Interview by Robert Cavuoto
David Ellefson is one of the most recognizable names across the world as the bassist for Megadeth. With a career spanning 38 years, David has recorded scores of albums and toured the globe countless times.
He is one of the hardest working musicians of our time, providing fans with music not only from Megadeth but his multiple project bands. He has written books about his life, started a record label, and is a coffee entrepreneur. He most recently released a cover record in 2020 called No Cover with many of his rock star friends, that was met with critical acclaim. While fans patiently wait for the next Megadeth record, David and Jeff Scott Soto [Yngwie Malmsteen Rising Force Band and Sons of Apollo] have now joined forces to work on 15 songs that will be an Ellefson-Soto band effort. This band is rounded out with Andy Martongelli on guitar and Paolo Caridi on drums.
I spoke with David about this new collaborative effort between him and Jeff, what fans can expect it to sound like, and what is entailed with their creative process. Also, no interview with David would be complete without asking him when fans can expect to hear new music from Megadeth, find out what he had to say!
I think it’s great that you continue to release music during these difficult times of the pandemic. I believe it lifts people’s spirits; how important is it to you to do that for your fans?
David Ellefson: I think it is really important. This is our gift, our vocation. This is what we do as musicians and songwriters. For us to be able to connect with other people with similar talents and continue the creative process is super important to lifting our spirits. I think you’re right; when the fans hear it, they feel like there is hope. Music has always been a diversion away from reality. Listening to music has taken me out of school, out of work, away from pain and made me feel something different than what was going on at that moment. That’s the transformative power of music, and for us to be able to do that in the middle of the pandemic when not many things are available to us, then it’s an absolute honor and gift that we are able to do it for people.
Tell me about the musical connection between you and Jeff Scott Soto on this collaboration?
David Ellefson: Jeff and I ironically grew up together in the business. Jeff was with Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force, and Dave Mustaine and I went on to form Megadeth. Jeff was probably a year or so ahead of me when his first record came out. We are both from the same era [laughing]. I love his work and everything he has done. He is one of those singers who has an identifiable sound, look, and charisma. That is something I look for when I’m partnering with people on creative endeavors. I think it’s true whether it has been with a drummer, guitarist, or singer. My first musical interaction with Jeff was when I hired him to sing on a song I wrote about a year ago, which will hopefully be on this upcoming record. That song wrote itself as it was very simple. I can sing well enough to write my own stuff, but when it comes to selling the song, it needs a real singer. I couldn’t find the right person, so I called up Jeff. I asked him if I could flip him a couple of bucks to sing on it. He turned it back around to me in an hour, and I was blown away. He not only included the lead vocals but did the harmonies as well. I only had to go back to change one little part because I decided to change a word. I realized how professional and how accommodating he was. That made an impression on me! I worked really hard last year on my Ellefson solo band with original materials and then quickly pivoted to do covers with the No Cover record; I had other material that I was writing which I knew would not find a home inside the Ellefson solo band. So in January of this year, I thought I should take a season of my life and work with Jeff on this material. Two months later, we are mixing 15 songs that we wrote and worked on together. When I connect with someone, it just rolls out. Every day it was a new idea and a new song of collaborating. So with Jeff, my guitarist in Italy, Andy Martongelli, it has been a beautiful creative season. I feel like we have a very solid record.
You live in the thrash lane, and Jeff has a great deal of time in the progressive rock lane with Sons of Apollo. What does the collaboration sound like when the two of you join forces?
