Megadeth’s David Ellefson has seen it all. As one of the cornerstone bassists of the thrash movement he helped to create a style of playing that simply didn’t exist before. And he’s forever willing to share what he’s learned with the world, through his books, bass clinics and now spoken word. He’ll be hitting Australia in March for a spoken word tour billed as My Life With Deth – also the name of his latest book – and I caught up with him recently to talk about all things Ellefson.
So what can we expect from your Aussie tour?
Y’know, spoken word is a cool thing because it’s such a broad concept. You can tell stories,you can tell jokes, you can talk about music, you can talk about almost anything. But I think for me, being one of the long-time ambassadors of Megadeth, the story will hook on a couple of things. One, most certainly, Megadeth stuff. And also because I wrote my autobiography My Life With Deth, I think that provides a pretty cool opportunity to unfold a bigger-picture story of my own life as a bass player, as a man who has grown up with our fans over the years. I think one of the things we find with Megadeth is we are like our fans and our fans are like us. And that’s the beauty of metal and especially thrash metal: the only difference between us and the audience was we were on the stage and they were in the audience. Other than that we think the same, we live the same, and my aim with the spoken word is that it isn’t just me doing all the talking, it’s that we also have a really cool period of Q&A. Especially when I do my bass clinics there’s a large portion of that. I love the times when I get to listen to the audience speak. That makes it engaging, and I love to be interactive with the audience and have them be part of the process. Especially in light of all the things that have been going on in this last year! [Laughs] The timing of the tour is maybe a little bit… I dunno, I may live to regret it, I dunno! [Laughs]. But it’s pretty cool. I’m the one guy, always has been in Megadeth, who Dave always calls the ambassador. It’s really interesting timing to hang with our people in Australia.
With the current state of Megadeth I was like ‘I’m sure there’s nothing I can ask that will get an answer at this stage!’
[Laughs] Yeah, pretty much. Maybe in March I’ll be able to answer it. Haha.
Let’s talk bass! That five-string blue Jackson Kelly Bird signature model is haunting my dreams at the moment.
Hahaha. I tell ya what man… it is a fricken awesome bass, man. And even if it didn’t have my name on it, I’m so proud of that thing, and I’m certainly proud that I created it with Jackson and it’s something that I came up with, but more importantly man, it’s awesome! It is a great bass. It plays good, it hangs good, it feels good, it sounds good, and I can’t say enough about it. I like the four-string, I love the five-string.
You developed a distinctive bass style at a time when no-one quite knew how to be a metal bass player, especially in terms of thrash. How did you pull that all together?
Well y’know, for me, I grew up on a farm in a very rural part of the United States, in Minnesota. The music bug came on me, it lit me up, I felt alive and like I had a purpose, so I looked for every opportunity and every person I could play with. I would play with the church acoustic guitar player, I’d play with the third-grade band teacher. I was 12 and getting asked to join bands with guys who were 16 years old and knew every Lynyrd Skynyrd song. I would play with anybody and everybody. Then there came a time when I was in my mid-teen years where I was playing in a jazz band in high school and listening to Jaco Pastorius, Weather Report, Spyro Gyra, Al DiMeola. Anything I could get my hands on to play. Largely I went well out of the school of rock and roll to develop my skills. And so by the time I was 18 and I graduated high school and moved to California and met Dave, certainly by this time Iron Maiden had come out, and Steve Harris had really opened my eyes to what a bass player could do. I knew of bass players who were singers and songwriters like Geddy Lee and Gene Simmons, but for Steve to be the bass player and a songwriter but not a singer was very intriguing to me. And I liked it because I was never a good lead singer. I sang backups in a few bands. I sang lead a little as a kid but I never had a good lead vocal voice. But I’m the Michael Anthony, a good back-up singer guy, y’know? Like the harmony in “Peace Sells,” that was me going for that. I jumped on what I call the Michael Anthony harmony. The high third and fifth. And that’s just where I go when I’m singing harmonies usually. So when I met Dave Mustaine, it’s funny because the Metallica stuff he was playing was always pretty complex but it was simpler, and Megadeth, especially that first year in ’83, we lived in Hollywood right by the Musicians Institute. And we were very influenced by this school and the students that were there. There was one guy we’d jam with, this guy Ed who would come over every day after school, and he was really big into Uli, and me and Dave loved the early Scorpions stuff, and Dave was a big fan of Uli’s guitar playing and Michael Schenker, and it really developed how progressive Megadeth’s early music was. And we took it to a whole other level of complexity. So all those years of growing up playing all these different types of music, playing in the jazz band and stuff, all those experiences were able to be brought together and harnessed basically to a blank canvas called Megadeth where we created this sound and style. And certainly with Chris Poland and Gar Samuelson in the band, they were hardcore jazz fusion guys so that escalated my playing to another level. When people ask me what they should do as a musician is they should play with as many musicians as they can.
So you’re playing the Metal Allegiance gig at NAMM, and the Randy Rhoads show.
I am, yeah! Metal Allegiance is Wednesday night, the night before NAMM kicks off. And the Randy Rhoads show, it’s so funny: I was at the Warwick bass camp in September over in Germany and I met Phil X, who now plays with Bon Jovi, so me and him and Stevie Salas got up and jammed a tune and then a couple months later Phil must have recommended me to Brian Tische to play on an Ozzy track for the Randy Rhoads thing. So I played on “Steal Away The Night” on the record. I love Brian’s trumming and I was excited to do it for free, I didn’t care. And Phil’s such a cool guy and a great player. And that’s the other side of being a musician: just say yes, get in the room and do it! That’s why I went to Germany, and then because I was there I met a guy who put me on a record and now I’m going to be playing at NAMM. So the threads and the connections: just say yes, get up on stage, grab your guitar and go jam. You never know what’s going to come out of that experience. It’s gonna be a fun time this year at NAMM. I always have a great time.
DAVID ELLEFSON MY LIFE WITH DEATH AUSTRALIAN TOUR
Tour Dates – March 2015
Tuesday 24th PERTH Civic Hotel
Thursday 26th SYDNEY Factory Theatre
Friday 27th MELBOURNE Prince Bandroom
Saturday 28th BRISBANE The Hi Fi
Sunday 29th ADELAIDE The Gov
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