David Ellefson Talks Megadeth, His Empire, Slayer’s Farewell, A Big 4 Show & The Importance Of Remaining A Fan

The legendary bassist opened up about 35 years of Megadeth, the singularity that is the Big 4, seeing brothers-in-arms hang up the axe, and staying engaged as a fan of heavy metal.

Amy HarrisAP Images

David Ellefson is no spring chicken. Three-and-a-half decades after co-founding the pioneering thrash metal band/institution that is Megadeth, he’s put plenty of miles on his body and his soul. Fortunately he’s spent the majority of them clean and sober — after making the choice to put the music first — so that it’s easier for him to make a “50-year-old’s decisions” when gearing up for another trek to bring metal across the globe.

That doesn’t mean he’s ready to accept a role as an elder statesman of the metal world. Far from it.

While he may be a contemporary to bands he idolized growing up — Megadeth is hitting Europe for some shows with Judas Priest and select dates with KISS — Ellefson is still a vital metal warrior, fueled by coffee and honor-bound to give his fans their money’s worth when he takes the stage.

He’s also still very much a fan of metal.

Before heading to Norway for Priest’s Firepower tour, David got on the phone to talk about 35 years of Megadeth, the anointed Big 4 of thrash and his ever-expanding empire. In the wake of another remastered reissue of their seminal debut album, Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good!, I wanted to see how business is going these days.

Here’s what he had to say.


Kevin Tall: Hey David, how’re you doing today?

David Ellefson: Hey, Kevin, how are ya, man?

KT: I am great. So, first things first, do you prefer David or Dave?

DE: Let’s do David.

KT: David. Alright, awesome. So, David, 35 years ago you met this other guy named David and this dude was on a mission…

DE: His name’s Dave.

KT: He’s named Dave. Alright, fair enough. So this Dave guy was on a mission. Tell me a little more about that and what’s happened over the last three and a half decades.

DE: Well, when I met Dave, as in Mustaine, he was considering his next move. And it’s funny because he even talked about it — he goes, ‘Y’know, if this doesn’t work I think I’m just going to get into computers.’ Which was funny, because, y’know, here’s a guy who had such charismatic talent and had already built up a following through his couple of years with Metallica prior to this — this, of course, being June 1983 — And for me, when I met Dave, I was always the guy who had to be the driven leader in my bands in Minnesota when I was growing up, so I was used to doing all the work. When I met Dave, Dave knew how to do it all, from his time in Metallica…

Lars really knew the drill. Lars just kinda had the instincts and I think a lot of that was because he was from Europe, from Denmark. So he had this more global perspective, which I’m sure perpetuated Metallica to that global level so quickly. And Dave had paid attention when he was in Metallica and he brought a lot of that into Megadeth.

Dave is a man who’s very driven; he’s very focused. When he gets his mind set on something, he’s unwavering and uncompromising. And that’s what we needed to start Megadeth. So really, a big part of Megadeth’s 35 years has been, really, the result of the focus that started at the very beginning, in June of 1983. We had a mission, we had a vision, we had a direction, and we had the energy to go pursue it, and that’s why we’re still here 35 years later.

KT: I just want to say, for the record, if Dave had actually decided to go into computers, he’d probably be a lot less stressed and a lot richer right now.

DE: It’s possible.

KT: So let’s talk about the ‘Killing Is My Business’ reissue, and how business is these days.

DE: It re-issues here in June. We’re going to be doing festivals across Europe. We’re actually looking now, with 35 years of Megadeth, we’re dipping back into pulling some older songs out of the catalog. Y’know, it’s kinda funny, the farther you go forward, the more the fans love to go backward, and really love hearing all the early, vintage material.

We’re lucky in Megadeth because we can still write and produce compelling, new material, but that legacy of stuff from especially the earliest records — probably the first, I’d say, four records — are things of legend at this point, that even young, teen-aged fans that are first learning about Megadeth, they want to hear things off of ‘Killing Is My Business’ and ‘Peace Sells,’ ‘So Far So Good So What,’ ‘Rust In Peace.’ Those are really the four cornerstone records for us.

