You gotta hand it to American thrash metalheads Megadeth. For as rocky as their successful road has been, the band has done great job at keeping things surprising. Just last week, guitarist/vocalist Dave Mustaine made headlines by announcing his endorsement of far-right presidential candidate Rick "Please Don't Google My Last Name" Santorum, then backing off, stating to our sister blog, Seattle Weekly's Reverb, that he wasn't necessarily voting for Santorum, though he does oppose gay marriage. "I'm a Christian," Mustaine clarified.
He's not the only guy repping Jesus in the band: Bassist and founder Dave Ellefson is studying to become a pastor. More than 20 years ago, Ellefson shrugged off some of the elements of the rock star lifestyle and reconnected with his faith. He ended up at Shepherd of the Desert Lutheran Church in Scottsdale, where he started a contemporary worship service -- think Old Testament lyrics -- used as a springboard for praise and worship songs soft rock songs. He also started MEGA Life, a music ministry at the church that helps those new to Christianity or those seeking a new church home a dynamic center for developing faith. And don't think the road keeps him from progressing. Though he's currently on the Gigantour, alongside Motörhead, Volbeat, and Lacuna Coil, Ellefson focuses on online studies at Concordia's Specific Ministry Pastor Program, where he takes such classes as "Preaching I & II" and "Scripture and Faith" from his tour bus.
We spoke with Ellefson about the role of heavy metal in religion (and the other way around), Mustaine's "hexing" past, and Alice Cooper as a role model. We didn't get to ask how he felt about the bullshit fact that the band has been nominated for a Grammy 10 times (including this year), and still hasn't brought a golden gramophone home. Maybe next time.
Up On The Sun: How has touring become more comfortable today than when you started in the '80s?
Dave Ellefson: Well, when you start you just get there however you can get there. There was no money, and one thing I've found about tour budgets, is no matter how it looks on paper you always come home spending more than you intended. Our first tours were basically strung together with eating beef stew and a couple hundred books. Now, it's nice to be the headliner and have our own great tour package like this.
Congrats on your MEGA Life organization in Scottsdale. It seems like a unique way to introduce the concept of faith and religion to your fan base. I was wondering if you see any musical collaborations or charity festivals (like Christmas Pudding) in your future with Alice Cooper, since you're both in the Valley and have the same directions with these Valley organizations?
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It's funny, you know, my pastor really urged me...it's usually the people on the outside of your realm that actually see an opportunity or a spark of a gift there. He's been a great mentor to me to help me develop that. I've been pretty active with various faith walks during the last couple of decades especially, helping people who are down on their luck and getting off drugs. Usually when you've been through those things yourself you have a real testimony and you can share your experience with people. And I think that goes a lot farther than just reading out of a textbook. You can take your darkest days and parlay those into good for other people. As far as a collaboration, MEGA Life is just one of many seeds that will be planted. I think in this modern day, especially in rock 'n' roll circles, people of my generation and my genre [have] got a way of mistrusting of the church. I think modern day music in church is cool. There's a whole different presentation of it and it's much more cultural relevant today than it ever has been. It doesn't have to be from the Reformation and it doesn't have to be something ancient. We can present it as 2012 faith. And that gets me excited.
In the past and nowadays, heavy metal gets a bad rap in religious circles. So for you being connected with heavy metal for years, has there ever been anything where you found a connection between heavy metal and God? How would you describe that to somebody?
You know it's funny, even in older songs, there was always kind of an almost religious overtone to [to the songs]. To the degree that sometimes when you are questioning something you write about it. That's the thing about music. It doesn't have to be boxed into anything and lyrically you can draw upon anything. I used to think the Bible was this goody two-shoes book where people did all these wonderful things. But now that I've read it a few times, I realize that these people are some of the worst in history. [Laughs] ...[The book features] some of the most heinous events against the Lord. And you read how he just continuously forgave. He was probably hitting himself in the forehead like, "Oh my God, what was I thinking with these humans? The dinosaurs were easier than this." For me, it is a great story and a narrative of how God gives us second chances. That to me is a cool thing. A lot of times when you write music and lyrics...Megadeth has written political things, social things, and personal things. When you dig deep into your soul and pull your own life into the lyrics, that kinda goes into the story of all human beings. The rise, the fall, the resurrection, the rebirth, and hopefully a second chance.
I read an old interview with Dave Mustaine where he said he put hexes on people in the past, and it has taken decades for him to get that satanic energy off of him. Do you have an opinion of that? Do you guys discuss you religion or do Bible studies?
