Megadeth bassist David Ellefson Interview

Date: December 7, 2020
Interviewer: Ruben Mosqueda
Photos: Joe Schaeffer Photography (first and third photos)

Now something on the heavier side. Megadeth bassist and entrepreneur Dave Ellefson has a new album under the moniker Ellefson and the record is titled ‘No Cover.’ It was released on November 20th, 2020 via his imprint EMP Label Group and the revived Combat Records. ‘No Cover’ is a double disc collection of covers from some of the best of the best from Mötorhead to Cheap Trick to The Sweet to W.A.S.P. to Def Leppard, who was an influence on the album cover complete with Ellefson’s trademark Jackson bass guitar replacing the Les Paul. Sleaze Roxx caught up with Ellefson on December 7th, 2020 for a conversation about ‘No Cover’ which is sure to be a hit with the readers. Check it out and enjoy the interview.

Sleaze Roxx: ‘No Cover’ is a two disc set. Was the original vision to do one disc worth of material?

David Ellefson: When we started out, it started off as who knows what? We didn’t know if we were going to do a couple of songs and release them digitally online or maybe they would be used as b-side for the next Ellefson solo album which is going to be mostly all original material. We didn’t really know initially, then after a couple of phone conversations we were seven to eight songs into this thing and it quickly started to look like at least one record or one disc. One week into the thing, we were looking at 15+ songs [laughs]! As Thom [Hazaert] started laying down the format of the track listing, we were like ‘Why leave one or two off?’ So we went ahead and included everything, including the bonus track — the Cheap Trick cover “Down” which has Chip Z’Nuff on guest vocals. That’s like the ‘Easter Egg’ on the album.

So now, it was a double CD and four side vinyl. That seriously ramped up the costs. Since this is a covers album, we also had to go through all of the proper channels to secure all of the proper music licenses. Honestly, it was quite an expensive endeavor [laughs]! We went to the mat on this! Then again, that’s how it always is with Thom and I. We started the coffee company. I figured some guy would put my name on it and I would get a check in the mail. Now I’m the one that is filling the bags and stuffing the coffee [laughs]! I honestly like it, because it’s pride of ownership. When your name is on the door, you’re the one that does the most work. We live in an age where everyone thinks that being the boss is all about entitlement. It is the opposite. You’re the guy that shows up first and leaves last. You’re the one that turns the lights on in the morning and you’re the one that shuts them off at night when everyone else has gone home. I love it. Thom has been such a supportive partner in these endeavors and a great friend. It’s work but it beats going to work for somebody else.

Sleaze Roxx: How important was it for you to release physical product? I know earlier you spoke of not knowing if these songs would be released as digital only. I’m more of a CD guy myself, but was excited to see a physical release. You guys went all out with this and the cover is a take on the classic Def Leppard album cover of ‘On Through The Night’ but with your trademark Jackson bass.

David Ellefson: I have to hand that to Thom. He’s a big time fan and a big collector. He sends me Megadeth posters from like 1987! We all geek out about stuff like a Judas Priest poster from the ‘Screaming For Vengeance’ tour. A lot of the stuff in the packaging of the CD is fueled by his fan ‘geek out’ moments and God bless him for having that. I’ve trended more toward the modern digital age, because quite honestly the record manufacturing is very expensive. Oftentimes, it doesn’t sell and stores don’t return it. Oftentimes, they throw it in the trash! Why would they pay the expense in freight in sending it back? We’re a rock and metal record label. We are rock and metal fans. We live for the physical product. Some of us are older and we remember the day when we used to go to record stores for that buying experience. We’d see it on the shelf, we’d buy the record, we’d stare at the album artwork, we’d open it up and we’d smell the ink. When you tear off the shrink wrap, there’s a distinctive smell. We’d then sit down, we’d listen to it, we’d read the lyrics, we’d read the credits… It was all in this type of experience. Quite honestly, that is one of my personal music loving experiences since I was a kid. As a label and as a band, we’d like to give our customers that same experience.

Ellefson‘s “Riff Raff” video:

Sleaze Roxx: Does it surprise you that the reception has been positive for ‘No Cover?’ Typically, critics write records like this off and they quickly fade away.

David Ellefson: It’s gratifying for sure. Honestly, I wasn’t too concerned going into this album about what the critics would think. This is one year where everybody gets a hall pass [laughs]! If you were able to pick up your guitar and collaborate at all, you should get an “A” for effort, whether you did something on YouTube or like in our case, we recorded a master and released it. We approached ‘No Cover’ as if it were any other release. With Combat Records, we have a platform available to us to release this music and not just have it sit in YouTube as some quarantine jam or something. We were lucky in that regard. We had all of these resources and we have all of these friends… We also did all of these live streams early on in the year called “Oh say can you stream,” as part of the David Ellefson Foundation for Music Education and we partnered with the Grammy Music Education Coalition. I feel like Thom came out of the gate swinging as things were shutting down. We started ramping up. If nothing else, [it] kept us all connected and creative. By the time we started recording the ‘No Cover’ record, our hearts and minds were already in the right place. So, now in December of 2020, we can look back at all that work we put in. We can look at this as a major victory lap, not only for us, but for the community and for the fans. We want everyone to rally behind this record as a celebration of something good that has come out of 2020.

Ellefson‘s Freewheel Burning” track:

Sleaze Roxx: What were some of the more challenging songs for you to perform on this record?

David Ellefson: I would say “Sweet F.A.” for sure. Steve Priest was this incredible bass player, great songwriter and singer. Since Steve passed away earlier this summer, I really wanted to do justice as a bass player. There were others that weren’t as difficult to play, but I wanted to execute them to perfection and those would be “Not Fragile” by B.T.O. [Bachman-Turner Overdrive]. I went through four to five basses until I found the right one to record that intro. It is so distinctive. It didn’t require a thrash metal bass. It has such a distinct nuance that I used one of my Musicman Stingray basses to record that so that it was really clean and had this very precise sound. I would say that another one was “Rebel Yell” by Billy Idol. The bass and drums really carry that song. Since you asked, I think I could also include “Riff Raff.” Cliff Williams has some really cool movements in his playing. As simple as we think AC/DC is, there’s a certain cleverness to every note they play. Every note on the bass and guitar is strategically placed. Nothing is there by mistake. Ian Hill is another great bass player. We did “Freewheel Burning” on the album. The song is from the ’80s when Tom Allom was producing their albums, which was also during Judas Priest’s big MTV era. Again, everything is strategically placed. Every note is there for a reason. Knowing that these guys are going to hear these songs was a motivator for all of us in the band to play these parts spot on.

Sleaze Roxx: You’ve got a couple Cheap Trick tunes on here, “Downed” being the bonus cut and “Auf Wiedersehen.” How’d you get Al Jourgensen on this? I know he’s a huge Cheap Trick fan. And did you play 12 string bass on these two songs since that’s a Cheap Trick trademark?

David Ellefson: I did not play 12 string bass on these. I have played 12 string bass on some of the F5 records. I love the 12 string. It’s a wonderful bass. I didn’t use it on this, but I’ve also learned that the 12 string bass was not used on a lot of the Cheap Trick recordings. This was told to me by Rick Nielsen, especially the early stuff. It’s funny that what we use live isn’t always what we use in the studio and vice-versa. I used my standard five string bass on those songs. I also played bass for Al on tour with him in about 2007 or 2008. I had other commitments at the time and could do it but I would have loved to have done that. I have been a huge fan of Ministry going back to the ‘Rust In Peace’ tour when we used to play ‘A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste’ on the bus and in the dressing room. Also ‘The Land of Rape And Honey’ I can’t forget that. I love those records. I saw him last year while he was on tour. Thom and I had been talking about getting him on the record. I reached out to his girlfriend and she helped in making this happen. Al is a much healthier and more robust place today than he was years back. It was so much fun working with him and being in the same room with him. When he sent the track back, I was like “Wow! What a freaking performance!” It’s funny how that track worked. Al’s from Chicago, Charlie Benante [Anthrax] lives in Chicago and Cheap Trick is from Rockford of course. It’s like our Illinois contingency track on the album.

Ellefson‘s Auf Wiedersehen” video:

Sleaze Roxx: You have a hidden or unlisted track, “Downed” by Cheap Trick. You got Chip Z’Nuff on vocals on that. Did you immediately think of Chip when you selected that one?

David Ellefson: Thom has been friends with Chip for many years. Chip grew up in the Chicago area and Thom is from Green Bay, so they have been buddies for years. I’ve gotten to know Chip over the years. What an awesome artist and such a character! Honestly, Chip could be a one man Cheap Trick band on his own, he wouldn’t even need all of us. That was the last song that was submitted and it wasn’t the Ellefson band, but we knew it needed to be on there. Such a great song and it’s so Chip. It’s funny there are two Cheap Trick songs on here and two Rob Halford songs on here, one with Judas Priest and one from Fight. We got to double dip on a couple of artists. It’s an opportunity to see the depth in their catalog.

Sleaze Roxx: You have a couple of ballads on the album. “Love Hurts’ or “Beth” — which do you prefer and why?

David Ellefson: I chose “Love Hurts” because that was probably the first rock ballad that I ever heard. Then I think it was “Stairway To Heaven,” but I remember hearing “Love Hurts” all the time around the farm growing up. What a great song and one of the greatest rock ballads ever. Thom was in Madison [Wisconsin] putting down his final vocals. He sent me a WhatsApp [message] and said that I needed to listen to it. So I listen to it and it’s an outtake of him doing “Beth.” I was like “Holy hell, dude! That’s amazing [laughs]!” He felt that it was perfect because ‘Destroyer’ by KISS is what got me into rock ‘n’ roll along with Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s ‘Not Fragile’ and “Desolation Boulevard” by The Sweet. He felt it would be perfect for the record. I’m a ’70s KISS fan but Thom’s version of “Beth” is based on the Eric Carr version of “Beth” from ‘Smashes, Thrashes & Hits.’ Same song, two different songs, same outcome.

Sleaze Roxx: Years ago, when we were in the middle of the L.A. glam era, there was this attitude like you should be on one side or another. Some bands even fueled these beliefs. How ‘real’ was that? Did you guys hangout with some of the L.A. glam bands at all? Was there some level of mutual respect at all?

David Ellefson: Music was very competitive when we were coming up the ranks. There was certainly competition within the ‘Big Four.’ That was due in part because Dave [Mustaine] used to be in Metallica, so that drove a lot of that. I think you could say that Megadeth was formed from a backlash to that, though that was never my view on it, as it went down well before I even met Dave. To me, Megadeth was a new horizon, a new day, a new band, a new venture and a new sound. We created our own sound. I think by the time we did ‘Peace Sells’, we had cemented our own sound and set our own trajectory. The thing between the Sunset Strip bands and the thrash scene was very polarizing. In fact, when I first Dave, he said, “We’re not playing any clubs in L.A., we’re playing clubs in San Francisco.” I think that was totally the right move and it was a totally different scene.

Even when we did play L.A., we didn’t play the Sunset Strip. When we did play in the area, we didn’t play the Sunset Strip. We played Fender’s Ballroom in Long Beach, the Waters Club in San Pedro or the Balboa Theater. Those places were more of a host to the punk rock scene. These venues were off the beaten path. They were not your mainstream venues where the Hollywood ‘glam bands’ were playing. Hollywood has so much of a different feel compared to what was going on in some of the other parts of Los Angeles. It was a different audience. It was a different fan outside of the Strip. Having said that, Poison and Megadeth were signed to Capitol Records the same week. We came in off Combat Records and they through Enigma Records. Dave and I knew C.C. [Deville] because he played in a band called The Screaming Mimi’s. They used to rehearse at the same venue as we did in Hollywood. I have nothing but the most utmost respect for Bret Michaels. He’s kind of like me. He’s a kid from back East who moved to L.A. and he’s worked hard for the career that he has. At the end of the day, we got along.

Megadeth toured with Mötley Crüe in 2000. That was a moment where that was ‘okay’ with the two fanbases. Normally, we had a very different fanbase overall. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t friends with these guys. We have all grown up, we all have had our careers, we are all very comfortable in the ‘ivory towers’ that we reside in [laughs]. In the beginning, we were all scraping to be number one. If you weren’t competitive… that’s just the nature of rock & roll. It’s like “Fuck you! I’ll slit your throat to get to the top!” We all had that drive. Everyone of our bands did. We had to sell our soul to get out of the gutter and try to get to number one. That’s the story of all of our bands. As soon as we got to the top, we’d topple over the top, then we crashed and burned, then we’d have to get our shit together, then rebuild our bands [laughs]! Then we tried to do it right the second time. That’s ultimately the story of ’80s rock and roll, is all of the excess that came our way. If it didn’t kill us, it made us stronger.

Ellefson‘s “Wasted” track: