Grammy Award Winning Megadeth Bassist David Ellefson and the EMP Label Group co-founder continues to find innovative ways to both connect with fans as well as give back to a new generation of future metal legends.
This fall Ellefson embarks on a series of limited and exclusive “Storytellers” dates titled Basstory: An Intimate Evening of Riffs and Repartee with David Ellefson. The show combines solo bass performance and storytelling, as he recounts intimate details of his struggles and triumphs.
In December, David and a group of music all-stars ascend on Tampa, FL for the Playback Independent Music Expo (PBX) where those in attendance will have the opportunity to participate in workshops, meet and greets, Q&As with celebrity guests and artists. Joining Ellefson are Thom Hazaert, Mike Clink, Max Norman, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, Steve Lynch, and Jason Bieler to name a few.
Music Madness had the opportunity to talk Megadeth, side projects and the importance of fueling the next generation of metal heads.
David Ellefson: Yeah, kind of, I came off the Europe tour, I went straight in to do photos and shoot a video with Frank Bello (Anthrax) for our Altitudes and Attitudes album that will be coming out in January. A little bit of down time with the family. But yeah I am lucky the phone always rings and I get to hop around and do a whole bunch of cool stuff. So life is good.
Music Madness: In addition to Megadeth, you have your EMP Label Group, the coffee business, and you recently announced your new Basstory Tour. Tell us about that.
David Ellefson: Yeah, I mean Basstory is something that spawned out of a Spoken Word Tour that I did for my autobiography in Australia back in 2015. And I took my bass with me just because I hadn’t done spoken word before and I’m pretty good at standing in front of people and talking and telling stories and stuff but it’s nice to have my buddy, the bass, close by my side just in case I get in trouble or I need to be bailed out. The bass can always help.
And so what I did was the last night of the tour, we’re in this kind of nice, small little nightclub and everybody was sitting down in chairs, these little round tables with the candles in the middle kind of vibe. And it just felt like it wasn’t a night to come out and be bombastic sort of blast bass in everybody’s face. I just sat down on a stool and a microphone with my bass and I just started telling stories about my history as a bass player and some of my early days and going through some of the rifts that I’m well known for. And creating those rifts is kind of the fun stories behind them and I brought a drummer up and jammed a little bit. It was just very intimate like hanging out in my living room with everybody moments. And it really was so cool and it was just this very intimate moment and that really was the impetus for starting Basstory.
Now we’ve got these northwest dates and stuff in Texas and we actually have some Midwest states we’re gonna announce. We’ve got a tour of Europe coming up. And it’s kind of something that I just really feel compelled to take around the world and just do everywhere and anywhere that I can.
Music Madness: Very cool. I was fortunate to see you in Tampa, last September when the tour with the Scorpions was canceled. You and Kiko Loureiro did a little something at the Replay Guitar Exchange; I figured it was something very similar.
David Ellefson: It’s very similar to that you know and these music store type of clinics are really starting to go away. I mean, Replay is a wonderful store and they’ve been very supportive to bring artists in. A lot of that stuff has gone very corporate now and so that personalized touch just isn’t there. And quite honestly people buy instruments and strings and sticks and all their accessories, people buy it online now, like it’s Amazon.
So going to a store is an experience that doesn’t happen like it used to happen. That’s why creating Basstory is a way for me to continue the next intimate one on one sort of fan experience with my fans.
Music Madness: I like it, very cool. You mentioned your previous book; a follow-up to that book is coming out here in the fall, correct.
David Ellefson: Yeah. We were hoping to have it out in the fall. Fortunately, we have a handful of publishers who are interested now in putting it out. I mean initially I was thinking well I could just self-publish it and put it out. Now it’s gone to this next level, which is great. And quite honestly, what’s nice about that is that when you have the expertise of a publisher they also can get involved creatively kind of almost like a record label does with an A&R department, where you get involved creatively to kind of really fine-tune the story and the narrative.
