Megadeth Bassist Dave Ellefson on the Metal Aging Process
Megadeth: One of the most influential thrash metal bands to come out of the '80s. Megadeth are so metal that lead singer Dave Mustaine was kicked out of Metallica after he punched James Hetfield in the face (a hair-metal feud that's lasted three decades). Megadeth are so metal that after nearly every album, Mustaine fires at least one musician. (Dimebag Darrell was once offered a job.) Megadeth are so metal that bassist Dave Ellefson quit the band, sued Mustaine and then returned to make more music with the once-volatile singer. Megadeth are so metal that Satan sold his soul just so the band would turn down the music because his ears were bleeding.
"Peace Sells" (1986), "Symphony of Destruction" (1992), "Sweating Bullets" (1992) and "Trust" (1997) are four of the many reasons why this band will forever be remembered as the epitome of metal. Megadeth have sold more than 50 million records and started one of the most successful rock festivals since Ozzfest: 2005's Gigantour, which featured Dream Theater, Anthrax and Fear Factory. This year's lineup features bands whose members were part of other successful metal acts. Black Label Society's Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne), HELLYEAH's Vinnie Paul (Pantera), Newsted's Jason Newsted (Metallica) and Death Division's Jerry Montano (Danzig) are just some of the musicians on the tour whose roots delve deep into the metal world.
On July 12, Gigantour arrives at the Gexa Energy Pavilion in Dallas, and we had a chance to speak with Dave Ellefson about this year's lineup, behind-the-scenes video cam and 2013's Super Collider, one of Megadeth's most controversial albums.
How's the tour so far? Any highlights from the first show?
We've only done one show so far — an outdoor amphitheater in New Hampshire, a bit of an out-of-the way, off the traditional tour path of starting in a major city like Los Angeles, Chicago or New York. When you come into the major cities and start, there's pressure: "We have to get right out of the gate. Or else." Starting out at the amphitheater had a country summer vacation feel about it. That was a great way to start the tour. In some ways, Gigantour is a representation of how big and broad our metal community has grown over the last three decades.
Does the set list change with each venue? Do you ever just say, "This feels like a 'Symphony' moment"?
Everything we do is very organized because our production has grown over the years, a lot of elements that we can't just wing it. Megadeth has gone from being a scrappy little punk jazz thrash band to a big arena show band. But the set list does change every night. Sometimes just for fun. "Hey, let's play the new album songs later in the set rather than earlier." Sometimes we'll add a different song or take one out. We look at an old set list from a certain city like Dallas, which we go through regularly, to make sure we don't carbon copy what we played last time. It's important for us to give our fans a different concert experience every time we come through.
Explain "The Woodshed" idea.
That's something we want to do on a regular, somewhat selective basis: to have a camera backstage filming a lesson/musician banter between one or a couple of musicians, to show fans an inside view of how the musicians play and compose, getting into the heart and soul of each individual player. It would almost be a shame not to show that backstage interaction.
How is this tour different from other tours?
In some ways, it is the same because Megadeth is Megadeth. But the world changes, you change, things move forward, and there's different ways of doing business, ways in which we can participate in activities that we couldn't before. Part of that is because we didn't quit. We're still here to tell about it. Sometimes when you just stay in the game long enough, opportunities come around. I remember years ago, we were the little band opening for Alice Cooper, Ronnie James Dio and Iron Maiden. Now we're the band who's the headliner on an arena tour. That can happen one of two ways: Either you have immediate success or you have a 30-year history of putting the stones firmly in place to build a legacy. That's the route Megadeth ended up taking.
What is it about the music that appeals to you?
The music I heard on WLF-AM out of Chicago, because I grew up on a farm over in Minnesota, transmitted 300 miles. So I could actually hear rock 'n' roll on the radio. Styx, KISS, Foreigner, Bachman Turner Overdrive are all hard-rock predecessors of mine who really dangled the carrot. When I heard those guys with gruff voices singing rock 'n' roll and playing flashy guitars and cool drum kits and lights and smoke, those were the things that lit me up. I saw the presentation onstage and was like, "Wow, I want to do that."
But when you're young, that's like saying you want to be a fireman or a doctor. At some point, you somehow separate the wheat from the chaff — do you have the musical gift? Fortunately, I do. Then you develop the music, and it becomes your passion and comes full circle when you take it onstage and realize, "OK, I can't just stand here, stare at my feet and play on my guitar. People are paying money to see the show." The music from the '70s was the beginning of show business in rock 'n' roll. Those are the influences for us in this band, what helped us to create our own version of that with Gigantour.
Right, like fans comparing "Kingmaker" off the new album to Sabbath's "Children of the Grave."
Well, I can honestly say we don't sit around and say, "Dude, that sounds like KISS," or "Hey, that sounds like Sabbath." We are very much our own band. And usually when it sounds like something, we deviate away from it, especially when it sounds like something we've done in Megadeth. We raise our own bar and challenge ourselves to not sound like other bands, not to keep writing the same songs.
So you get a new record like Super Collider, which I will admit has been certainly one of our more controversial records and certainly people have a lot of opinions when they don't have to pay for it because they can click on it, listen to it and make comments. They say all kinds of nasty things they would never say to your face. But I will say that I haven't heard any paying customers complain yet.
Some artists claim their "current state of being" is the biggest influence on their albums. How has your current state of being affected the new album?
People acquire music in different ways than the old traditional style of listening to it on the radio or walking into a record shop and seeing an album cover. It's not like that anymore, and I think all of us artists who've been doing this for more than a few years are aware of that. But I think the best Megadeth records are the ones when we get together, start writing songs and then look at each other and start headbanging ourselves. Those are the records that have always done the best by us and by our fans.
As one of the "Four Horsemen of Thrash," what do you think the future of metal holds?
Metal was always founded on not doing what the mainstream did, and as a result, metal got so popular that it became part of the mainstream because so many people appreciated its ideology. The thing with metal is as we grow up, our influences change, our songs obviously change, but also our fans are growing up with us as well. And I think no matter what, when you get a group of guys together like you do with Megadeth and we play, it always sounds like Megadeth.
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