David Ellefson: How Saying Yes to More Things Made My Life Better
Megadeth bassist David Ellefson was the latest guest on Full Metal Jackie's weekend radio program. He's just released the sequel to his My Life With Deth memoir, More Life With Deth, as well as a solo album, Sleeping Giants, that serves as the companion to the new book.
In the interview, Ellefson talks about the latest developments in his life over the last decade all being attributed to the idea of saying yes to things. He even mined his personal music archives for Sleeping Giants, selecting old demos and recordings dating back to the early '90s to appear alongside four newly written tracks on the compilation.
The joint project — the book and album — comes to life on the road on the "Bass Story" tour, which is a mix of spoken word and performance in smaller club settings.
On the Megadeth side of things, Ellefson remains optimistic as Dave Mustaine battles throat cancer, letting fans know work on the new record has not been halted.
Read the full interview below.
Sleeping Giants, the companion album to your memoir, More Life With Deth, lots of great guests on the record. More Life With Deth and its companion album are retrospective. What affects you most about looking back and being reflective at this point in your life?
There’s one main theme that came out as I wrote the book, and that is, ‘Say yes to life.’
I tell many examples of that, including the opening story- the dialogue when I told that I had a group called F5 back in the 2000s in the period when I was away from Megadeth. I had seen the singer on... I think it was February 5th, 2010 when I officially and formally rejoined Megadeth again — I mentioned to him, 'Hey, it’s Dave, did you hear that I’m back in Megadeth again?' He said, 'Man, that’s great, but be prepared for when it ends again because last time you weren’t.'
It was a very sobering reality because like we’re all in rock 'n' roll and rock 'n' roll happens, you know? We’ve been one band now and are officially in our 36th year as a group and the truth of it is we’re very blessed to have had this career we’ve had. But things happen, we’re getting older and the day does come where one day rock bands either they retire, they wind down, they break up - whatever happens. [laughs]
Me and Dave - we’ve had a really good run together, you know, and probably bigger and better and stronger than we’ve ever been right now. I took that as the starting point of the book to talk about the things I’ve been doing over the last eight, nine, almost 10 years since I came back to the band. These opportunities that have just come my way with the record label and the coffee company and some other performing and recording opportunities that I’ve just said yes to them, whereas in the past I may have said no. I finally said, 'You know what? If not now, when? Yeah, let’s go for it. Let’s do it.'
It's the sequel to your first book. What's different with this book as a result of having had the experience of publishing My Life With Deth?
I think with the first book, Joel McIver was my co-writer, and he has written books for Max Calavera, Glenn Hughes and a handful of other celebrity rockstars. He knew where the sweet spots of my life story are that we should talk about. He really helped guide that. On this one, my business partner, Thom Hazaert, he said, 'Hey man, we should write another book.'
I didn't really know what to write about, except we were back in Minnesota (where I'm from) doing a tour, like a coffee tour - making some appearances around my Ellefson Coffee Company.
I happen to stop at the home where I grew up on the farm in Jackson, Minnesota where my nephew lives. He pulled out of this filing cabinet an Ellefson family history from the 1600s to 1979. In fact, I was aware of it and in fact, had been looking for it around my house, and I couldn't find it.
As soon as he pulled that out, I went, 'There's a story. There's sort of the history of not only me, but my dating back to my Ellefson family history in Norway. Let's really talk about the things that have happened over these last several years. Of course, we got the big floor shows, Metal Allegiance, my partnership with Frank Bello from Anthrax with our group Altitudes and Attitude, and really just this very colorful life that I've been blessed with. It really comes back to that one word- just say yes! Just go for it. Go do it.
There are quite a few guest appearances on the record. What makes a particular person come to mind when you're considering the sonic character of the song?
I have some experience doing this with Metal Allegiance, which is very much an all-star collaborative group. We have a couple of records out, we do these sort of all-star performances when we do shows. What I've learned is you let the song tell you who's supposed to be a part of it.
The way the Sleeping Giants concept even happened is I was out doing my spoken word solo bass evenings that we call "Bass Story." I was doing one in Florida, and Thom had suggested we run into the studio one night after our show in Tampa. He said, "Let's go in the studio tonight, and write a song." So, we did. I picked up the guitar, which is how I write most of my stuff, and literally, a song just fell right off the fingerboard. There it was.
We had the band there, so we tracked it, put it down, Thom wrote some lyrics and a day or two later the song was done. My experience with songwriting is very often the best songs write themselves. They just fall right out there. So I had a couple of other songs, and that song by the way was "Vultures."
