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David Ellefson

There are a number of well accomplished musicians that I always felt the need to get to know better. My chance of finding out who David Ellefson really is came when he accepted to do this interview - an interview that turned out to be one of the most enjoyable I have had the opportunity to conduct.

During the thirty minute chat I had with this legendary bassist, I learned a few things about Angels Of Babylon, the latest project that he was involved in, the whole idea behind his workshop, how he managed to get a University degree while being on tour with Megadeth and what advice he would give to any parents whose child wants to become a Rock Star!

(Shortly after John did this interview it was announced that Ellefson was rejoining Megadeth).

David, before we even start this interview I have to say that I was quite surprised to find out how easy it was to get hold of you! One would assume that any man with your background and status would be totally unreachable. It is quite refreshing to see someone as important as you being willing to open up and speak his mind.

David: (laughs) Well, thank you! For me, I probably make myself more available than most and that is because I like to participate in my career and I try to accommodate most, if not all, interview requests, you yeah - let's go for it!

When I first decided to contact you for the purpose of doing this interview, I did so with the intention of focusing on your workshop activities and all the lectures that you give, however, in the meantime I got my hands on an album called 'Kingdom Of Evil' - an album which features your contribution on the bass guitar. Now the band in question, namely Angels Of Babylon, is a project of ex-Manowar drummer Rhino, right?

David: Yes, absolutely - let me give you a little bit of history.

I met Kenny (Rhino) at a studio here in Phoenix Arizona where I live. At the same time I met Kenny, I met a singer called David Fefolt and we all started talking about music. That is when Rhino told me that he had a whole bunch of material ready and that it would be great if the three of us were to start something new and work on it.

So, he e-mailed tracks to me and David and the moment I listened to them I thought that they were just fantastic. So Dave started putting some vocals down and that's when I realised that Dave is not just a great singer but also a great composer.

So, we continued to work on the record and...well, a big part of the record for me is to have seen Rhino first as a gentleman and a great composer and then as someone whose time had come to put his mark forward. I've been through that transition myself coming out of a big band and being known primarily for my work in that big band.

Then the day comes when you have to step out and do some things on your own and so, for me, my participation in Angels Of Babylon, except from playing a little bit of bass on it, is also to kind of be the wind in Kenny's sails and be a supporter and team player for the project.

You know, what you just said here comes across in the music very clearly since, instead of being up front with your bass guitar as we are all used to listening to you, you seem to be happy to play a secondary and more supportive role in the overall process.

David: Yeah! You know, it's funny because Rhino played a lot of the instruments on the record (laughs). I only really had a real participation in the final song of the album called 'Second Coming' as a lot of the songs were already prepared and composed before I joined they project.

Having said that, when I heard them I thought 'oh my God, these are great songs'. Why go and start messing with things when they are clearly working? So, again, I am part of this project from the beginning, so to speak, but as far as my actual musical participation is concerned, that was pretty minimal.

Having said that, I totally stand by it because the songs are great and, again, I think that Kenny is a fantastic person. We are one of these bands where we do projects with the help of the Internet, as each of us lives in different states, but it's really cool that the whole thing came like that. First and foremost, Rhino is a fantastic writer and that is something that most people have not yet heard from him.

I guess the fact that his composing skills are relatively unknown is understandable, seeing as in Manowar it is the duet Adams and DeMaio that call all the shots. Still I agree with you - the fact that 'Kingdom Of Evil' is such a fresh and varied album is proof of Rhino's great skill as a composer.

David: Yeah, exactly. It is a little bit different than what he had done in the past and again - I've been through those transitions and so I always like to champion the underdog, you know what I mean? (laughs) Sometimes in these kinds of situations where there are one or two main writers, often there is a guy who is also really talented in that respect but his skill never reaches the surface. This is what Rhino has stepped up and delivered here on Angels Of Babylon.

So, is there any future in this specific project? Are you going to remain as a steady member of this band's line up?

David: I think so! That's why I put my participation in it. With many bands you start thinking that you will create one record and you start working with such a mind frame and then the phone starts ringing for more things to happen.

So far the response to this record has really been strong. We are now talking to a US record label to get them to agree to release it here in the States. I think that there will be indeed some future work here, but we are kind of taking things as they come at this point. I'd like to think that there will be something more to come out after this album.

Have you guys discussed or even decided whether you would go on tour for the promotion of 'Kingdom Of Evil'? Any dates available?

David: Well, there is nothing in discussion yet, but Rhino is very well connected, especially in the European Metal scene where he made a name for himself so we hope to do something over your side of the pond.

