INTERVIEW: David Ellefson (MEGADETH / METAL ALLEGIANCE)
Levi: Nuclear Blast just sent me a pre-released copy of the new album Power Drunk Majesty and I just finished listening to it about a half and hour ago. I really dig it, man. There are just so many epic riffs on the album and basically every metalheads wet dream. If you could tell us a little bit about the album, I heard you kinda like jammed a lot of it in Mike Portnoy's basement. Is that right?
David: Yeah we actually wrote the album at his place. We did both albums because we didn't want to have ... These are not internet records that we do. It's important for us to be together in the room, working on them together. So it's pretty cool how we do that. The first sessions, there were two sessions. One was with Mark Menghi, Mike (Portnoy), and Alex (Skolnick). And the other one is with me, Mike, and Alex. So because there are two bass players in the band, Mark and I are both sort of founders, if you will, of Metal Allegiance back in 2014. We kind of found this really interesting way to split up the bass duties and the composing roles between the two of us.
Levi: Yeah for sure. When you get so many guests on the album, I know you've got John Bush, and Bobby Blitz, Max Cavalera, Mark Tornillo, how to you go about ... You know they're all busy with their touring schedules, how do you get like, allocate time for them to come in and write a song?
David: Well, the first thing is when we write the song, even at Mike's house, usually the song calls to us as to who we think might be a good candidate for a vocalist. Because we're all friends and tour together we see each other as festivals. We're all buddies. We're all friends in the same neighborhood and the same community. We then reach out to our friends, the singers in this case, and invite them to participate. With very rare exceptions, everybody that we've reached out to has made themselves available, and were very thrilled and happy to participate on the albums. So then from there, usually we write most of the melodies, the lyrics to give to them to sing. And in certain occasions, like for instance John Bush was happy just to sing what we gave him, to sing with Mark Tornillo. At the same time Bobby Bush felt he needed to kind of get into the song a little bit as a composer and sort of kind of feel it himself. So we let him take that liberty. In the case of Max Cavalera and Johan (Hegg), they aided Floor (Jansen) we let them really take full liberty of writing lyrics and melodies and let them ... "here's the music, write your parts". So it kind of goes any number of ways from what I understand.
Levi: Yeah definitely. Some of the tracks I really liked off the album, I liked the one with Bobby Blitz "Mother of Sin". Also, I liked "King With a Paper Crown" with Johan Hegg, and of course "Voodoo of the Godsend" with Max Cavalera. I was just wondering do you have a few favorite tracks off the album?
David: Yeah having Max on "Voodoo of the Godsend" is certainly one of them and partly because it's a song I helped compose musically and I also play rhythm guitar on that song. So I have a real kind of a big foot print on that song as far as the composing. And then to able to invite Max in to participate because he had me perform on Soulfly records and tour with him. So it was great to be able to have him participate on one of my records.
And at the same time, you know John Bush is just amazing. And even though I didn't compose that track, I'm a friend of his, I reached out to him and invited him to join us and he sang on other things I'd done in years past and demos and things that I was working on back in the early 90s. So I know what he's capable of just being in the studio working with him. He's just amazing. And he actually performed with us back in November, or back in January rather, at Anaheim when we did a show during NAMM and he just really takes this performance to a whole other level.
So those are a couple, and that doesn't exclude the others by any means. Those are just kind of friends of mine that I would just let them come in and work on the record with us.
Levi: I was going to ask you about your time in Soulfly because you played in Megadeth and Soulfly is quite different. And I was wondering what's it like playing in Soulfly compared to Megadeth?
David: There's similarities with the thrash element. Yet there are, the approach, as far as the just sort of casualness of it is very different because Max is kind of like, "Look I hired you to do your thing, do your thing. You don't need me to tell you what to do, just do your thing," so that element is very different than how we operated Megadeth. So yeah, it was a really fun experience to have and also there were some other moments. You know Max has a lot of these other sort of world music, almost reggae. Different elements that was fun to step out as a bass player. I mean one minute you're playing thrashing riffs and the next minute you're playing almost like reggae grooves. It was very fun as a bass player.
Levi: Now, I was gonna ask you is there any Metal Allegiance tours or live shows coming up?
