Dave Ellefson (Megadeth, Metal Allegiance)

by Greg Prato

Despite being one of metal's most successful bands since the late '80s, Megadeth has endured quite a few lineup shakeups over the years. The only constant member from the beginning has been singer/guitarist Dave Mustaine, but for the vast majority of the band's career, there has been one other member right by Mustaine's side: bassist David Ellefson.

And starting with the group's third release, 1988's So Far, So Good... So What!, Ellefson has contributed either lyric or musical contributions to quite a few Mega-classics, including "Hook in Mouth," "Tornado of Souls," "Foreclosure of a Dream" and "Reckoning Day."

Recently, he has found the time to be part of a heavy supergroup, Metal Allegiance, that issued their self-titled debut just a few months before the arrival of Megadeth's 15th studio album overall, Dystopia. When Ellefson spoke with Songfacts, such topics as how the songwriting works in both bands came up, as well as the stories behind several Megadeth tunes, and a bass line that has become identifiable with headbangers worldwide.

Greg Prato (Songfacts): There have been songs over the years in Megadeth that listed you as a lyric writer along with Dave Mustaine. How does that work? Do you collaborate, or do you come in with lyrics and try to fit them together?

David Ellefson: Well, let's take a couple of examples. "Foreclosure of a Dream," for instance, was a title that we saw back in 1986 when Dave and I went back to my mom and dad's farm in Minnesota after the record [Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?] was completed and we were on our way to New York to have discussions with management and major labels - which would ultimately become Capitol Records - and transition off of Combat Records. And we saw on TV, there was a title that said "Foreclosure of a Dream" or "Foreclosure of the Dream" - something like that.

It was speaking specifically about the hardships that the farmers were having, that started when I left home in 1983 when I went to California. So it was a three-year time when we saw Farm Aid and really the implosion of the farming community that was largely based on Ronald Reagan's policies. It was the Cold War during the Ronald Reagan era - I believe there were sanctions against Russia where we stopped shipping grain over to Russia, which caused this surplus, which of course caused prices to crash and farmland to decrease in value, etcetera, etcetera.

Fast-forward to 1991, we're writing what would become Countdown to Extinction, and Dave says, "Let's use that title." In fact, we had already started working on that while we were out on the Clash of the Titans tour, I think in 1991.

So I started writing the lyrics to that. Dave wrote the music and I wrote the bulk - if not all - of the lyrics, and Dave helped guide me, because he was singing it. He worked with me on the phrasing. So that was mostly me writing the actual words, but collaborating together on how to make those lyrics fit into the song.

The same could be said with "High Speed Dirt," which was about skydiving. Dave and I talked about buzzwords and the lingo used in and around the skydiving community [You don't want to experience "high speed dirt" firsthand - it means something went wrong with your parachute and you'll be hitting the ground at high velocity]. So he was throwing some ideas to me and then I would go home and pen the lyric, and bring it back in for him.

And then there's other opportunities. On the last record, Super Collider, there was a lyric and Dave was like, "If you've got something that would fit in with this idea that I'm working on..." So I brought forth some ideas and words and lines to help finish an idea that he had - I think that was probably 90% finished. It can go any number of ways.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "Reckoning Day"?

Ellefson: I woke up one day when we were writing the Youthanasia record, and we didn't have a title for that song yet. And all of a sudden, this thing of the day of reckoning, reckoning day, something to that effect was just on the tip of my tongue. So I called Dave up, and I said, "Man, that song we're working on, what do you think of this title?" And he loved it. It actually helped complete the lyric.

Songfacts: "I'll Get Even"?

Ellefson: In the Megadeth catalog, there's a lot of lyrics that talk about this cynical mindset. "Killing Is My Business" is one of those lyrics, where a guy hires a sniper to kill other people, then turns around to only have himself now be the target. It's kind of funny that "I'll Get Even" is a form of that - not from a mercenary standpoint, but from an emotional turn. Just speaking about a revengeful heart.

Songfacts: "Beginning of Sorrow"?

