An Interview with David Ellefson

All images courtesy of O’Donnell Media Group


By Andrew Daly
andrew@vinylwriter.com

Free from all restrictions and with a steadfast refusal to be pigeonholed, David Ellefson’s journey to the musical summit is ever ongoing.

Having spent nearly 40 years honing his craft as one of thrash metal’s premier players, Ellefson’s most recent output is a threefold monster: one part death metal, one part power metal, and one part nostalgia.

DIETH serves as Ellefson’s foray into death metal, which, if you think about it, isn’t so far off from his days as a thrash mainstay. And while the newly minted trio hasn’t unleashed its full-length debut unto the world just yet, early single “In the Hall of the Hanging Serpents” indeed serves as a harbinger of what’s to come.

For Ellefson, the musical world is an ocean, and who are we to stop him from diving as deeply as his lungs will allow him?

“I don’t want to be stuck in the golden handcuffs of past creativity,” mentioned Ellefson. “I want to be able to be free and liberated to get in the room and say, ‘Yes.’ I always want to be able to try new things with new people.”

Teamed with veteran vocalist Jeff Scott Soto, in Ellefson’s opinion, he’s made some of the finest music of his career yet. In the eyes of the thunderous four-stringer, Vacation in the Underworld is poised to stand chest to chest with anything the metal luminary has laid claim to yet.

“I honestly believe that this record is one of the best that I’ve been involved with,” quipped Ellefson. “To me, ‘Vacation in the Underworld’ stands up against anything that’s out there and anything that I’ve ever done. I just love it. I’m just a fan of it. I can’t wait for the fans to hear it.”

Adventurous as Ellefson may be, he hasn’t forgotten his roots, and Kings of Thrash scratches that itch. With old bandmates Chris Poland and Jeff Young, Ellefson is revisiting classic Megadeth records Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good! (1985) and So Far, So Good… So What! (1988), playing them in their entirety.

“It’s interesting that those two records were the ones we chose because they’re the two bastard children of the Megadeth catalog in a lot of ways,” said Ellefson. “I say that because they were transitional records. I guess, in a weird way, I think for the fans, those are two records that have become like these cult classics in the catalog. I’ve been listening to what fans have been asking for and the songs they’ve been wanting to hear, and I was just like, ‘Now is the time. These records have to finally get performed live and bring all these diamonds in the rough back onto the stage again.’

As his musical plates continue to spin, David Ellefson dialed from his home in Arizona to peel back the onion on his latest project DIETH, working with Jeff Scott Soto, and offered his thoughts on the legacy of two classic records that he helped architect.

Andrew:
Walk me through the formation of DIETH.

David:
I was introduced to Guilherme [Miranda] by my friend Opus [Lawrence], who plays drums in Dead by Wednesday as he had been on Combat Records, and we’d become friends. Opus introduced me, and Guilherme sent me a song and asked me to play bass on it. I had not met Guilherme before or Michał [Łysejkowas], who played drums on it, but, you know, it taught me a little bit of their history, which I thought was great.

Guilherme was just hitting the reset after the singer Lars [Göran Petrov] from Entombed had passed away from cancer. Michał was no longer in Decapitated, and of course, at that point, I’d moved on from Megadeth, and I felt it was this cool moment where the three of us were all having a reset in our lives. And I, of course, always have many things in the pipeline and am always working on a lot of stuff, but it just seemed like a cool moment. And I have to say; the song was fantastic, and that first song was “In the Hall of the Hanging Serpents.”

So, I was in Europe this past April, and I called Guilherme and said, “Hey, I’ll come over to Poland; why don’t we shoot a music video and move this thing on up the road to the next mile marker,” and that’s exactly what we did. We did that, and then in July, we were anxious to scratch the itch, so we just dropped it out there on my Facebook, and it got some pretty good viral traction. So now, we’re getting ready to get the thing released, and that will probably happen next year. It’s fun when these things work, and I would definitely consider DIETH to be a success story, for sure.

Andrew:
How does your approach change with DIETH compared to something like The Lucid?

David:
I like it because, look, I like to think I’m a very musical guy. If you go back, I don’t just play bass, I play piano, guitar, drums, programmed drums, and I even played saxophone growing up. I played a lot of different kinds of music; I consider myself to be a musician, not just a heavy metal bassist, you know? I can appreciate music of all different types of genres, and so I’ve played on a lot of different records. I mean, I’ve done session work for a ton of stuff; you’ll probably never know it was me, and probably some of it you’ll never hear, but I’ve done a lot of different things. But as a result, when I come into a record, I listen to it for what it is, and I try to be a part of what that is, not try to expect it all to come over to me and go well, “It must sound like a David Ellefson record.”