David: Yeah, yeah. That's exactly how it's going. We have a record release show coming up at the Gramercy in New York City in two weeks on Septempter 6th and we actually have several other show opportunities just coming up over the next several months that we're looking at. I think once this record is out probably into next year maybe some summer things in Europe. Especially since we have such and international reach now especially into Europe. And who knows you and me are on the phone from down in Australia so who knows maybe we'll be able to get down there. In fact, we were going to go down to you but unfortunately had the ill fated SoundWave tour. We were ready to go then that all went away. So we actually have got several opportunities to do some things out of the country. That was why quite honestly we pushed to do album number two. Much as we started this as on all star jam on a boat, on a motor boat, then we put out one record, I think putting out two records really turns this into a real, into an actual creative original artist.
Levi: Yeah for sure, we had a couple of years in Australia with no major heavy metal festival but we've got the Download Festival now which was the first one this year and we've got another one next year. So if you could make it to that, that would be awesome.
David: We hope there will be something to turn to. I think it should be pretty cool actually.
Levi: I wanted to ask you about something else. Last year you did a Megadeth Bootcamp. And it's something I'd really want to go to you get to hang out with your favorite rock stars, but what was it like for you hanging out with fans for a couple of days and showing them bass parts, the winery and all that kind of stuff?
David: You know it was good probably a couple of my favorite parts was I actually preached the Sunday morning church sermon on how you're probably not gonna go to hell if you listen to heavy metal. That was kind of a fun thing to do and I also officiated a wedding for two of the campers that came, two of the guests that came to the camp. Vic Rattlehead walked the bride down the aisle, and Kiko (Loureiro) played music, and I officiated the wedding, and it was really a super cool event.
Levi: Oh wow, if I ever get married I'm definitely going to have to give you a call.
David: Yeah, well I'm up for hire.
Levi: I was going to ask you about that as well you're actually a Lutheran Pastor. I Myself for years I was very, very critical of religion. But I guess in the last two years I've got a bit more of an understanding of the concept of God and it takes a long time to get your head around that. I was wondering when was that moment was for you that you had a belief in God.
David: Well I grew up a Lutheran kid and the Lutherans are pretty middle of the road. There's nothing real fanatical. There's nothing, it's not a Pentecostal thing. We're not speaking in tongues and we're not doing some of those dunking people in The Nile. We're not doing some of those more dramatic religious experiences. So for me, I was never around any of that. So for me it was pretty simple, you get baptized. I got baptized at a month old, I obviously don't remember it. You do your religious studies as a teenager.
Statistically from about age 18 to 26 you know a lot of people kind of stay away from the church. They get out there pursuing their college careers, rocking out, doing whatever they're doing. Usually by their late 20s people start getting married, having kids, raising families. Late 20s into their 30s is when people generally tend to kind of return back to some sort of, seeking some sort of understanding of God again. However, that be to those that be. And I'm very much in that demographic. When I got cleaned up off my drug, and booze for Lent at age 25. I suddenly had a much more open mind to it again. Then at that point I was an adult and had my own understanding and belief. I wasn't just sort of doing it because my parents were making me go to church. I think you have a much different understanding and a much different appreciation for it when it becomes your own journey.
And for me I took some seminary classes and my home Luthern church in Scottsdale supported me in that. And they were very gracious and very kind and I was able to do some studying while I was on tour. I enjoyed it. Then I got a certificate that I can officiate weddings, and I've done some baptisms, and a few things. The people that have you do it, they kind of get a kick out of it because they get to have a rock start to officiate their wedding. And for me I take it very seriously. It's somebody doing matrimony vows and to me it's an honor and I'm honored they would even ask me to do it because I'm a heavy metal bass player.
Levi: Were people supportive in the church of Megadeth in the early days?
David: You know, I never got any grief from the church people, me personally. Look, did they like some of the early Megadeth songs: "The Conjuring", "Black Friday", "Devil's Island", "Bad Omen"? Yeah probably not you know what I mean. They weren't really invited to the party anyway so we weren't really too worried about what they were saying. Quite honestly, we weren't a band who was going out with upside down crosses, and crucifixes, and doing repulsive things against religion. We weren't that band that did that, as much as we had a field we had topics that talked about it.
