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Megadeth’s David Ellefson Discusses The Making Of TH1RT3EN And The Big 4’s Legacy

Posted by on August 4, 2011

To say that 2011 has been a busy year for Megadeth is an understatement. In addition to taking part in this year’s Mayhem Fest, Megadeth have been touring around Europe this Summer with three other bands you may have heard of, leading up to the highly anticipated East Coast show at Yankee Stadium. Despite the nonstop touring, Megadeth have found the time to not only re-release their 1986 classic Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying, but have also been recording a new album aptly titled TH1RT3EN.

With their thirteenth album expected to be released on November 1, Megadeth have been going nonstop. Despite their current hectic schedule, bassist David Ellefson took the time to sit down with us during Mayhem Fest’s Camden, NJ stop this past Sunday (July 31). During our conversation, Ellefson opened up to us about the recording process behind TH1RT3EN, the camaraderie shared within the Big 4, and Megadeth’s plans to bring Gigantour back from the dead.

Let’s start off by talking about Megadeth’s new album TH1RT3EN. As we all know, this is your first album with Megadeth after you returned last year. How did it feel to return to the studio with Megadeth after such a long time?

You know I think we did the whole process the right way by coming back on the 20th anniversary tour last year for Rust In Peace.  We all knew the songs, it gave us a chance to get acquainted, get to know each other. Obviously Chris [Broderick, guitar] and Shawn [Drover, drums] were new musicians for me to get integrated back in with. [With] Me and Dave [Mustaine, frontman/guitar], it was really just an instant connection that worked out really good. And so for us to get familiar again on the canvas together and then go in and make a record was definitely the right way to do it, rather than try and tackle a new creative endeavor after not playing together for a lot of years.  It would have been a much different dynamic. So going in and doing this new album was one of the most fun records I’ve made with Megadeth quite honestly. It was really pretty fun, quick process. We knew we didn’t have a lot of time. We only had ten weeks to do it in between two tours.

It had an energy about it, kinda like when we made the Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? album. We were kind of in between tours, our record label needed an album, there was a lot of excitement around Megadeth at the time. The only difference is on Peace Sells…, we actually had all the songs written and we went and recorded. On this record, we came up the road and didn’t have any songs written and started completely from scratch and knocked out an album. And it really has an energy and a vibe about it that is just seamless with what we’re doing out here on the road.

You already began to mention this, but how you would further say the experience differed from recording with Dave Mustaine now as opposed to 25 years ago when you recorded Peace Sells…?

Well a lot like Peace Sells…, Dave wrote most of the music on TH1Rt3EN and there’s a good influence from all of us around it. I think one of the reasons it worked so quick is because everybody was like “Look, we just need to make a great record. Let’s not get caught up in your riff and my riff and your words. Let’s just throw it all into a pile and let’s just take the best stuff we got.” And that really created a great synergy between the four of us and our producer Johnny K [Disturbed, Machine Head].  So when it came for everybody to get up to bat to record their parts, every musician’s performance took the songs into a new creative direction and that really is a process as a band that needs to happen if it’s going to be a band and not just a solo project. And that’s something that really put the Megadeth stamp on it to make it a creative journey through these ten weeks that we had to make this album.

Between the anniversary tour for Rust in Peace, the reissue of Peace Sells, and the Big 4 tour, the past two years seem to have been dedicated to celebrating the band’s legacy. With the new album coming out, are you excited to be performing new material?

Man, I can’t wait to perform! In fact, in the dressing room we’ll run through some stuff because we have all the mixes. The album is now technically done and mixed, ready to be mastered and printed up and ready to be sent out to the stores. And so the hardest part for us as the band is that we’re so excited about these tunes that we sit in there and we jam and work up them.  We’re doing everything we can to not go out and play them every night.  I mean, it’s still three or two and a half months before it comes out. So we don’t want to start playing everything and give it all away.  But we can’t wait to be playing them. There’s a handful of them for sure that we’re going to be working into the new set that are just going to be great for the type of shows we’re doing now.

As of late, the only new song you’ve been performing is “Public Enemy No. 1.” As Mayhem Fest continues on, do you think you’ll be throwing one more new tune into the setlist?

It’s possible.  But again, part of the business of music is that we have to allow our record company to set the record up. There’s a process from writing it to recording and mastering it, and then the whole process of packaging and distribution and putting that in place.  That can be sometimes an eight to twelve week process during which time we usually shoot a video. We start doing first the print promotions for it that have sometimes a four to eight week lead time before those magazines actually hit the street.  And then of course web stuff which is much quicker and more immediate, but at the same time then there’ll be a single and the video will be put out and those things need to be strategically timed.

You want to do it so that you create excitement around the release of the album, but you don’t want to do it too soon where it comes out and people forget about it by the time the album comes out. So that’s the record company’s job, to deal with all that stuff. So it’s really important that we work hand in hand with our record company so that we can really get the biggest bang for the buck and most importantly the fans are excited and it all delivers in a timely manner.

Speaking about record companies, Dave Mustaine has in the past been very vocal about his unhappiness with Roadrunner Records. Seeing that this is also the band’s last album on the contract, can you give us any insight as to what the band might be planning after that?

Well, our point guy and the president of Roadrunner were at our show the other day in [Holmdel] New Jersey and they were obviously very happy about what they’re hearing on the new album.  This is an album that I think the metal fans will be happy with but also some of the other media outlets like radio and others that will be able to be a little more accessible into the main stream in a very Megadeth kind of way you know. Those are exciting times when, like with playing Yankee Stadium, all of a sudden the MLB is excited about Megadeth. So those are some great partnerships that you can have when you have the right kind of album, the right kind of music, and certainly the right kind of tour or show like we’re doing with the Big 4.

