Dave Ellefson - Founding member of Megadeth

The heavy metal music genre simply wouldn't be where it is today without the titans of thrash Megadeth, a band formed by Dave Mustaine and Dave Ellefson and who have a career spanning three decades. Dave Ellefson took some time out from the band's crazy schedule to talk to us about the band and the new Megadeth slots game.

Looking back over your career, Megadeth can undoubtedly be considered to be one of the most influential metal bands of all time. You’re now known as one of the ‘Big 4’ – the thrash metal bands that forged an entire genre or music – have sold millions of records and received plentiful accolades from your peers and the industry. How do you feel about your success? Did you know from the start that you had something special going?

It feels really good. The truth is, right from the start this band felt like it was going to be big. It wasn’t an overnight success because we had to earn it but the interest for the band was there right from the start.

Having really driven a whole musical sound, do you feel that there was a pivotal point in your career that really influenced the direction that thrash metal would take?

It could be argued that Motorhead were the earliest pioneers to point toward the genre but I think Dave Mustaine’s guitar playing (even in Metallica) was the invention of Thrash. Thrash was really invented in the USA because it’s the hybrid of punk and Metal music. We were the first generation of musicians to like the Sex Pistols and Black Sabbath so as a result we drew from both punk and metal cultures to create our Thrash. That can really be seen in any one of the Big 4 bands and beyond.

In 1986 with the release of ‘Peace Sells…. But Who’s Buying?’ you went from being a band that had enjoyed relative success with your first album on a small label to being a band receiving critical acclaim from all corners of the music industry, with a major label deal and an album that would go on to sell over a million copies. How did that album change your lives?

We did a short three-week tour in early 1986 performing most of the songs from “Peace Sells…” before we recorded it. We could tell then that the song “Peace Sells..” was a going to be a hit. That gave us real confidence to move up to a major label because we knew we had what they needed, which was sell-able music. From there we just went out and worked it on tour for 18 months. There were no free lunches along the way but we definitely seized our opportunities and that resulted in the all of the fans and the sales of the album.

By the time ‘Countdown to Extinction’ came out there was a notable difference in Megadeth’s musical style. The tracks seemed to slow in pace - compared to the furious example set by your previous outing ‘Rust In Peace’ - and develop a more melodious structure. What drove that progression in sound?

After doing the “Rust In Peace” album and tour we knew we had really done our best with fast and furious Thrash up to that point. So, on CFE we felt we had even deeper musicianship and writing capabilities within the band so we pushed ourselves beyond our comfort zone to really dig deep and come up with different and even better material. That result was the “Countdown…” album.

This year sees the 20th anniversary of the release of ‘Countdown to Extinction’ and you have a whole tour planned where you will play the album in its entirety. This is the second time you’ve done this after the 20th anniversary tour for ‘Rust in Peace’. How do you feel the fans react to these whole album sets? Do you play the album in order? Do you bolster the set with other tracks?

I think they like these types of tours because they are different and the fans get to hear deep-cut album tracks instead of just the singles or the more popular songs each time we come through town. We do play the entire albums in order. We usually warm up the set with a few classics to get everyone in the ‘mood’ and then we finish with a couple classics so everyone goes away with the memory of those songs in their heads. We realize that our fans come from such diverse age groups now that we can’t just assume they have all heard those albums top to bottom. So having some of the classic hits scattered throughout the set helps those fans feel included in the show, too.

Your album ‘Risk’ saw a marked change in musical direction and seems to have made the band – alongside some fans – quite uncomfortable. If you had your time again, what would you change in relation to the creation of that album?

I think it was a great record but because it said “MEGADETH” on it people did expected a different sound, a sound they were more familiar with from its predecessors. With that said, I think it unwise to go back and change things, it’s like you are apologizing for what you did when in fact that was exactly as it was supposed to be at that moment in time. Imagine if we went back and changed ‘Rust In Peace’ because we moved forward to make “Countdown To Exctinction”?!! At some point, you learn something from every record you make and you move on to the next one with those experiences.

In 2002 Dave Mustaine experienced an injury to his left arm that left him unable to play and expert prognosis was that he would be unlikely to ever be able to play again. At that point he made the decision to end Megadeth. This must have been a huge shock and disappointment to you. How did you feel at the time? What were your first thoughts about what to do next? And how do you feel the break away from Megadeth helped you as a musician and as a person?