Over here in America there are probably less opportunities for this kind of music unless you go for a package tour, and a lot of these things really come out, they really develop...More in the way of a record company being able to financially support these things, such as touring - especially with a new band where two of the guys might be famous; but still there is a ramp that's required - the label's support in order to make things happen. So, if that comes to the table then of course that helps things to move along much easier.

David, both Angels Of Babylon and F5, your personal project, are classified as Hard Rock acts by the media. Now, to those people who have not yet listened to any of these bands, which would you say are the main similarities and differences?

David: Well, It's interesting because I think that in the recent years there's been more of a Power Metal and Thrash Metal resurgence so to speak and to some degree today, Angels Of Babylon sound more current because, quite honestly, it sounds more's like a classic recurrent, you know?

F5, at the time when we were putting the band together back in 2003 there was a whole different genre of music that was out especially here in America and the guys in F5 are a little bit younger than me, so as much as they may have been influenced by bands of my genre which is Thrash Metal, they are younger guys so, by nature, they will bring up different influences in the music.

Yes, these two bands are quite different, even though the last F5 record was definitely a much more Progressive Metal offering and that was primarily as a result of the fact that both our guitar players worked together as a writing team and really composed everything through a guitar mindset, rather than writing three minute songs with big choruses.

That is something that I am quite good at, actually. I wrote that title track in such a way and that is in general how I write.

The earliest songs that I listened to in my life were from the Beatles and Motown records and it is funny because, much as I don't want to think that I'm influenced by it, you know American Hard Rock like Kiss, Styx, Ted Nugent and Aerosmith, these are all artists that wrote riffs but also had big choruses.

So I think that, to a large degree, influences how I hear a song, as I always want to hear the big monstrous riff but I am also aiming towards the chorus, because that is the thing that really draws people's attention.

As a person that grew up listening to Thrash and now being in my mid 30s, I find that most people like myself who invested in extreme forms of music have gradually developed a liking towards more melodic Rock music. Twenty years ago, I would not even begin to imagine listening to Ted Nugent for instance (I laugh).

David: Yeah, I know what you mean. With the exception of a few of me a lot of Thrash was really uneducated bad music, you know? There is a lot of Punk music which I thought was good like the Sex Pistols - those were brilliant records, they were almost like the Queen of Punk, you know what I mean?

The songs were really well thought out and, as rough as they were, they were well written. It was like smart music, you know?

I think, again, with the exception of a few of us bands that really thrived in the Thrash genre, a lot of the other bands couldn't even write a hook! They wanted to play fast and wanted to be loud and make a lot of noise but, at the end of the day, that is good only for a couple of albums and that's it.

I think that, openly, you have to be able to write songs because songs are the thing that stand the test of time. Most bands don't even stand the test of time - most bands break up!

How many songs have we heard whether is it Nazareth or Guess Who that are barely even around anymore but their songs have surpassed the longevity of even some of their members, you know? I believe that writing a good song is a talent and it's a craft and it's not something that anybody can do.

I agree with what you say, however I find your comments to be very interesting indeed, in view of the fact that you have been actively involved in the production of the DVD documentary 'Get Thrashed' and also as having been a member of one of the leading bands of this genre. Looking back at the Thrash Metal movement and experiencing the resurgence of the genre to a certain extent, how does the whole thing seem to you? Do you feel that there is anything potentially interesting that is possible to come out from all these young bands out there?

David: I believe and kind of learned that everything in life has a twenty year cycle. Financial markets do and farming also - something I know for a fact as I grew up in a farm in Minnesota!

Now, obviously, Thrash Metal is experiencing its twenty year cycle (laughs). Even globally, things run in these twenty year cycles and what we see now in Thrash Metal today we saw happening with 70s music when, during the nineties and early 00s everybody started wearing bell bottoms and big belt buckles!

So yes, everything in my opinion has this twenty or so year cycle and I believe that this is just because human beings are like that! There is a bunch of kids that were either not there when the whole thing happened or were too young to remember it and now that they are a little bit older and they are finding all these records they go 'wow, that stuff is really cool' and they are excited about it!

That attitude helped revive some of the old Thrash groups. As far as these new bands are concerned, bands like Trivium and Bullet For My Valentine, they have worked on our formulas but they have also incorporated some new elements like Hardcore and Screamo stuff. I believe that these young kids will put their own spin on the whole thing and that is a good thing, as they should not try to imitate what we did back in the day. If that was to be the case, people ought to go and buy the records that we did, you know?

