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.
— Megadeth (@Megadeth) May 25, 2018
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.
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.