So, with DIETH, the tuning is in C. Now, I’ll take a five-string bass and tune it up a half step so that it goes from a low B and now that becomes a C. I do that rather than dropping the bass down because when you start dropping the bass, the strings get wonky, and amplifiers in the speakers freak out. So, I found that it’s kind of cool to take a five-string bass and actually raise it a half step, and when I do that, the strings get really tight, they’re really in place, and the entire rig responds better. I think from a performance point of view; I appreciate how heavy it is.

And it’s funny because Guilherme, he’s always writing, and we compose some stuff together, and that’s different too. He composes some of the stuff and then brings it over to us, and the truth of it is that he puts his fingers in very different places on the fingerboard than I normally would. Guilherme is very different from other guitar players and songwriters that I’ve worked with, so for me, it’s a challenge that I love to accept. It’s all in the way he creates these riffs, and one of the things I love about what we’re doing together is how heavy it is. But even as heavy as it is, these riffs have a lot of charisma to them, and they also leave space for him to be able to put a vocal over it that you can really remember, even if you’re not a fan of death metal. I think the DIETH has a very hooky, memorable component to it, and to me, the whole purpose of music is that you remember it.

All images courtesy of O’Donnell Media Group

Andrew:
I would agree. One of the things I noticed about “In the Hall of the Hanging Serpents” is how melodic and catchy the riff is, which is not always the case with death metal.

David:
Yeah, sometimes it seems like the whole point of death metal is, “Let’s be as rebellious, dark, heavy, and nonmainstream as we can possibly be.” And if that’s the intent of it, that’s fine for those people, but that’s not okay for me. I can’t do it. As someone who spent many years refining my craft and my skills, I can’t just dumb it down and turn it off. I’m going to take that same attitude into everything that I do. I think that’s why Guilherme, Michał, and myself are so well matched because those guys are both incredible instrumentalists, writers, and performers.

It’s funny because I didn’t even really get to appreciate that until we were shooting the video, and I actually watched Michał play; I’m like, “Okay, that guy knows how to hit a drum.” Sure I could tell by the recording he performed great, but to watch a guy play, how he hits the drums, and sometimes even the facial expression, that was something. The body language of how Michał moves around the kit, I was impressed. I was like, “Man, I am fucking stoked to be in a band with this guy.” Especially as a bass player, a great drummer makes all of us sound better.

Andrew:
DIETH is undoubtedly different than what you’re known for. To that end, why is it important to you to continuously
challenge yourself?

David:
I think that is always the path forward. In jazz, there’s a saying, “You’re only as good as your last gig.” So, I go into everything with that mindset. It’s not always about how many records you’ve sold or how many people you perform to because success isn’t always measured in the numbers. Success is often and, in my opinion, best measured by your own personal satisfaction with how good the gig was to you and how it made the people in the room feel. We’ve all played gigs where the place was packed; we’ve all played gigs where there were maybe not so many people there. And as a concertgoer myself, if I’m one of only 300 people in a venue that holds 3000 people, I don’t give a shit that the other 2700 people aren’t there. I paid my money, and I want the best show that I paid for. But as performers, we often can lose sight of that because we look at it like, “Oh my God, no one’s here. We must not be worth anything.” And that’s a mindset that I’ve really tried not to buy into during my years as a live performer because, for those 300 people that showed up, this show means everything to them. You’ve got to give it your all as you would if the place was packed.

And so, that same thing happens when you’re creating something new because there are no people in the room yet. And with DIETH, it’s just the three of us creating the music, and it’s sort of like; if it rocks our world, and we feel good about it, then really, that is the only thing that matters. If we don’t believe in it, how is anyone else gonna get behind it? And that’s what happened with this first song, Guilherme, he sent back the mix, and he said, “Brothers, the song is really good. I’m really excited. I feel inspired. I feel like we’ve got something really cool here. I suggest we try making some more songs.” And we all just said, “Absolutely. Let’s keep going.” So, that’s really where we are now; completing a full-length record.

Andrew:
How would you define this particular chapter in your musical life?

