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David Ellefson Talks Kings of Thrash, The Lucid, and the Legacy of the Big Four
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Some 40 years after exploding onto the scene, bassist David Ellefson is still doing what he loves, albeit in a four-pronged fashion.
As a founding member of Megadeth, Ellefson made waves amongst a bustling thrash metal scene en route to enshrinement as a member of the “Big Four of Thrash Metal.” And while he might no longer be a part of his flagship band, make no mistake – Ellefson isn’t resting on his laurels.
For Ellefson, a musical awakening was in order; if anything, 2022 served as just that. With The Lucid, Dieth, and Ellefson-Soto all logging in with new music, it seems that the veteran bassist’s creativity is as boundless as ever.
But that wasn’t all; Ellefson also reunited with old cohorts Jeff Young and Chris Poland for King of Thrash, a band whose initial mission statement was to celebrate the music of their past. In playing classic records, Killing is My Business… And Business is Good! (1985), and So Far, So Good… So What! (1988), the trio reconnected as brothers bonded by metal.
The shows went over so well that night number for was ripped directly from the soundboard and then swiftly turned into Kings of Thrash’s first live record, Live at the Whiskey A Go Go. So, to the hungry audiences who attended those shows at the acclaimed Sunset Strip outpost, now is your chance to relive that night forever.
As he prepares to embark on what appears to be yet another busy year ahead, David Ellefson dialed in with MetalSucks to recount the origins of The Lucid’s latest EP, Saddle Up and Ride, the significance of So Far, So Good… So What!, reconnecting with Jeff Young and Christ Poland, and what being a key cog in thrash metal’s wheel means to him.
What are some of your proudest moments of 2022?
It was a great year that began with the Nick Menza documentary film; This Was My Life: The Story of Nick Menza. And then The Lucid launched, and we kicked that off with a new video and the LP. And, in fact, we had the EP we’re working on, but once Drew [Fortier] had his cancer scare, we decided to kick that down the road a little bit.
It was cool to start last year with The Lucid, and now we’re starting 2023 with that, too. I like that it keeps the forward momentum going and shows that we’re not a one-trick pony. I love the diversity of The Lucid, and in a lot of ways, it helped me break free from past musical things that I was known for. It showed that there was still a train on the track for me to move forward with, so to speak. And then we had Dieth, which rattled a lot of people’s cages; I don’t think people saw that one coming. [Laughs].
With that, a lot of people were like, “Whoa, this is this is a bird of a different feather,” and it became something that was very exciting. And we wrapped up the year with the Ellefson-Soto record, which I had been sitting on since about late 2021, so we were very excited to get that out. It was cool that we kept that record a bit of a secret until the final launch, and we had a lot of fun with it. Overall, I feel like I now have four pillars of my life between The Lucid, Ellefson-Soto, and Dieth, and now, I can add Kings of Thrash into the mix, too. I feel like the walls of my house have been reframed, and that’s refreshing.
All images courtesy of O’Donnell Media Group
Starting with The Lucid, what can you tell me about Saddle Up and Ride?
It’s interesting because, with the first Lucid record, I essentially came in to mostly play bass and add to what was already created. But with Saddle Up and Ride, I wrote most of the music, then sent it to everybody through a group text. And from there, Vinnie [Dombroski] immediately jumped in and wrote the melody and lyrics, and of course, we all collaborated on it. It was fun to become a bigger part of the creative fabric with this EP, which is five songs.
I mean, this EP has got diversity for days, which has become a hallmark of The Lucid. I think what’s fun with The Lucid is it’s constantly turning left corners, dropping bombs, and has a lot of cool little easter eggs of musical fun. It’s got stuff for rockers, it’s got things for metalheads, and it’s not defined by one genre. These days, that’s pretty unheard of, and it’s something that we are very proud of. To be able to appeal to so many people is cool.
How does your approach to the bass change when you’re playing with Kings of Thrash?
Being that I was there during the creation of thrash metal and got to help create my own sound within a group back in 1983, I think people know what to expect from me when it comes to that. I guess you could say that I am thrash metal, so when I play thrash bass, I’ve got a defined channel that’s already there. And within that genre, a lot of nuances come from guys like Frank Bello, Cliff Burton, Tom Araya, Jason Newstead, and all those guys. So, there are a lot of variables within that genre, but my particular lane was defined by me, and how I play, so I stick to that.
That especially comes into play with Kings of Thrash because that’s intended to be a celebration of the records I was a part of. So, that’s easy for me to fall back into because it’s what I know best. But the fun part about Kings of Thrash is that what we do in that band is primarily a continued growth of what we started. We can be in that lane but don’t have to stay in that lane, and that’s the thing that I have the most fun with.
