Interview Marek Steven
Photography Michael Schmelling
In metal there are few more legendary bands than Megadeth. They slay. You don’t need the multitude of pop culture references in Beavis and Butthead or Bill and Ted to confirm this. One of the “Big Four” thrash acts, they were birthed in L.A. in 1983 by Dave Mustaine shortly after he was kicked out of Metallica for being too drunk and crazy (something he has seemingly spent a long time struggling with). Mustaine met bassist “Junior” – Dave Ellefson – in a flat they shared, and with guitarist Mustaine at the mic they now had a voice. Mustaine’s catchy and distinctive riffing (also heard in the writing of the excellent first Metallica album Kill ‘Em All, (Megaforce/Elektra, 1983) and aggressive vocal sneer gave Megadeth a unique sound in the growing sea of thrash clones that peaked in the early ’90s.
One can highly recommend all of Megadeth’s albums up to 1992, but 1986’s Peace Sells, But Who’s Buying? (Capitol) cemented the band as a major act that could even rival Metallica. There are a multitude of crazy stories about Mustaine and the band during the late ’80s, and the truth of the matter is that all of the members, at the time, had serious heroin and other drug habits that almost tore the band apart. But all these years later the band is hitting the road to play their blistering 1990 album, Rust in Peace (Capitol), around the globe. Thrash is very popular again, so it seemed a good time to have a chat. I caught up with Junior to discuss rejoining the band after a five year absence, working with Mustaine and what it’s like to be a major heavy metal legend.
Megadeth have been one of my favorite bands since just after Rust in Peace came out. I still listen to those killer records all the time. I guess I should start by asking what it’s like to be back in the band you formed?
It feels great. It feels really good. You know, it’s funny. There gets to be distance between people when you’re away from each other and you’re not working together. So it’s good to be reconnected on a lot of levels. Even just as friends. Me and Dave [Mustaine] pretty much grew up together for most of our lives, and it’s just as important to be playing our guitars together again. It’ll be good to be back on stage. There’s a comfort level that we both have because we both know we can hold our own. We’re not going to blow it and we’re going to keep it together. So yeah, it’s good to be working with Dave again.
It’s a long friendship and musical partnership isn’t it?
Yeah, you know sometimes some time away from each other – like we’ve had for the last five years – a lot of good can come from it. And I think we’re seeing that now that we’re back together again. As much as we both will admit it, we’ve just missed each other. We missed each other as buddies, as friends. And we miss each other as two guys who basically are very intuitive with each other now after all these years. The Megadeth music is very peculiar. It has a lot of intricacies about it. I know this from auditioning potential band members over the years. They come in thinking they know it but unless you’re in the room when the song is being put together there are a lot of things you’re just not naturally going to pick up on. I think as we launch into this Rust in Peace tour a lot of those intricacies came together really quickly as soon as Dave and I started playing the songs together again.
Was it easy, like getting back on the bike?
You know, it was easy! I’ve played these tunes for so many years it’s unthinkable that I would never, ever play them again. It’s like breathing you know? It’s part of my DNA. So it was easy to go back and brush up on them. There were a couple of tricky parts of course, but some of them were like that ever since we recorded them. But it was cool to get in room again and run through them. It fell into place pretty naturally and pretty easily.
Do you think it marks perhaps the beginning of a new era for the band?
Yeah, it very well could. It’s funny, there’s a new track that Dave has written. He had some scratch tracks of it so he asked me to put a bass line on it. As soon as I put the bass on it I went ‘Yep, that sounds like Megadeth.’
Excellent! Now, Mustaine is a massive legend to me and many others, but he’s infamously known as a difficult character. How have you particularly managed to sustain such a successful long period of working with him?
Dave is very much what people would call a visionary. And when people have big ideas and think way out of the box – way bigger than most people think – those are the kind of people who make huge, dramatic shifts and change in the world. Even since Megadeth I’ve got to work with a few people like that in other sides of the music business. Working with them I noticed the same character attributes that Dave Mustaine has. I think when people are in the box, people like Dave are very foreign to them. I don’t think they fundamentally grasp the bigger concept. And I think that was always the role of Dave and me in the band. He had a lot of ideas that to a lot of people seemed very grandiose. So to Dave he appreciates in the pit of his soul when people like myself could understand that and help carry those ideas out. A big picture idea with no one to carry it out remains just an idea. So to a large degree that was the dynamic between Dave and Dave, and that’s how we worked together.
That makes sense. I’d like to go back to ’83 and the first time you met while living in the same apartment. What was the initial connection you had then?
It’s interesting. I’d only been in the area a week or so when I met Dave. I’d go out to some of the clubs and everyone looked like Nikki Sixx, Blackie Lawless or Vince Neil. There were a ton of people walking around. It was a great spirit then because the metal thing was really alive at that time. Metal was thriving. But Dave was really more in line with the kind of music that I liked, which was the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. You know, things like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, UFO and even things like Motörhead that were coming through around that time. I could tell Dave was very much a larger-than-life character but he also was very grounded in the roots of heavy metal. I like that. I found it appealing. And watching him play, I was like, ‘Wow!’ It was a really different approach to guitar playing. Especially as opposed to what was going on around us in Los Angeles, which was a lot of the Eddie Van Halen clones and a bunch of people who were playing in a much lighter fashion. Dave had a lot of depth and a lot of weight to how he played. He was just rooted back to the real original seed of heavy metal.
