FEATURE INTERVIEW – “The late 90’s was a real fucked-up time for metal!” – DAVE ELLEFSON

Posted on by Oran

One of thrash metal’s most iconic bass players, Dave Ellefson took some time out of his busy schedule to kick back with Overdrive and discuss the new Metal Allegiance album; ‘Power Drunk Majesty’, the current status of Megadeth’s follow up to ‘Dystopia’ and exactly what went wrong during the late 90’s for one of the worlds most successful thrash metal bands! 

When you think of metal legends a few names come to mind. Mostly, the longevity of the artist’s career is a testament to just how much of a ‘legend’ said artist is, and in this case, there’s no exception. 

Speaking from his Stateside home, Overdrive gets under the hood on the new Metal Allegiance album ‘Power Drunk Majesty‘ with the one and only Dave Ellefson (Megadeth) to discuss the bands sophomore album, working with the remaining ‘core four‘ (Alex Skolnick, Mike Portnoy and Mark Menghi) and the current happenings in the Megadeth camp. Step right up folks….

©Down The Barrel Photography 2018

ODPower Drunk Majesty is out on September 7th. Having spoken to Mark (Menghi) in the past when the first self-titled came out. This must be a huge accomplishment collectively considering the schedules that you all keep. Would you agree with that?

DAVE – Yeah! To be honest the scheduling part of Metal Allegiance is more of an accomplishment than getting the music out! (laughing) When we finally got together in a room the music just falls out of us. The collaboration is so seamless and effortless. I mean, literally withing in a few hours we have new material.

We would write a song or two a day when we’re together. Probably part of that creative process is because we actually get to get away from each other for a while and when we get back together there’s a whole world of ideas and excitement about being back in the room together. Also, the whole dynamic within Metal Allegiance is very much ‘share and share alike’ on everything. There are no agendas like: ‘I have to get MY song on this album‘ or ‘He’s got more songs than I do‘, there’s none of that stuff!

We make it all for one and one for all. That’s just how Metal Allegiance is and to be honest, it’s a great project to be part of, purely for those reasons alone. It really makes the collaborative experience that much sweeter.

OD – When looking at the lineup, it’s a rather eclectic collection of musicians considering each of the backgrounds, had this opportunity approached you when you were in your younger years, would you have done it seeing as most genres kind of kept to themselves?

DAVE – That’s a really good question. With this album, probably more than the first one. We set out with the intention of writing ‘Power Drunk Majesty’ with a more ‘European’ flavour in mind. The self-titled album was very much a representation of North American artists, this one we reached very much into the international metal community with the likes of Max Cavalera, Floor Jansen, Johan Hegg, that was very intentional and we also went slightly younger, which is something that I really liked about this album.

In my years, mostly in producing an on outside writing projects, I really like that connection into what happening currently in the ever-changing metal sub-cultures. Things like the way guitars are being tuned and new gear being used to achieve particular sounds. I really like that type of stuff because obviously in Megadeth our scope is pretty narrow and we learnt over the years to intentionally keep it ‘narrow’. I could say the same for Testament and I think Mike’s (Portnoy) post-Dream Theater years, his world has also gotten very ‘wide’ and we just bring all of these influences into the writing process.

Look at Alex’s (Skolnick, Testament) Jazz Trio also, he’s an outstanding accomplished, educated Jazz musician, who brings so much flavour to what we do making it overall a very eclectic project within the ‘core four’.

The beauty of what we learned on the first record, was that it’s not an “All-Star Project” or “Supergroup“, this is simply a group of established musicians calling out to a cast of special guests and I think there’s a big difference in that because sometimes when you do “All-Star” things, it’s always driven by the name value first and then you sure hope you can put some good songs around it.

Twenty years ago, we didn’t have the experience or confidence to do something like this. We hadn’t gotten to the top of the mountain yet and didn’t really know the routes or trails of how to get there, and now we do! That’s what gives us the experience to trust the process as we’re writing these songs and putting the album together, just knowing that the end is going to be something very special.

OD – With regards to your ‘day job’ with Megadeth, is Metal Allegiance somewhat of an escape from the day to day stuff for you?

DAVE – It is for sure. With Metal Allegiance, we’re friends, first and foremost. I think that starting it with friends and then letting the music happen around us rather than our collective bands where the band is very much the ‘business’ and that comes first, with friendship coming second. You have to go into it with that sort of, heart and mindset of: “don’t take it personally, it’s just business“. With Metal Allegiance, it is about friendship and it is personal. The way I look at it is that it’s two different approaches to get up the same mountain.

OD – Most people won’t realise just how small the metal community is on a global level when you guys reached out to some of the guest artists, were you inundated with responses confirming they inclusion in the project?

