Megadeth's David Ellefson: Return To The Hangar

David ellefson David Ellefson was never farther from the stage than on the afternoon of February 4, 2010, as he piloted his car through the Phoenix suburbs.

As the founding bassist of Megadeth, Ellefson is well known in the music community for laying down the low end for one of the most successful bands in metal history. These days, though, he's a family man living a relatively quiet life.

Ellefson founded Megadeth alongside frontman Dave Mustaine in 1983, but after nearly twenty years of rock & roll excess and mainstream-music success, Mustaine sustained career-ending injuries to his wrist. The prognosis was bleak: doctors thought his chances of playing guitar again were slim at best. In 2002, Mustaine pulled the plug on Megadeth.

Mustaine's wrist had healed by 2004, but when he attempted to reform the band with Ellefson, he discovered that some old wounds hadn't. There were lawsuits. There were ugly exchanges in the press. At least two attempts to get the Daves to reconcile their friendship failed.

Mustaine opted to reactivate Megadeth with a new lineup and released three albums, founded a summer package tour called Gigantour, and worked to reclaim his thrash-metal throne. Ellefson kept a lower profile but stayed active, working behind the scenes in the music industry and appearing on albums by Dream Theater, Soulfly and F5. Most recently, he toured the world with HAIL!, a metal supergroup formed with Andreas Kisser (Sepultura), Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater) and Ripper Owens (ex-Judas Priest).

But all that changed with a text message from Megadeth drummer Shawn Drover.

"I was on my way to lunch with a friend when I got Shawn's text," Ellefson laughs. "I still have it here. He wrote, 'if there is EVER a time for you and Dave to revisit this it is NOW ... and I mean RIGHT NOW!' Within an hour I was talking to Dave, and my plans for the weekend suddenly changed."

The next day, Ellefson left Phoenix for Vic's Garage, the studio and rehearsal space outside of San Diego that serves as Megadeth HQ. Just 12 hours later, he was standing next to Dave Mustaine, bass in hand, for the first time since stepping offstage at the Web Theater in Phoenix on November 17, 2001—the show captured on the band's CD/DVD swan song, Rude Awakening.

Reunited with his best friend and band in time for the 20th Anniversary Tour of Rust In Peace—the band's enduring masterwork of thrash metal—David Ellefson's year is shaping up to be more than a victory lap. Next up are festivals in Europe featuring thrash metal's big four: Megadeth alongside contemporaries Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax, for the first time in history. He's already played on a new Megadeth track, and there are talks of a new album and more tours to come.

Ellefson spoke with the Monitor from Canada on the first leg of Megadeth's 20th Anniversary Rust In Peace tour about the making of this landmark album and his reunion with Megadeth.

Gearing Up

David Ellefson is responsible for a huge sonic footprint in Megadeth, anchoring the band's spider-web riffing while adding a percussive element that has become his trademark. His signature Peavey Zodiac™ Scorpio™ DE bass guitar helps him dial in his sound.

What are you using on the 'Rust In Peace' tour?

Megadeth has a very distinct sound, and to play this record there is an even more discerning, narrow window for tone. Fortunately, when I designed the Zodiac bass with Peavey, one of the things I wanted is a very fast neck, so it would be great for ripping thrash metal. The Zodiac Scorpio DE 4 and the custom five-string I have are working great with the Rust In Peace stuff, as well as the other songs in the set. Those basses just sit right in the pocket.

I read that back in the 'Rust' era, you changed strings before every show. Are you still doing that?

The reason why I do that is there's a bright spank to the tone that is there right as you pull them out of the box. The thing I've been experimenting with lately is combining nickel and stainless sets. Nickel is bright, and I don't have to always change them every night because I might use one bass for a song or two. If I'm using one or two basses for the whole set, then I will. If that sharp sizzle I need isn't there, then I have to dig into the bass harder to get it, and that affects how I play.

Ellefson shows what makes his signature Peavey Zodiac Scorpio DE bass guitar essential gear for metal playing.

Monitor: The Rust In Peace 20th Anniversary Tour is a triumph for Megadeth, and a very positive thing for you and Mustaine. Now that you have a few shows under your belt, what does it feel like?

Ellefson: It's good to be back home. This is something that I always hoped would happen, and when it finally came and I was standing in the rehearsal room playing "Symphony of Destruction," I just looked at Dave with his hair hanging into his face, and it felt like I never left. We're enjoying the second time around the track.

This happened very quickly. You've said in recent interviews that it happened totally organically, almost contrary to your own plans. Did you have any time to prepare?

Dave and I talked on the phone, and the next day I drove from Phoenix to San Diego with a bass in my car, and showed up at Vic's Garage. I had a few hours of mental preparation the night before, listening to the songs, driving across the desert. Knowing we were going to concentrate on Rust In Peace, I mean, most of this material is engrained in my brain so it comes back pretty naturally.

It's been a long time since you've played most of this album, and even longer since you played them with Mustaine. Which songs are the most fun to play, and why?

The big hits like "Symphony" and "Peace Sells" are always fun because the whole building responds. The ones that have been a treat to play on this tour are probably the half of Rust we never played before—songs like "Five Magics," "Polaris," and "Poison Was the Cure." There's a freshness that keeps us on our game so we're not going into autopilot mode.