You know "Looking Down the Cross" was essentially from the point of view of Jesus hanging on the cross. So I mean our things were actually more kind of scripturally, the lines out of scripture that were sort of ... Well that's an interesting line and it becomes a lyric. "Turning plows and shears into swords" in the song "Ashes in Your Mouth". So oftentimes we would take these little lines and "Ashes in Your Mouth" is essentially about war.
David: And oftentimes it's more about how can if there's a God, then there's a religion and there's all of this stuff and what are we fighting? What is this about? I think probably for us, our generation was more confused like if there really is a God then how can these things happen? And I think that kind of becomes a journey and a search you tend to go on probably as a generation. I'm a Gen Xer (Generation X), Dave (Mustaine) is a couple years older than me. I was the younger guy in the band. But I think our generation generally sat that out, through Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and Ozzy (Osbourne). We're a generation of sort of seeking, we were exploring and seeking. We weren't satisfied just accepting sort of religion as we were brought up in it.
Levi: And Dave's quite religious now these days too. Are your views kind of in line? or is he a different kind of sect of Christianity?
David: No, absolutely. In fact to be honest with you, us having kind of more of an adult understanding of that actually helped us mend things, become friends again even join Megadeth in 2010. So I think, heavy metal wise, and even in Metal Allegiance we again we're of a similar age groups and sort of talk thematically and conceptually about similar things. Me and Mark Menghi end up writing the majority of the lyrics. Alex does some handful of writing. Of course there's our guests. I mean look at the lyrics from Max Cavalera, "Voodoo of the Godsend". Max is Brazilian, probably raised in a Catholic culture as the Brazilians tend to be. Max has always been very much like ... Megadeth is always sort of the whole thing with roots and his whole thing as he was brought up with the strife of his own nation and the natives. The natives of his nation. And I've learned some of my greatest things about spirituality from Native Americans that I have become friends with here in Arizona. I probably learned more from them organically. And they pointed out to me the religion that I was brought up in was one of the Europeans brought over here when we probably treated them less than fair.
I think as a musician we get to travel the world, and we get to be exposed to all kinds of different cultures. And in a culture you can't separate their politics and their religion, it all comes as a package. I think one of the things I learned early on is just take the cotton out of your ears and stick it in your mouth. In other words do more listening and less talking. And listen and get in touch with the culture that you get to experience as musicians. It's really a cool life we get to have if you open your eyes and your ears.
Levi: I know Mustaine said recently there's a good chance of a new Megadeth album out by the end of 2019. I just wanted to say I thought Dystopia was just an excellent Megadeth album. Probably one of my favorites. Maybe even like Youthanasia. Looking back on Dystopia how do you kind of rate that album, and secondly have you a chance to work on new material yet? Has that come about?
David: Yeah well we've been working on new material this whole year. We only did about seven weeks of touring through the summer but now that's the focus is working on this new album. And one thing we've learned from Dystopia is the next album will be done when it's done. We're not fortunately we don't have to be backed into a corner to hurry up and rush it. It needs to be, it will be an album when it's an album. You know regarding Dystopia, yeah that album went through a lot of transitions. I remember the song Dystopia, me and Dave and at the time Chris Broderick and Shawn Drover were working on jamming on it at a, upstairs at a back stage at a festival in Holland in the summer of 2014. And it was kind of the general riff, the Durst riff, and that song went through a lot of transitions, and the whole ending piece was added. It's funny I go back and I kind of listen. I see where those ideas started and to where the album ended up. That record went through a whole ... Probably the same season we're in right now with this next record. It went through a whole year of ideas, thoughts, bits and pieces, and then by the time it actually finished up to be a full album it really is a pretty remarkable journey the process goes through.
Levi: Well I just got told I've got 20 minutes so I better wrap it out. Power Drunk Majesty is coming out next month and I've got to say awesome album, man. You're still kicking ass after all those years. It's great to see.
David: Thank you so much, Levi. I appreciate it, man.
Listen to the full interview!
Check out the song "Voodoo of the Godsend featuring Max Cavalera!
Power Drunk Majesty" out September 7th 2018 VIA Nuclear Blast Records