And a lot of people right now, as well as listening to thrash, are getting back into that classic early metal scene.
Yeah, it’s amazing the influence those bands had. A lot of bands started to create things but I think struggled to hit the jackpot. They created something that became the inspiration for the thrash movement and ultimately the ‘Big Four.’ We were able to grab onto it and really see it through to the end. So certainly without those bands we would probably not have existed. Someone like Dave, and even Lars and James, took the influences from those songs by Mercyful Fate and Diamond Head and created something really new and fresh out of that though the eyes of the American mindset.
Going forward a few years to 1990 and the classic album Rust in Peace; I’m ridiculously excited that you’re touring that album this year. Do you have any key memories of that period?
Well, that album went through a lot of changes. We started rehearsing in a dirty little rehearsal hall in Los Angeles where we had written a lot of the So Far, So Good… So What! (Capitol, 1988) album. We started writing it with [drummer] Chuck Behler who had a different feel to his playing. And then at one point in 1989 he was replaced with Nick Menza, who had a real youthful fire to his playing and a real cocky but fun-loving attitude. I think that really helped shape a new dynamic for Megadeth. And Dave and I, of course, began a new cleaner lifestyle and that helped turn the corner. We had new management and a good commitment from Capitol Records for the band. And of course we discovered [lead guitarist] Marty Friedman. His audition package had been sitting on our manager’s desk for months and for whatever reason we never checked him out. It’s funny because we’d tried all these different guitar players and we’d actually given up hope. We said, ‘You know what? Let’s record Rust in Peace as a three piece, and we’ll find a guitar player to tour.’ I think we started recording the album in March of 1990. Somewhere around the end of January our manager said ‘I’ve got this package here that you guys never paid attention to.’ I remember Dave and I walking into his office one day and Dave said ‘Who is this guy? Marty Friedman? He’s from Hawaii?’ It’d been sitting there for a while and apparently he’d been telling us about it but we didn’t pay any attention. So we got him down for an audition. He looked the part, he played the part and he had the right enthusiasm and ambition. It just clicked. So, fortunately we were a four piece to record Rust in Peace. Marty had a few weeks to get up to speed on the material and dig into the catalogue, to get his feet wet as a bonafide Megadeth member.
It’s an incredible album and it’s never been off my turntable. It’s possibly my favorite thrash album and definitely the one I’ve played the most.
Why do you think it seems to have become the fan favorite?
Musically it’s a very ferocious album, but I also think that it was at a moment in time. There was a big cultural shift that happened then. The ’80s were over and the ’90s were beginning. Metal and the thrash metal thing were really starting to be popular and it remained that way for the next couple of years. It’s ironic that there’s this 20-year cycle again, the 20th anniversary of Rust in Peace. Megadeth, Slayer and Testament are playing together again like we did with Clash of the Titans tour back in ’90. ‘The Big Four’ are doing shows in Europe. It’s almost like we’re having a big family reunion of the thrash metal fold. I think that’s what was happening back then. It’s people like yourself who were just starting to get into thrash metal and for whatever reason those records of ours are the ones that landed on your turntable. And to a large degree they probably defined you and gave you a soundtrack to your life at that point.
Absolutely. So if the younger you – the junior Junior – was hanging on the upcoming tour, what do you think he would say and what would advice, if any, would you give him?
It’s interesting because when I first met Dave I was like, ‘You know what man? This band is going to be big.’ You could just feel it you know? It felt big. We just knew. We intuitively knew that big things would be happening. That said, we did have a lot of struggles and it didn’t come easily to us. We had to work hard and earn the key for sure. But as the 18-year-old Junior, so to speak, well it kind of played out the way I felt it was going to. It played out the way that I always hoped that it would. And at the same time it’s really cool to have so many people, like yourself, to whom the music is such an integral part of their life. When you are part of something like that it’s a very humbling thing and a huge statement. I’d like to say I’m proud of it but I’m probably more humbled by it than anything.
You obviously had some crazy times in the ’80s. But what are your best memories of the band?
The early days were obviously a lot of fun because we were reckless and everything. But no one can live their lives like that forever, obviously. We’d kill ourselves, you know? Largely the Rust in Peace era was a time of the band coming of age. Stepping up as young men who finally mean business. We were living a new, clean lifestyle. We were showing up to really put the flag on our territory. There was an overall mindset all around. You hear it through music; it’s a band coming to life at that time. We really meant business. That to me was probably one of my favorite periods of the band because it was such a huge shift. And it was very challenging. We were growing out of becoming kids and really becoming men, you know? That was a huge thing. It was cool that we were able to record that with our guitars.
There is an incredible energy on that record. The “Holy Wars” video captured that amazing energy too.
If you were asked to choose your three favourite Megadeth songs which three might you choose?
I’d say “Holy Wars” is one of them. “Symphony of Destruction” and “Peace Sells”.
Can’t argue with those!
I think those three define the three definitive eras of the band. So if you had to pull three out and say ‘Who is Megadeth?’ Then listen to “Peace Sells”, then listen to “Holy Wars” then listen to “Symphony of Destruction”. I think that paints a nice picture.
Lastly, a friend of mine is in a great UK thrash band called Mutant. He’s a big fan and, for what it’s worth; he wanted me to ask you to consider covering the song “Black Funeral” by Mercyful Fate.
(Laughs) All right, so we’ll take it as a request. I can’t guarantee we’re going to play it, but the request is in!