Sure, absolutely. Dave has been real open about that, about early songs on records that he wrote that talked about those situations or referenced that. I mean, we don't even play those songs anymore because of that. I think they're great songs, but Dave is the one who has to sing them, and he doesn't' feel comfortable singing them. So I stand by my brother and...and, [help] him move on to new frontiers. But yeah, it's cool that -- the thing with rock bands -- [is that] you need to grow together and go together. It's cool that me and Dave have a lot of commonalities. Members of Megadeth, musicians, with wives and kids. You get to a certain point in your life - and I think this is true for our entire genre -- at some point you start looking around and thinking "Hmm, is this all there is to this life and this world?" You start to ask some questions. And I think that is just the black box put inside of everyone of us called our soul, hardwired in the factory when we're put on planet Earth, those questions. And it's cool that through music we can work through these things even though you don't have all the answers, a song can help raise questions sometimes for the listener.
What songs won't Megadeth play anymore? Can you name some of them?
Yeah, like "The Conjuring" and "Bad Omen."
So what do you hope to accomplish after completing your ministry studies at Concordia? Are you focusing on worship music or to start any ministry programs?
At this point I'm kinda of the de facto rock and roll chaplain. Every industry seems to have the chaplain, like the military. I think it's cool that I can have this opportunity to go right to the top rack and ask these questions. In fact, I encourage fans to send any questions they have to me, because I can take them to my superiors and ask them for us. I kinda feel like to some degree I've been blessed to be a representative for our entire genre, and people in my generation. You know, once we grew up and left the house at 18, you know, most of us never went to church again. We were very mistrusting of it, and the people, it was culturally irrelevant and did not speak our language. So we all got into rock 'n' roll, so we followed that. But if you look starting in the '80s, there's a whole movement from Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, to what we did in thrash metal, and a lot of the themes were us questioning this stuff.
So I think that pissed the church off. All the sudden they are like, "How dare these people question God, how blasphemous!" But guess what? We did question it. We don't question God, we question how man can take something like this and twist it and manipulate it and use it for such tyrannical control over people. Those were the questions we had. And that's why we didn't want anything to do with it. But now here we are in the middle of our lives and thinking, "Not all of this can be bad." You know, the inspired word of God in the Bible, there's a reason that book is the most read book on the face of the planet. So what is it about that? I think it's a really cool opportunity that I have right now to study that stuff to go look at it, see what it is....You know, Lutheran studies originated from Martin Luther, who was like the Steve Jobs of his day. The guy that taught everyone to think different. [Laughs]
I interviewed Alice Cooper, and he has a very similar mentality. It's great you guys can make such badass music, but be so spiritual at the same time.
Yeah you know, Alice Cooper, of course, is one of the great mentors in rock 'n' roll. He, like a lot of us, crashed and burned years ago. When things are going good you usually don't think about changing. But when they go bad, you think, "Now what are my options?" You can decide to lead by example. So what's great about it, is people will believe what you do more than what you say.
Speaking of great things being done, out of Megadeth's 13 albums which are you most proud of right now?
Well, I certainly like the last one [Note: The record was Ellefson's first with the band since 2001's The World Needs a Hero]. To me, TH1RT3ENrepresents a real coming back together, especially for me and Dave. You know, we've been long-time veterans of this band, business and way of life. It isn't an easy road. And like most bands of that caliber, you go through struggling points. It's nice Dave and I were able to walk together through that. TH1RT3EN represents a real coming full circle as a band and me and Dave. It resonates in the music. Music is a reflection of you; you shouldn't be a reflection of the music. Also, an album that represented a real sense of unity is Countdown to Extinction.
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Do you have one that is your least favorite?
You know, there were a couple records that were struggles for us. Our first record, Killing Is Our Business, was a struggle because we had a very small budget. We had big hopes and dreams but very little money and resources. We rose to the challenge, though. The World Needs a Hero was tough, [too] because heavy metal as a genre was going through such a difficult transition between the Seattle music in the '90s. I mean, in the mainstream it was almost a fatal blow to heavy metal. Heavy metal fans will be here no matter what, but it's nice when the media and the people who can either be the wind in your sails or the speed bumps in the road to progress -- when those things almost cause a fatal blow to an entire genre it's difficult. You know, we're going to do what we do regardless of who supports it or not. We're a band for the fans because we're fans ourselves, first and foremost.
Megadeth is scheduled to perform Saturday, February 25, at Comerica Theatre.