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KT: You’re gearing up for a swing through Europe this summer. After more than three decades of life on the road, what kind of reaction does thinking about that inspire?

DE: When you’re young, you just go out and fire on all eight cylinders and you go for it, you know what I mean? You don’t think about it. And then, probably by the time you hit your 30s, you start going ‘Oh, my back kinda hurts a little bit, my neck hurts,’ you know? And as you keep going, those of us that have been lucky enough to have a career ahead of us, as well as the one behind us, start to realize, yeah, you [need to] start to take a little better care of yourself, because you realize you’re in it for the long haul, you know?

You’ve produced these songs that sort of called out for an audience, now that audience is calling out to you to be back on stage playing them. I feel like it’s my obligation to the songs, to the band, and especially to our audience to keep myself in good shape and to be at my best. To be of sober mind and judgment and in good health and do everything that I can to make sure that when I’m on that stage, I’m giving the fans their money’s worth.

Years ago, fortunately, I got myself cleaned up, and mostly because I had to, man. I just could not keep going at the rate I was going. For me, it was always ‘music first, and all the rest second.’ And the day came when it was ‘everything else first,’ music became second and that was the day I knew I needed to make some changes. And that, for me, happened from late 1988 until early 1990; that was the season of change for me. And fortunately, I was young, I was 23, 24-years-old, so by the time I was 25, I was sobered up and totally aware of what was going on and the best years of my life and the best years of success have happened since that one act of putting all the stuff down and being sober.

david ellefson, dave mustaine, megadeth, nick menza, marty friedman
Featured image credit: Jim CooperAP Images

KT: With the lineup changes over the years, how has the dynamic of the band changed and how does that relate to the material?

DE: I think it takes a couple of albums for a lineup to gel. At least an album and a tour, like it was with ‘Rust in Peace.’ We saw the same thing from ‘Killing is My Business.’ We were a band in transition at that point, even then. Me and Dave and Gar Samuelson had done some recording of a demo and we went in to cut the full-length record. Chris Poland was new to the band, he had not recorded with us yet. So by the time we toured and we did ‘Peace Sells,’ we were really gelling as a band. We saw that same thing happen from ‘Rust in Peace’ and ‘Countdown.’ For me, I saw the same thing happen when I came back into the band, we did the whole ‘Rust in Peace’ anniversary and by the time we did the ‘Thirteen’ album, we were rocking. It was a really strong album for us. And I think the same thing is happening right now with this current lineup. Me and Dave and Kiko [Loureiro] have recorded together but not with Dirk [Verbeuren]. Dirk’s been with us for almost two years on the road.

‘Killing is My Business’… It’s ironic that this year is the reissue, ‘The Final Kill,’ and that we’re digging back into that, because Dirk Verbeuren, he really understands the vibe, the groove and the swagger of Gar Samuelson. And just like Gar, Dirk is a very musically educated guy who can play anything, and he’s defined a style of drumming in metal, which is very hard to do in this day and age, because metal drumming has probably turned every corner it can possibly turn and Dirk actually came up with something.

It’s funny, you know, guitar players, our signature is in our picking and plucking hands. That really is where our signature sound comes from. It doesn’t come from the fingerboard hand, it comes from the picking and the plucking hand. For drummers, their signature is either in their feet and/or their snare drum, how they hit the snare. I remember when Dirk came in, initially he was just kind of filling in some dates for us while Chris Adler was away with Lamb of God. As soon as Dirk hit his snare, it got my attention. All of us in the room went ‘whoa!’ It was loud, it was powerful.

There are a couple of drummers I think of: Kenny Aronoff and Alex Van Halen. You immediately know whose song it is when you hear them play because of how they hit the snare drum. You can tell an old John Mellencamp or Van Halen song off in the distance on a car radio just because of how they hit the snare drum, and that’s how Dirk plays. He’s got amazing feet and a great, signature sound on that snare drum.

