After completing Megadeth's 15th album, Dystopia, David Ellefson sat down with Bass Player at his Phoenix, Arizona home for an interview that will run as a print feature in the April issue (coming soon).
Ellefson, who is always immensely insightful and amazing to chat with, discussed the recent departures of drummer Shawn Drover and guitarist Chris Broderick, the additions of drummer Chris Adler from Lamb of God and guitarist Kiko Loureiro of Angra, and how the process for recording the band's triumphant new album went down. Here is an exclusive look at some of the content that didn't make it to the print article.
Tell us about the lineup changes that occurred and how you moved forward during this writing process.
The fans really embraced Chris (Broderick) and Shawn (Drover) and what they did in this band. It was a nice revisiting of the original Rust In Peace lineup, which seemed to be a fan favorite as far as members go. But what occurred to me is life moves forward and music moves forward. It’s important to us that the quality of our music is maintained at the highest level, and in 2015 we knew we had to continue on at any cost. Chris (Adler) has always been a big fan of Megadeth, so he brought a huge energy to this band and these sessions that only a seasoned drummer with a fan appreciation of a band could. And Kiko (Loureiro) is very aware of the history of Megadeth and of our guitar players, and he’s one of the most astute musicians I’ve ever worked with. I feel confident that with the group of players we have now, the music of Megadeth is in as good of hands as it's ever been.
How do you feel the music of Dystopia is different from that of your previous album Super Collider?
There was definitely a very focused mission on the music, where we tended to not focus on hit-single choruses or any of those things that we might have for Collider. When we land on those things they always happen very naturally. But this record was all about taking the throttle off of this thing and letting everybody go to the hills with their playing. And I think you can hear that. The guitars, bass, drums, vocals, solos, and arrangements are a huge step forward from the past couple of records.
How much of your tone comes from your hands and pick work?
It’s all in my hands and pick work. I can take any bass through any amp and grab a pick and it will sound like me. I’ve come to appreciate that because there was a time when I was younger when I wasn’t settled in my sound yet. But having made a lot of records and doing a lot of touring, it eventually came together. Your sound will naturally develop because of who you really are. It’s your voice, your character, and your personality. It all comes through in your playing. My playing is very representative of my character, as it’s very strong and pronounced. As a bass player I don’t need to be in the spotlight all the time, but when I am, I’m going to grab the entire spotlight.
Describe what's going on with your hands when you play.
Ever since I first got my Mel Bay Beginners Bass Book when I was 11-years old, with my Gibson EBO bass in my basement, I knew I wanted to have a “C” position with my left hand where I’m fretting on my fingertips. There’s not a lot of my skin touching the string, which I think gives a very clean value to the notes. My picking hand is where I really try to have a clean distinctive point so that the notes are heard. When the kick pedal beater hits the kick drum, that’s the concussion, and then I’m the fire and smoke that comes through the drum by providing the note.
What is going on in your head during a Megadeth show?
When I step on stage I want to be a performer. As a fan, as a concertgoer, and as a kid who saved up all his money to buy tickets to a show, when I go to a concert I want them to kick my ass and rip my head off. Let’s face it, most concertgoers listen with their eyes. It’s not enough to just play well, you have to also entertain and give them visual presentation. Ever since the first time I took the stage as a bass player at 12-years-old I’ve always been moving around, singing into the microphone, and performing. It isn’t a showboat thing as much as it’s a desire to be connected to the audience. When a performer isn’t connected to the audience, that performer is selfish.
How do you prepare yourself for live shows?
They definitely take their toll on the body after a lot of years. My upper neck into the cervical area of my spine suffer first from holding the bass and moving around with it so much. I try to always pay attention to my strap length, partially for technique and partially so I execute my notes right. But also because I’ve learned over the years that I need to keep things flowing ergonomically so I don’t get injuries. If we’re playing 90-minute sets 5 or 6 times a week, it can really take a toll on the wrists and the forearms–especially of my picking arm. So to prepare for that I try to have a bass in my hands pretty regularly, even if I’m just mindlessly riffing through some things or playing. Warming up is such an important element of staying healthy. When I’m on the road I just try to stay limber and keep my head in a musical mind state.
How have you evolved as a bass player to this point in your career?
When I was a kid I would absorb everything and I would play in church, I would play in jazz band, I got invited to play with 16-year-olds when I was only 12. Anything that I could find to play that would improve me as a player I would dig into. But the turning point for me came when I was 18 and I moved to LA and met Dave because we were starting a new band with a new sound, and that was a blank canvas for me. I got to create what the bass was going to do within this group. It made me realize that a band is really a unit, and we have a saying that team knows what team does. When you’re inside of a group you’re always interactive and aware of the other players. I’m very much a part of a team and a musical gang, so over the years that became more important to me.
Also, going into the studio was a huge wake up call for me. The first time I recorded was the era of Jaco Pastorius and Eddie Van Halen, when it was all about left handed fingerboard gymnastics. The studio taught me that great music is really about feel, groove, tempo and being able to play in time. That was a huge wake up call for me and that began my biggest musical journey to improvement. Playing in tune and playing in time and writing creative and interesting parts have turned into the staples of my playing.
Who are your greatest bass influences?
It’s funny because growing up a lot of the bands I liked had bass players who were also singers, starting with Fred Turner of Bachman Turner Overdrive, Gene Simmons with KISS, Phil Lynott, and a lot of others. A lot of my favorite bass players are songwriters like Bob Daisley, Steve Harris, Geddy Lee. People play bass differently when they’re writers. Paul McCartney and Sting are two other examples of that where their bass lines have different melodic components that fit into their songs in more of an interesting way. At the same time two of my other bass players are Cliff Williams with AC/DC and Ian Hill of Judas Priest. Cliff is a great example of the theory that if you play less notes, more people will like you (laughing). What advice would you give another bass player?
I always say that musicians should play with other musicians as often as they can. Whether it's in the studio or on the stage, it’s important. Music is just a pass through of spirit and the emotions that we emit. Whether upbeat, angry, happy or sad, music is so much more than just playing the notes. There has to be life inside of the notes. So go play with other drummers, go play with other guitar players, play with as many people as possible! Even in my time away from Megadeth I said yes to a variety of playing opportunities. It keeps your mind fresh and your playing strong.
Stay tuned for the full feature in Bass Player Magazine's April Issue!
Photos by Carlos Oliver, Chris A.