Interview by Robert Cavuoto
David Ellefson is most famously known as the bassist for Megadeth, but what people might not know he is also a coffee aficionado with his own line of coffee, he is a Lutheran Pastor, he owns his own music label; EMP Label Group, and author of the book; My Life with Deth. At the end of September, David will add another item to his resume; he will be running a series of bass clinics called Basstory – An Evening of Riffs and Repartee! At the time of this interview, there are several dates already scheduled for the US with more to be announced for the US as well as Europe. See below for a complete list of dates as well as a link to purchase tickets to the event; davidellefsonbasstory.com
I caught up with David to talk about what fans can expect at these clinics, his new book in the works, and of course Megadeth!
Robert Cavuoto: Starting at the end of September you will be embarking on a Basstory Tour. Tell me a little about it and what fans can expect?
David Ellefson: The concept started as a spoken word session and is now a hybrid of a clinic and a spoken word. One of the things that makes me feel uncomfortable in clinics is people watching me play the same songs I play live in concert [laughing]. I’m a communicator by nature whether it is with music, lyrics, or us having this conversation. Basstory was a way to be more intimate and tell stories about my life as a musician, as a bassist, and share the history of the riffs that I played on. We will do a Q&A and there might be a jam session with audience members. It is meant to be an intimate, personal, fun, and interactive night. The ones we are doing here in America will be a couple of hours long. There are bands on some of the bills, so it will be a night to get out and enjoy yourself. In some cases, those bands will jam with me as my backing band.
Robert Cavuoto: Do you anticipate any of your celebrity friends jamming with you at select shows?
David Ellefson: Absolutely! In fact, when I’ve done the spoken word clinics, I love to have friends come up and jam a tune.
Robert Cavuoto: Will we see you bringing this to other cities?
David Ellefson: We are initially kicking it off in Seattle in September then going down to Texas. We just announced some mid-west dates and we will announce some dates in Europe soon. Some of those overseas dates will be a master class. The beauty of it is I can tailor it to whatever format I want it to be. I’m playing around with a few East Coast dates as well.
Robert Cavuoto: You have a new book in development, More Life With Deth. What is the premise of it and how will it be different from your first book, My Life with Deth?
David Ellefson: My Life with Deth was more broad strokes of my entire life up until that point. In it I wanted to touch upon my childhood, faith issues, sobriety, and the big transitions in my life; like playing bass in this iconic heavy metal band while crashing and burning with drugs and alcohol. Then getting cleaned up. I was never shy talking about it, but I never put it out there as I did in the book. The new book will dig deeper and discuss more recent things like how the record label and coffee company tie back to my childhood of growing up in Jackson, Minnesota. Also buying the Combat Records name and its relaunch. I share stories from the very early days of Megadeth and signing to Combat and releasing Killing is my Business… and Peace Sells…. The things that happened in the 80s are largely untold. By the time we did Rust in Peace, MTV was well on its way and we were a pretty big band at Capitol Records just starting to get media attention. Most of the stories about us have been from 1990 onward. The stuff from 1990 backward has been untold. I’m touching on that in a way that fans will really love with a lot of musical depth.
Robert Cavuoto: How important is it to be involved in so many projects outside of Megadeth like the record company, book publishing, coffee aficionado, being a pastor, and playing with Metal Allegiance?
David Ellefson: I think it is really important. For almost 20 years until Megadeth disbanded in 2002 all I did was Megadeth. I never wanted to be a solo artist; I never had any ambitions to branch out to do other things. To me, a band is your gang, and you hang out with them. When you are in a group for a long period of time what makes you great is that you all have a single musical purpose. When the group disbanded in 2002, I was forced to branch out. I was 38 years old, had a young family, and not ready to retire. I had a financial motivation to raise my family. It spawned a new season of my life to try different things. I had to get over the ego thing of being the bassist from Megadeth. I became just David Ellefson who did artist relations marketing for Peavey. There I learned about business, and I also got my business degree. I made different friends and business contacts. I learned about sponsorship opportunities which are a huge part of our business now to help offset cost and conduct events. I played with a ton of other musicians who taught me to expand my musical horizons. I was a pretty wide player before I joined Megadeth but when you start to play together you start to get very narrow and being out of the band helped me widen that approach. When I came back to Megadeth, I came back a stronger player and with more depth to my role in the band.
Robert Cavuoto: Back in the day, was there ever a concern if you sobered up that you would lose your creative edge and writing abilities?