So it’s really gone to this next level. Quite honestly, the story has really snowballed and so many great people have come along to offer some of their historical perspective of my story. It’s so cool too; you know I’m a collaborative guy. Even in the band, I like to be in a band where I can collaborate and it’s the same thing with the book. And especially with it being my life story, it’s great to bring my friends and some of the professional people who are around me during those times, to have them share some of their historical perspective and insights. I just think it adds a nice flavor and a nice color to the story.
Music Madness: Absolutely, and some of those friends included Alice Cooper and Brian Head that got involved.
David Ellefson: Exactly. And a whole bunch more now. So it’s really turned into a wonderful thing. I think it’ll be well worth the wait when the book finally comes out.
Music Madness: Are you familiar with Seinfeld? Did you ever get to watch any of the Seinfeld episodes?
David Ellefson: Oh yeah.
Music Madness: Remember the coffee table book about coffee tables?
David Ellefson: Totally.
Music Madness: I have had the opportunity to interview several bands that are a part of the EMP family, and they are always grateful for having the opportunity to learn from you but the term Dave…isms has popped-up, maybe you should do a coffee table book listing your Dave…isms.
David Ellefson: (Laughing) Dave…isms, interesting. I might have to have you share a few of those with me at some point. That’s funny. I’m interested to hear what they are. I guess it’s a good thing.
Music Madness: Yeah, it was absolutely! Anytime I speak with someone affiliated with the EMP family they always have great things to say about you and are thankful for your input and direction. Your experience and knowledge is invaluable to these younger musicians.
David Ellefson: Well it’s kind of like Charlie’s Angels you know what I mean. It’s like they had Bosely who had boots on the ground who was Tom and then every once in a while they did the phone call with Charlie. You know. I think that’s kind of who I am. It’s sort of like that figurehead up in the cloud. You know.
So sometimes, I’m not involved on all the day-to-day mechanics of the label, but we will always have these calls with artists and I feel it’s my job to sort of cast this sort of bigger vision for the records. Some artists, especially some of them who are younger artists I feel compelled to be involved with them to sort of be a guiding hand and maybe a bit of a mentor to them.
That’s where sharing all of my mistakes comes in handy. You know like the Doll Skin girls said we’re so glad we have David so that we don’t have to repeat his mistakes and I’m like, that’s very wise. As the saying goes, the smart man learns from his own mistakes, the wise man learns from the mistakes of others.
I commend them at their young age to be alert enough and go yeah, look, we can learn from the mistakes of others and not have to fall into some of those almost tragic rock and roll stories that we hear from so many artists. My job is to help protect them from falling into those pit-holes.
Music Madness: Absolutely. I know the young women of Doll Skin have benefited from your mentoring and guidance. Because of how you discovered them, I bet label people are stalking high school talent shows trying to find the next Doll Skin band.
David Ellefson: You know it’s so funny, I was out on my mountain bike yesterday and I rode past the school where I saw them, their very first show where I basically discovered them is literally two blocks from my house. I was out early in the morning trying to beat the desert heat, getting a little exercise and meanwhile we’re on a group text out on the Warped Tour where they are just killing it every night, sold out crowds, 20,000 plus people. I sent them a photo, I said hey by the way, just a little reminder of our humble roots from where we came from.
It’s super cool. It’s a thrill to be able to mentor and help lift up a new generation. I kind of feel as a guy who has to have my own train on the tracks, I feel it’s our obligation to continue to lay more track so that this train doesn’t run out of its line. Because after a while if we don’t give back and help in some way, and I guess we all do maybe as an influence or like that kind of a thing, but for me I just feel compelled to be hands on helping continue this and I think that’s what EMP really is. It’s an outlet and it’s a platform to really be able to help a lot of other artists continue their careers, or in the case of Doll Skin or maybe CO-OP, to help get their career started.
Music Madness: Absolutely, Dash and CO-OP’s new single is jumping up the charts, which is exciting.
