The World Needs a Hero
Andrián Pertout speaks to bassist David Ellefson about the Megadeth phenomenon.
After facing the Metallica firing line in April of 1983, founding member, vocalist/guitarist Dave Mustaine teams up with bassist David Ellefson to form Megadeth. The initial lineup includes guitarist Kerry King and drummer Lee Rausch, and with some minor personnel changes, 1985 presents the studio debut of ‘Killing is My Business… And Business is Good’. The late eighties places the band alongside heavy rock legends Alice Cooper, Dio, Kiss, Iron Maiden, and in the 90s, Judas Priest, Slayer, Anthrax, Alice in Chains and Metallica, among many. 1992’s ‘Countdown to Extinction’ on the other hand introduces chart success for the act. Their latest album is entitled ‘The World Needs a Hero’ and was produced by Dave Mustaine with the assistance of Bill Kennedy. The current line-up bringing guitarist/vocalist Al Pitrelli and drummer Jimmy DeGrasso to the Megadeth fold.
How did the birth of Megadeth come about? What were your dreams and aspirations at the time?
DE: ”I grew up in the middle part of the United States, a little state called Minnesota – actually on a farm, outside of a small town of about three thousand people – so my life is probably the quintessential small kid’s ‘stars in his eyes, moves to Hollywood, makes it big’. I am like seriously one in however many million chances of that ever happening. And I played a little piano when I was young, but we didn’t have a piano in the house, we had an organ, because my mum sang in the church choir. I also played a little tenor saxophone at school. And when I heard rock albums by bands like Styx, that’s when I started playing bass. So I started putting bands together at about twelve years old. And when I was about sixteen years old, I got this thing that I really needed to get to the west coast. I moved out there, and about a week later met Dave Mustaine. So in about sixty seconds my life is up to Megadeth. And here I am in Hollywood, California. The scene at that point was: Van Halen had been big. A new metal movement was happening in the early eighties, but everything that was coming out was Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, things like that. But when I met Dave, he was really into a lot of the bands that I was into. Iron Maden, Motorhead, and even much deeper; the whole new wave of heavy metal that was coming out of England. You know, bands like Venom, Tank and Diamond Head. And the scene in the bay area, San Francisco – which is also California, but eight hours north – was a whole different scene to LA. It wasn’t about glam, haircuts and clothes. It was just thrash metal. And really, Megadeth in the beginning for Dave was probably a backlash to being kicked out of Metallica. Obviously being asked to leave a band like Metallica, which has moved on to big and great things, I think Dave wanted to prove to the world that, ‘Look, the reason I got kicked out was certainly not because of my abilities.’”
The late eighties placed the band alongside heavy rock legends Alice Cooper, Dio, Kiss and Iron Maiden. In what ways would you say that the scene has changed since then? Is showmanship still number one?
DE: ”For us, showmanship was never number one. I think for us it was always about music. And it was always about playing abilities, and the song. And along with that came a lifestyle and an attitude. And part of that lifestyle was a real no-frills, almost no-showbiz approach to showbiz. Even to this day we still don’t have pyrotechnics. We obviously have a cool looking stage; we use lighting, and we use things to make the show look visually exciting as well as orally exciting, but it has always been about four guys, the songs, and certainly Dave’s charismatic presence as the singer front-man. And apparently he was a big part of Metallica. People come up to me and say, ‘Fuck, I remember Dave in Metallica.’ You know, James Hetfield was the singer, but Dave was guy who talked between all the songs, so he was like a real front-man presence of that band even though he wasn’t the lead singer.”
How did the Super Mario Bros phenomenon and its use of ‘Breakpoint’ in 1992 affect the popularity of the band?
DE: ”Unfortunately not that much. Probably one of the biggest ones was… After the ‘Countdown to Extinction’ record came out we toured for a while and we got asked to put a song in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie called ‘The Last Action Hero.’ So we wrote a song called ‘Angry Again’. And unfortunately the movie wasn’t that popular, so therefore the soundtrack wasn’t that popular. It kept our presence up there, but that’s about all that did. It’s not like it really put us over into a whole new audience. And that’s why, even on this record, we were asked to use some songs for some movie stuff, and we passed. Like you know, our songs are too valuable, they mean too much to us, and are too important to our fans to just throw away on some movie soundtrack. That was a real trendy thing to do in the 90s. And then everybody does it. Shit, now you go to a cinema, every fucking movie’s got at the end, ‘Music by… Get the soundtrack, featuring so and so.’ It’s not even that cool anymore.”
