tang. There was this whole movement of stuff. I'd known about it, I'd played a little bit of it in some bands I was in back in Minnesota. But Dave was really into it, and he really knew it, understood it and he was really versed in the scene with the stuff he had done with Metallica. The music he was writing was obviously going to be the next wave of what was going to happen.
It was good for me because as a bass player, I'd grown up in the clubs, I knew how to play, I knew how to put a band together, how to do all of this. But to have that opportunity where I could actually really create my own style and be part of the next wave of music, that's a Cinderalla story opportunity, you know?
For Dave, to have someone like me who would be his stalwart, right hand man over the years -- because it's not easy starting a band. Bands gobble guys up, man. It's a hard life. It's not like we had a bunch of money. We had opportunity, but that's about it. So Dave and I, I'd say our story is really kind of an American success story even on a business level:
Here's two guys that agreed that this is what we were going to go do and we started with nothing and turned it into something. On an artistic level, it's a cool story because we basically started with something that didn't even exist. It was a seed that grew into a plant. The plant became a tree and the tree became a forest.
How did you guys get Kerry King to play in the early live incarnations of the band?
We needed another guitar player to go do our debut shows up in the Bay Area in February and April of 1984. Dave made a huge impact on Kerry, when Kerry went to go Metallica at the Whiskey [a Go Go]. So he liked Dave, he liked his style, his style influenced how Kerry would then write as a guitar player. For Kerry, it was a thrill for him to be in Megadeth even though I think going up and doing those shows a lot of the fans were asking about Slayer so Kerry realized Slayer had a future.
So to some degree, those shows changed the course of Slayer. Then, of course, for us it meant we moved forward and added Chris Poland Gar Samuelson to the line-up -- they were the first recording line-up. But we've had fantastic guitar players ever since.
The band that played on the first two Megadeth records were Gar Samuelson and Chris Poland. How did you meet those guys and did their jazz background have any influence on the early songwriting?
Yeah, they had a manager who introduced us to them. That's how Gar got in the band. Gar and Chris had played in a really progressive fusion band called The New Yorkers that was kicking around L.A. and for whatever reason they never got signed but they had a big following. So they'd done clubs, knew the L.A. circuit.
Dave and I were the hard rock, metal guys, and they were a few years older than me and Dave, and they kind of were more Zeppelin, the Who, Jeff Beck and all the way over to even John McLaughlin. The kind of music we were writing was really technical and very progressive music so to bring guys in that had jazz-rock fusion chops to play that stuff, we were just clicking on a whole other level that I don't think anybody in our genre was doing at all. That was fun.
You spoke at length in the movie The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. And you didn't embarrass yourself unlike some of the other artists. How did you get to be a part of that and what was it like working with Penelope Spheeris on that movie?
Penelope really liked us, she loved Dave. She really liked Dave's approach, that it was just raw, edgy, sort of unrefined--there's just a real animal quality that she liked about Dave's style. That was kind of how she was. She was this sort of unrefined filmmaker. That's why she liked doing punk and rock and roll movies.
Megadeth, we weren't a glossy, glitzy...
Interview continues on Page 2.