DAVID ELLEFSON (MEGADETH/METAL ALLEGIANCE)
Musician And Entrepreneur
David Ellefson is best known as the bassist of Megadeth. Besides that he recently released the second album with Metal Allegiance, a collective with drummer Mike Portnoy, guitarist Alex Skolnick, bassist Mark Menghi and Ellefson as the core members, added with well known singers and guitarists. As if this isn’t enough the man also has his own record and management company (EMP Label Group) and coffee company (Ellefson Coffee Co.). So there is a lot to talk about in the twenty minutes I originally was given but because it was an interesting conversation it took a bit longer.
METAL ALLEGIANCE: Mike Portnoy – Alex Skolnick – David Ellefson – Mark Menghi
When I contact David he has just finished the European summer tour with Megadeth and tries to adapt to the ‘normal’ life again.
,,First thing I do when I come home is zip through a pile of mail, hose down the backpack, take a swim, go to the gym, get myself on a routine. At the same time part of the beauty of touring is that it is a whole separate routine. You try to make sense of a sometimes senseless schedule, things change a lot but with Megadeth luckily enough we have a consistent schedule. I get into a new groove when I’m on tour but when I come home I’m relaxing with my family, kids, and cats.’’
In between touring you found time to record a new Metal Allegiance album, ‘Volume II: Power Drunk Majesty’. What is the meaning of the title?
,,I started writing these lyrics when I heard the music. Portnoy, Menghi and Skolnick did the initial round. We did two different writing sessions based on the fact that we have two bass players and Menghi and I write in a different way. We learned from the first album and wanted to take advantage of that by exploring how wide we could get the variety of compositions. As soon as I heard ,,Power Drunk Allegiance’’ those lyrics fell right out on the page. At that time we just had a brand new president so it was easy to write but not specifically so much at any one person. Rock ’n’ Roll is about rebellion, anarchy, that lyric is more based on the general feeling of pushing back against authority and a nice album title.’’
David Ellefson – Fortarock – Nijmegen [NL] 2016 Photo by Dirk van den Heuvel for DCH Photography
Metal Allegiance did the first show on the Motörboat cruise in 2014. Did you back then have the idea this could work?
,,Initially this whole concept started with me and Frank Bello [Anthrax] doing bass clinics, eventually we also had Charlie Benante and Mike Portnoy and we titled it metal masters, which was a sponsored event. At first we did music stores, then nightclubs and it became some sort of all-star masterclass jam concept largely around the excitement of the big 4 at the time. After it came to an end Mark called me and asked if I wanted to continue because it was so much fun and the whole metal community took part. Megadeth would play at the cruise and I suggested to the promoter to book Metal Allegiance. It became the hit on the boat and nowadays every cruise has some sort of all-star band. Truth is that it was so much fun and we had the idea to write original songs instead of only playing cover songs. Portnoy suggested to get together and write a record which we did in December 2014 in Mike’s house in Pennsylvania. Who knew it would work because it is an unusual cast of characters, Mike who is the prog god, Skolnick who is the metal shredder and jazz musician and then me; one of the corner stones of the American thrash metal movement. We wrote half the album, did the second batch in January 2016 and realized we had something. We were legitimately becoming an original artist and that fueled the whole first album. In 2016 I wanted to do a second album and I thought about it being half cover songs and half originals. Covers are fun for the audience and us but with original songs you are your own original entity and contribute something. We are in a cool place right now to have original music, and call other guys and girls up and do one-off shows and have a lot of fun. Because we are all so busy with our regular bands we have to find opportunities and windows of time to work but there is always somebody who is not too busy on tour. Whoever is the most available can drive the bus.’’
With the first record you took the world by surprise. This time people have expectations. Did you set the bar higher or didn’t that bother you?
,,I think you raise a really good point, I think any band when you put out your first record you have zero expectations and when you put it out you have created an identity. The second album either reinforces that identity or it’s gonna elaborate upon it. In some cases if you elaborate too much you’re gonna confuse your identity so we were very conscious on this one about again making a hard hitting thrash metal album. We always write the songs first and then we consider who the guests are. That’s why we don’t call ourselves an all star band because we don’t sit and consider who we want to be involved and then write songs. By doing it the way we do it we keep real purity and musical integrity to it. I think that’s why both of our records are really strong records because we are always about the song coming first. And with that said, as we wrote these songs we also considered we didn’t want to have too many people repeated from the first record because of the whole idea of the Allegiance; writing the Metal is one part, the Allegiance is the other part. In the interest of the Allegiance we brought Mark Oseguedo back because he does a lot of live singing for us and he is a great entertainer. He was on the first record but because he’s a kind of a fifth Beatle, if you will, we felt it important to have him have an appearance on album number two. But aside from that we really wanted to start stretching out and consider some other people to bring in so we can expand the Allegiance by bringing in people like John Bush, Bobby Blitz, Mark Tornillo from Accept and Max Cavalera. I think we reached into an iconic pool of vocalists who really add depth and create real interest for the songs. They all have their own fan basis and I think for their fans to come over and see what we are doing here and also listen to what their favourite singer is doing with Metal Allegiance. It does what the original mission is: to create an Allegiance across all the sub genres of metal.’’
David Ellefson – ‘013’- Tilburg [NL] 2017 Photo by Dirk van den Heuvel for DCH Photography
The album is very diverse but still very cohesive.