When you consider the technology behind your latest release ‘The World Needs A Hero’, and look back at your debut ‘Killing is My Business… And Business is Good’, what do you see as the major changes in the music brought about by developments in technology?
DE: ”We had so little money on ‘Killing is My Business’, and really, inexperience in the studio that we just went in and did the best we could. I guess that’s what you always do on your first album. ‘Peace Sells’ we recorded for actually the same independent label, Combat Records, but then Capital came in and bought out their contract. And they wanted to bring in Paul Lani to remix it. So the original version of ‘Peace Cells’ was a real dry, in your face kind of mix, whereas the version that you now hear on Capital/EMI Records is a little bit slicker; snare drums got a little more reverb. And also on that, the chorus of ‘Peace Sells’, ‘Na, na, na, na…’ That mute, where the music is – there’s music playing through that – Paul Lani came up with the idea to mute that. We used to have guitars ringing through it, so he actually created a version of that song. I guess his ear for popular music maybe elevated our game a notch, a step up. ‘So Far, So good, So What!’ Paul Lani did that record. Def Leppard’s ‘Hysteria’ had just come out; obviously it was very cutting edge, and Paul Lani was into that whole thing. Michael Wagner mixed that album, and probably not with enough direction from us was left to his own devices. He has a kind of sound of his own. You knew when a Michael Wagner record was made because you could hear his signature on it. That, I don’t think was necessarily right for what we needed. But that’s our own fault. We should have been more hands-on with the mixing of that. But certainly once we got into the 90s, and had a few records under our belt, started to really get into as much technology as possible. And that really started with Max Norman on the ‘Countdown to Extinction’ record.”
How did that affect the actual music in the studio?
DE: ”Let’s put it this way. On ‘Countdown’, Max was really into using a lot of computer-type stuff. But we’ve always played the parts, so it was just a matter of using the technology to either make it tighter, sweeten the sound, things like that. The 90s is I think when technology finally got real. There were some dabblings of it in the 80s, but certainly not across the board. Maybe with techno, dance and new wave kind of music, but never across the board with all music. Now, we actually made a couple of records in Nashville with Dann Huff, ‘Cryptic Writings’ and ‘Risk’. The technology in Nashville I figured was just like, ‘Fucking cowboy town, a bunch of old country songs.’ By far, in my opinion, it’s the most technologically advanced city that we’d ever worked in. The skills of the people there were just incredible. And Dann Huff I think taught us a lot about making records, because he was a session player. He has played on everything from Michael Jackson to all the biggest country records. And he knew that we could all play. As soon as he came into rehearsal he said, ‘Fuck you guys can play! Good! At least got that out of the way. I don’t have to fabricate a record to make it sound like you can play.’ When you live in the studio like Dann, you have an ear. You hear things so much more microscopically than you do in our world – where for a few months we’re in the studio, and then for another year and a half, on the road. Because playing live is a joke, as far as tightness and sonic quality, if all you are is a studio guy. So a studio guy probably doesn’t think in the realms of a live musician. One of the cool things about what we do is that we get to do both of them. We go in the studio, and by the time we get cabin fever, and about ready to fucking explode from being in the studio, we go out on the road. And then by the time you get a little burnt on the road, and you’re tired and ready to go home, you get to go in the studio. You know what I mean? It’s very cool.”
“Technology wise we started to introduce the Macintosh Pro Tools system. And now we made ‘The World Needs a Hero’ in Los Angeles with Bill Kennedy – he works mostly in Los Angeles, and in most of the studios in LA, a tape machine is almost optional; almost all of them now are going straight to Pro Tools. And it’s great, because every record that we’ve done since ‘Countdown’ has been recorded digitally. It started with the Sony 48-track digital tape machine. Once we started working with Dann Huff, we would be transferring things. We would record to the Sony 48, bounce it over to Pro Tools if we wanted to tighten things up and move some things around, do edits, and then fly it back over to the 48. And on this one we just ‘fucked off on the tape’ and went straight to Pro Tools.”
Tell me about your latest album. What is the music on ‘The World Needs A Hero’ all about?
