David Ellefson: First Post-Cancer Megadeth Show Felt ‘Victorious’
Megadeth's David Ellefson was the latest guest on Full Metal Jackie's weekend radio program. The bass player reflected on the wild ride that 2020 has been, which found Megadeth returning to the stage for the first time since Dave Mustaine's cancer diagnosis followed by trying to finish a new record in the midst of a global pandemic.
Of the band's first night back on tour in Finland earlier this year, Ellefson said it was a "victorious" moment and that the band has carried that energy of strength and unity into the writing and recording sessions for what will be Megadeth's 16th studio album and first since the Grammy-winning Dystopia, which came out in 2016.
Elsewhere, the bassist discussed his philanthropic ventures and how he's focused on supporting youth music programs as well as various creative outlets for music outside of Megadeth. His new solo song, "Simple Truth," will also benefit the Italian Red Cross, which he dives into as well.
Read the full chat below.
You're philanthropic, particularly through your David Ellefson Youth Music Foundation that supports school music programs. How has helping aspiring musicians refined your sense of purpose?
We started the foundation back in October, 2018. The mayor of my little town Jackson, Minnesota, where I grew up, was kind enough to proclamate Oct. 9, David Ellefson Day, I guess forever.
While that was such an awesome thing for the community to do it for me, I felt if there's ever a platform to now create something and give back, the foundation would be it. That's when we created the foundation with a particular interest in rural areas.
I am a product of the public school music system, and I grew up playing tenor saxophone and then started playing bass in the jazz band. I did orchestra band, marching band, jazz... and then in 1983 after I graduated, I moved to Hollywood and met Dave Mustaine. We started Megadeth. The early foundation of music education made me the musician that I am today.
In any school setting when there's cutbacks, we all know often the music and the arts programs are the first to suffer. With my youth foundation we were part of the Grammy Music Education Coalition, and they've been a fantastic partner for us to help spread the word. They do a lot of inner city music school programs. So between what they're doing with inner city and what we're doing in the rural outlying areas, we've really covered the whole gamut here.
Proceeds from your new single "Simple Truth" are benefiting the Italian Red Cross. What example about unity and the power of music do you hope to set by acting globally?
We wrote the song in early November of 2019. I was doing a two week tour across Italy and Switzerland and on the very first day of rehearsal, my business partner and singer in my band, Tom Hazer, said, "Let's write a song today when we get to rehearsal." And we did — I literally picked up my bass and came up with that bass lick, which kind of has this Dead Kennedys punk rock thing about it. The song just wrote itself in an hour and then we recorded it. We were going to push it out in April anyway because we were going to go to Japan and Australia with my former Megadeath cohort, Chris Poland. Of course, now that's pushed back into early 2021, but we had the song ready to go.
Ellefson, "Simple Truth"
We had just launched this initiative called "School's Out," which was designed to give free music lessons to students initially across the U.S. and now all across the world for students who are in a stay at home quarantine policy and not able to go to school.
I leaned on a bunch of my rocker buddies, Megadeath members (current and former), Bumblefoot, Nita Strauss... then a whole bunch of others to ask them if they would donate a little bit of their time to give some free lessons.
We then started a webinar as a fundraiser, which we did in April. One thing we realized is a lot of people in our business are unemployed — a lot of our musician friends have tours and recording dates that have either been postponed or canceled now. So, through this school initiative, we're able to employ musicians to be teachers now.
Releasing the song "Simple Truth"... the Ellefson solo band is mostly from Italy — our guitar player and our drummer in particular, so it really hit home for us. We have people that are very close to us who are severely impacted with the quarantine. We were just there [in Italy] with Megadeath and Five Finger Death Punch and Bad Wolves back in February. It really hit home, so we decided to donate all the proceeds to the Italian Red Cross to their COVID-19 relief fund because they were really one of the first ones who took one of the biggest hits.
Quite honestly, they gave us a fair warning here in the United States. They said, "Please take this seriously."
