Interview with Thrash Bassist Dave Ellefson
Having published a book that delves into the music industry business and having a degree in business and marketing, I consider David Ellefson (aka “junior”) to be a jack-of-all-trades. After departing from Megadeth in 2004, Ellefson continued to search for new and better things such as producing and collaborating with other bands that were in need of a good bassist. Lately, David Ellefson has a new record coming out with Angels of Babylon that comes out this month.
Daniel Becker: In an interview I recently saw you said you almost joined Soulfly. What kept you from joining them?
David Ellefson: Well, I played on two records from them. I played on “Prophecy” and I did a cut on “Dark Ages” as well. I did a couple shows with them on the “Prophecy” tour as well as the video for the title track. I also did some dates on “Dark Ages” tour. However, I did not join as a full-time member. Bobby Burns had come in to play with them, and we had discussed it, but at the time I was just getting into some other stuff so the timing did not work out that well. I was happy to help them out with their records and do some of the touring with them, too.
Becker: How were the collaborations with Necro? Do you think you will make an attempt to cross over to other genres in the near future?
Ellefson: Well it is funny he asked me because he is really a big metal fan. He is a rap guy professionally, but ultimately he is a big metal fan. So he had Scott Ian and I help him on a track. I never played on a rap record before and I just pumped out a bass line for him. I kind of threw it around Scott’s guitar part. So what I did was contribute from a metal perspective around Scott’s rhythm riff and Necro did his thing on top of it. I just thought it would be fun to do because I have never done that type of thing before. I don’t know if there will ever be anything more to come like that, but it was a fun one-time deal.
Becker: Do you enjoy crossover music like Suicidal Tendencies, Rage Against the Machine, and Anthrax?
Ellefson: Some of it I do. Probably my favorite type of crossover, if you can call it that, would be Faith No More. At that point in time, that whole metal-funk thing was popular. I was not a huge fan of that movement but on one level I kind of liked it as a bass player. That is where Billy Gould from Faith No More came in. He was a really good bass player and I thought he had a great feel for it because he played really cool and interesting lines. Of course Jim Martin playing straight metal guitar riffs on top of it made it really cool to me, too. In my opinion, they were one of the better and more inventive hybrids of a couple different musical styles coming together.
Becker: You were instrumental in the success of Megadeth, Soulfly, Avian, Temple of Brutality, F5, Killing Machine, and Hail. Are there any other side projects that I did not mention? Also, how the hell do you find the time to do all of this?
Ellefson: As far as the time issue is concerned, I get a lot of calls to play and participate in different things. For me, I just like to play! When choosing, I ask myself a couple questions. One, if I like them as people. That is really important to me at this point. I don’t like to put myself in situations anymore where I don’t like the people I am working with. I mean there is a certain point when you are younger you have to deal with a lot of that crap, because you don’t really have a choice. After awhile though, it is nice to not have to do that anymore; you don’t have to compromise your principles to do something with people you just don’t like to be around. I think when you get older that becomes as important as the music. Just as importantly though, the music has to be killer; it has to be something I feel like I want to be affiliated with.
In particular, this new record called “Angels of Babylon”, that I played some bass on, is something that my friend Rhino from MANOWAR and the singer and David Fefolt from Phoenix, AZ wrote. We had a great meeting of the minds before we started it. We got along well and then we started listening to Rhino’s initial material and it really started to develop from there. It is a really good brotherhood of musicians.
Becker: You also work for Peavey Electronics Corporation as an artist relation’s representative. Any interesting stories or cases you took up?
Ellefson: I have been doing it for quite awhile now. Professionally, a lot of us have endorsements with various companies and my work for them is really just an extension of that, as far as being the one who can extend the arm out to other artists to get endorsements. There is some marketing involved in it and I really enjoy it because it is different. It is in the music business but not actually playing music, which makes it pretty cool in a different way. Ultimately, I’ve enjoyed the artist relation’s work because I like working with a lot of the companies and spreading the good will in the artist community.
Over the years I’ve produced a bit and I did a little management at one point. I don’t like doing management to be honest, because it is a lot of babysitting and a lot of work, often with difficult people. I produced a HELSTAR EP a few years back, and did some developmental work with the F5 guys’ bands before we formed that group back in 2003.
