Megadeth's Dave Ellefson: "All The Best Things In My Life Were Not My Idea"
Since 1983, metal band Megadeth has sold more than 20 million albums, and earned eleven Grammy nominations. The band has built an enduring fanbase around their intelligent take on heavy metal, lyrical themes like religion, politics, and addiction, and densely driven grooves. Most recently the band toured the world with the other three of the Big Four: Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer. They're also in the midst of planning their 15th studio album, and are releasing a live DVD/CD Countdown to Extinction: Live.
Megadeth has had quite the tumultuous ride over the years, dealing with rotating band members and one solid break up, but since 2004 the band has not only toured but continually produced new material. Bassist and founder Dave Ellefson has been a part of the rollercoaster ride from day one.
And more than 20 years ago, he decided to lay off the drugs and alcohol and reintroduced himself to a different kind of reliance--now he's seen as a type of de facto rock and roll chaplain. Within the past 10 years, Ellefson started a contemporary music worship service, MEGA Life!, at Shepherd of the Desert Lutheran Church in Scottsdale, Arizona (think Old Testament lyrics against melodic rock.) He's also trained to become a pastor, and written Making Music Your Business and two metal bass guitar instructional DVDs.
It's ironic, coming from a band with a name that is defined as an annihilation of power. When Ellefson and I talked a few years back, and he talked about how mistrusting they were of religion, which was why they got into rock and roll to begin with.
Ellefson's memoir, My Life With Deth, comes out October 29 and tells the whole behind-the-scenes story of the band and his personal path from suffering to salvation. The book chronicles Ellefson's Lutheran upbringing as a Minnesota farm boy, his culture shock after arrive in L.A. and meeting Dave Mustaine, and his fall into addiction during the band's early years. It then goes on to detail his recovery and return to faith, which championed the band's rise to fame over the past several decades. Written by bestselling author Joel McIver, whose written 21 books on rock music, and features a foreword by Alice Cooper, and contributions from Kerry King, Scott Ian, Chris Poland and more.
Up On The Sun talked with Ellefson about Megadeth's new DVD, work on an upcoming album, and his new memoir, My Life With Deth.
Ellefson: Hey! We're in Costa Rica, we're headed to Mexico City to do the last show with Black Sabbath on the Latin America Tour. It's a relaxed morning for me.
How's the show with Sabbath? Oh, awesome! It's awesome down here anyways. Latin America is one of our best territories in the world. Metal's huge, and everyone's excited for Black Sabbath.
I saw them here in Phoenix. It would've been great to see you guys on stage there too. Everyone said that show was great.
So let's start off with a bit about the band's new CD/DVD, Countdown to Extinction: Live. It seems like a lot of bands are putting out DVDs lately. These whole themed touring concept for Megadeth came about when we did the Rust In Peace anniversary back in 2010. It was big and exciting because I had just come back to the band. It was the 20th anniversary, and we went into some Big 4 shows with Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax. It was really just a culmination of some big, big stuff. Not just for us, but for the thrash metal genre.
So we started to look at it and saw that there were a lot of fan-favorite records hitting the 20th and 25th anniversary marks for the next couple years. And Countdown to Extinction was our biggest selling record--2 to 1, really, against any of the others--mostly because of MTV, and it was a real sweet spot when our genre had come of age in the mainstream back in the early '90s.
We thought that was definitely an album worth celebrating with our fans. So we went to Latin America, Asia, and then to North America with that tour and we captured it live for the DVD and CD. The second to last show we did in December of 2012 at the theater in Pomono, California. It's great because we get to relive the memory and fans get to relive the memories, and also there's a lot of younger fans getting into metal and Megadeth that didn't get to have that experience first time around.
Is there a part of the DVD that you're excited for fans to see? Cool camera angles or interviews? Yeah there's some backstage footage and some stuff we did at soundcheck . And that stuff is always fun to see. Over the past few years, I myself have broken out my own personal video camera and shot stuff all over the world. I think all of us start out as fans, and I think for me it helps me remain a fan, and keep that connection.
As big as the band has gotten, I think in heavy metal especially the worst thing you can do is lose that connection with your fan base. Doing the videos helps us retain that connection that we always had early in the days.