David:
I gotta say, I’m around some of the most supportive, collaborative, all-inclusive, and creative people in everything that I’m doing right now, then any time ever before in my life. And again, the stuff you’re hearing from me are things – at least with some of them – that I started a couple of years ago, like The Lucid. So, with The Lucid, our introduction to that started back in 2020, and during COVID, we just kept working on it behind the scenes. The Ellefson/Soto record – which has just been announced – we actually started working on that in 2021. And obviously, DIETH is a 2022 record. The way I see my role is always to be creating new material and being in the collaborative and creative process. As for the minutia of how and when it gets released, well, that’s kind of beyond my scope sometimes.

I like doing things that I haven’t done before because people know me as a thrash metal guy; I probably will always be a thrash metal guy to some degree, but that’s not all that I do. I don’t feel like I have to stay only in that box. I’ve got DIETH which is death metal, Ellefson/Soto, that’s power metal; and The Lucid, I don’t know what that is. [Laughs]. People call it alt-rock; I don’t even know what the hell it is. It’s just like feel-good music to me. And then, with the Kings of Thrash stuff that I’m doing, that’s my thrash metal space, you know what I mean? I’m going back and revisiting some stuff of my past with my friends who were part of that journey with me back in that day. And even that is new and fresh to me now because of the approach we’re taking to it, who’s involved, and just the celebratory spirit around it. So, all of that is making the past sound new again.

All images courtesy of O’Donnell Media Group

Andrew:
With all of that being said, would you consider yourself creatively restless?

David:
Yeah, I think that’s probably a good assessment. I think when someone expects you to just do just one thing all the time, that’s on them. You don’t have to do that, and that’s not on you; that’s on them. And I would say that I’ve been pretty well received by my fans to do different things. Even when I did F5 back in the 2000s, which didn’t really start off as a nu-metal record, but after it was produced, one of the singles kind of had a bit of a nu-metal vibe to it, and we ran with it. But at the time, that was really an interesting development that happened while we were in the studio recording the record because we thought the record had a big, loud, rowdy rock feel to it. We thought it was definitely a bit more of a metal record than a nu-metal record, but it evolved. It’s interesting when you go through the process with certain people producing and creating things because they can take a different vibe. With those F5 records, I go back and listen to them, and I just love them. They just make me feel really good, and they bring back great memories of that point in time in my life.

Andrew:
Describe your working relationship with Jeff Scott Soto on Vacation in the Underworld.

David:
Jeff was an easy call for me. First of all, we know each other, we like each other, and, man, Jeff is such a professional. So, the first thing I worked with him on was a song called “Writing On The Wall” that I had written. I literally wrote this whole song in like an hour. I wrote a great bassline, and then I wrote the lyrics. The whole thing came to me very quickly, but as I tracked the thing and I was trying to find a vocal, it just wasn’t fully clicking. I even brought it over to Frank Bello as a contender for Altitudes & Attitude, and Frank was like, “Dude, you have to sing this one.” So, I tried to sing it, and I got a good demo of it, but it was not where I wanted it to be if it was going to work with Altitudes & Attitude.

Now, fast forward, I’d been keeping this song in my back pocket, just trying to find it a home, and then one day, I was like, “I’m just going to call Jeff and just have him sing on it.” So, I sent it over to Jeff, and I flipped him a couple of bucks to do it, and he just did it for me as a sideman. He probably would have done it for free, but I offered him the money because I didn’t want to take advantage of anybody’s services. So, anyway, Jeff did it, and he was fast, man. He literally flipped it back to me in an hour with all the harmonies, and I went, “Holy shit, man. This is amazing. Like, this is exactly what I wanted it to sound like.” We both had a good laugh, and Jeff said, “Great, man. Let me know if you want to do some more.” So, that’s what set the train in motion.

So, Andy Martongelli, who’s my guitar player in my solo band, he and I were writing a bunch of stuff and were looking at each other, thinking, “What’s the next step here?” And one day, Andy goes, “Just call Jeff, man. He’s your friend. He’s a great singer. And sings great to the stuff you write.” And so I did. I started sending Jeff stuff, and a couple more songs quickly came from that, and they were just great. Well, after that, Jeff goes, “You know, dude, I don’t want to just be like the sideman singer here. This is working really well. You’re sending me stuff; some of it you have a very clear vision for. But with other things, you’re given me liberties to write and create. This is going so well that I’d rather us just work together as a team.” I said, “Man, let’s do it. That’s all the better for me.” And when Jeff said that, I have to say, it really opened up the world of possibilities to create the record that we did. And in my opinion, Vacation in the Underworld is one of my favorite records that I’ve ever done.