David Ellefson: For the time being, we are using our two names as the band name to state the obvious. Musically we need to state the obvious as well. What does it sound like when the guy from Megadeth and the guy from Rising Force join together to make a record? People want to hear Megadeth and Rising Force together in the same room [laughing]. Let’s not kid ourselves! Let me say that we have definitely accomplished that and so much more! The next thing we tackled was who is David and who is Jeff in 2021; what can they create together that is not limited by their pasts while taking the bridle off and letting the horse go. I have to say we have covered the pallet. I would sit down to write at the piano and bring the ideas over to Jeff. He can sing the hell out of a ballad. He can do everything we know he can do, plus more. He has power in his voice that never loses sensitivity. Not everyone can sing great hard rock, and that same person often cannot sing with grace or sing a tender song like he does. We decided to throw everything and anything at each other to see what we come up with. That’s been the fun of it. I know there aren’t things that I can bring over to Megadeth, and now there are things I can’t bring over to my Ellefson solo band or to Metal Allegiance. After you make a record, the die has been cast. After you make two records now, you set up a presumption of what this will continue to be. Often, it’s the third record that defines what you do forever. The fun of this record is that there are no boundaries!
When writing for any of your bands, where does a song idea or riffs start? Is it with the guitar, bass, or piano?
David Ellefson: With me here, now, I have seven basses, an electric guitar, a few acoustic guitars, and a piano. There is bass here in particular that when I pick it up, it has songs in it. I never practice on it; it is only pick it up when I need inspiration for writing. I almost play it like a guitar. I go as far and not to even change the strings on it! [Laughing]. I also have an ESP guitar that I picked up recently at a guitar store here in Arizona for $300. I walked into a guitar shop, saw this one, and when I picked it up to play it, it had music in it! Most of my creative instruments are not expensive, and most people can afford them. One of my acoustic guitars is a cheap little thing that I have probably written 20 songs on. Every time I pick it up, a song falls out of it! Same with the piano, I bought it in 1983 when I moved out here. The negotiation with my wife was a pool table or a piano, and the piano got the thumbs up [laughing]. The riff on “Family Tree” off Youthanasia was written on that piano, and I moved it over to guitar for the album. It’s great to write on an instrument that can easily transition the riff or song over to another instrument, and it can suddenly take on a whole new life. There is a song that a friend sent me as a poem, I picked up the guitar over some coffee, and suddenly it could be a Dierks Bentley national anthem type of song. I played it at the piano, and suddenly it became a Carole King song for a Celine Dion album which is a completely different take. Knowing that Jeff can sing a ballad well, I sent it over to him, and he just rocked it. It’s great to know that you can go over to your friends. That they open to it and willing to explore it with you. Jeff and I have a relationship that I know I can hand off an idea, and he will run with it. Other times I handed him completed songs, but everything is open to interpretation and collaboration. We have both worked in bands where things are not open to interpretation, and you have to sing and play exactly as it was given to you. That’s fine too. In this situation, I wanted it to be fun and collaborative. I want his DNA on them. It has both of our names on the door so make it sound like Ellefson-Soto!
You guys really nailed that 80s throwback sound on “Swords and Tequila,” particularly with Andy’s guitar playing. Did you do anything production-wise to achieve those tones, like using vintage amps or pedals?
David Ellefson: Andy and I have done a lot of work together. Kiko Loureiro introduced me to Andy when we were in Bologna, Italy, on the Megadeth Dystopia 2016 tour. He is a high-energy, super positive guy and a furious guitar player. When I was doing a Basstory Tour in Europe, he put a band together in Italy. Italians are top-notch players who can sing, play, and their tone is amazing. That made an impression on me. When Frank Bello and I put together Altitudes & Attitudes and were opening for Slash in Europe in 2019, I called Andy. When I was working on the Ellefson solo tour with KK Downing, Andy and I wrote a song together on the first day of rehearsal. It was this pop-rock song with a Pantera middle section; it’s the song that became “Simple Truth.” It was fun, easy, and productive. Andy brought in his mixing person, Alessio Garavello, and he has a unique sound when he mixes. There are certain guys that we work with who bring it all together. That sound you are talking about is Andy and Alessio working together to create it. We recorded it remotely because of the pandemic. When we sent our tracks over to Italy and London, where Alessio is located, I had 100% confidence that they will bring it all together to deliver this impactful sound with weight and depth. It punches you hard. We all have a productive and creative working relationship.
When can we expect this record to come out?