Most importantly, though, it was a great show. The video content that we have in it is a new element of the Megadeth live show now, and the songs of that album just wove in chronological order in such a magical way. It really was a magical album. Each song was really terrific, but the flow of the whole record top to bottom was one of those records where as soon as you hit spin on the CD you didn't want to hit stop until it was over. That was the magic we were able to capture on the live CD as well.
The connection between heavy metal and spirituality is a really apparent theme in your memoir. In one part, you mention that you were scared you wouldn't be able to play bass without heroin, because you love playing. You were getting fully sober while writing and recording Rust in Peace, which was a huge album for Megadeth. So at what point during that process did you feel your confidence coming back about playing sober? You know, there was a moment even in my last days of addiction... that's the cunning, baffling power of addiction; it leads you to believe that you can't do anything without the drugs and that lifestyle. There was this moment in late '89 or '90 when it hit me, and I was like, "Wait a minute, I've played the bass since I was 11 and didn't touch a drop of anything until I was 15, in terms of mind-altering chemicals." And I think that was my moment of clarity, because I realized that whole being-high-in-order-to-play was a lie. And that somehow gave me strength.
Like I said in the book, all the best things in my life were not my idea. Meaning they were divinely inspired. Even joining Megadeth, you know? That was my friend Greg's idea. And you know, the people around me and the inspiration that came to me--especially when getting sobered up in 1990 before we recorded Rust In Peace--it was a terrific transition, because we wrote that record in our absolutely darkest, most addictive days. But we were able to find sobriety while recording it, so we could execute the performances to 100 percent precision.
And I'm glad that the inspiration was part of that, because I would've certainly hated to miss that moment of my life, which laid out all the rest of the years up until this phone conversation today. But that, of course, is the nature of addiction. It's one of the most evil powers of this life; any addiction, that is. It's meant to corrupt, corrode, separate, compartmentalize, and eventually get you to this place where you're all alone, so it can kill you.
Even the title of my book, My Life with Deth, the one that came to me is Romans 6:23, which is, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ." That scripture, along with, of course, my life with Deth and Megadeth and the worship service MEGA Life!; they are all a theme that threads together the entire book.
"All the best things weren't my idea"--I like that. And this idea that if someone asks you to do something for them you should say yes, because they didn't ask you to hear you say no. [Laughs] It's true! You know, I love that Jim Carrey movie Yes Man. That's the perfect example of it. Even though it isn't a movie about God, God is in that movie. It's g.o.d., good orderly direction.
Even in that film, Jim Carrey's like "No, no, I don't want to go," and your life gets smaller and smaller, and it's like addiction. You get pulled back out of life into the point where you're all alone. And you know, we are meant to be a community as people, as humans. We're meant to help and serve each other to be a community together. I think those are the things I've learned in my walk and my journey of recovery.
Also in my seminary studies, and studying the story of creation--these were big daunting tasks, because I'd never looked at them before. I had never understood the big picture or overarching theme of the fall of man, redemption, and consummation. It's a lot of pretty heavy stuff, and it explains a lot of otherwise unexplainable things in our lives.
Those wouldn't have happened if I hadn't gotten sober. It's also interesting that there are addicts and alcoholics that are able to find sobriety, and we get this second life in the same lifetime. These talents lying dormant suddenly come to fruition in a life of sobriety and that's the empowering story of being sober.
It's like me thinking I couldn't play bass without heroin--and little did I know that second chance was a whole new beginning of interests and talents. And that's what I hope this book is, a testimony to some people maybe going through that.
What part of the book was the hardest, or more enjoyable than you thought it would be, to write? What I enjoyed was telling the stories of my childhood--because I had a great childhood, a great family, a very strong work ethic on the farm. There was no tolerance... but then, again quite honestly, there wasn't a lot of tolerance for anything that happens naturally in showbiz either.
I come from a life that is so not that, and when I got to L.A. that's all it was. My dad was a real straight shooter, and I just came from a great community, friends and family. So that was the fun part. The uncomfortable part was at some point I had to address the time I was away from Megadeth, and the split that happened. I didn't want to get into details, because that's behind us now, and we had addressed it--so I certainly didn't want to stir that up. At some point you have to let bygones be bygones, so you can move forward, which is what we've done the past four years in Megadeth.
