Although being a member of one of the biggest thrash metal bands of all time could be described as far more than a full-time job, Megadeth bassist David Ellefson actually holds down several "full-time jobs." From his own Ellefson Coffee Co. to EMP Label Group, to managing artists like the all-female rock group Doll Skin - how Ellefson has time for anything else is somewhat of a mystery. Yet, he does so with a passion and dedication that most people can devote to only one aspect of their lives. AXS recently spoke with this wearer of many hats about his acquisition and relaunch of the legendary Combat Records, recording other talented artists, and the importance of saying 'yes' in life.
AXS: So you’ve got some exciting things going - the relaunch of Combat Records being one!
David Ellefson: Yeah, one day my partner Thom Hazaert called me up and said he thought we could buy it. Combat went through a rocky time, heavy metal and thrash metal almost barely existed at one point in the 90’s, it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that it got revived. So our vision with this is to really re-frame it back to its original core of what it was. We’re putting out some tracks by Helstar and also the new Raven album - they were [both] on Combat - so [we're] launching with a couple of its iconic, legacy artists as well as some new artists. I think where Combat fell into a black hole was when change of ownership became change of vision, and then the artists and the titles that were released on Combat during what I call the ‘dark ages of Combat,’ they weren’t thrash titles and that’s a big reason why, in my opinion, it’s synergy didn’t click. I think with us now at the helm, we fully understand what it was, where it should be, and where it needs to go.
AXS: Do you think the business side of the music world is finally at a point where it can begin to thrive again?
DE: Well, I think the whole record business has been dismantled and in a lot of ways rebuilt. I think record labels lost their focus, record companies got very full of themselves and very top-heavy like a lot of corporations. Everyone at the top thought they were more important than they really were but these companies were all built on the backs of the artists because, let’s face it, without the artist’s creating their music there is no record business. Just like a lot of companies on Wall Street, they needed to fail to realize why they even existed in the first place, and quite honestly, the Internet changed that because it put everything back in the hands of the fans and the customers. In days past the record companies would put up the money and therefore they owned the master and got to market and sell the master and therefore got to tell the artist what to do. All of a sudden the artist became like a ditch digger, they became a slave to The Man - which was the very thing that art was against. What we do at EMP is we allow our artist to own their own masters, own their own songs, own their music - and again, we just aid them in getting their product to market. I think more than ever now the business is more about a partnership.
AXS: You have a unique perspective being both a musician but part of the business side of music as well.
DE: I was the guy who in Minnesota learning to play the bass at age 11 and putting my first band together at age 12, and we couldn’t afford roadies so we were hauling the gear, we couldn’t afford a publicist so we’re the ones who made the fliers and hung them around the high school. And eventually we needed an agent so I was the guy on the phone calling places in Minnesota and South Dakota trying to book my band. I learned all this from the ground up, from a kid living on a farm to trying to get into rock and roll. And when I moved to L.A. and met Dave [Mustaine] it was the same just on a bigger level. Dave had more experience with that, of course, in the big cities, and his experience with Metallica but we created our first t-shirt, created our first flier, networked with the underground metal community, sending demos to Europe to try to get press over there, and trying to get into the fanzines, and again - we couldn’t afford roadies so we packed the truck ourselves and drove to San Francisco and debuted Megadeth. And that just speaks to what I do with the record label, I know this business because I grew up in this business and I’m still in it, and one of the things that I tell our artists is that if I’m still getting on a plane and going to play concerts then I expect you to as well.
AXS: One of your artists, Doll Skin, is another up-and-comer has already been making some waves in the new music world!
DE: Yeah, I like a lot of different music and a great song is a great song. When I first saw them play, their very first show actually, I saw something. And I’ve been able to experience a lot of greatness growing up in the business - watching Guns N’ Roses come together, seeing Metallica a few miles up ahead of us, watching as a fan Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, bands that made me feel like I could go do that. Everyone is a mentor if you allow them to be. And with a group like Doll Skin I just saw this ability to play punk rock and hard rock, and write songs, I saw greatness in a singer, I saw a team. I like groups, I’ve never wanted to be a solo artist, to me being in a band meant that we were the misfits and that was our game. I was never a jock, I played very little with the orchestra band, I was always kind of that outcast kid in school and when I started putting bands together that’s when I felt like I was on a team. That was my team and my tribe that I played for.
AXS: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in life thus far?
DE: Say ‘yes.’ I think that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned. [laughs] When you’re marching to that thing inside you, that inner voice that nudges you, you listen to that because those are the crumbs on the road guiding you down the right path. And fear - you know, as they say F-E-A-R - ‘false evidence appearing real’ - 99% of the stuff we fear never even happens. Yet, fear can appear so real and stop us in our tracks, and it stopped me in my tracks years ago - in particular when Megadeth disbanded in 2002. I really did not know what to do next in my life - some opportunities came my way and I didn’t know what to do and when the train left the station without me and I regretted it, and I thought I didn’t want to have regrets anymore. I’m going to say yes, I’m going to get on board, and I’m going to go do it. And I find when you just say yes that at least gets you in the room and once you’re in the room then do your thing. There’s no lonelier feeling than being outside the room when everyone else is inside and having fun.