,,I’m happy to hear you say that because we thought the same way. Mark Menghi really helped drive the bus on the first original 6 tunes that were written for the record and I dove in to the other four, talking musically here, and when I got together with Skolnick and Portnoy I wanted to do something different than just thrash. Look, I get to play thrash metal in one of the greatest thrash metal bands in the world and that is Megadeth. I certainly don’t want to compete with myself nor Megadeth. I’d rather want to expand what I normally do. Especially for Megadeth and Testament the more narrowed and focused we keep our sound the better because our fans want that, but with Metal Allegiance we can expand a little. It would be silly to do what we do in our other bands all the time anyway, so for me and Alex to expand what we do musically is something our fans can enjoy.’’
With a cast like this in Metal Allegiance. What are the chances of a real tour?
,,We are in discussions for that. We’ve done some US touring and we had some dates for the summer but when Alex got pulled away for Testament on the Slayer farewell tour, that came out of the leftfield for everybody, we pulled back. The biggest interest now comes from outside the United States; so Europe and South America. For this album we intentionally reached into European singers and musicians to get some participants who are well known in Europe so there is the reason it works more in Europe.’’
Why do you start a record company in these difficult times?
,,Haha, to be honest with you, the main reason I started it was because I needed to put out a record for a band that I produced called Doll Skin. They are having incredible success now, we put out 2 records so my hunches were correct. When shopping around I realized that everybody was championing and cheerleading for their own cause. With our own label we have a complete supply chain: releasing, promoting, global distribution. So then it was to our own best interest to sign other bands. I realized that there are a whole lot of other bands out there who can benefit from what we are doing because, as it turns out, we provide a pretty unique niche to help artists continue to bring out their records and stay relevant like Mark Slaughter and Autograph. Honestly it was dumb luck that we ended up to all this success.’’
David Ellefson – ‘013’ – Tilburg [NL] 2017 Photo by Dirk van den Heuvel for DCH Photography
What are you looking for in bands?
,,Not anything in particular. The 2 young developing bands Doll Skin and then also Alice Cooper’s son Dash and his band Co-Op, who are also having good success, developing and breaking young bands is a lot of work, a lot of time and money, hands on managing as well, Whereas artists like Mark Slaughter, he’s a veteran who knows what he is doing and can handle himself very well so for us it’s a matter of providing a vehicle to get his album into the stores and release it digitally. So we’re not looking necessarily for anything in particular, things just come along, now we have the Combat brand, we got Outlaw Records which has this southern country rock thing to it, Combat obviously is thrash metal, we got EMP Underground which is super hard heavy death and grindcore and we got EMP which is our more mainstream outlet. When we started I told my partner Thom [Hazaert] I wanted artist friendly deals. I did not want to get my hooks in people and take their rights, title and interest for ever, I’m not that kind of guy. I am an artist first and foremost, I’m not a label guy, for me it is a vehicle to help people.’’
Like many other musicians nowadays you are branching out and you have your own Coffee Company. Why?
,,I love coffee! Coffee is with me since I was 18 years old, since we were starting Megadeth. I sat down with our first drummer Dijon Carruthers and we drank coffee. Obviously coffee wakes you up in the morning and get you going but also, like music, it brings people together. Originally I was thinking, I put my name on some coffee, sell a few bags on line and it’s a fun little merchandise item and that’ll be it. But as things tend to go in my world, I tend to be more entrepreneurial and once I get involved into something I start to get a bigger plan and bigger vision and a bigger ambition for it so it ended up by forming the Ellefson Coffee Company, and now I am the coffee company. Again, just like the record label, because I have this coffee company, I have roasters around the world, distribution, we’ve got our online portals, merchandising, even a location in my hometown Jackson Minnesota where we have a proper retail outlet. We also started to offer creating signature roasts like imprints for other artists like Skid Row, Autograph and Michael Wilton from Queensrÿche. Like the record company the coffee company becomes a way to offer a merchandising interest for a lot of our friends. ‘’
Is it also a way to secure your future? Because maybe one day you won’t be touring anymore and you will still have the record company and the coffee company.
,,Well sure, I didn’t start it like that. I’ll be honest with you, by the late 90s, early 2000s, I was on the road with Megadeth since I was almost 20 years old. We worked our tails off travelling around the world all the time and I was wondering what else I could do or should do to expand my horizon a little bit beyond being a recording and touring musician, an artist. When Megadeth disbanded in 2002 that was a season for me when I sort of felt like being kicked out of the nest; so I began doing artist relations and marketing for Peavey, I went to college where I got my 4 years bachelors and business degree. Started some other bands, writing for people, producing and really spread my wings and tried a lot of different things so when I came back in Megadeth in 2010 I came back a very different person. Way more mature. It’s nice to be in the group now not having to be in the group but because I want to be. I am appreciative of these years as difficult as they were from 2002 to 2010. Every day is a new day, I began to say yes to things, began to embrace change. I kinda used to look at life as black or white but I realized in between black and white there are beautiful colours and that is where life is at its sweetest.’’
David Ellefson-Hellfest [France] 2018 Photo by Dirk van den Heuvel for DCH Photography
What advice would you give to kids who want to become musicians as well?
,,My personal feeling is that you should play music because it’s fun. There is a reason they call it playing music and not working music, play with your friends, enjoy it. If life situates itself that you can have a musical career, can make a bit of a living with it or partly, all the better. But like any virtue, when it becomes a necessity often it can ruin the fun of the virtue and I speak for every musician that has been in that position, then you have this love-hate thing, where you lose the fun in playing and now you have to go playing. I think every professional musician has gone through that at some point. Season in my life where I expand myself beyond being a bass player and now when I play I have fun and the days I don’t want to play I don’t, haha. I can walk by my bass and don’t feel bad about it. But at the same time music will always be a part of my life at some level. For young musicians really seek out the enjoyment of it, play with as many different people as you can, learn as many things as you can and get certain that if you want to be a professional you have to learn everything you can, then you really have a career which is no different from any other job, you’re hired to do a job and you better show up.’’
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