Even that part of the story--you know, a lot of friends of mine in bands aren't able to put things behind them and come back together. It's sad and it's a shame. Some bands have made amazing music, but then addictions, pride, money--all those things put on Earth to destroy humans' primary purpose--and everything else sabotaged the bands. And for whatever reason there doesn't seem to be reconciliation on the horizon.
And I'm glad that with Megadeth we were able to have reconciliation. Because the story has a really cool ending now.
Mustaine has said in the press that the death of Jeff Hanneman gave him a sense of mortality, so Megadeth is already working on a 15th album. Do you feel that same way? Um, you know, I.... Obviously when anyone passes, of course it gives grief and sadness, especially when it's someone who was close to us, like a brother in our genre. We spent a lot of time on the road with Jeff.
So... yeah; it is a wake-up call. It makes you reflect on how you're living your life here, and it makes you want to make sure your ducks are in a row. But I think in my days since my addictions, those are elements that are naturally brought up to the surface through what I call g.o.d.--good orderly direction. And I think that's part of the goal of keeping my house in order.
It's a struggle; I'm not gonna lie to you. We're all human, and we all have things that tug at us and pull at us and try to lead us away and apart. And I think that's the story of faith and spirituality for all of us, addicts or not. That's the story of mankind here on planet Earth. So to realize that we're all only here for a short time, it makes you think, "What am I doing with the gifts, talents and resources that I've been entrusted with? Am I doing good things with them, or am I leading people down a road of temptation and destruction?
I try to have a good answer to that on a regular basis.
So are there ideas being thrown around, and music being written? Oh yeah, for sure, for sure. We no sooner get a record done and get on tour than pretty soon we start throwing ideas back and forth.
We're not a band that goes on the road never creates anything new, and then we have to take a six-month period to get together and write new songs. For us, creating new material is always in motion. We're still right square in the middle of the Super World Collider tour, so we're not anywhere near formulating concepts, directions, graphics, titles... that's definitely sometime in the future. But as far as creating some new riffs and lyrics, maybe starting to compose songs, you know; that process has definitely started.
So last time we talked, a couple years ago, you were studying to become a pastor. I remember you were worried about staying up on the studies with the touring. How was that process? I'm currently enrolled, however I've been on a leave of absence. I did a year of it, which quite honestly I'm impressed with. Doing a year of seminary studies by touring the world in a heavy metal rock band... [laughs]
The main challenges were the timezones. Logging on for a live web chat at 2am in Turkey, then trying to wake up at 6am in Thailand for a class... they were all mandatory. And there were, and are, strict guidelines for attending the ground campus back in St. Louis, and I just wasn't able to attend because of our touring schedule.
So those things have sidelined my studies. It's not for lack of wanting to be there; it's a legitimate scheduling conflict. But even if I only got a year of seminary studies, it was a remarkable experience. And if it's something I can resume at a later point in time I'm definitely keeping the door open on that.
But leading the MEGA Life Worship services that I helped start, it's so great. When I do that from time to time, it's quite honestly one of the most rewarding musical performances I've ever done. And what it's helped me do is take that same spirit on stage with Megadeth, and realize that every stage is a pulpit and every audience is a congregation.
You can go into the setting expecting them to worship you, or you can go into it allowing yourself to service them and God. And the latter is always more rewarding.
Short of the natural process of practice makes perfect, how do you feel your bass playing has evolved in the past 15 years? What techniques that you used specifically do you think has changed Megadeth's sound? When we started Megadeth I brought in everything I had learned from playing in rock and roll bands. I spent some time in jazz bands and studying jazz, just because there was a lot of great bass players there.
So I brought all of that to the table when developing Megadeth's sound. And then the years I was away from the group, from 2002 to 2010, those years were very productive for me, because I did a lot of songwriting and session work. I worked with a lot of younger musicians who were tuning their guitars in different tunings and different genres; I got involved with those people, and that really opened my ears to unlocking some other things that I hadn't really been exposed to. Now, at the last couple Megadeth records we've made, I think my skills are much sharper.
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