In reconnecting with Jeff [Young] and Chris [Poland] and then having the new guys in the band, we’ve been able to tap into some things that got lost a long time ago. I look forward to playing Killing is My Business… and Business is Good! and So Far, So Good… So What! now because there are deep cuts on there that are my favorites, I’m reconnecting with those. I look forward to it. I think that in a lot of ways, Kings of Thrash has helped me reinvent what I’ve already invented.
All your recent musical pursuits have been very well received. Given that you’ve embarked on a new musical chapter, how gratifying has that been for you?
That’s a good question. Success is measured by a couple of yardsticks; one, of course, is that the industry looks at sales, numbers at the box office, record charts, and data. And those are valid because they help you sustain yourself in the business world, but they can also be manipulated, right? They can also be deceiving because, as an artist, in my opinion, that’s not the truest sense of your success. The truest sense is when you’re in the studio and going through the process of creating the music; how rewarding is that to you? And at the same time, when you’re on the stage, and you’re there with your friends on the stage in front of an audience, how rewarding is that?
Take Kings of Thrash, for instance: we did four shows, and each show got bigger and better to the degree that when we finished at the Whisky in Hollywood, it was sold beyond sold out. I remember that Chris Poland and I stood on that stage next to each other, just grinning and looking out, going, “Man, I don’t think the Whiskey has ever seen a show like this before in its life.” And the Whiskey is a venue that has seen everything, right?
When we were starting in the ’80s, we couldn’t even play the Whisky; they wouldn’t have us. We had to play these outlier punk rock venues like the Balboa Theater and the Waters Club in San Pedro. Like, we weren’t even allowed on the Sunset Strip; they wouldn’t have us. So, to come back almost 40 years after we started that band, and to put out a live record that we recorded at the Whisky, that it’s almost like the ultimate “fuck you” to the establishment that ran the strip back in that day.
It’s not a “fuck you” to the Whiskey because we love the Whiskey; it’s a “fuck you” to the establishment that said, “We’re not letting you in.” So many great books have been written about that period, even in glam and hair metal, where people in Guns N’ Roses or Faster Pussycat talked about how hard it was to get on those stages because they knew those stages would make them or break them. And I think, for me, and Jeff Young and Chris Poland, we made it despite those stages. We didn’t have to play those stages to have the success that we had.
All images courtesy of O’Donnell Media Group
How meaningful has it been to reconnect with Jeff Young and Chris Poland after not being in a band together for so long?
I played with Chris a bit in my band, F5, and with his band, OHM. We did a show at a venue down on Melrose, and there was a Megadeth tribute band on the bill, and Chris and I came up and played. And I invited Nick Menza down, which was around when he had just been in Megadeth again, so I called him down to play with us, too. So, I’ve done a few things with Chris, remained friends with him, and stayed in touch.
I’ve stayed in touch with Jeff, but we haven’t done anything musically since So Far, So Good… So What! And then, just by happenstance, we were on the same couple of songs during the Ronnie Montrose Remembered event at NAMM a few years back, and we reconnected. I remember looking over and thinking, “Oh my God, it’s Jeff over there; I gotta go see how he’s doing.”
So, to reconnect with our songs, music, genre, era, and fans and to put the whole package back together again, that’s special. To do this in a new day, as real brothers and friends, and to do it now is a whole new experience; it’s very different than it was. And yet, at the same time, you can feel it soon as you get back in the room with the guys you played with before. As soon as we got back up there together, we remembered all of it. It’s kind of like, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s how we used to do it.” And, of course, we’re more advanced and veteran musicians and recording artists now, which helps.
So Far, So Good… So What! turns 35 years old this year. What are your memories of its recording?
That was a funny record because the band was in a state of almost freefall, and we needed to correct our course quickly. We needed to deliver a record to Capitol Records, who wanted the album sooner than later to fulfill the deal we had with them. That wasn’t the time to have a misstep, we had big tours and huge things awaiting us, and there was certainly pressure to get it right. I remember there being a ton of pressure to get in the studio, get the record done, get on the road and keep the train rolling, which we did successfully.
So, in the face of that, I picked up my guitar and just started writing, and a ton came from that. From that came the collaboration on “Hook in Mouth,” “Liar,” “I My Darkest Hour,” and “Mary Jane.” That was the record where I became a songwriter and true collaborator. That was the first one where I felt more equal than I had been before. Of course, everyone always worked to create their parts, but that was the first one where we collaborated.
So, that record was kind of this entrance point for me creatively with the band where my name was on the record as a writer. Through that process, I got to feel a much deeper ownership over the songs than before, which made a massive difference for me. I think, in the long view of the catalog, So Far, So Good… So What! falls between Rust in Peace and Peace Sells in terms of importance. And those are the highly acclaimed records, but I think So Far, So Good is right there, too. I guess So Far, So Good, and Killing Is My Business are the cult classic records that, over the years, fans have asked for. And that’s why we’re out there performing them now.