So we’re a band that has been welcomed into a lot of other arenas between professional wrestling and sports, video games, and all kinds of different things.  And a lot of that is predicated on our ability to write songs that crossover the metal lines here and yet still be a metal band, and that’s a hard thing to do.  I’ve found that you can’t predict it, you can’t force it. It has to be something that happens naturally and that has definitely happened naturally on this new album.

With that said, would you be open then to staying on Roadrunner Records?

I mean, that’s a whole big picture vision. At this point right now, we wanted to make sure we delivered to them a great album because whether it’s our last album or it’s a new beginning with them or any other label, at the end of the day the album says Megadeth on it and that’s what fans see. They don’t see the record company as much as they see the name Megadeth. So for our fans we want this to be a great record no matter what.  And now we’ve done our part and we turn it over to them and it’s time for them to do their part.

While still on the topic of the record industry, you have been very involved and vocal about the business side, having released books like Making Music Your Business: A Guide for Young Musicians. With the current state of the industry and labels right now, I was curious whether you thought that the do-it-yourself model is a feasible model for up and coming bands or not.

My experience with having started on an independent label, gone up to Capitol Records as a major label, and then ended up on sort of what they call major indies with Sanctuary and, even Roadrunner I guess can be considered that to some degree, the main thing is like any business you have to have funding. If you want to have a successful donut shop, eventually you’re going to have to go to the bank and get some more money, right? If you’re going to have a band, you’re going to have to go to some sort of a wealth to get some more money for your endeavor.  And that’s the hardest part when you try to do DIY, is trying to make sure you’ve got enough money and distribution to get your music out to as many people, places as you want it you because that provides you with future opportunities.  So you definitely have to be entrepreneurial today.

And should it be a more of a DIY thing? I think for sure it should. But you also have to be thinking one and two and three steps ahead in everything that you do with your touring, how you’re releasing your music, your merchandising, and everything that you can. Ultimately you want as many people walking around with, in our case, a Megadeth shirt, listening to a Megadeth, either a CD or an MP3, because music is more than just selling a song; it’s about a culture and a lifestyle.  And I think those of us that have been able to develop a culture, really kind of the way the Big 4 has become, we’re a culture with our fans and everything. It’s not just about the bands who have some good songs, it’s about all of us together did something. And that to me when you can hit on that chord, that’s something that you can probably do for the rest of your life.

As you mentioned before, The Big 4’s Yankee Stadium show is coming up, and there’s been a lot of talk that the four bands are planning something special. Is there anything special planned for the show that you can reveal, or maybe anything Megadeth is planning on their own for the show?

There’s kind of a big thing around that, that…I can’t talk to you about [laughs], but it’s pretty cool. It’s a personal thing.

Totally understand!

It’s actually a cool thing. We’ve already sort of chatted a little bit about it internally and so we’ll have to see how it plays out, but I think it’s going to be pretty cool.

Well I imagine there’s going to be a jam involved somehow.

I would assume so. When we were just over in Europe doing those five shows, every night there was a jam which was great and we even started to do some other songs. Metallica offered out some other tunes and doing cover songs I think is the right thing because then it’s something that’s fun and it doesn’t spotlight any one of the four bands. It just makes the focus be about all of us being up there.

Allowing you to celebrate your influences together.

Yes, exactly.

Without revealing anything, of course, is there a song that you personally would like to play with the Big 4?

I mean, look I’m a fan of the stuff off Kill ‘Em All. That’s still one of my favorite Metallica records. So I’d be fine even jumping up there and maybe playing one of those that Dave wrote with them or something you know?  “Jump in the Fire” or “Metal Militia.”

Maybe even “The Four Horsemen”?

Eh, probably not that one because it kinda got spread between a couple different things, but even just one of the pure ones that is a Metallica song like again “Jump in the Fire” or something like that, that’s a great riff, great tune. Dave was part of it, but it’s clearly a Metallica song.  So I don’t know, those things would be fun, but to me those jams are really about the camaraderie; it’s not so much about the tune.  It’s about all of us getting up on stage and being brothers amongst brothers up there.

Did you ever imagine 25 years ago that all of this was going to happen with all four bands?

Man, I never thought this would happen, really. Metallica got so big so fast and were so far out front.  Quite honestly they kicked down a lot of doors for all of us man, for metal as a movement.  And then for all of our bands, they did so much and it’s just cool that now here we are all these years later that working with them obviously is great.  And I think they’re enjoying being back around us. they’re enjoying the kind of “let’s take it back to the seed” and “let’s just be those snotty little kids again and go out there as best we can as adults now”.

And for us to be able to go out and do that together, there’s a real camaraderie that happens and I think there’s an honest, genuine recognition of what each band in this scene did, because we didn’t come up with the Big 4.  I think a fan or someone in the media called it the Big 4 and from there that’s how it took off. And so for us to rally around and for Metallica to want to be a part of that, it just shows that as big as they ever got they’re still a metal band too.

While you’ve got the Big 4 coming up, Mustaine also let it leak that Gigantour was returning next year.

Yeah we’re working obviously around the release of the new album. There’s going to be a whole big tour that’ll happen starting right after the first of the year.  So all those plans are starting to be put into place right now.

And you guys have three out of four of the bands signed up for that?

I believe so. The lineup is, from what I’ve been hearing, really looking good and now’s the right time to do it. Obviously right on the heels of a new album is definitely the time for us to do it.  And also to kind of get first up to bat with the touring cycle and the season next year, now’s the time to be putting it together.

I’m sure you can’t say the lineup, but do you know when we might be able to hear an official announcement?

I would assume if it’s going to happen, and it’ll happen after the first of the year, probably somewhere right around the time that the album comes out (November 1) the tour will be announced.

 

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