At first I was shocked but I knew I had two roads ahead of me; either fade away from music or move forward with new endeavours because I was young, ambitious and had many musical statements yet to make. As much as it wasn’t expected, my time away from the band really helped me grow as a musician and as a man on my own two feet. Band life is unique because it requires the individuals in it to maintain specific roles in order for the band to operate. However, over time people change and often grow out of those roles so those moments can provide opportunities to rediscover your passions.

In hindsight, I think the time Dave had by himself to re-align Megadeth the way he intended it to be was good for him, and for the band. Additionally, my time away from the group allowed me to develop aspects of my life that I couldn’t have done while recording and touring like we were doing for so many years, In many ways those matters were critical for my growth in order to mature and really bring something effective back to the group upon my return in 2010. Looking back on it all now, it all seems to have worked out pretty good for everyone.

Could you tell us about the projects you were involved in during your years out of Megadeth? Are you still involved with any of them?

I did many different things during those years and I think that was the point of them all, to stretch out and do things that weren’t exactly like what I had done previously. After all, Megadeth is one of the really great metal bands of all time so why should I compete with my own past?

At this point, I’m really enjoying being in Megadeth full time now…this is my home and I’m happy to be back here again.

When close friends fall out it can often get very venomous and cause wounds that take many years to heal if they ever do. The rift between yourself and Dave Mustaine clearly fell into that bitter category even reaching as far as lawsuits, but you’ve worked through this and are ultimately friends again. How do you feel the break of and reunion has changed your relationship? Do you feel you’re closer now than you were before?

Dave and I grew up together from a very young age, he being 21 and I being only 18 years old. Dave was always a very street savvy California kid and I learned a lot from him because that was not my childhood path. At the same time, my good-natured Minnesota upbringing really juxtaposed our relationship and aside from the songs, that dynamic really defined the heart and soul of Megadeth. Two Dave’s who bring something very individually unique to the table.

I think having that time away created a realization for both of us that while we are both productive individually, Megadeth is definitely stronger with both of us in it together. In many ways, that emphasized our differences as actually being strengths for Megadeth. In fact we always had a saying that went ‘if we also agree on everything, then one of us isn’t necessary!’ And from that, we forged a new friendship now that goes beyond just being members of Megadeth and for me, that is pretty cool.

The band has had a tumultuous relationship with drugs and alcohol over the decades, thankfully all of which seems to be relegated to the past. How do you feel substance addiction has affected the band and their music?

In the beginning you can write, record, perform, tour and bounce back pretty quickly from the effects of that lifestyle. But, at some point, when it becomes an addiction it consumes you and destroys your band. Some people say that “Peace Sells…” has this dark, evil sound about it and I agree. But, part of that sound is the tuning of the album…in addition to the four of us being a little left-of-center at the time, too!

It is well known that you returned to faith later in your life after having lived through some dark periods. How do you feel your faith affects your day to day life? What affect, if any, does it have on the music of Megadeth?

It’s everything! I mean, the drug lifestyle consumes you to a point that it becomes everything you are and it has to be replaced with something in order to stay clean and grow in a new direction away from that old life. For me, faith is that replacement and what I found is that it is the way we were originally intended to operate. It’s in our DNA to have faith in something beyond just ourselves.

I’ve found that for creative-driven people, faith opens up new channels of inspiration because it’s like finding a compass in the woods when your lost and you can finally find your way back home. For me, things that were often confusing for me started to finally make sense and that was the greatest discovery I could have in my lifetime.

Over the years Megadeth has toured in support of many great bands and had many other great bands support them. Is there one band that you particularly enjoyed touring with?

There have been so many, and many that I was a fan of growing up, bands like Judas Priest & Iron Maiden for example. Then as we became headliners we got to take out some great up and comers, like Stone Temple Pilots and Alice In Chains. Both of them are still favs of mine to this day.

Do you have any control over the bands that support you? Do you keep your eyes open for new talent to give a hand up to?

Yes, we have complete control over who shares our stage with us. We also try to make decisions on who we play with as well, and that includes the larger festivals. It’s important to us that our fans relate to the bands we play with because they are going to spend a large part of their day/night at the show and they are probably paying hard-earned money to see it as well. They deserve to get their money’s worth and feel satisfied from the show.

What advice would you give to a young metal band starting out today? What advice would you give to your past selves if you could?

I would say try to be different. The world doesn’t need another MEGADETH, it doesn’t need another KORN or any other band who has already been successful. The key to success is to be great but also be different. In fact, the two go hand in hand.