David Ellefson

Ever since you stopped being a member of Megadeth, you have become more musically active in many different ways - both from the producer and the artist point of view. Did that ‘freedom' come as a direct consequence of your departure from a band? Would you have still been involved in so many different activities, had you still been a member of Megadeth?

David: I would say that I would absolutely not be able to be involved in all these different projects and, I mean, here's the thing: I never had any plan of not being a member of that group! (laughs)

In fact, to some degree, there is a part of me that still...not so much...there is a part of me that has a little bit of a broken heart over it, you know, because it is something that I was a part of for so many years and right from the earliest days! But one day I got a phone call and the group was over! At that point it was like 'well, now I've got to get on with the rest of my life'.

That must have been a pretty scary moment there for you!

David: Yeah, there were times in the past which were sort of uncertain, like maybe we need time off the road or maybe we needed a short hiatus and those were the periods where I started writing stuff with other people. I started getting enthused and active with other things when all of a sudden the phone rang and I was told 'hey, now its time to go to the studio and make a record with a tour in mind' and that meant that I had to put all that to the side.

Then again in 2002 when the call came that it was all over, I was 'Ok, now this is final', you know? I had no other way to read that except 'this is now final - this is not a reprieve, this is not a temporary thing, this is done now'!

For me, that was a huge shift on every level: emotionally, financially, affected everything in my life! In a lot of things this was a positive experience but there was a bit of a fall out also.

I think that to some degree I was already writing some songs and, more than anything, this development forced me to pick the phone up and started reaching out to people.

Now, that can be a very scary thing, especially when you've kind of lived in the bubble and everybody kind of reached out to you, you know (laughs)? Because when you are a famous Rock Star, everybody comes to you and they kind of surround you and to some degree there is this insularly bubble which kind of always keeps people at an arm's distance.

By my nature, and how I was brought up with a small town mentality, am always pretty friendly and enjoy getting to know people and like having more personally interconnecting relationships with them, so I think that when that thing happened to me, I embraced it, you know?

Some of it had to do with me putting my pride aside initially and say to myself that, even though I am pretty well known as a result of what I did, that doesn't define who I am.

You know, this is the thing that people respect about you!

David: That is good to hear and it's nice because what happened is that all of a sudden people got to know who David Ellefson really is, you know, both as a person, as an artist, as a musician ... it's really funny 'cause I was talking to my wife about it at the time because I had some offers to go out and do some tours - a few different directions I could follow, and the direction I chose know, I have always been known as the bass player in this one band, being a writer and performer, so if there is ever the right time to step out and be an artist, then now is that time, you know?

So I chose that route, which is why I've been involved in so many different projects and bands, producing and writing, and being affiliated with so many different things.

I am now enjoying the artistic side of these things and, to get back to that thing with Rhino, I have been through those transitions myself so when I see a fellow brother on the road going through those same transitions, I empathise with him, you know?

I say to myself 'let me just sort of lend my brotherly help to that person'. I am not of course saying that Rhino is hurting or anything (laughs), but I see what he is going through and it kind of inspires me to see a good man writing good music and doing good things for all the right reasons. Those are the kind of affiliations that I choose to surround myself with now in these recent years.

And this seems to be the mentality with which not only you approach all your musical endeavours, but also your workshop ‘duties', right?

David: Absolutely, yeah! Almost exactly this time last year people were coming constantly to me after each show that I did saying 'man, when are you going to write another book again'? It was almost as if my first book was out there long enough, having gone through that 20 year cycle already (laughs).

So, I started thinking about whether I could indeed do this. I actually talked to a couple of TV people and some producers about doing it and obviously it just became big and cumbersome and I thought: 'as much as it is nice to make money doing what you love, let me not make it about the money - let me make it about being able to open up my life to the fans, to other musicians and just sit and have a shot with them', you know?

And that is the approach I take with the Rock Shop, which is 'let me just sit down and talk with everybody', you know? To sort of invite them into my life and see what I do and see how I roll on a regular basis and in my professional career. Sometimes it's better to get straight into the visual bit of it rather that simply reading a book.

I find this whole thing to be really important as there are not many people with your experience that are willing to do such a thing. These types of projects are probably less valuable when undertaken by an artist who plays music for twenty people at the local pub, but should be done by people like you - people with the experience and insight of how the music business works!

David: Yeah, because you know, here's the thing: my life is a bit of a Cinderella story!

I grew up in this little town outside of Minnesota and, for whatever reason, when I was eleven years old, I was inspired to pick up the bass - the bass of all things, not to become a singer or a guitar player.

