Interview with David Ellefson of Megadeth





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Update: Two weeks after this interview was conducted, David Ellefson re-joined Megadeth.

Music is David Ellefson's business and business is good....

David Ellefson is one of the most recognizable and accomplished bass players in metal. Co-founding early thrash pioneers, Megadeth, David went on to write some of the most memorable bass lines, along with one of the most distinct tones, for nearly twenty years.

After Megadeth disbanded temporarily in 2002, David went on to pursue the other side of music, earning degrees in business, hosting many lectures, and publishing books on how to succeed in the entertainment business.

David is also immersed in several musical projects such as "Temple of Brutality", "F5", and "Killing Machine". Ellefson's most recent project the metal supergroup "Hail!", with former members of Slayer, Judas Priest, Megadeth, and current Sepultura guitarist Adreas Kisser. Since the formation of "Hail!" in 2008, this band of heavyweights have been tearing it up across the world; even recently playing in Beirut, the first metal show to ever to be played for that county. Read the chat below:  


Sonic Excess: You wrote a book "Making Music Your Business: A Guide For Young Musicians", but not from an on-and-off stage perspective or about bass technique. Can you explain?


David Ellefson: The whole idea of that book was to explain what the actual business of making it in music is really about. There are many ways to take lessons, view DVDs, and other ways to practice your instrument, but there is really not that much out there that discusses how to actually "get in the game" of making music your living. Most of us have to figure it out as we go and while there are no shortcuts or magical secrets, I thought a book might help provide some insights that could be useful.


S.E.: What is the question you get asked the most from an aspiring artist?


D.E.: It's either "How do you get your tone?" or "How do I get signed?", and, of course, a bunch of everything else in between.


S.E.: Not to be disrespectful, but early on in your career you were taken advantage of. Is this why you decided to write a book giving some great insights for aspiring musicians, so they will not make the same mistakes?


D.E.: All musicians and artists get taken advantage of, on some level, in the business UNTIL they learn what the business side of the industry is really about, and that is selling products for profit. That is why record companies, publishers, merchandisers, energy drinks, and the like exist, to make money from their products or intellectual property. Now, keep in mind that that's the business side of it, not the artistic side of it. That is why I wrote that book back in the mid 1990's, to help differentiate the two and to help young musicians grasp that concept. Myself, I had started to figure that all out pretty early on in my career.







S.E.: How do you view the current state of metal? 


D.E.: It's pretty healthy right now. Because metal was born from the underground, it always stays popular around the world, despite trends and fads that may appear bigger at certain times, in certain countries.


S.E.: Metal is more popular than ever, and, to me, it seems like people are cashing in on it. Does this day and age remind you of the late 1980's with hard working artists thrown in with bands up for the "cash grab" and designed by labels?


D.E.: Again, the record labels are in the business of making a profit, but I see todays landscape of indie labels being more about the smaller guy keeping that passion for music as the main priority, rather than ONLY making a profit.



S.E.: Downloading has its pros and cons. With a band that is just starting out, it is great exposure, but for a band that has been working for 20 years and selling 20,000 copies less, I can understand how it is frustrating. What is your stance on downloading?


D.E.: Any time a song is up for sale it needs to be paid for period! To give you an example, you can't just walk into a hardware store, grab a hammer, and walk out with it, before paying for it, just because you wanted it. It's called stealing, and you'll be arrested for it! Music is the same way. Unless an artist is actually giving a song away for free, you should pay for it. It costs someone money to make it. That is why they sell it, to recoup the costs and hopefully see a profit from it. There is nothing wrong with an artist trying to sell their songs to make a living, at least not in my opinion.  



S.E.: Why do fans pay so much in service charges when buying a ticket to a show? Back when I saw Megadeth for the first time in 1994, it was a $1.50, but now it can be upwards of $30.00?


D.E.: That has to do with ticket agencies being the middle-man on the transaction. It has now become a major profit center for those agencies.


S.E.: Why does the music business attract so many shady people?


D.E.: I think there is the allure of making a quick buck without much work. Let's face it, the business is full of people who will do practically anything to not have to go out and actually get a real job; real snake-oil types. There are also some slimy business people, that you'd never be in business with in any other industry, yet somehow they claw their way into our industry. You need to be careful of them at all times.


S.E.: If signed to a major label, how much control does an artist have as to how they write their songs, and also control, , right down to the packaging? (Example: I asked an artist about playing a song live and he stated the label would not allow it.)


D.E.: Most artists have a lot of control, especially if you're a rock-n- roll band. Some pop and country artists have to be sort of 'manufactured and tailored' to suit certain markets. They are the most controlled by the labels, producers, etc. You have to realize that major labels want to sell major amounts of records, and the more fitting the songs are for radio, video, and those types of mainstream outlets, the better they will do. They are looking for exposure, which leads to sales.





















S.E.: "Hail!" is truly something unique. How did the whole idea come about, and were you hesitant at first?