David Ellefson: Absolutely! It was late 1989 or early 1990; we had just auditioned Marty Friedman and were in the midst of writing Rust in Peace with Mike Clink producing. I specifically remember sitting in my apartment at the time in Studio City trying to get clean and questioning whether I still wanted to play bass while not being high. That was immediately followed by an epiphany which I mention in my book as “G.O.D – Good Orderly Direction.” It hit me that I started playing long before I ever tasted drugs and alcohol. That is who I really was. The drugs and alcohol just got in the way. I started playing at 11 years old and didn’t taste alcohol until I was 15. It was from the age of 15 to 25 that it started to be a distraction. That was an awesome God-send-moment. I played music because I really enjoyed it and being around people who like to play music. It was a gift that was given to me, and my own selfish inconsideration of drug and alcohol use mucked it all up. It helped me turn the corner, as I knew I had to get rid of that habit. I was clean a few months later.
Robert Cavuoto: Looking back, do you feel that you wrote better sober or under the influence?
David Ellefson: Being sober for sure. I’m not going to lie and tell you that drugs and alcohol at a certain point early on allowed me to let my guard down and take away my inhibitions so I could relax to channel the music. Stuff I wrote on So Good, So Far… So What! was more in that vein. Two years later when we were trying to write Rust in Peace, I was so loaded and strung-out that I couldn’t get off the couch to get to rehearsal. By that point drugs and alcohol were not an inspiration. If anything they were locking me in the house keeping me from getting to my passion. That is the insidious nature of the evil in drugs and alcohol addiction. I grew up in a good family, around the church, and I knew right from wrong. I knew toying with alcohol and drugs was playing with fire. Not everyone gets stung with addiction, but even a normal person can have one too many drinks before getting into a car to drive and possibly kill themselves or another person. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that drugs and alcohol are a slippery slope.
Robert Cavuoto: What advice would the present day David give to the David of the 80s with the drinking and excess?
David Ellefson: Probably the same advice Alice Cooper gave Megadeth on the tour bus in 1987 when we were touring with him. He shared that he was a few years sober at the time. He explained that he used to drink a bottle of whiskey a day and doesn’t now. He told us to be careful, so we don’t burn ourselves out. It was just simple fatherly advice from an icon that had gone before us only to crash & burn. He was in the process of rebuilding his own career, and we took note of it. It’s one thing to talk to people about drugs and alcohol before they start. It’s like my father told me about the birds and the bees after he caught me hanging out inappropriately with my girlfriend, “Sex is like shaving, once you start you’ll never stop!” [Laughing] I think the same with drugs and alcohol. I don’t go on a soapbox telling people what they should or should not do. We all have the facts, and if you want to open the door to the abyss, you did it by your own hands! No one poured drugs and booze down my throat; I took everything on my own free will. It’s one thing if I know not what I do, but it is a whole other sin when I know exactly what I’m doing and still do it anyway.
Robert Cavuoto: That’s great insight and helpful advice to others! This year Megadeth celebrated its 35th anniversary. Are there any special shows planned?
David Ellefson: We did six weeks in Europe and some dates in Mexico. We also have an upcoming show in Indonesia. For these shows, we are digging into the catalog and pulling out some gems. Knowing that we didn’t have a lot of touring, we would focus more on making the new CD. We didn’t want to stage it too high that we were committed to a big campaign of touring around for it. One of the things I started to do on Instagram to commemorate the anniversary was posting these amazing old photos of us and my basses. I started a hashtag #everybasshasastory, and that’s what lead to the creation of Basstory. As I started seeing these photos, I would tell a story about the bass, like what year it was from or what tour it was used on. While it’s impossible to take 50 basses on tour, I can sit with at least one bass and tell a lot of stories.
Robert Cavuoto: Was there ever a bass that you lost, sold, or had stolen from you that you might like to get back?
David Ellefson: There a couple of basses I don’t know what happened to like my first Gibson bass that my Mom bought me. I had a Dan Armstrong Lucite bass that my Dad bought me; which in our darkest addiction a friend went out and sold on me. We have since had a good laugh over it, and all is fine. I had a Rickenbacker 4001 that I bought when I was 15 or 16 years old which I have no idea what happened to [laughing]. There were a bunch of the earlier basses I played like my very first Jackson Quicksilver that Grover Jackson made for me in 1987 which I’m not exactly sure what happened to it. There was a big Megadeth auction were we sold off a bunch of our equipment, but if I had “known” they would have been worth a lot more money I might have kept them [laughing]. The Mockingbird bass with the fighter jet that was used to record some of the Peace Sells… album and used on the “Peace Sells…” video was purchased by a fan and then generously donated to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame so Megadeth would have a presence there. That bass was the first item in the heavy category, and because of that, there is now a heavy metal section in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!