As a founding member of one of thrash’s most iconic bands, Dave Ellefson has been a staple in the heavy metal community for over 25 years. Following a feud with Megadeth main-man Dave Mustaine in the early 2000’s, Ellefson parted ways with band to focus on several pet projects, as well as his MEGA Life Christian Ministry. Right in time for the highly anticipated 20th anniversary of their metal monument, Rust in Peace, Ellefson officially announced his return to the band in early February.
In celebration of Megadeth’s momentous year, the band will be releasing Rust in Peace Live, a commemorative CD/DVD effort that will see a September 7th release through Shout! Factory. The 80-minute epic catches the band on the final night of their “Rust in Peace Tour”, live in LA at the Hollywood Palladium. Including an unprecedented set of the entire Rust in Peace track listing, Rust in Peace Live will also feature exclusive, behind-the-scenes footage for an introspective look at the band.
With the first leg of the “American Carnage Tour” currently underway, Ellefson checked in from the road to discuss his long-awaited reunion, maintaining sobriety, and the band’s tremendous legacy.
After an 8-year hiatus, you announced your return to Megadeth earlier this year. How does it feel to be back?
It feels great! It feels really good.
I was very active in my time away. And obviously with Megadeth, Dave reformed the group [in 2004]. As much as we talked about me coming back at that time, in hindsight, it actually turns out to be probably one of the better things that it didn’t work to come back then. It ultimately helped me and Dave establish a new friendship, one we’d never really had before, to be honest with you. In a lot of ways, some time for both of us to be away, off doing some other things, ultimately benefits both me and him, and also Megadeth.
During the interim while you were gone, did you continue to have a relationship with the rest of the Megadeth camp?
Yeah, a little bit. Not the current organization, because management changed a couple of times. Shawn Drover, the current drummer, when his brother Glen was in the band playing guitar, they came over to introduce themselves to me one time at NAMM. They just said, “We’re big fans of past Megadeth work, and just wanted to say hi.” So I knew them just a little bit, just very kind of surface level. Other than that, not really.
Everything kind of changed when the band was put back together, but it’s interesting that even on this current tour we’re on, our lighting director and few other people have come back into the fold from yesteryear. Even when we did the show at the Hollywood Palladium at the end of the “20th Anniversary Rust in Peace” tour back in March, a lot of former managers, agents, producers, and various people came down to the show. It was cool because a lot of them reached out to me because I had been in touch with them. I’ve been in touch with a lot of the former members over the years, and it was nice that they reached out to me and said “Hey, we’d like to come down to the show.”
I told Dave that as long as “reconciliation” seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, we may as well go around the world and just really try to mend any fences and keep all doors of goodwill open. [LAUGHS] Now that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to come back to work and play in the band ever again, but we’ve got such a big legacy, and the family tree has so many branches on it now that I think it’s cool. 2010 has been like a big family reunion as we travel around the world.
In terms of a reunion of sorts, you’ve been touring with everyone this year between “Rust in Peace”, the Big Four dates, and now, the “American Carnage Tour.” What’s it been like returning to the stage with so many prominent thrash bands?
You know, it’s really cool. It’s funny when you look back on it, with Dave and I not working together and our disagreements that we had were seemingly really terrible things at that time. But as things have turned out, and some grace has been spread across our campus here, not only was it nice that Dave and I could come back together and really do this because we wanted to–for the love of being around each other again, being happy. The two of us are back on stage playing for the fans, and they’re excited.
It’s not a quick cash grab. It’s not some strategic reunion to help sales. It’s none of that, and that’s what makes it really cool. We’re really doing it for the true, honest love of doing it, and having so much fun with a band that we both helped start so many years ago, just to be back on stage doing it again. I think once I came back, to a large degree, people were like “Wow! If those two guys can fix their past…”–it’s almost like being able to walk on water now. [LAUGHS]
I think as far as Dave and Kerry King, who’ve had some tension between them, that started to subside. And Kerry and I have been good friends, so he’s happy I’m back in Megadeth, especially this year since we’re doing all this stuff [together].