D.E.: The whole concept for that group is that it is made up of well-known players who play cool metal songs to fans in far reaching countries and cities; to those fans who don't get every major tour coming through their town. The set list is really a tribute to the entire metal-genre and that it is performed by famous musicians and artists. The first idea presented was to take it to South America, which worked great. From there, trips to southern Europe, Asia, Scandinavia, and recently the Middle East have proven that it is a really cool way to throw an awesome heavy metal party for the fans worldwide.


S.E.: "Hail!" seems more like friends just jamming. Is that the overall vibe you get?


D.E. Yes, it is and that is why it is so much fun. We're having a great time, and why shouldn't we be?! We are playing music we love with people we like to be around, and for fans who just love the whole experience of us being there for them. 



We do have a core set list, but it is often changed up during the show. There is a lot of ad lib throughout the night, which is a lot of fun for both us and the audience. I think that is part of the "feel-good" vibe and fun of the show.


S.E.: Andreas spoke with us about "Hail!", and when asked about recording original material, he said "It would have to happen naturally." Do you agree?


D.E.: Yes, I do agree with him. We've thrown a few ideas around at sound check, but the idea for "HAIL!" was for it to play songs everyone knows and not bore people to death with original songs each night, at least not initially. Let's face it, when most bands form like that, the fans just complain anyway, because they want to hear them get back in their original bands and play the songs they know from them. So, why even go there? Why fix what's not broken?


S.E.: You played Beirut with "Hail!", but this was not only "Hail's" first chance to play there, but it was also the first metal show for the country. Did you understand how monumental and special it was before you went there?


D.E.: Yes, it was truly an honor. It just goes to show that metal audiences are really alive with the same passion everywhere. For never having had a major show on their soil, they really rocked it up.




S.E.: I have seen a few clips and the reaction looked phenomenal, from the fans and the band. Will this be one show that will always stand out for you?


D.E.: Absolutely, it will.


S.E.: "Hail!" must have opened the doors for Lebanon. What have you heard for feedback?


D.E.: The feedback has been fantastic. We're honored to have led the way for what will hopefully be a healthy metal scene for them, and for other bands, to now play there too. 




S.E.: Were you at all worried about safety?


D.E.: Before I went I was a bit concerned, but they assured us it was safe/ So, off we went. Once we were there, I never felt any threats or harm in any way. It was very comfortable and secure.


S.E:. Did "Hail!" have any restrictions on what you could play live. from the Lebanese government or any other organization?


D.E.: No, none at all.


S.E.: Any plans on playing the states with "Hail!" soon?


D.E.: There are some plans brewing for North America, but again, this continent gets everything all the time, and I think the uniqueness of "HAIL!" is that it can be something really special for fans in far reaching places.


S.E.: Can we expect a live album or DVD with "Hail!"?


D.E.: Shows have been filmed in South America, Greece, and now Lebanon. It all looks great, especially the crowds from so many diverse cultures. I would definitely watch it if it gets released!


S.E.: "F5" has been quiet for a while. Are you just taking a break? If so, when can we expect the follow up to "The Reckoning"?


D.E.: Everyone has been writing material, and we've recently talked about recording some new tracks. With the record business being so different now, there are new options open to us. We may just do a few songs, or a full LP. It's nice to have flexibility which ever way we decide to go.


S.E.: You have released instructional DVD's. Any plans on giving lessons or hosting more clinics?


D.E.: I was ready to do some online lessons with the "American Rock Star Academy" a few months back, but then my travel got too busy to really hone in on that. Clinics come and go randomly, so I'm always up for those.


S.E.: You are very active online. with podcast's and websites. Do you oversee everything?


D.E.: With the "David Ellefson's ROCK SHOP" series I'm the creator of all of it, and I oversee it all. I have artistic vision on the subjects I discuss and how I'd like each episode to be presented, so I'm real hands on with it. I think it is about embracing the change in our industry and using the Web and its opportunities to an advantage for everyone, including the viewer. I don't charge any money for it. It's free information and hopefully entertaining too.


S.E.: I really like your online rock shop series, especially your last episode from Lebanon. Any thoughts about a traveling metal show showcasing local flavors and cultures?


D.E.: Funny you should mention that. Back in October I did a music business seminar in Calgary and then a Q&A type thing in Montreal in November. Those were both really cool, because they were really more like taking the "ROCK SHOP" on the road. I think the viewers like to see the places I get to go to, and, for me, it is creatively fun to bring those experiences to the viewers.  Musicians get to experience a lot of cool things, both musically and lifestyle.









































S.E.: Do you have any plans on giving more 'in-person' lectures with "Rock Shop" any time soon?


D.E.: Yes, I have a few more ideas I want to post. I don't really plan them out. I just film them as the ideas come into my head. That is the fun of it, keeping it 'off the cuff' and improvisational.


Photos courtesy of: David

Interview by: Brandon Marshall