David Ellefson: I’m not sure yet. Once we pushed out “Swords and Tequila,” the phone light up! We are ahead of schedule from where I thought we could be to meet our deadlines. We have management and labels are interested. It all happened unexpectedly, and we are processing of sifting through it.
The beauty of that song is the riff-driven song’s simplicity, similar to the songs on your No Cover CD. Would you ever consider exploring on a solo CD of original songs with that throwback mentality without all the instrumentation layering, tons of notes, and simple production values?
David Ellefson: Funny you mention that, I grew up in the 70s with hard rock and then the 80s came with all the shredding with Yngwie, Randy Rhoades, and Jaco Pastorius on bass. There were always a lot of notes, particularly in jazz fusion. Megadeth was the same way, always pushing the envelope. It’s funny our influences were AC/DC, Aerosmith, and KISS, who wrote power-driven songs. Our generation took it to the wall with their progressive playing. I have had a similar conversation with Kiko, where I told him I’m sick of notes [laughing]. BB King and Angus Young just took one-note, made it sustain, and rattled the roof. You don’t ever have to ever apologize for being simple because being simple is what people always remember. Musicians ask me all the time what the hardest lick to play, and I tell them it’s the simplest one because every note matters because when you hold that note, people can really hear how you are playing. When you blaze through a million notes and add distortion, it covers up a multitude of sins. You can play super fast and super sloppy and still sound like a guitar hero. To really write and create something simple that is suddenly on everyone’s stereo, we know how hard it is because on a few bands have ever done it, we can name them on a couple of our hands. That’s because they created cleverly simple songs. I found that out when we did the No Cover record. The genius lies in the arrangement; it’s like taking parts of a jigsaw puzzle and putting all the pieces together to make a picture. A pile of riffs on the floor is not a song until it’s arranged properly to become a song. I did that with some of the songs Jeff and recoded; we had all the parts; we just had to arrange them differently specifically for him to be able to sing over them.
I think it’s safe to say that fans are about to explode waiting for the new Megadeth CD. Do you think the band will release some lyric video singles soon to hold us over?
David Ellefson: We were preparing to do some of that last year, and things turned into the 30th anniversary of Rust in Peace. This record has been simmering, and the sauce is getting pretty tasty [laughing]. It’s an important record, and it really needed that time as a follow-up to Dystopia. We went into this one, being pretty hard on ourselves. With Megadeth, we do not want to repeat ourselves. We don’t sound like anyone else, and we are pretty tough on ourselves not to repeat a lyric, a riff, a melodic line, or structure from our past. That is where we get very critical to keep raising the bar on ourselves. We are 16 albums in, and there are only 12 notes on the scale [laughing]; we have sung a lot of words on a lot of topics. The first thing I’m sure people wanted to write is a COVID or a pandemic song which is so obvious that I’m sure we will see a ton of records about that next year. The biggest thing now for us is touring this summer; we are told it will happen. As the tour happens, that unlocks the process of releasing new songs for the next record.
Tell me about any additional pressure on the band with this newer line-up?
David Ellefson: David, Kiko, and I have made a record before, but Dirk Verbeuren is new on drums. Dirk was a weapon in the arsenal that we really wanted to maximize. The drumming in Megadeth has been held to a very high standard with Gar Samuelson, Nick Menza, Jimmy DeGrasso, and Chris Adler, as we have had some of the best in the business. Dirk is a guy who is a great writer who writes riffs and drum parts, and it was fun to push him to do things that were almost insanely impossible to play but were easy for him. It’s great to have guys in the band that you can put anything in from of them, and they can play. That takes things to another level. We listened to all the tracks and were blown away. We could have released it as an instrumental CD, and it would be an amazing prog-metal record. It was enjoyable to listen to. I have learned a lot from making our Megadeth records over the years as it’s always this building process. It was a laborious and painstaking process in the beginning of writing songs, with the exception of Peace Sells. Those songs didn’t write themselves sitting in a room with everybody jamming. It was always built with bits and pieces, like putting the blocks in place to build a wall that would eventually would become a house. This band works differently than four guys getting into a room and jamming during a couple of afternoons to complete a record.