DE: ”We were on the tour for the ‘Risk’ album in America, and to be honest with you, we were having a hard time because sales weren’t that good. Our fans weren’t responding that good to it. And we knew it was a risk when we did, so we called it ‘Risk’. It’s like, ‘Here’s one for you, a fucking risky one from out part.’ (Laughs) We were really trying to take the melody thing as far as we possibly could, and we sat down one night on the bus; Jimmy, Dave, Marty and myself and talked about the next record. And we realized, ‘You know, we need to just fucking make a balls-out, slamming, heavy album! That’s who we really are.’ That’s what we have the most fun doing, and it easy for us. And I think that when you can sense a sense of ease in your playing, it’s authentic and genuine. And Marty basically just said, ‘You know, if that’s where the band’s going, I don’t want to do it. I have no interest in doing that anymore. I am tired of playing riffs. Basically I’m just done if that’s where we’re going!’ And that was the beginning of the end for Marty, and a couple of weeks later he announced that he was going to leave the band.”
And what about the gear? Could you give me an outline of your main onstage and offstage equipment?
DE: ”I have basses that I use in the studio, a couple of Fender P basses, a ’78 and a ’75. I have an old Spector NS-2, a pre Kramer one, a real one. But I never take those on the road with me, I just don’t. I had a Fender with me for a while, and I sent it home, because they record well, they sound fucking great, and I just don’t want anything to happen to them. So I keep them at home. I’ve got some Modulus basses that will probably fucking survive a world war. You know, they’re so tough. So I can take them anywhere with me, but even them now, I’m starting to leave at home. On the road, I actually started to play the brand new Fenders, the American Precision bass series. I’ve got two five-strings and a four-string, and they’re great. Of course a Fender’s a classic. And over the years we’ve heard Fender basses recorded and played live so much that I think a human ear just wants to hear that! We’ve been trained that that’s the tone, you know. And Fender has finally made a bass that retains enough of that Fender sound, as well as incorporated some high-tech components with active electronics that really works great with Megadeth. In fact, I don’t think Megadeth has probably sounded as heavy as we do now that I’m using the Fenders, because the bottom of the band is fucking there; it’s solid.”
Do you use any pedals?
DE: ”No, not really. I used to use a Sansamp a little bit, but I think the grind and the grit from the Fender’s enough on it’s own. And it’s just DI’d. And I use Peavey 810 cabinets. I use four now, and a Peavey amp called the Kilobass. They don’t make it anymore. I started using it a few years ago. And I like the preamp section of it, because it’s got a parametric as well as graphic, so I just use the preamp section of it and go out of that into the 1440i Mackie power amp, which is just fucking great for bass. I’ve played through a lot of power amps, and a lot of them are great PA amps, but don’t sound musical. Mackie is a musical sounding amp, and especially for bass guitar. It’s just great; it’s just a killer man! I’m perfectly content with what I have.”
“And it’s funny how you asked about the gear, because live, on this tour – which actually started in London with AC-DC – there were so many dates so far away from each other that we actually have two identical systems out with us on the road, an A rig and a B rig. So all of our Marshall back line, Peavey back line, Pearl drum kit, the Paiste cymbals that Jimmy uses, there are two identical sets. One would be flying to Russia, the other one coming here. And you know, two sets of wardrobe. It was major undertaking. So basically, we have a spitting image of what we use. And Dave uses Jackson guitars, Al uses Gibson guitars; a Les Paul, an Explorer and also a Fender Strat. And Dave has his own custom signature model of Jackson guitars.”
Would you ever have thought that you would one day have the luxury of having two rigs out on the road?
DE: ”You know, it funny. Shit! That’s like what KISS would do! I’m thinking like, ‘Fuck!’ It’s funny because me and Al, when we were kids in high school – like sixth grade – we’d be in class at school, and we’d start drawing pictures of the ultimate stage, right. Marshall cabinets, drums, lights, and all this shit. And every night we get up on stage we look up at each other and go, ‘Check it out! Here we are! This is that sixth grade tablet drawing.’ And now we’ve got two of them! (Laughs) And especially when we’re doing these big stadium shows with AC-DC and stuff; we look around and we’re like, ‘Damn, this is pretty cool!’ And it’s great to keep that innocence…”
‘The World Needs A Hero’ out on Sanctuary Records. For further information visit the Megatheth Home Page, or the Chilean Megadeth Site.
'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #89, September 5, 2001
BEAT MAGAZINE PTY LTD
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