Photograph by Anthony Frisketti
INTERVIEW WITH DAVID ELLEFSON BY KELLEY SIMMS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTHONY FRISKETTI AND ANNALISA RUSSO
While taking a brief break from recording his new Ellefson solo album, bassist David Ellefson was rummaging through his vast record collection one night and thought it would be a great idea to re-record some of those classic tracks. Thus, No Cover was born.
Joining Ellefson on this 18 track covers album are his solo band members vocalist Thom Hazaert, guitarists Andy Martongelli and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, and drummer Paolo Caridi, with an array of legendary musical guest artists including Anthrax’s Charlie Benante, Gus G, Doro Pesch, Al Jourgensen, and more.
Ellefson recently spoke with us about picking the tunes to cover for the album, the recording process, the significance of the album cover art, and much more.
While recording cover songs for B-sides and bonus tracks for your upcoming Ellefson solo LP, you decided to do a full album of covers. What was the inspiration for these songs?
Like you said, we had plans to put out a solo album later this year in October and clearly with touring being shut down, it just didn’t make sense to do that. So, we pivoted and moved it over to the side. We thought, “Why don’t we bang out some covers?” We just started talking about some songs, and quickly everybody got so excited between me and Thom and Andy, our guitar player over in Italy, and our drummer Paulo, who lived over there as well. Then the whole community came together as we started reaching out to friends like Jason McMaster, Charlie Benante, and Doro, just asking people if they were available and interested in making some music. And that was it. It started organically and that simple. As far as the songs go, a lot of it was pretty easy. I went back into my record collection and the things I either played growing up, like “Love Me Like a Reptile” by Motörhead or “Wasted” by Def Leppard, and also other songs that I’ve always wanted to play, like “Sheer Heart Attack” by Queen, “Not Fragile” by BTO, “Sweet FA” by Sweet, just these great songs from my childhood. And Thom pitched in and said, “Hey, I want to do a W.A.S.P. song.” He said, “Let me pick the Judas Priest song” and he picked “Freewheel Burning.” And that’s how it went back and forth and the next thing you know we had 18 songs done and now we have a double length CD out of cover songs.
The solo album you were originally working on, is it already recorded? Will there be a 2021 release date and will it contain all new original material?
Yeah, it’s funny, it actually has a cover song, maybe two on it as well. We held those back because that really sits inside that body of work because it complements well with the original material that’s going to be on that release. Getting away from writing that record for a couple of months and working on No Cover, it gave us some perspective first of all, how great these songs are on No Cover, and why they’re so great, why they’ve stood the test of time, and then go back and revisit our own material. We knew we still had to write a couple more songs. So, we weren’t completely finished yet. But I think it gave us a renewed energy of how to approach finishing up the next solo record of original material. When you’re putting records together, you start writing songs and you’re not thinking too much about it, just kind of banging tunes out and it’s sounding good and it’s feeling good. Then at some point you do need to step back and step away from it and take a look at what you got. Every record that I’ve ever worked on has gone through that process. I think No Cover provided that little break for us to get a new perspective. In fact, literally before you just called, I was listening to some new tracks that are just sounding amazing for the next Ellefson solo record.
“IT WAS REALLY IMPORTANT THAT WE TOOK AN APPROACH ON THIS THAT HONORED THE ORIGINAL SONG AND THE ORIGINAL ARTIST.”
With Andy and Paulo in Italy, and during this pandemic, how did the recording process go for No Cover?
Because of COVID-19, this obviously was not a record that we were able to be in the room for everybody to do. It’s funny because this is the one moment in time where it’s completely excusable to not be in the room. I would prefer to be in the room with guys making albums. I don’t like being socially distanced. You can do it when you have to, we’re all pros, and we’ve done enough of it to know how to do it. But there’s a body language, kind of like when you do a call on Zoom, it’s this two-dimensional experience. When you’re in the room with someone, it’s a real living, breathing, three-dimensional moment. The same goes for music, because music is three-dimensional. Yeah, it’s audio in that domain, but when you’re with people and you’re creating it, there’s just little dynamics that can happen that could trigger a response. Music is a conversation between people, and I like when that conversation happens in a room. Of course, the songs were already written by the other artists and it was up to us to go in and re-record them. Between me, Thom, and Andy, we really had a sense of where they should go and that they shouldn’t be these fully radically recreated heavy metal versions of these songs. Of course, they’re heavy, they’ve got great production to them. The guitar tones are strong and the bass sounds like me, etc. But we didn’t want to come at it and just try to out-metal the most metal version. It was really important that we took an approach on this that honored the original song and the original artist. And I think my view on it was to pretend that the original artist got to go in the studio in 2020 with all the modern technology and re-record their song. Let’s make it sound like that.
Although you did stay true to the originals, you also took some artistic liberties, most notably with the vocals.
Starting with Thom as the primary singer on almost all of the tracks, of course he has a real punch to everything. Thom has been singing enough now with the Sleeping Giants record and the touring that we’ve done to come into this record. We’ve gotten a nice vocal sound together with him and Ron Bumblefoot being involved with us, even our mixer Alessio Garavello sings some stuff and he can add some backing things. So, we’re at a place now where the tracks we put out earlier this year, “Over Now” and “Simple Truth,” really started to get a band sound. That helped us going into this because we already had a sound to our group. And as maybe Thom would often put a little too much gasoline on the fire. When we brought in Doro or Jason McMaster or Bumblefoot and Andrew Freeman [Last in Line] for instance to sing with Thom, it suddenly softened it a little bit and it made a nice, clear, melodic component that really cut through the track well. But at the same time, there’s some things like “Nailed to the Gun,” the Fastway song, where Thom’s voice added a really necessary weight to the vocal performance. In most bands there’s one singer, and that singer for better or worse has to cover everything. And that’s a pretty tall order because a voice is a voice. It’s God-given and it’s got its beauty, but they also all have their limitations. And I think we found a really clever way here with the Ellefson band and friends to be able to create the ideal vocal performance in any given setting.