David Ellefson: Yeah it’s pretty cool, I remember Thom at EMP telling me this story, when he had to call Alice and Sheryl, Dash’s parents, and tell them that Dash was number four on the radio chart, and also deliver the bad news that Alice was number five.
So it’s really cool to see, we get to have a lot of fun, the Coopers are just a wonderful family. Alice essentially gave me my start, you know. He took Megadeth out on tour, he took a big chance on us cause we were a pretty rowdy young, borderline unmanageable trash metal band. He took a chance on us, and again he’d lived our life already, he’d been where we were and where we were going, and he gave us a little professional fatherly advice too, just saying, “Be careful, don’t burn yourselves out”. He was kind enough to do that for us professionally, and has now become a good family friend to us, so it’s really great to be able to help Dash.
Because Dash is good, first and foremost, Dash is an incredible artist, he has a great sound, and I just love his lyrics. I mean knowing who he is as a human and where he grew up, growing up not only in a heavy metal house, the King of Shock Rock as his dad, but also growing up in a Christian household. Just seeing how he was raised and I can really see his life in his lyrics, hear his life in his music and it’s really cool, it’s kind of like all these worlds coming together in one place, which is CO-OP.
Music Madness: I had a chance to talk to Calico recently, and it was funny, I was like, “Would you guys (Beasto Blanco) ever want to do a family tour with Alice and Dash?” She was like, “Beasto would have to be the headliner.”
David Ellefson: God bless her, that’s awesome. That’s the Cooper way.
Music Madness: Yeah I got a kick out of that.
David Ellefson: She was raised well.
David Ellefson: It’s a brand new concept. A lot of these big sort of expos, or like concrete marketing would work a lot of the metal and independent marketing for our records. There was of course CMJ, which is College Music Journal, that’s now gone away. There was a new music seminar in New York, and again I got to participate in all these over the years as an artist. There were these industry platforms, but you know a lot like the NAMM show and things like that.
We need to have these summits if you will, where we bring people together, and NAMM has certainly maintained to be one of the primary ones, over the years the big one in January out in Anaheim, or Summer NAMM in Nashville is quite a bit smaller but it’s important to have it in the summer. That’s what we’re doing with PDX, is a way to bring together artists, bring together industry people, have showcases so that the young, new, emerging talent has a way to basically show their wares in front of industry professionals.
Because we have the label and we have all these other platforms, Thom called me one day and ran this idea by me and I just thought it was brilliant because there’s so many of these that have gone away. And to do it in Tampa where we have just terrific friends, yourself certainly included in that as a mouthpiece to the people through the media, to Replay Music, some of our artists, Troy from Mastodon is in the area.
Music Madness: Steve Lynch as well from Autograph.
David Ellefson: Yep, and getting other people like Dean Guitars, Jack’s Guitars, producers Mike Clink, Max Norman, Toby Wright. Iconic guys in their own rights, that are coming in to be part of this, it’s just a great way for us to continue to bring the spirit and the community of music together.
Granted that ours is more rock, hard rock and metal slanted. But we as a genre especially need that, because we’re pretty good about that. We’re kind of like a biker gang, we hang together and so I think for us to do this now with the muscle of what we’ve built with EMP, we’re very excited about it. So just again, these things are all about building community and keeping people together.
Music Madness: Speaking of the metal community, you see so much young talent out there right now. However, it doesn’t seem like you see those super bands, like the Big 4 and Megadeth. We aren’t seeing these massive sold out stadium tours and it seems like the industry as a whole has changed.
David Ellefson: Well I guess when I was growing up in the 70’s, just as a young kid, and I go back and I listen to music now and the 40’s and 50’s were kind of the discovery of the guitar. The 60’s you realized you could light it on fire and smash it against an amp, and get a wah-wah pedal, and do all these kind of other fun things with it. It made people go, “Ooh wow, fireworks! Wow this is exciting!” And essentially kind of the birth of rock and roll, on a whole other level beyond Elvis.