Kevin Tall: You’re headed out on some dates with Judas Priest and sharing the stage with KISS as well. What’s that like for you, as someone influenced by them?

David Ellefson: I think for Kiss, me and Dave grew up fans of theirs. We owned their records as young teenagers. When I see KISS, it brings it full circle. They were the four superheroes that were larger than life, and untouchable. Then, to be able to stand on the same stage as they do and play our show and have our fans look at the four guys in Megadeth as larger than life and untouchable is really a cool thing. It’s part of the family tree of rock n’ roll. We learned from KISS and now young bands learn from Megadeth, and it’s just a continuum of great rock n’ roll.

KT: While you’re trekking through Europe, Slayer will be on their farewell tour. Is there an element of introspection that triggers with seeing another member band of the proverbial Big Four hang up the axe?

DE: Look, groups retire for all kinds of different reasons. Either they’ve just lost interest, their heart just isn’t into it anymore, maybe it’s a health issue, for who knows what reasons. And I don’t know why Slayer’s hanging it up; I’ve not talked to Tom [Araya] or Kerry [King] about it to know. It’s great to see them have this big last hurrah of success. I’d like to think they’re not gone forever, on some level, y’know what I mean? Many farewell tours have made for a hell of a reunion tour later.

But they’ve also lost their dear friend Jeff Hanneman, and he was a key writer for Slayer. Me and Dave have been through that, past members have passed away. We’ve been through a lot of lineup changes and stuff, and when lineup changes happen, it’s always kind of a shot in the dark whether you’re going to be able to capture lightning twice and recreate the magic. Some of our lineups did and some of them didn’t.

Again, a lot of different reasons for doing it. Now we’re making 50-year-olds’ decisions, we’re not making 20- and 30-year-olds’ decisions, which are fight and kill at all cost when you’re younger. When you get a little bit older, for all of us, we look back at the roller coaster ride we’ve been on; some days you go ‘Do I want to get back on that roller coaster again or not?’ It’s like skydiving. ‘I’ve jumped a couple of times and I’ve survived, do I want to really go do it again?’ Sometimes you count your blessings; sometimes it’s ok to leave Vegas and leave a little on the table.

The fact that Big 4 still intact is incredible; no other genre can say that. I can’t think of any other genre; country, jam band, jazz, blues, the Seattle movement, none of ’em, none of the core four, like founding pillars, of any other genre that are still around except the Big 4.

david ellefson, megadeth, gibson amphitheatre
David Ellefson of Megadeth performs at the Gibson Amphitheatre on October 21, 2010 in Universal City, California.Featured image credit: Kevin WinterGetty Images

KT: Dave Mustaine said he still wants to do another Big 4 show…

DE: I think it would be every headbanger’s wet dream. As much as in our early days, we were competitors, by the time we did the Big 4 show, we all came together as brothers.

We’d all been to the top of the mountain, we’d all seen the grand view of life. To sit up there at the top together and break bread and play heavy metal and lock arms and jump off the top of the heap together was just a great thing.

It was such a cool thing. Our fans don’t compete; our fans love all of us, and I think that’s what’s so cool… The thing with the Big 4 is there’s diversity within thrash metal, but at the end of the day, it’s all still thrash metal.

KT: Switching gears for a second, what’s the deal with Ellefson Coffee Co.? I have some specific questions, because I was intrigued when I first read about it on blabbermouth, but tell me how that came to be.

DE: Ellefson Coffee Company just started as a passion, as a fun thing to do. I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to put some bags of coffee up in my web store and come up with some fun titles for them?’ I’m kind of a coffee geek, I like geeking out on the stuff. I love different flavors of coffee. Of course now we’ve got cold brew and nitro and all these other different ways to serve coffee. I love traveling outside of America too because the drip coffee method we use in America is done, I think, largely for ease and convenience, because we Americans are so big on convenience. The rest of the world, they really take their time making an espresso, making a cappuccino and doing different things. They’re not usually taking it to go; they’re sitting down and drinking it.