Jeff and Chris are similar yet very different players. How do you find balance on stage?
What’s interesting is that Jeff replaced Chris in the ’80s, so they’ve never worked together, and I’m not even sure they knew each other. So, it’s been fun to see us all become the dearest of friends through Kings of Thrash and connect as we have like brothers. Their styles are clearly very different, and in many ways, when it comes to Christ, his diversity as a player was why we cast him in the band in the first place.
We needed a second guitar player that would be very different from how Dave [Mustaine] played. We didn’t even really care if it was “heavy metal sounding.” It just needed to be something that was different from what Dave was doing to create diversity. So, when Jeff came in, he did the exact same thing, but his sound was different. He kept the character of that role, but he did so differently than Chris did. Interestingly, Chris and Jeff both wore the same hat in the band while they were members but did so in very different ways.
When Jeff and Chris were members of the band, their talents allowed them to shine on these two records they were performing live now, which makes them unique. I think that Jeff, a schooled musician, takes a lot of pride in the details, whereas Chris is the type of guy who loves to jam. He has a style and an ear that can immediately integrate in with everybody and allows him to jam with anyone. So, Jeff takes great pride in digging into the detail beforehand, which has been required of him to play these records because he picked up a heavy workload.
All images courtesy of O’Donnell Media Group
What can you tell me about Kings of Thrash’s live record, Live at the Whisky A Go Go?
In addition to the record, we’ve just announced another 19 shows, and we have a world tour that we’re putting together now. You can consider the live record the very first part of that process. It was recorded at the Whisky back in October of 2022 during show number four. It will be out at the end of March through Cleopatra Records, and we’re very excited about it. I am so happy we got to film that night because something special was in the air that evening.
It was unique enough that it was worthy of a live album, which will also be on DVD. I think you’ll see it and hear it when you get a copy of the record. We all hear all these stories about how these live albums aren’t really live and that they did all of these overdubs. People are always tweaking things, but we ripped it straight off the soundboard with this record.
So, what you hear is actually what took place that night. It’s not like we took a mobile truck out for a month, this was all done that night, and it’s right off the board. It’s pretty cool because it’s not like we have all these albums out; we did four shows, and not like we’ve got a live record to show for it. So, we put our necks on the chopping block by saying, “Hey, this is how confident we feel about this; this is what we sound like,” you know?
Do Kings of Thrash have any plans to record original music?
Yes, we do. When Jeff and I reconnected in January 2021, we had dinner at the Rainbow, and he started telling me about some old riffs he had from back in ’88. So, he hummed the riffs to me, and I went, “Dude, I totally remember those riffs.” It was crazy because he hummed them, and it was like he was playing them for me just yesterday.
Back in the day, me and Jeff would play guitar together a lot when we were on the road. We would pick up guitars and jam together, and that’s when we’d work on things, and that’s where I remembered the riffs from. That got us started, and we’ve been writing and tracking new material ever since. It’s just forward motion for an extraordinary thing that has allowed us to celebrate our past while also bringing something new.
What does being a member of the “Big Four of Thrash Metal” mean to you?
I consider myself very blessed that it even happened. I think about other genres of music in between country, reggae, hip-hop, hair metal, or any other genre, and I don’t think the four founding fathers are as relevant or popular as we are in thrash. When we did those Big Four shows a bunch of years back, it was amazing that we were all still around, still vibrant, still kicking ass, and still making great music.
I’m glad we caught it when we did because some of us are here anymore or have changed bands, and Slayer is retired. It’s not the same as it was even a decade ago, so I am thankful we all got to do that. For a genre that was so edgy, the counterculture was so fun and vibrant, and the fact that it’s lasted for 40 years as it has is incredible. Amazingly, it made the mark that it did, thrived, and has continued to be successful like it has.
So, I’m thrilled to be a part of it, and I’m delighted that people are still excited to come out and see it. Not just my generation but the younger generations are excited about it, too. I see young kids coming out to see Kings of Thrash now. They’ve heard about this music’s legend and want to see and hear it themselves.
To what do you owe your longevity in metal, David?
I do it for the love of the game. When it comes to music, I love doing it. Even at age 58, I wake up every day like I did when I first learned how to play the bass. I still wake up and am like, “Okay, so what songs are we gonna play? Who can we go jam with? Where can we go play a concert?”
That’s how it was for me growing up in the Midwest on a farm; even back then, I was saying, “How do I go make music? Who can I go make music with?” It’s still the same thing today, and that’s probably why I have four bands. [Laughs]. I have to do that now because one band just doesn’t scratch the itch. Having all of these different musical outlets lets me be expressive and get it all out, rather than being forced to limit myself to only doing part of it.
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