And then the 70’s, when I go back and I listen to things I grew up on I hear records where you can hear where they’re developing the flanger, and the talk box, using the Hammond Leslie Organ Speaker on Frampton records. You could just see they were really pushing the envelope to develop the sounds of the electric guitar, electric guitar music, hard rock, pop, and what would become metal.
Then my career in the 80’s and 90’s was really blowing that up even more and by the time the Seattle sound came around, we were almost going in reverse, we were going back to an older vintage 70’s stop box, curly cables, a different era you know. To me it’s funny, so it’s Seattle in a large way and hard rock it was probably the first time we started to go backwards in music. We started to go back to a previous generation to draw an influence to move a genre forward. Obviously, it worked and there was a connection to people because that Seattle scene was so popular, and I liked a lot of it, and I know that’s unpopular to say as a heavy metal guy saying he likes Seattle music but I did. Alice in Chains, I liked the Nirvana records, I liked the first Pearl Jam record, obviously Soundgarden, there was some cool stuff that came out of that.
Then as new metal came along and we took out a lot of those bands, Korn, Coal Chamber, and Godsmack a lot of these groups toured with us early on in their careers. Everything since then is cut up into sort of a throwback to doing something that the previous generation has done so I think the real heart of the innovation was kinda done by the time we hit 2000’s. It was like, okay well all the notes have been played, all the chords have been played; now it’s just a matter of playing them in a different way to that they sound different and somehow we dress it and make it look different.
And every once in a while an artist comes along who really stirs people’s hearts and really takes it to a whole other level. Taylor Swift did that, she shook up Nashville and did something different, and spoke to my daughter’s generation. I watched my daughter listen to Taylor Swift and was like; you know that was me as a KISS fan, when I was 12.
Just stirred everything, you know what I mean? They changed people’s lives, you know. Those great artists like that, they’re a real diamond in the rough, and they don’t come along that often. And when there’s one big one like that, there’s a whole other bunch of copycats that come along behind it. I think at the end of the day, there’s also that other side of it, which is playing music and writing music, whether you’re a global superstar or you’re just singing in the coffeehouse or you’re out with your buddies in the van and you’re out doing the Warped Tour or whatever it is.
You’re doing it because this is like part of the purpose you’re put on the planet. So the final big success, the outcome of that is all been driven by a lot of money. A big machine. And not all of us are going to be so fortunate to be able to tap into that. So that doesn’t mean we should discourage it. We have a song to sing, and we should go out and sing it, whether it’s to 2 people or 200,000 people.
Music Madness: Makes sense. You spoke to going backwards to move forward. Do you think that’s why these rock festivals have become so popular again? In the 50s and 60s, bands would play these big fairs and now we have these festivals. As a young band, if you can get yourselves on one of these and they like you, you are suddenly playing to 50-90,000 people that would have possibly never seen or heard of you.
David Ellefson: I think so. I think about the early 2000s, you started to really see that yesterday’s music is also tomorrow’s music. You know. The classic rock stuff is suddenly… it not only resonated with those of us who grew up with it in our own lives. But it started to resonate with a new generation. There was something so great, so powerful, and so timeless about it that young musicians or young fans and music listeners started to tap into it.
I got to see that personally with Megadeth in 2010. We did the 20th anniversary of Rest in Peace. In fashion, there’s this kind of 20-year cycle. Remember when the bell-bottoms 70s look came back for a minute? Then all of a sudden, skinny jeans are back? Fashion of yesterday cycles through every 20 years.
It’s started to happen with music. I saw in 2010, kids up in the front like up against the barricade who had probably just gone to Hot Topic and bought their brand new Megadeth tee shirt. Like young teenagers. I remember one show in particular, I looked and there was a guy and his girlfriend and they were literally like 15, 16 years old. Maybe younger. I’m looking at them going, “Oh my god. There it is. There they are. This is it.”