“WE FOUND A REALLY CLEVER WAY HERE WITH THE ELLEFSON BAND AND FRIENDS TO BE ABLE TO CREATE THE IDEAL VOCAL PERFORMANCE IN ANY GIVEN SETTING.”
Did you purposely try some songs that were out of your wheelhouse? “Not Fragile” seems like a really deep cut.
It’s funny because it’s song one, side A of my very first album ever. Thom even said that he had never even heard that song, and by the time he had got done singing it, it became one of his favorite songs on the whole album. I think that and probably “Sweet FA,” those are a couple of deep tracks, certainly “Love Hurts” by Nazareth. Those are a few songs that came out when I was really young and I’m probably the oldest guy in the band at age 55. Thom’s 10 years younger than me, Paulo is in his early 30s, and Andy I think might be 40. So all these guys are a whole lot younger than me. When guys of that age hear the song and get into it with their instruments and they make it sound as great as they did, I think it’s a great testimony to how strong that song is. I think we covered a good variety.
I assume you were already friends with everyone or have played with a few or had been on tour with while in Megadeth. Talk about some of the artists that you got to participate in this project.
I’ll speak of the other ones first. Jacob Bunton [Mick Mars, Adler] and Brandon Yeagley of Crobot are guys who I had not met or been friends with and had no prior music experience with. And it was just so great to get them involved. They’re much younger guys, they’re careers are very young, and they’re having great success, so it was cool to bring them in because clearly they hear and understand music a little bit differently than probably my generation does. And then at the same time, to bring in my friends Charlie and Mark Slaughter and Doro. We’re all a similar generation and age group. Charlie and I have jammed together on Metal Allegiance. We did a big Kiss jam on the MegaCruise back last October. Doro was on that Kiss jam as well on the MegaCruise. We’ve toured together with Warlock, but I’ve never had a musical collaboration with her, so that was really great to have Doro be a part of the tribe here. Sometimes it’s just as easy as a phone call, especially during this time. Like Dave Lombardo, I sent him a text today, “I’ve got a couple of songs left that I’d love to have you play on this.” We got so many of our buddies from the neighborhood on it. So, he chose to play on “Riff Raff,” which is a fun AC/DC song. And again, probably the first AC/DC song that I had heard, because I had bought the live If You Want Blood (You Got It) album with Bon Scott on it, and when the needle drops on song one, side A, it’s “Riff Raff.” It’s fun to go back, and with my friends, relive a similar moment, like “Auf Wehdersehen.” Al Jourgensen, we grew up in very different genres but around the same time, and he’s a little bit older than I am, but we both share an affinity for Cheap Trick. He’s very good friends with those guys from Chicago, of course. It was fun to honor our heroes and friends in Cheap Trick with a song together.
Obviously, the No Cover art is an homage to Def Leppard’s On Through the Night album cover. How did this idea come about?
That was Thom’s idea. He being a Pyromania fan, he saw how excited I was about playing something off On Through the Night and how I always talked about that album being such a game changer for me, because the Def Leppard guys were teenagers when they put that record out and about how much it spoke to me as a young, aspiring professional. So, to cover that song, it just lent itself to the cover, and, of course, we put my bass on the track. It’s got some Ellefson-isms to it. It’s just totally paying my deepest respect to Def Leppard and certainly to that album. And that’s an album they don’t play a lot of songs from in the live show and that’s just one of those great records in my collection.
No Cover is released through your own label, the resurrected Combat Records, which released Megadeth’s first album, 1985’s Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good! It was so great that you and Thom brought this iconic label back and are signing new bands as well.
Thom’s actually signed a couple of acts this year that we put out. All that stuff pushes through on my Facebook page, so people can go over there to see what’s been happening over on the Combat site. Of course, you got the Combat Facebook and Instagram as well. It’s really been great because that brand deserved to be held in high esteem. In a large way, it was the house Megadeth built originally, even though that catalog had been sold off to Sony and we started with a clean slate. Thom is very clear about the direction because while it was the house my band was helping build, some of his favorite records and influential records came out on Combat. So, for him it really was something that had a real thread to the whole narrative to his musical upbringing. And of course it’s my alma mater, it’s where I got started in the business.
“IT’S FUN TO GO BACK IN TIME AND RELISH IN THE CONNECTION THAT RECORD MADE WITH SO MANY PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD WHILE WORKING ON THE NEXT MEGADETH”
David, before I let you go, what’s the news on Megadeth?
We’re working on the new record now down in Nashville, and it’s been about three years in the making between the writing and the pre-production and, of course, the recording. We’ve had to stagger it around the ability to travel, but it’s coming along great. It’s the ideal follow-up to Dystopia. Right now we’re doing an honorarium of the 30th anniversary of Rust in Peace this year. That record came out 30 years ago this month. It’s fun to go back in time and relish in the connection that record made with so many people around the world while working on the next Megadeth album as well. All of our hands are tied to what the promoters, the government, and the city officials are going to allow. We’ve announced that our tour for this year is launching in July of 2021, and that’s the date we’re moving toward. We can only move forward with the facts at the time, and right now, those are the facts.