Then I had these two other tracks called "Sleeping Giants" and "Hammer Comes Down" that I had written all the music to but never got the lyrics or melody over. So Thom takes these and works on them and we finished those up. So initially we were thinking maybe just like a digital download companion to the More Life With Deth book.
Then, I started thinking about it. I have F5 demos from back when that group first formed in 2003 that I really like the character of. [There's] even some songwriting I did in 1993 when I had a tour break from the Countdown to Extinction tour and they've got singers like I've got John Bush singing on one and David Glen Eisley who was in House of Lords.
So I thought, "You know what, not only are these, to me, really good songs — they stand the test of time. I pull them out now, 25 years later some of this stuff, and they still sound really, really good. So that began basically what you have there, which is the LP of pretty much demos of things. They were the sleeping giants of my life. They were sitting in the vaults and now it's time to bring them out to see the light of day.
Chris Poland plays on a track on Sleeping Giants. Musically and personally, what stirs in you when there's a chance to reconnect with someone in a working capacity?
I've been in touch with all of the former members. Dave Mustaine always calls me the ambassador and diplomatic [member of] Megadeth, which is probably very appropriate. Even when we did the VH1 Behind the Music special back in 2001, you couldn't get ahold of Chris Poland and couldn't get ahold of Jeff Young and I did. I reached out to them and they kindly were offered an appearance in that program.
Chris and I connected back on the first two Megadeth albums and tours back in the early '80s and even more storied career with him when he had former Megadeth drummer, Nick Menza in his band. I was playing at the baked potato in Los Angeles the night that Nick had his heart attack and passed away.
The threads that connect us are just unreal. Music is what brought us together and music ultimately is what keeps us together. Even now a couple of Megadeth drummers, Nick Menza, and Gar Samuelson have passed on and are no longer with us here. Their music and their performances with us still keep us connected.
Maybe the older we get, the more, the more I value these friendships that we've got to have. Sometimes our differences we had from the past really melt away when we come together over our similarities with music.
Your "Bass Story" tour is intimate for you to communicate and interact with an audience. What's different about the fulfillment you get from those shows compared to Megadeth?
Well, in Megadeth we're designed to be a performance and it's fortunately gotten much bigger and better over the years into the arenas and stadiums and things like that. That's the joy of that. The songs of the Megadeth show are essentially the backdrop to us as the performers onstage — sound and lights and all of the excitement that comes along with that.
In the "Bass Story" I can literally look people in the eyeballs. These are meant to be 300 to 500 capacity venues that we do this in. It's sort of like the kind of the guitar clinic concept from years back that has mostly gone away. There's not too many of those in music stores and I had done quite a few of those over the years.
I did a spoken word tour behind my previous book, My Life With Death. I went down to Australia and I'd never done a proper spoken word tour. I was like, "Well, what do you do? Do you tell jokes? Is it like a poetry reading? What is it?"
So I took my bass with me and it hit me. While I was doing the story of my life with my audience, it's best told through the riffs that have defined me and the songs that defined me. That's where the platform of "Bass Story" came from.
What we did with it is instead of going into music stores, we take it into nightclubs where people can drink beer, they can buy merch... It can feel like a real night out, like a real club performance.
We usually put a couple of our bands from our label Combat Records the EMP Label Group, which is my record label, on the bill, so everybody wins. It gives a great platform for us to really bring our whole wheelhouse together for a night out called "Bass Story."
Let's talk about Dave Mustaine. He's obviously facing a serious health issue. What's your role with your longtime friend and bandmate in terms of helping him fight this illness?
Well, he's under the doctor's care. So, that part of it is really between him and the doctors. He's well on his way with that as he's said in his announcement. I think the bigger part is just us as a band to be there and support him as a friend. To work on the new album, new music when and where we can with the obvious constraints of his treatments. But I think in a lot of ways having the new album to work on and have something to look forward to is a huge help.
As much as we have to clear our calendar with most of our touring this year, just to give Dave space and time to rest and recuperate, do the treatments and everything, it's not like we've completely stopped everything. We're still working on things.
Dave is a very creative guy. He's funny and very whimsical. He comes up with funny lyrics and thoughts - he'll just pick up a guitar and a riff falls out of him. I've never seen a guy who is more a channel for music than Dave.
He doesn't practice very much like he talks about, but he'll pick up a guitar and suddenly riffs and a song falls out. It's still amazing after 36 years me and Dave rolling together... Just being in the room when that happens, it's just an incredible experience and he still has that, and I think he always will.
Thanks to David Ellefson for the interview. Get your copy of 'More Life With Deth' here and the 'Sleeping Giants' album here. Follow Ellefson on Facebook and find out where you can hear Full Metal Jackie’s radio show here.
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