DAVE – It was both really! There were only a couple of people that weren’t available and that’s fine, we just took that as a friendly pass. No one knows the issues with scheduling conflicts as much as we do. (laughing)

We reached out to people who are our friends and some others that we didn’t know personally or had worked with in the past and I think it was just the very spirit of Metal Allegiance that brought us all together. In my opinion, MA is about good friends making great music together. That’s the true spirit of what this project is. This is not about one or two people building a fortune on the backs of many, this is very much a collaborative effort and because of that, it’s inviting, and doesn’t have an agenda. We want this to be completely about the music.

OD – Talking of all the other guests on the album, there is a huge cross-pollination of artists, from Johan (Amon Amarth) to Trevor Strnad (THE BLACK DAHLIA MURDER), Mark Tornillo (ACCEPT) Max Cavalera and even Floor Jansen (NIGHTWISH), Bobby (Overkill) and more. When you were writing the tracks did you have these guys in mind or was there another way it all happened?

DAVE – The latter actually. None of us are vocalists by trade, and even though I do backing vocals in Megadeth, I always refer to myself as the Michael Anthony (Van Halen) guy, as I do the high harmony, the high 3rd and 5th and have done that ever since I was a kid. Alex has a really good sense of phrasing, so when we’re writing he puts together a pretty solid blueprint of the vocal melody and the overall flow to a degree.

Mike wrote lyrics for Dream Theater for years and says that he’s retired from writing lyrics in jest, but really, when I get together with Mark (Menghi) we usually get the ball rolling with some new ideas. I’m always writing, in airports, hotel rooms, you name it. I’m constantly working on new ideas. I’ll sit at church and write heavy metal lyrics in my notepad (laughing).

A good example is ‘Liars and Thieves‘. I wrote that in Ceasers Hotel in Windsor, Canada where I was sitting there looking across the river at Detroit, a city that has been plunged into an economic depression as a result of greed and corporate annihilation. I wrote that entire track then and there in full and then sent them over to Mark and was: “Dude, check these lyrics out“. Like any musician, there are moments of inspiration that is just too much to ignore and when I come up with an idea, I’ll look at it and think to myself: “that’s not really right for Megadeth” and I’ll file it away or more times than others I’ll find a home for it.

It’s the same with the other guys, they got together over the Christmas of 2016/2017 and they banged out six tracks and sent it over to me in the dropbox and from those ideas, I wrote ‘Power Drunk Majesty‘ and then we presented it to Floor who composed her section. The idea and the inspiration was there, not to mention we just had the election and a new president elected, so it was pretty easy to come up with those lyrics. (laughing)

Once we had the music in place, we started to think: “Who would be just right to sing on this track?” and just sat down and talked about some ideas. I really didn’t want to fall into the ‘thrash metal’ hole on this album and it’s kind of funny seeing as I’m in one of the “Big Four Thrash Metal” bands, yet I’m coming into the studio saying: “What can we do that’s not just thrash metal?” and that’s probably where I look for escape away from what I do with Megadeth.

I play in what I consider to be one of the greatest thrash metal bands in the history of the world, so I don’t need to compete with it, I don’t need to outdo it, and I don’t need to challenge that. For me, the musical participation I get involved with is something that scoots away from that, so I was like: “Let’s think of some other bands that are in metal that aren’t thrash.” So we went down a list of names, Sepultura, Godsmack, Tool etc. I was thinking Disturbed, or some of the younger bands that were influenced by the stuff that we did, and then went off and created their own sound.

That’s how ‘Voodoo of the Godsend‘ came about and with Max on vocals it was just so right. When the track was completed, Mark rang me up with the idea of getting Max on vocals for it, which I thought was a killer idea. It just so happened that Max was recording in the very same studio that we were in at the time and so I reached over to Gloria (Cavalera) and Max and sent them a text and the rest is history.

We had no lyrics or vocal melodies at all and just gave Max full control to do whatever he wanted with the track. Having worked with Max on some Soulfly records, that guy carves a pretty wide path and I just knew that it was gonna be a perfect track for his particular flavour.

OD – Metal music has been through so many changes and in a lot of ways is still changing as we speak. You’ve lived through most of the genres up’s and downs. For you personally, what was the most challenging time for you?

DAVE – I’d say for sure the late 90’s when we did Megadeth’sRisk‘ album (1999). It was the most challenging time for metal in general. It was a difficult time culturally and also a very difficult time within the band (Megadeth). We went through Nick (Menza) leaving and Jimmy (DeGrasso) coming in. Don’t get me wrong, Jimmy was great and had no real negative musical impact at all. Also, during this time, Marty (Friedman) was very much in a place where he had no interest in playing metal music at all, top that off with a lot of internal band strife, and you have a pretty fucked-up situation.