Andrew:
What is it about this record specifically that makes it one of your favorites?

David:
Just because of how wide it is. It doesn’t have any limits on it. I mean, there’s “Out of the Blue,” which is a full-blown piano ballad. That song, that’s my “Beth,” if you will. If you’re a KISS fan, then you know what I mean. [Laughs]. That’s my “Beth,” and I am very proud of it. And with the title track, “Vacation in the Underworld,” actually, my friend, Steve Conley, who was with me in F5 and is now in Flotsam and Jetsam, brought that song to me. He brought the music in, and I was just like, “Man, this is special,” Jeff and I worked on the lyrics for it, and it turned out amazing.

I just wanted this record to be open and honest. Going into it, I was just like, “Man, I’m cool with all kinds of collaboration on this.” Even though it’s my and Jeff’s name on the door, I look at it like this: great records are a team effort. Take the classic records made by Tom Petty and Don Henley, for example, they always had all kinds of different writers and collaborations on them, and they made great songs. So, to me, it was just about having great songs and working with the people that we like to work with. That was more important than it just being every song written by David Ellefson and Jeff Scott Soto. I think as a result of that, we’ve got a really musically diverse record that I think fans are gonna really dig.

All images courtesy of O’Donnell Media Group

Andrew:
How did you reconnect with Chris Poland and Jeff Young in getting Kings of Trash off the ground?

David:
So, Chris and I have remained friends over the years. After he left Megadeth, he got sober and was actually an inspiration to me to get clean, which I did a year or so later in 1990. And so that changed our friendship, and we’ve remained good friends ever since. And I actually had invited Chris out when I was doing my solo tour when we played the Slidebar out in Anaheim. That was back in, I guess, 2019; I think we were doing the U.S. tour. So, we invited Chris out, we played “These Boots,” and it was just a ton of fun. It’s funny to look back, though, because Chris, he’s not really a heavy metal guitar player, and it was kind of a strange fit having him in Megadeth back in the day.

As a result, on Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good!, Chris set the parameter that that second guitar player in Megadeth was always one who is going to be very juxtaposed to Dave [Mustaine] and be very much outside of the traditional school of metal flavoring. That brought this whole new dynamic to Megadeth that other bands in our genre did not have, and ironically, that would subsequently allow that next door to open for Jeff Young to come in. And Jeff, he himself was a guitar player who was very juxtaposed to Dave and brought incredible musicality into the So Far, So Good… So What! record. Now, obviously, Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good! was our debut, but it was up against things like Kill’ Em All, early Anthrax records, Slayer, and everything else that was coming out around that time, but what we had in Megadeth, I think it was a very different sound from those other bands.

At the same time, there was a transition around that time for us as a band. Sure, we had some wind in our sails coming off of the Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? record, and there we were about to do our third record – second for Capitol Records – and we’re suddenly reconfiguring the band, bringing Jeff Young in, and having all these transitions. And you have to remember, transitions will always bring about a new sound and a new flavor, right? And Jeff Young, he definitely brought that. So, those two records, I think they both represent an interesting era in the band, and I think they both were meaningful in their own ways.

Andrew:
What meaning do these two records hold for you personally, David?

David:
They both have good memories around them, which is ironic to say because they were both the two heroin records for us. Back in those days, that’s when we were just totally punk rock if you know what I mean. We’ve talked about it; we’ve made it very clear; that those were the dark days of Megadeth. And yet, at the same time, there was something about it that was still working at that time. So, to go back and look at it – especially me and Chris – with the clarity of not being on drugs and being able to go back and face that music with clear heads and to dive deep into it, that’s meaningful.

To me, those records have some incredible musicality in them that I think fans have certainly picked up on and have been very in tune with. I think they are in tune with it, maybe even more so than we were as a band, which is interesting in and of itself, and that’s why they’re cult classics. Because sometimes, as musicians, you make the record, you go on the tour, you move on, and then you’re on to the next record. Life just keeps moving on, right? But, look, we’re coming up on 40 years of Megadeth next year, so for me to go back into the vaults and kind of look through the family photo album, that’s special.

Again, those two records hold this special place of good memories, fun, and more innocent times for us. The world was still full of wide-eyed wonder because we were so young and hadn’t done anything yet. I mean, when we made Killing Is My Business, we were at the base of the mountain. And by So far, So good, maybe we were a few hundred feet up the mountain, with a lot of the mountain still ahead of us. And I think once you’ve been to the top of the mountain, and now you know what that looks like, it’s fun to go back down to some of those lower altitudes and enjoy and reminisce on what that part of the journey really was.