Ellefson: Brokenness is often a theme in Megadeth lyrics and a lot of heavy metal lyrics. It's something that fans relate to. I think that's one of the reasons why they look to rock n' roll as a savior, if you will: because it becomes this community where a lot of broken people can unite and find common ground and actually get some joy from the music.

I'm not saying every heavy metal listener is like that, but "Beginning of Sorrow" was this thought that it's these different lifestyles and different decisions that are made when we're young that set forth a life that will ultimately bring unhappiness and brokenness. And that song was laying out a number of different scenarios that were speaking about this decision that is the beginning of a future sorrow.

Heavy metal/hard rock supergroups have been going on for quite some time - some of which certainly delivered on their potential (Cream), some that sounded exactly like you thought they would (Audioslave), and some being best forgotten (Contraband). But one of the more intriguing "supermetal" propositions is Metal Allegiance - which instead of utilizing a set group of players like the aforementioned acts, incorporates a rotating cast into the fun. As evidenced by the release of the group's self-titled debut in September of 2015, quite a few of the genre's most renowned/respected names have lent their services: Pantera's Phil Anselmo, Testament's Chuck Billy, Lamb of God's D. Randall Blythe, Hatebreed's Jamey Jasta, King's X's Dug Pinnick... and the same gentleman who is the subject of this very interview!
Songfacts: How do you compare the songwriting in Metal Allegiance to Megadeth?

Ellefson: They're very different. In Megadeth, right from the very beginning, the die was cast: Dave has the creative vision for the songs, the imagery of the group, so by nature, he leads the charge. And there are times for collaboration. Generally, he has an idea of his songs and the way he likes them to go. Then there will be these moments where, "Hey, let's put some things together" or "Do you have any lyric ideas you'd like to contribute, or do you have any riff ideas?" And those can happen at any point during the writing of a record.

Conversely, Metal Allegiance starts with a completely blank slate. In the case of the debut record, me, Mike Portnoy, and Alex Skolnick started the writing, and Mark Menghi joined us quickly thereafter. The style of the record pretty much presented itself. In that case, Mark Menghi was the one who said, "I would like it to be a thrash record." So, we deviated a little bit from that, which is fine.

But again, there were sort of "marching orders" in place of the type of record to write, and I think we all instinctively understood and felt in the room what was acceptable and what was not. So that was very much a four-way group collaboration.

Songfacts: What would you say are the most underrated Megadeth tunes?

Ellefson: I didn't listen to Youthanasia very much until three or four years ago when I started listening to it again. And it just made me realize what a great record that is. I understand on one hand why it was kind of a departure from certainly full-throttle thrash metal, but the quality of the songs I think were probably some of the best we've ever recorded. And also, how tight the band was, because those were all live takes, so it showed how great the band really played together with that lineup. So, "Family Tree" and "Addicted to Chaos" are a couple that I think really stand out. Also, "Dread and the Fugitive Mind" [from The World Needs a Hero] is another one that even though it was the single, is a song that really just has a lot of impact to it.

Songfacts: What are your thoughts now on the bass line to "Peace Sells," and would you say that is probably one of the most recognizable bass lines ever in rock?

Ellefson: It's definitely one of the most recognizable. That is for sure. The reason the song stands out is the melody, for sure. But also, because it's the tone, it's the sound. Like, you hear Hendrix play, it's not just him, but it's the sound that they captured of him back in those days that is part of the character. When I hear a Sabbath tune, you instantly know it's Sabbath, because you are so familiar with the recording. And I think "Peace Sells" is that thing.

It's the bassline, but also, our ear is trained now to hear that recording that we captured in 1986, when we put that down to tape. I think it really speaks to that line being used on MTV for all those years [as part of the theme for MTV News]. It was something that was almost subliminally piped into everybody's house for 10 years, and it's amazing what an effect it has on people.

And also, it's just a really cool song. And it's a really tricky bass line. When people tell me that they just learned how to play the bass and this is the first line they're trying to learn, I'm like, "You might want to learn something a little bit easier." That's a very tricky song to play.

December 2, 2015

For Metal Allegiance visit metalallegiance.com

Photo (1): Tom Couture

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