As for our past selves, I wouldn’t change a thing. We are who we are now, because of who we were then.

Was there any advice given to you early on that you feel really helped you or that you wish now you’d listened to?

My father always said “you’re not great until someone else says you are”. In many ways, that really sums up the essence of show biz and is also why so many young musicians are their own worst enemies. You usually find out pretty quickly that if you are just playing in a band so you can get chicks and get drunk, or hopefully not to have to get a real job and grow up, then you are probably in the wrong line of work. Sure, being a successful musician can have some great perks but this career path takes years of hard work, discipline and commitment to your craft to really make it big. No one, and I mean NO ONE is an overnight sensation!

As one of the longest running and most successful metals bands to still be active today, you’ve really lived through the entire metal scene. How do you feel the industry has changed since you were first playing? What have you done to keep up with it? And where do you see the scene heading now?

When I met Dave in Hollywood back in 1983, metal was so alive and vibrant in the USA, probably more than any other time in history and probably more so than it ever will be again. So much so, that there were new sub-genres being created every couple months, stuff that was so diverse; San Francisco was home to Metallica and Exodus. New York birthed Anthrax and Twisted Sister and Hollywood had the likes of Motley Crue, Ratt and WASP.

Then came hard-core metal, black metal, death metal and so on in the years to follow which showed how diverse metal fans really are. And more than other mainstream rock n roll, metal musicians really showcased some amazing chops.

I think more than anything, musicians were really pushing the envelope and not holding back. They inspired people to really play well and innovate on their instruments. In many ways the 1980s may have been the last bastion of unique rock n roll guitar/bass/drum/vocal shredding. I’d love to see someone come along and really change the course of those instruments again, not just rehash what has already been done.

For us, we didn’t follow the trends we just did our own thing. That wasn’t always the most popular way to do it but we knew we were doing something great, something we believed in and when we believed in it we found our fans believed in it, too. Maybe that is the real lesson now moving forward; you have to believe in yourself if you expect anyone else to believe in you, too!

Megadeth has always been renowned for their aggressive and engaging live shows. Do you still enjoy playing live as much as you used to?

Absolutely! I love writing and recording, but in many ways that is just a means to and end of getting out and playing those songs live. Megadeth’s songs really take on a dimension of their own in a live setting. They are emotional, they are groovy and really move people; either to be rowdy & mosh, to be introspective or to just sing-along to some great lyrics & melodies.

Is there one gig in your career that you really feel was a highlight?

There have been so many. I would say the Big 4 “Live from Sofia” was pretty epic but so are our tours of South America. At the same time, you can roll into a smaller venue and have some great memories with the fans because you are up close and personal with them. Plus for me, the bass usually sounds really good and tight in a hot & sweaty club!

Being a highly successful musician you must have many Bass Guitars now. Is there one particular guitar that’s really holds a special place in your heart? If so why?

I have many basses for different applications. Right now, I have one of my Quicksilver Jackson five-string signature Concert basses that seems to sound & play just about perfectly for most all current live settings. I also have a great Modulus 5 string Quantum bass that records metal records to perfection as well as a couple Fender P-basses that record great, too.

Most of all, I like basses that are use-able. I’m not so much into just collecting them for nostalgia. In fact, I’ve sold many of my own really old Megadeth basses to fans because I wasn’t using them any more and I figured the fans will appreciate the nostalgia more than I could. One of those basses was actually placed in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland by a fan who purchased my BC Rich Mockingbird from the “Peace Sells…” album and tour. To me, that just shows how cool our fans are to want to carry on our legacy.

Leander games has just released a Megadeth slots games featuring all of the current band members and many of the band’s classic tracks. Have you had a chance to play it? What did you think? How did the slots game come about? We certainly consider it one of the best online slots.

I’ve messed around with it and I think it’s a great game and concept. I think the various versions of the game that Leander offers is something really cool for everyone to participate with it.

Finally, I’d like to say that it’s been a real treat for me to get to talk to one of the musicians I’ve been listening to for nearly two decades and work it into my passion for gaming. To finish up could you give me your current Top 5 albums?

Thank you very much. Here you go:

  1. The Sword- Gods of the Earth

  2. Steve Harris- British Lion

  3. Aerosmith- Toys In the Attic (a classic I never tire of!)

  4. Kyng- Trampled Sun

  5. Rush- Clockwork Angels