Becker: Since you are in the music business do you think the industry will halt the manufacture of CD’s as everything becomes more digitized?
Ellefson: Yeah, I think so eventually. The key part is the actual process of manufacturing. That is going to become less and less as the Internet becomes more and more.
Becker: Yeah, it is more interactive too.
Ellefson: Yeah, it does not change the song. It does not change the fact that someone has to write it, record it and release it, but I think we are in a huge transition right now; it is less about having to manufacturing something to sell. The Internet has truly become the new assembly line now, hasn’t it? It is this new mechanism…this new way the world is gravitating toward. It is more and more the way business is conducted nowadays.
However, some things you cannot do on the Internet. Like, you cannot take a flight or travel on the Internet, and you cannot physically buy a carton of milk. But, you can order it and have it delivered, just like music and the videos, too. The Internet has become so convenient for us. Plus, if you are a “green” type of person it is even better because something that was manufactured and then has to be destroyed is no longer an issue. It becomes the smarter way now on most all levels.
Becker: You can agree that the music industry is changing; do you think record labels will even be necessary in the future?
Ellefson: Well the funny thing about labels is that they started to become an old model of how the industry operated. The whole part of the manufacturing and distribution side of the label is definitely changing because you and I can make recordings in our house, if we wanted, and put them up on MySpace. In essence, we become our own distributor and not have to manufacture anything. That is part of the business that is going to change and the record companies were caught with their pants down because they were not prepared for this change.
At the same time however, there is another side of what record companies do and that is they are a talent scout; they front the money to artists to record and eventually tour and market the music. Those things cost money and someone has to do that, which is where labels come in, as most artists are not in a position to be able to do that.
I think going out to see a live concert is getting hurt a bit now because the Internet can emulate that to some degree, especially with videos on YouTube. But, people like going to concerts because of the interactions. Tickets are expensive but the interaction with the people cannot really be replaced on the Internet.
Becker: To what degree do you think illegal downloading and free-streaming has adversely affected bands and the music industry? Some people argue the extent of illegal downloading, what are your thoughts on it?
Ellefson: Illegal downloading definitely hurts the music industry, without a doubt. The reason why is because lets say you walked into Best Buy, picked up a CD and walked out without paying for it. The sensors would go off and you would be arrested and probably thrown in jail! However, people seem to think because it is on the Internet, they can do whatever they want, and if they do not get caught then it is okay. The truth of the matter is just because you do not get caught does not mean it isn’t wrong. I just think that boils down to ethics and people doing the right thing. Sometimes human nature is that when we are left to our own devices, we won’t do the right thing and to often we will do the wrong thing.
Younger people purchase the most music. Young meaning teenagers, early twenties, or thirties, but as people get older they buy less and less music because they are in to other things at that point in their life. I just think that sometimes as young music fans we like to think that it is nice to get something for free. We think if we have to pay for something we will not buy it. But, it costs somebody money and effort to make that song or record, and they deserve to be paid for it…especially speaking from an artists’ perspective. I think some fans assume that the artist is rich, so he shouldn’t care if someone just downloads his song. “Why is he complaining?”, they ask. At the same time, it is not about getting rich. It is about getting compensated for the effort and work you put into the songs you made.
Becker: I mean, I buy all of my CD’s because I really enjoy the artwork and I want to see the official lyrics. Also, I really hate listening to music on MP3 because the file is compressed so you lose some of the quality. I remember listening to “Downfall” by Children of Bodom on MP3 and I could hear no bass among the many other audio distortions…
Ellefson: Probably, if you are talking about a lower resolution MP3. A cassette is not going to have the quality that a CD either. Again, as we move forward, more and more music is going to be distributed digitally online so it really comes down to people paying for it. There are no free lunches in this world unless someone offers it to you. Unless they offer it to you, no one should assume it is free.
Becker: Do you like listening to CD’s, cassettes or vinyl?
Ellefson: In this day and age, I mostly listen to music when I am in my car. That is when I am just driving and I’m kind of zoning out and can listen to the songs. Otherwise, I’m playing it, recording it, or writing it. I actually buy most of my songs online because it is extremely easy and convenient. I can just pop over to iTunes, Rhapsody or whatever, and it hits the credit card and it’s mine. I do pay for it. As an artist who makes my living from music, I certainly do not want to take anyone's music either.