After Rust In Peace came out in 1990, we did the Clash of the Titans Tour with Slayer in Europe, then toured with Judas Priest and Testament, and then finished with Clash in the U.S. On any album there are certain songs that come off the stage sounding good, and there are some that sound great on the record and are part of your artistic path you took making the record, but maybe don't translate in the live show. Over the years we honed in on the songs that really resonate live. There were about four, maybe five, that we rotated on a regular basis.

By doing it as a 20-year special performance, now people are coming to the show knowing that's what they're going to hear. So it's a special treat when we get to play it all, in order. This has become the soundtrack for their lives, some of them, so the fans get to see it live, performed the way they've heard it all these years.

Early in Megadeth's career, you had a reputation for going through multiple producers on every album. Rust In Peace was the first one made with one producer consistently through the project. Did that have an affect on the outcome?

Lots of times producers would be recommended by the label. Megadeth is a band that always sold enough records that we were guaranteed to make another album. But we were the most misunderstood artists at the label—first, because we were wild, unpredictable and often dangerous. They didn't know how to get their hands around it and develop it. But it's also music that is closely held by the fans, so they were hands-off a lot of times. Mike Clink [producer of RIP] was in between Guns 'N' Roses records, and certainly we thought Appetite For Destruction was phenomenal. We thought that if he could do the same with us, it would be phenomenal. But what was more important to Dave and me was that he engineered under producer Ron Nevison on UFO's Strangers In The Night!

Mike came to one rehearsal, loved it, and then we went into the studio. We recorded it exactly the way we had rehearsed it. What you hear is the band coming into the studio, throwing up mikes, and hitting "record." So it wasn't really produced at all, in a traditional sense. What Mike helped with was the editing that went on, because of the nature of how we recorded it. That was all with razor blade on 2-inch tape, by the way, no Pro Tools! He had a great ear for tone, too, and I think his influence is felt most in those areas.

What was the writing process like?

It's funny, you look back over the career, and every album up through Rust In Peace was a landmark record. Killing Is My Business was a rough-around-the-edges debut, and then Peace Sells really refined it. Then we had the member changes, and it took us time to develop an enhanced Megadeth sound. The writing of Rust started on the So Far tour. It was Dave and me the whole time. We started with Chuck [Behler, drummer from 1987-89], and then Nick [Menza, drummer from 1989-98] came in about midway through writing. We wrote it as a three piece. Marty [Friedman, guitarist from 1990-2000]'s influence came with writing solos. Maybe because it was just three of us doing the record, it kept things focused. Then Marty came in and really shined. We were just getting ready to record, like in three or four weeks. Dave played all or most of the rhythm tracks. The rhythm guitar playing really defines the sound, and that's Dave.

Those were the band's darkest days.

It's pretty interesting, because for the entire writing period we were in a very dark place, then managed to get completely clean and sober when we recorded it. You can hear the vibe in the record. There's definitely a lot of piss and vinegar in the sound. You could hear the mood swing in the record. I think by being clean and having our wits about us, that's what made the record as fast and furious as it was. We were basically a raw, exposed nerve.

There were some huge transitions during that period. 1988 was fun and chaotic on the road, and '89 was the black cloud of doom hanging over us. In 1990 we got clean and ferociously blasted through the record. It only took a month to record and a week to mix. Clink had to run and do the Use Your Illusion records, so Max Norman came in to mix, which was a godsend because he ended up producing Countdown to Extinction and everything through '95.

How did you walk away from that headspace with an album as timeless as Rust?

It was written while we were completely out of our heads, in the darkest days of my life. We have a set of demos of "Holy Wars," "Rust In Peace ... Polaris," and I think "Tornado of Souls," that we demoed with Chuck, and they were really slow, almost like groove metal. I don't think we changed a note. But in '89 we worked them with Nick, and demoed them again in December—ironically, Chris Poland [guitarist from 1984-87] played some solos on the demos—and then Marty came in and blazed through it. Sometimes these days when you have an opportunity to change things in Pro Tools, you do that. With Rust, we had to walk in ready to nail it right away, and we did it. No studio trickery. Just raw—microphones in front of speakers and drums.

The anniversary tour stage set looks authentic, even down to the radiation symbols on Shawn Drover's kick drums. Is everything based on the original stage props?

At one point, we held auctions and sold off some old stuff, like tour props and random things. Dave knew the girl in Hollywood who bought the Rust In Peace tour set. So he contacted her, and she is basically loaning it back to us for use on the tour. What you're seeing is the exact set! She must have had it hanging in her apartment for 20 years, because it looks great. We recreated the entire look. We want it to be a trip down memory lane for the fans.

Any plans to do the same anniversary treatment with Countdown to Extinction in 2012? Some people believe that's when the world will end, and you could go out on top as the world burns.

[Laughs] I think doing this tour has opened Pandora's box. Shawn is a huge Megadeth historian. He pointed out that this summer marks 25 years since our first record came out. And almost consecutively, each year for the next few years is another album anniversary. If the world ends on Countdown, then how apropos? M

Watch the video for Megadeth's Rust In Peace classic, "Holy Wars... The Punishment Due."

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