David you've been very active on your own with solo performances and your EMP record label. How do outside ventures ultimately increase your focus when switching to Megadeth mode.
The music business has always been very entrepreneurial. There came this point in time where a few years ago, just out of necessity, I created the label group. I wanted it to be a label group so it could be broad enough to encompass all musical styles.
Then we launched Combat Records, which of course we keep very focused on thrash and punk kind of music. The Ellefson Coffee Co. is just out of a passion — I like a good cup of coffee. Creatively and musically speaking, I'm stepping out and cutting records with other guys and doing some songwriting with other people — I'm always writing.
One of the things that we found with Megadeth years ago is that Megadeth has needs to have a very singular focus to it. We can't put everything that we all write inside of Megadeth. It's not going to sound like Megadeath. It needs to have a very clear purpose.
Rather than be frustrated by that, I find it when I write, some things are absolutely something I should take over to Megadeth first. Other times I'll write things and go, "Yeah, there's no way I would bring that to Megadeth — it just doesn't make sense over there."
What that's done for me over the years is it's helped me take music and be able to kind of partition it over into places where it can find its proper home. If you're a creative person, you need your stuff to see the light of the light of day. I'm recording, it's turned into releases that can be heard by the public and performed around the world — that is an important part of who we are as creative people and as live performers,
Megadeth are set to begin recording a new album. What stands out most to you about the new songs that you're about to record?
Dystopia really reset the band. We really found the sweet spot, the center of the band again and a lot of that was helped by Chris Adler from Lamb of God who played drums on that record. We had a new guitar player with Kiko Loureiro in the band and they really helped bring a different perspective.
That thought pattern is now continued forward with this new record with Kiko and now with our new drummer Dirk Verbeuren. We have a little bit of a younger perspective maybe from them growing up as Megadeth fans at one point in their lives. But I also think the biggest thing on album 16 now for Megadeth is we're very critical of ourselves to not ever repeat ourselves — to not repeat the lyrics, not repeat the same theme, not repeat the same riffs or note patterns.
That's actually one of the bigger challenges to just to not go to the comfort zone of repeating yourself. That certainly has been a challenge that I think we've certainly successfully met.
It's an intense record. There's a sense of fun about some of the songs too, in a way that some of the stuff that I think you probably would hear back in maybe Countdown to Extinction — records that were very obviously serious and have the impact that you would expect from a Megadeth lyric theme. There's some cool, fun stuff that came from the spirit of the four of us being in the room putting this record together,
There's a lifelong relationship between you and Dave Mustaine. How has your appreciation of that relationship deepened following his cancer diagnosis?
When we got together in Helsinki, Finland, which was the very first date of the Five Finger Death Punch and Megadeth tour, and it was just the two of us, as Bad Wolves were going to join us in the next show over in Stockholm. So we had that first show to get settled and kind of get into our groove.
I think it was at the very first VIP meet and greet that we did — we changed those up now where we still do the handshake and the photograph and everything, but we do a Q&A, between our fans and the band.
Sitting next to Dave and really feeling his energy as a man who came back from beating cancer... there was a little bit of uncertainty because we had not yet taken the stage but we'd rehearsed. We were prepared for the tour, but it was our first night to really take the stage again... Dave is now a cancer survivor and the four of us back on that stage again — that was a very victorious night.
Megadeth, "Sweating Bullets" — Live in Helsinki, Finland (2020)
To sit with Dave in that meet and greet and hear him tell the fans about his journey and the frailty and just the humanity that came with that, it really had a huge impact on me. I think we took that to the stage that night.
There was a moment when Dave was telling the story about his cancer journey — it was silence and you could hear a pin drop in an arena of 10,000 people. It was really a bone chilling moment. That really brought a strength back to us within Megadeth to get moving forward now in 2020.
Despite the pandemic and things that are upon us now, it brought a sense of connectivity back to us, which we're really focusing into this new record right now.
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