I like how coffee is made differently, it’s served differently. It’s all still coffee, I just like the cultural diversity around it as well.

KT: So many bands and artists have gone into different business ventures, but it seems the popular thing to do is booze. Maynard from Tool has his own vineyard and winery, Mastodon has teamed with some breweries, as have Maiden and Anthrax, In Flames has its own gin and Metallica is making whiskey. And here’s Dave Ellefson, roasting coffee. It’s an interesting contrast. Would it be wrong to assume it’s related to your sobriety?

DE: I have no problem if people want to drink, I still party with rock n’ roll like anybody else does, I just don’t do all the rest of it, y’know? Coffee’s my drink, man, coffee and water. If you see me with three things, it’s either coffee, water or iced tea. And occasionally some lemonade. The first time I tasted an Arnold Palmer was on the golf course, obviously, because I think he invented that drink, mixing the iced tea and the lemonade to kinda cut the dust. So those are my core four: water, iced tea, lemonade and coffee.

I would shudder to ever begin a day without coffee. I usually have another cup later in the day, hot or cold, depending on the climate. I like it.

When somebody goes to the bar, they say ‘Hey, you wanna go have a drink?’ they’re not really focused on the drink. It’s more about the fellowship and the camaraderie. It’s kind of the same thing. ‘Hey, let’s go grab a cup of joe.’ It’s about you and me hanging out, and sitting down and talking, getting caught up.

I physically couldn’t be playing Megadeth music at this high-velocity level, at my age, if my body was a train wreck from drug and alcohol. For me, it was a personal and certainly a professional decision to clean my act up.

KT: About a year and a half ago you did an interview talking about writing ‘Rust In Peace’ during what you called ‘a dark time’ but then recording it sober, and the worry inherent to your best music being written during your darkest days. How does that affect your mindset when sitting down to write new material?

DE: Well, being on smack produced a couple of really good records for us. [Laughing] ‘Peace Sells’ and part of ‘Killing,’ some of ‘Peace Sells’ and of ‘Rust in Peace.’ But it’s not advisable; don’t try that at home, kids.

Kevin Tall: Which bands out there really get you going and excite you these days?

David Ellefson: I love this younger band, Hatchet. We’re putting their record out, it’s great.

We launched it with two former Combat artists, with Raven and also Helstar, who were both previously on Combat, the previous version of the label, years back. So that’s cool. We wanted to launch it with some iconic Combat artists and then start to bring in new talent. Marc Rizzo from Soulfly [formerly Ill Niño] he’s got a solo record on Combat. So now it’s about carving the next frontier of legacy artists on Combat.

Ghost. I just like when a new band comes along and I get excited about it. They’ve got a new sound, they’ve got a mystique, and there’s something that gets me excited. Their ‘Meliora’ record, I loved when I heard it. I was a little late to the party with them, they were already a big sensation and won a Grammy. I actually just happened to hear their record one night. I was with the drummer for a band called Green Death, which is on my label. I’d gone to participate in an album release concert with them in Des Moines and it was 3 in the morning and he’s taking me to the airport. He picked me up at the hotel and I’m listening, I looked down at his stereo and it just sounded really haunting and cool at 3 a.m. It could have been as much to do with the time of day that I heard it. I started seeing them at festivals and I watched them.

I think the bigger picture is it’s important to always remain a fan. When you play music for a living, you get caught up sometimes. There’s a lot of minutiae that sort of sidetracks your passion. It’s important, for me anyway, to still remain a fan. Whether it be a young band like Ghost or KISS, which I grew up with, I love going out and watching bands and just being a fan.

david ellefson, megadeth
Featured image credit: Christophe GateauAP Images

KT: I was similarly late to the party with Ghost, funnily enough. I heard ‘Square Hammer’ on Sirius XM’s Liquid Metal and was just like ‘What is this?!’ So I immediately rushed to iTunes and downloaded the deluxe edition of ‘Meliora’ and was just blown away. One of the things I really like about Ghost is something I also really like about a band like Mastodon, they’re not afraid to incorporate the psychedelic influence into metal.