Becker: As a bassist, do you get annoyed when a lot of bands tone down the sound of the bass since it seems to be sort of the new trend in a lot of music I listen to? A lot of bands do this to heighten the sound of the guitar and vocals making the bass almost unrecognizable.
Ellefson: It depends on what it is. As you listen to most of the recordings I play on, you can definitely hear the bass. I think it is because I play my lines a certain way that helps it be heard.
If you are listening to a pop record, like No Doubt or something along those lines, then you definitely are going to hear the bass because one of the main writers of that band is the bass player. If you are listening to something like U2 then the bass is going to be really pronounced, too. Other times if you listen to a pop group or mainstream rock band the bass can be hidden in back a bit. Sometimes songs on the radio will have the bass hidden behind the vocals because when you mix something for radio you definitely put the drums and the vocals out front. However, radio has a natural compression to it over the airwaves that naturally beefs up the bass a little bit.
Becker: How many instruments other than bass do you play?
Ellefson: I play guitar and occasionally some piano. When I was growing up I actually played tenor saxophone from fifth till twelfth grade. I played drums a little bit, even though I have not played them so much lately. I’m a bit rusty now (laughs). I know how to program drums so it helps to have been a player when I’m writing, which is always a good thing. I know how to program a way a drummer would naturally play, so it sounds authentic.
I play acoustic guitar quite a bit, which I really enjoy…. makes me write differently. It is really a much different instrument than the electric guitar and should be approached that way, in my opinion. The way you play it, the parts you can create on it and the role it has in a song are very different from the electric guitar. It creates more of a texture in many rock settings.
Becker: Someone once said that playing acoustic guitar is like having sex with your clothes on. You know how to do it but it is awkward. I thought that was a pretty good analogy.
Ellefson: Yeah, I guess we can go with that (laughs).
Becker: What do you think about the death-core and folk metal craze that seems to be the new metal trend in the new decade?
Ellefson: You know the death-core thing is cool. It is funny because I was listening to some Pantera the other day. It is amazing how much Phil Anselmo was on the cutting edge years ago. Even back then it almost seemed that he was kind of derivative of Henry Rollins but you can really trace it back and see the fusion of metal and hardcore that he was doing. Even the Anthrax guys’, they came out of that New York hardcore scene and they were fusing it together with metal.
Same with the thrash movement, which was a combination of Black Sabbath meets the Sex Pistols, or something. You know what I mean? It is kind of like punk rock meets heavy metal. It is funny because those two campuses never used to hang out together. Punk guys did not like metal guys and metal guys liked punk music but as a community they never really hung out together until the thrash thing fused them together. All of a sudden, guys could have Mohawks and still listen to metal. It is kind of interesting if you learn about the history of when these particular styles came together. It is really cool that you have two different scenes and styles that came together and ultimately created something new, thus Thrash metal.
Becker: Where did you get your degree in marketing and business?
Ellefson: Actually, it was from a college back by you (Illinois) called AIU which is near Hoffman Estates in the Chicago area. It was an online campus, which I really liked and allowed me to get my degree, especially since I travel so much. I started college back in 1997 when I was on the “Cryptic Writings” tour and I started to take some courses through the University of Phoenix. It is kind of funny because back in those days they really did not have email. I mean they had it but it was not available to people like you and me who were not inside a large company, where it was mostly used for internal communications. Back in those days I used to fax my homework to my teacher from the hotel lobby’s front desk.
Becker: Since you are a thrash icon, what is the difference between thrash and speed metal because I can never quite differentiate them?
Ellefson: You know it is funny because those terms came about at pretty much the same time. I think they both describe the same type of music, though. Speed metal is just heavy metal sped up. It was just played faster. That ultimately is where thrash metal came from because it was a derivative of the punk scene. There was the west coast Punk and the New York Punk, which was more of a hardcore scene. Of course there was Motorhead, who are probably one of the originators of the thrash metal movement altogether, even though they always considered themselves to be just a rock ‘n roll band. It was kind of thrashy sounding so they kind of did what they did out of England. So, you got the English sound, the west coast stuff and then the east coast thrash styles that were all different. But, they all have that hard-edged metal sound but with punk factored into it.
Becker: All right, thanks for your time and I will definitely keep an eye out for the Angels of Babylon record you have coming out.
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