Andrew:
Having recorded those records with Jeff and Chris under the circumstances that you did, how meaningful is it to now be able to take the stage with them with a clearer mind?

David:
Well, I think it’s wonderful because, look, if we were still living that life, it wouldn’t be so funny. But the fact that we’re not, and we’ve all moved on and done other things in our lives, it changes everything. I think to go back and revisit it now; it’s almost like going back to a family reunion. And you can have some hugs and some smiles and just remember the sweet spot of what that was. Just knowing what it was like back in those days, you know, that at that time, that’s who we were, and that’s where we were at that point in our lives, it’s special to be able to do that. We always had such great respect for each other as musicians and a lot of fondness, and I think that certainly remains and has maybe even gotten stronger over the years.

All images courtesy of O’Donnell Media Group

Andrew:
As you play them back now, is there anything about those records you would change, given a chance?

David:
You know, I don’t think so. I mean, look, Killing is My Business has been remixed and remastered twice, and that’s why we called it The Final Kill. [Laughs]. It’s like, “Okay, now we’re done. Like, we’re not doing that anymore. That’s it.” And the same goes for So far, So good. It’s interesting, though, as I was writing these little web diaries about these two records this last month, I was going back and remembering certain moments that happened as we made the records. I was thinking back on some of the people involved in them, the producers, their techniques, and how we recorded them. We always used the best technology afforded to us based on whatever our budget could afford at that time, and on So Far, So Good, we had Steve Jones on there as a guest. To have Steve Jones – a real Sex Pistol – playing on our record? Man, it may as well have been the Pope. [Laughs]. That was like, the highest level of rock royalty to come in and play on our record; that was amazing for us. And Steve and me, we’ve since remained friends, and he too was one of the cutting edge sober rocker guys who were getting clean back then. I remember he was doing these PSAs on MTV about clean living. In a lot of ways, Jonesy was a good inspiration to me to eventually get my shit together, get cleaned up, and really enjoy the God-given gift of being a musician.

Andrew:
When you look back on those two records, how do you quantify their significance in the history of the big four?

David:
Well, first of all, they were certainly a couple of the cornerstone building blocks for the house of Megadeth for sure. In terms of their place, well, Killing is My Business sat next to Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All. I guess So far, So good; that probably sat next to maybe Metallica’s …And Justice for All, and Among the Living by Anthrax. Slayer, I don’t even know what they were doing right around that time; I think it would have been South of Heaven or something, you know what I mean? So, the result is that you end up comparing all those albums to each other because those were where we were all still architecting and drafting what the final outcome of this all was gonna be. Because in the 90s, we all then turned the corner of where we’re heading into doing our more mainstream records and the MTV era of our bands. But back in the 80s, that was the early construction of the big four.

Andrew:
Last one. Earlier,
you mentioned that you’d been a part of some interesting sessions that nobody would believe or perhaps would never hear. So, what’s the most oddball session you’ve ever been a part of, David?

David:
Well, it’s funny, my friend Don Salter has a studio here in town called Salt Mine Studios, and he would call me up to go down and do things. That’s actually how I got in involved with Avian, which became kind of a cool power metal record. With that, I called Lance King in from Balance of Power to sing, and he actually ended up finishing the record as a producer. So, that was one that was interesting, but you know, there is actually another that’s even more interesting.

So, Buddy Holly’s widow, María Elena Holly, had this song, and she wanted some musicians to play on it, so I played on that with Marty Friedman. At the time, I think Marty still lived in Phoenix, so this was before he moved to Japan. The song was one of Buddy Holly’s very last songs that he wrote about the break-up of the band. It was called “That Makes it Tough,” and he had written it just before he left on the tour that was to be his last.

At first, we actually had recorded another song that was supposedly by Buddy and Nashville producer Scotty Turner called “September Hearts,” but when we asked Maria Elena if it was cool to release it, she had an issue with it and asked that we not release it, and instead she offered us “That Makes it Tough.” It was cool because Marty, of course, was a huge Buddy Holly fan. So, that one was interesting and definitely, one that sticks out above the rest.

All images courtesy of O’Donnell Media Group

Andrew Daly (@vwmusicrocks) is the Editor-in-Chief for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at andrew@vinylwriter.com

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