Then I did all things necessary in order to move to California. There I met with Dave Mustaine and the story carries on for a great bunch of years. You can say that I kind of feel...well, the best thing that anyone can do is to trust their instincts - following their gut, because that will lead them to where they are supposed to be next.

Don't get caught up in the money, try not to get caught up in the hardships because we all have all of those, you know? Any musician who's been successful would probably be broke, then made some money and then became broke again, you know what I mean? Money has to be the side, sort of...the by-product of your efforts and fame is exactly the same.

One thing you do get all along is, I remember someone told me years ago: 'You know, David, the one thing that no-one can never take away from you is your talent', you know what I mean? I always remember that as it is very true - no one can take away your talent.

The truth is that us musicians, and I say 'us' including all of us, are all capable of doing a lot more than just playing music! That is one of the biggest things I addressed during my most recent Rock shop a couple of weeks ago.

As many musicians we get so caught up in practising and doing the things we need to do in order to become good musicians, but many times we forget to develop our people skills and get connected, learning how to get along with guys in bands.

I mean, maybe you get to be the guy who writes all the songs but that doesn't mean that you should treat the rest of the guys in the band like crap!

Or maybe you're the new guy in the band and you still feel the need to prove yourself most, so you need to learn how to make that thing work! This is so much about getting to hang out with people - it's really what this is about! Music, as much as we all get famous as a result of's so much more than just music itself.

This statement, of course, comes from the mouth of the man who has a Bachelors degree in Business and Marketing!

David: Well, I actually started doing some schooling back in...I think it was during the 'Cryptic Writings' tour back in 1997.

I had a laptop computer and I remember I was in Japan when I was reading my courses. It was easy to do such a thing in Japan because you get a lot of time off there and the shows are early; you get on stage at 18:00, you are the only band as there is no opening act and normally by 20:00 you're done!

So I had a lot of time during the day to read my text books. I would go back to my hotel, I would type my homework in my computer, and then...this was kind of pre e-mail; I had to print my homework, take it down the front desk of the hotel and fax it, oddly enough to a little town in Arizona called Tucson where my tutor lives.

So here I am: I live in Phoenix, I am in Japan and I am faxing my homework back to Arizona, you know? (laughs) That was the irony of it, you know? But it was funny - that was when I started doing online college and I really liked it.

I enjoy my brain being alive and I also did a course in world history which I really liked! I mean, I am travelling around the world, I am studying world history and think to myself 'wow, this has worked so well with the life of a travelling musician'.

This whole thing exercises your brain and makes you think in a different way than most musicians - this is all like right brain creative stuff.

 Yes, I found the whole thing to be really invigorating for me. In 2005 I went back to college and finished up my degree and I also realised that...I put a resume together back in 2002 and thought that this is the first time ever in my life that I ever did that (laughs).

I thought 'I never know if I am ever going to need this thing', but as I put it together, I looked at all the stuff that I did and granted, I am a bass player, song writer, performing artist and all this kind of stuff but after looking through all that, what would make things work would be whether you know how to market yourself right, you know?

The fact that I do this phone interview here is to be able to reach out to my fans, you know? So I realised that most of my life as a musician also required marketing skills, and I thought 'Ok, with college what is it that you want to do?' and then I realised that the whole marketing thing is right down my alley.

That has really panned out and played down well with me being able to work in a lot of other areas of my life - mostly all music related but not always just having to have a guitar in my hands.

Sometimes I find these things to be invigorating because I think that sometimes it's good to be able to do things other than just have a guitar in your hand in order to be a well rounded person. Being a well rounded person gives you experiences that you can then use when you go back to pick up the guitar and to write songs.

You know, I understand exactly where it is that you're coming from as I also do a University degree while having to work and it is really not easy at all. It's not easy, but it is so rewarding in the end when you get good results for your efforts.

David: Absolutely and it is funny because when I was eighteen all I wanted to do was to go out and Rock n'Roll. I had no intention to go to college and I thought that going to college would be a waste of time.

Actually, had I gone to college I would have missed my musical opportunities. A lot of times parents ask me things like 'Little Johnny is a teenager and he wants to go and be a rock star, what should we do'? I say 'Great, let him go and do it'. Then they go 'What? Shouldn't he go to college'? That's when I say 'No - let him go and try to be a Rock Star'! Why? Because either he succeeds by the time he turns twenty or he falls on his face by the time he's twenty and by that time there's still hope for him (laughs).

David, you have already achieved many things in your life and I am sure that you're bound to achieve many more in the years to come, so wishing you good luck for any future endeavours must sound almost insulting! Thank you for taking this time to do this interview.

David: Thank you, Yiannis!


Interview © January 2010 John Stefanis


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