We had huge success repositioning the band off the back of ‘Cryptic Writings‘ (1997) so we figured we would write an album that made up a third of in your face metal, with a third of straight-up “middle of the road” tracks and then a third of really intentional tracks that we had hoped would reposition ourselves back on American FM radio, because it was critical for our survival, and I think we nailed it.

But we didn’t take enough time to write the record and arrived in Nashville to hammer out the tracks. What we didn’t factor in was that it was taking way to long to write the music as those songs were really not “in our hearts” if you know what I mean.  We did a good job on it but we came up short on the heavier tracks, and we suffered the blow that took years to fix.

© Down The Barrel Photography 2018. Dublin Ireland.

It takes years to win the fans confidence back and we found ourselves not only trying to reposition ourselves as a band but also reposition ourselves externally through all the changes that are happening in music and culture, which we had no control over. They were very rough years man, “Cryptic Writings” was a great run but after that between ’99 through 2001′ was just super rough but we survived it.

OD – Can we get an update on Megadeth and if there’s any writing happening for the follow-up to ‘Dystopia’?

DAVE – We’ve been working on new material for almost this whole year. The one thing that we learned from “Dystopia” is that we need to allocate time that’s right for us when laying down a new album. ‘13‘ (2011) was right in the middle of ‘The Big Four‘ tour and that was a solid album which we had 10 weeks to do, but then we had ‘Super Collider‘ (2013) which a lot like “Risk” in the sense of we went straight into the studio off the back of “13” with no break and I think personally it was too soon but there was nothing we could do as management had tour dates booked, so we kind of backed ourselves into a corner and while that worked for us on “13“, it really caught us off guard on ‘Super Collider‘.

Looking back, the first single off Super Collider was too ‘lite’ and I really think we should have come out of the gate with a heavier song choice. Once fans hear a lighter track they become prejudiced towards the whole record and the mindset is almost set in stone from that moment onwards, kind of like a “first impressions last forever” type scenario.

There were some great songs on that album but what we learnt about ‘Dystopia‘ was that we had to take some time off to really give it 100% and do things the way “WE” want to do them, so no tours booked, no other commitments, just a total undisturbed focus on the task at hand. Taking this approach really proved to be very successful for us and we will be working to this format going forward.

OD – You have accomplished so much in your career to date and as I said, you’ve been through some very difficult times, would you say that things are finally on a secure and comfortable playing field right now?

DAVE – I really feel like we’ve entered a new phase with the band where I feel like the phone is always going to be ringing and there will always be bookings and it’s not always going to be driven by the fact that we have a new album. We can see a lot of bands working that way, like Iron Maiden, Slayer and Metallica for example.

OD – So, would you say that Megadeth is in a really good place these days?

DAVE – For sure. Megadeth is in a great place right now. Look, we’re not The Rolling Stones (laughing) but I like to think of us in a different season of our career, for instance, we’re doing 35 years of Megadeth this year and went back into the catalogue and dug out some old classics and to be honest there’s so much we can do now because we have a very vast history.

OD – Taking it back to Metal Allegiance again, are there plans to take this new album on the road, and if so, where can we expect to see you guys?

DAVE – I think what’s best because of the nature of the band, is that we’ll be doing some festival work in Europe next year and anything that happens after that or if there’s an opportunity to do some live dates around those shows, we’ll definitely be interested. Other than that, it’s very hard to say right now.

OD – If you had to pinpoint an album that started it all for you, what would it be?

DAVE – Well, Bachman, Turner, Overdrive’sNot Fragile‘ (1974) was the first album that made me stop thinking about being a fireman or doctor. (laughing). After that, I was thinking to myself: “I can be a rockstar? That sounds awesome!” But I would really have to say KISSDestroyer‘ (1976), that was the album that really got me hooked. The one that was really a career changer for me was just so huge was Judas Priest’sUnleashed in The East“(1979).

That album was the one that was like: “Yeah, I totally get what this is all about!” It also must be said that when I first came across Def Leppard’sOn Through the Night‘ (1980) I was just blown away that those guys were the same age as me and they were taking over the world. I remember looking at the back cover of the album and seeing that they were on tour with AC/DC and that just blew my mind!

I was thinking to myself: “Holy Shite! I’m almost their age and this is what they’ve already accomplished?“. That was very inspiring to me and with the combination of the other albums I just mentioned, my brain just snapped and I knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Metal AllegiancePower Drunk Majesty” is released on September 7th via Nuclear Blast. Please visit this link to order your copy. More information on Metal Allegiance can be found via this link.

Oran O’Beirne

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