The same experience Marty Friedman and I had in 1996 when we went down to go see the KISS reunion tour, when they put the makeup back on. We’re standing there just kind of going, “God, here it is again. The same thing we grew up on, in all of its glory again.” But what I saw in 2010 is that the front third of the arena. There were three generations. There was the front third, which was the young people experiencing Megadeth for the first time. Towards the back of the arena were fans who had been with us probably through, you know, a lot of the 90s and more recent years. Then up in the rafters, up in those seats, were the fans who were our age and had been there from the beginning.
And they still want to do the experience, but they just didn’t want to get their ass kicked or have their beer spilled down in the mosh pit. And now I see it, another eight years later, another ten years later, I see a fourth generation. I’m seeing, we’re in 35 years of Megadeth. Literally, every ten years we see a whole new generation coming in. So we’re kind of in our fourth generation now of Megadeth fans.
Music Madness: That’s amazing. I bet you never thought when you started the Megadeth journey that you would be talking about a fourth generation of Megadeth fans.
David Ellefson: Yeah. Initially, it seemed impossible that we would actually finish the “Killing is my Business” tour. You know. (Laughing) So the fact that we’re here in 2018 having this conversation is truly a beautiful thing.
Music Madness: Just thinking about all the amazing things that you’ve been able to experience and do and now that you get to share with all those other young musicians. That has to be a great feeling. It has to inspire you to even do more.
David Ellefson: Yeah. It really does. You just have to keep the thing going. Everybody references the Rolling Stones, and obviously, they’re the iconic icons. But in our generation, I mean, Judas Priest. These guys are out sounding… they’ve made one of the best records of their career. They sound amazing. They look great. And they’re inspiring for us. Same for Iron Maiden, who are healthy. They sound good. They look good. They’re kicking ass. And it’s sort of like, “Hey, if they’re still doing it, than what do we have to complain about? Let’s stay in the trenches and keep doing it for the love of the game.”
Music Madness: I did just see your brothers from other mothers, Slayer, on their farewell tour. As good as they sound and moving around, I’m having a hard time believing that this is really going to be their farewell tour, but who am I to say?
David Ellefson: Yeah. I don’t know. I haven’t talked to them about it. We support their decision, because they’re our friends.
Music Madness: Absolutely. Megadeth doesn’t seem to be slowing down, aren’t you guys working on new music for 2019?
David Ellefson: We are. Yes. We are. We’re working new material now, and you know, our thing is we kind of go through little spurts of it. We did a session earlier in the year, and then we did the tour. Then re-engaging back into it again now. I think with us, Dystopia proved to us to take however much time you need to make the record you need to make. Don’t let the clock dictate your release dates.
And we can say that now with a little bit of luxury. You know obviously, earlier in your career you’re kind of on a schedule and you have to kind of keep the machine moving to keep making the donuts, if you will. But you know now, we really want to just make great records because they’re something that we feel really complete and satisfied with.
Music Madness: So you’re going to be a vinyl release only.
David Ellefson: Well hey, you know, it’s funny. This vinyl thing, the beauty of it now is people get to enjoy music in a lot of different formats. I don’t complain about it. Thom, my partner and I were talking last night. Some bands just hit on digital. But it’s a shot in the dark. It’s a crapshoot and you can’t base your label or an artist’s career on digital. Some artists connect digitally and other times they don’t. And one thing is for sure: that an artist on tour, who is out performing and engaging with their audience, even having their CD’s and albums for sale at the merch if for no reason, it’s a memorabilia piece. That is an experience that the internet cannot replicate. As great as the internet is, and digital, and cell phones and all these great devices that our supposedly making our lives easier. The thing that none of it can recreate is this true, pure, human interaction, one on one.
Music Madness: Very true. I am a junkie for the live experience. David thanks again for your time and I look forward to seeing you in December.
David Ellefson: Yeah. Thanks for your support, Steve. I really appreciate it.
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Photo by Valentin Szilvia