DE: I also like melody and I like singers who can sing. There was a stretch there for a while where everything seemed like it was this death/grindcore death metal thing. While I certainly appreciate that, and there are some guys that are just incredible at it — Amon Amarth, Max Cavalera and a handful of guys… It’s funny, just the other day, I saw Jamey Jasta with his solo band opening for Body Count and it was awesome, I really, really liked it. I’ve seen Hatebreed a million times and to see Jamey doing something different, it had a different swagger and groove to it, I loved it. It was really cool.

A new band that I saw, I just happened to walk into a concert — I went to go see Kamelot, because I’d never seen them, and they were incredibly good — but the band that supported them was a group called Delain, who I believe are out of Holland. Great female singer who just blew me away; she could sing, it wasn’t some kind of Cookie Monster, death-metal thing. She was really singing, she had great melody and the band had a cool vibe about them. They really had songs you could grasp onto. And I’d never heard them before, but I was really intrigued because the music and the melody really drew me in. So that’s a new band that I’ve been following and just being a fan of what they do.

KT: I’ll definitely have to check them out. It’s funny that you went from death metal to Kamelot, a great power metal band, seeing as so many death metal bands and Kamelot themselves are from my neck of the woods in Tampa.

DE: I’ve known Thomas, he and I had sort of known each other via email and I wanted to meet him. I’m certainly a fan of his work, he’s done an incredible job with Kamelot. It’s cool because Kamelot is one of our real, true, official U.S.-based power metal god bands. Europe has so many of them and Thomas has just done such a good job with that. And another young singer, singing with them, Lauren Hart. Delain has another guitar player, female guitar player, Merel Bechtold.

Because I’ve managed and produced Doll Skin, who are now on Warped Tour, it’s fun to see females so engaged and at the forefront of heavy metal. Of course, Nightwish was one of the early leaders of that, really having a terrific, female-fronted heavy metal band, and of course Cristina Scabbia from Lacuna Coil. Now we’ve got Halestorm, we’ve got Butcher Babies. It was always sort of the boys’ club and it’s a different landscape now, with really talented females who’ve put the time into their craft to learn to sing and play and write. It’s changed the landscape of music a lot in a cool way.

david ellefson, megadeth, Dirk Verbeuren, Dave Mustaine, Kiko Loureiro, grammy awards
Featured image credit: Frazer HarrisonGetty Images

KT: I totally agree. Even within the last two decades, the girls from Kittie were still bashed as almost a novelty act. I saw them hold their own on the same stage as Slipknot during their first headlining club tour.

DE: When I produced and then was shopping Doll Skin, they were very young; they were teenagers. And I just knew it was the right time, to strike while the iron was hot with them. They had the goods; they had the music and the attitude and the passion for it, and I just knew I had to get them up to the starting line and get them in the race. And that’s why I formed my label, EMP Label Group, to put their record out. And that has now turned into this whole empire of several different labels, the coffee company and all this different stuff, Combat and all that.

To me, that’s the thing: we should all help each other. I figured with the label, and even with the coffee — we’re doing some artist signature roasts with Skid Row, Warrant, Autograph, with Michael Wilton from Queensryche. I figure, with all these things that I’ve been blessed with to have, I can use them to help other people and we all win.

KT: I’m looking forward to see how the David Ellefson Empire expands over the years and I’ll definitely be watching.

DE: Thank you, I appreciate it.

KT: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

DE: Definitely, I look forward to seeing the article when it comes out.

KT: I’ll definitely shoot it your way. Thanks David.

DE: Yeah, buddy. Ok, man. Bye.