And I’ve known the Metallica guys. I went down to see them when they started their tour in Phoenix a couple of years ago, and we hung out and had a really good hang. I’ve recently been connected to those guys, so I think that for us to see each other back in June for those Big Four dates, that wasn’t a distant relationship for me and them. I’ve always been kind of the ambassador and diplomat in Megadeth, and I think that ultimately, that’s helped bring a lot of this stuff back together, and I’d like to think, mend a lot of goodwill throughout the Megadeth camp and even just throughout the thrash metal community. For that part of it, I’m proud that that’s something I could bring back to not only Megadeth, but to our whole genre.
What’s it like to now be celebrating the 20th anniversary of Rust in Peace? When you released the record in 1990, did you ever imagine it would have such a withstanding impact on the metal community?
You know, I never did because the writing of the record was in such a dark, hazy period of our career: ‘88, all through ‘89, and then we finally recorded it in 1990. Now when we recorded it, we were stone-cold sober. But when we were writing it, not so much. [LAUGHS] So it’s amazing that we ever got it back together again to be able to make the record.
There were a lot of personal triumphs on the first Rust in Peace go-round in 1990 where it was a little fragile and a little delicate. I mean, here we are, this really hard-hitting metal band, and yet we’re sober; we’re trying to keep our lives together. We had this personal life that was almost the antithesis of what most would think about from a heavy band coming out and kicking your ass from the stage. We found that sober, clean living was what was needed to put it back on track.
You know, Megadeth is a real rock ‘n roll band. We burn the candle from both ends, and there was definitely dynamite in the middle. The band formed like that, it ran like that, and it’s always been like that, but once we cleaned our act up through the ’90s, that was when we started to have the biggest years of our career and the biggest years of our success. So to some degree, there was kind of this oxymoron going on between our personal lifestyles and the explosiveness going on on the stage.
And it’s interesting that we rolled off of Rust in Peace, which you could tell was big. You could feel it as we rolled around the world on that tour. It got bigger and bigger and bigger, but by the time we finished the “Clash of the Titans Tour,” which was the very end of the Rust in Peace in 1991, you could tell that the tides were shifting and that music was going to change. One thing that we learned from that was we wanted to grow, we wanted to evolve, and we really wanted to develop the band further.
We had all this great talent with the four of us, the lineup of that time, with Nick Menza, Marty Friedman, and me and Dave. We just knew we were capable of expanding thrash to new levels and to new dimensions, and to really widen our scope a lot more. And then that went on to produce three more big selling records for us. So in some ways, Rust in Peace was started as us reforming the band, and then became the launchpad for the rest of our career.
Well, in addition to celebrating Rust in Peace’s 20th anniversary, this year has also been the 20th anniversary of your sobriety. So definitely, congratulations…
Thank you, thank you.
Do you find it difficult to maintain sobriety while on the road?
I don’t. It was difficult for me to turn the corner and transition. It was really, really hard because I didn’t want to be strung out and I didn’t want to be a junkie anymore, but I also didn’t know that I wanted to live this squeaky-clean, sober life. To me, my vision of what it was was just too wholesome and pure, and when you’re coming out of the dark, decadent world of drugs and alcohol, to look at having this happy, clean life doesn’t always look so good. [LAUGHS]
But once I finally turned the corner, I like to think of it as I got “struck sober.” I got blessed with the gift of it, and once that happened, then I was like, “This is awesome!” And fortunately, I’ve maintained discipline and diligence in a new life here, and as a result, I have not had the temptations or obsessions or anything to go back to the old way of life.
It’s interesting, because one of the hardest things for me when we were writing Rust in Peace and I was getting clean was that my fingers hurt to even touch the instrument. Especially coming off of narcotics and those kind of things that I was taking, for my fingers to touch the steel of the string on the neck of my bass–it was actually painful. I was thinking, “Oh my god, I don’t know if I’m ever going to want to play music again.” And that frightened me, the thought that I might not ever play, or even want to play, again.
So I held on to a kind of youthful thought from when I started playing bass when I was 11: I didn’t play it for the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, I played it strictly because I loved music. It was all pretty innocent and wholesome, and I started playing because I loved rocking and I loved thrashing. So I had to hold on to the dream of an 11 year-old again to get me back to the inspiration and the fun that it was in the beginning. I thought that as long as I held on to that–that really helped me transition through it until I got detoxed and cleaned up. And then I really, truly started to enjoy playing again.
How big of a role has your faith played in being able to maintain an alcohol-free lifestyle?
The faith is everything. It’s all of it, in fact, that’s the entire reason that I’ve been able to maintain it. I know it might seem kind of weird for this metal guy to be talking about God and the Lord and all that, but the truth of it is that is it: having a strong faith.
And of course, I was raised in a good family, in a good, strong faith growing up. And as soon as I started drinking and partying, not only did it take me away from my faith, but ultimately, it destroyed my dreams of playing rock ‘n roll. That’s how screwed up it is–it’s not like it made rock ‘n roll better. It even destroyed that.
I really had to get it back to pure innocence, and once again, I think that was the irony: here we are in Rust in Peace, playing this really ripping, hard thrash and rocking out, and the record was so ferocious. And the whole time, it was like I was developing this whole new faith walk, and in my time away from Megadeth, I really got heavily involved in that.
I started up the MEGA Life Ministries out in Scottsdale, and I got involved in a lot of other things. In fact, when we were making the Risk album out in Nashville, I had this one worship leader back in Scottsdale ask me if I would sit in with him and play at church one time. So one part of me thought, “Man, that’s lame,” and the other part went “You know, I could be into sight-reading some charts.” [LAUGHS]
So I started doing it, and everything just started taking me down new roads. It’s almost like the faith side of my life just kept getting wider and wider, and growing and growing, and getting richer and developing more and more.
I realized that I can stand on the stage of rock ‘n roll and thrash with the best of ‘em. In fact, my playing gets better the more I spend time developing faith. I realize that the faith has to come first, and the notes seem to naturally follow after.
So with that in mind, do you consider your music to now be a direct reflection of your faith?
Music itself is sort of a reflection of the holy spirit flowing through you–I hate to sound like a religious geek here, and I don’t mean it to sound like that. I know that when I was really whacked and played, there was no music ‘cause there was nothing coming out of me, there was nothing coming through me. It’s almost like you’re a channel for music, so that’s why I really admire people who really tap into that.
Even Dave and I over the years–Dave will just pick up his guitar and some riff just falls off his fingerboard, and I’m like, “Geez! How did he come up with that?” It sounds so simple, and I think I could’ve come up with that, but he did! And I’ve always admired that about him.
So whether you’re playing metal or you play whatever kind of music, it’s just cool when you see people are able to channel music through them. It’s an admiration that I have, and obviously when I create things too, I step back and I go, “Wow, I don’t even know where that came from. It just sort of flowed right out of me.”
Due in large part to your work with Peavey, you seem to be very well-versed in terms of the modern metal scene. Who are some of the younger bands that you see pushing the boundaries in metal these days?
This year, I’ve been so tied back into the thrash thing because of what we just did with Metallica, and then we’re currently out with Slayer and Testament, and we’ll be carrying on here with Anthrax shortly. But one of the band’s that I’ve loved coming up in the ranks over the years has been Lamb of God. They’ve just got the power, and they’re ferocious; they’re a brutal live band.
But you know, I like everything from Lamb of God to Fireflight. [LAUGHS] I hear a tune, and I like it! To me, no band writes every song great, so I just appreciate great songs when I hear them.
Recently, we were just over in Europe and Rammstein were on a couple of bills. I finally went over and watched them one night, and that was just one of the coolest shows I’ve seen in years. When you see guys putting flame-throwers on their face, it’s just so metal! [LAUGHS] It’s so cool! It was a whole different type of thing. It was really dark and was just a great show.
So what’s next for Megadeth? Endgame is still fairly new, but are you already planning its followup?
We’ve been working on writing some things. The way things usually go is ideas come to us, we tape them, and we catalog them away. And when it comes time for things to start getting serious, we go back and we start pulling out the tapes. So we’ve gotten a few ideas developed while we’re out here.
We kind of go through two phases: sometimes we write some good stuff on the road, and then we go back home and write another batch of good stuff. It kind of goes in various phases, but we’re certainly excited about some of the new things that are starting to develop. We’ll see where that takes us in the new year!
For more information on Megadeth, check out: