HeAd’s KoRner: Brian ‘Head’ Welch Goes One on One With Megadeth’s David Ellefson
Brian 'Head' Welch, guitarist for Korn and frontman of Love and Death, contributes a popular monthly column called 'HeAd's KoRner' to Loudwire. In his newest entry, Head goes one-on-one with legendary Megadeth bassist David Ellefson for an in-depth interview. Check out Brian 'Head' Welch's latest edition of 'Head's Korner' below:
I just picked up the book 'My Life With Deth: Discovering Meaning in a Life of Rock & Roll' by David Ellefson from Megadeth. Wow, I am so excited to read this book! I have so many things in common with this dude. For instance, he was away from Megadeth for eight years before he came back, just like me and KoRn. And the music bug bit him at age 10 like me… pretty wild.
The thrash metal movement changed rock music forever and I’m honored to interview the legendary David Ellefson. Make sure to pick up a copy of his book (available at Amazon)!
Head: What sparked the fire in you for music? What bands lit that flame?
Dave Ellefson: I started hearing hard rock bands like Styx, Sweet, BTO and KISS on WLS AM radio when I was on the school bus each morning when I was 10 years old. That bus ride each morning exposed me to a lot of the rock 'n' roll of the mid to late 1970s. Also, while I was out doing farm work for my dad, I would listen to an FM radio station out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and that’s where I heard groups like Chicago, Nazareth, 10cc, Dan Fogelberg and all sorts of new artists of the day. I just fell in love with all of it and that propelled me to get a bass guitar.
Did you start with bass or a different instrument?
I first learned music on the family Wurlitzer organ, which we had because my mom sang in the church choir and liked it for playing around the house. Then, I chose tenor saxophone in the fifth grade orchestra band, but once I heard rock 'n' roll on the school bus, the bass guitar was calling out to me for some reason.
KISS was my first ‘fan’ fascination and because they played Gibson guitars, I begged my mom to get me a Gibson EBO out of a local newspaper classified for $150, along with a little Fender Bassman amplifier from a neighboring music store. Everyday after school I would come home and head straight to my basement and practice for hours at a time. It was the thing that drove me and gave my life direction since I was 11 years old.
Did you practice and jam a lot?
I practiced so I could get in a band and play. To me, it was a means to an end of getting out and playing shows, like I saw my heroes doing. I liked to practice but I was never one of these guys who could just lock myself in my room and practice eight hours a day. My life was meant to be on the stage, not in some bedroom on a farm.
Were your parents supportive?
They were, in fact very much so. When my father passed away on my wedding day in 1994, I then learned that he went to the University of Minnesota to pursue his passion of architecture. But because we had the family farm, he was called back home to run the operation and he was never able to fully realize his dream. That’s the point when I realized he supported me, and my dream, probably because he wasn’t able to fulfill his. He saw that I was dedicated and disciplined to following through on my passion for music, even though he didn’t understand or even like rock 'n' roll music. It was probably the best gift he could have given me…to let me follow my dream rather than insist I follow his.
Did you get into the partying lifestyle at a young age?
I didn’t do any partying for quite a few years in the beginning of my musical path. I was very focused and disciplined in my music endeavors and would be very upset when I saw musicians I was playing with getting loaded. It was really a turn off to me.
But, then at age 15, I followed a typical path of many teenagers and tried some booze to see what it was like, mostly because my friends and brother were experimenting with it. That’s when I realized it was like Russian Roulette and that first drink was like a bullet in the chamber and it was “game on." I’m not sure why I took the first drink, but I know why I took the second one… it was the gateway to a whole new dimension, and I liked it!
How did that affect your teens and twenties?
Right after that first drunk night at age 15, everything in my life changed. Gone were my church friends I’d had since grade school, suddenly replaced with party and using buddies. It also was the social lubricant to feeling comfortable around girls. When we were all drunk at a party, girls didn’t seem so intimidating to me and conversation flowed easy. I also fully understood the moniker “sex, drugs and rock n roll." Up to that point, I loved rock 'n' roll for the music but never had any clue about the rest of the lifestyle that included sex and drugs.
Was your childhood good overall, though?
Yes, it was really good. I was raised in a good Lutheran Midwest farm family home. We always ate meals together, prayed at each meal, we attended church on Sunday. I was baptized at 1-month old, did Sunday school as a kid and was confirmed by age 15. I was a decent A-B grade student and got along well with people.
My mother was quintessential “good Samaritan” mother while my father was strict and not in the mood for horseplay. I have one older brother who took over the family farm, which allowed me the flexibility to pursue my music ambitions. So, it was an ideal situation on many levels and I certainly had nothing to rebel against.
Give us some examples of some struggles you had to walk through as a kid.
In spite of my upbringing, I often had this feeling of being on the outside looking in, like everyone else had it all figured out, but I didn’t. I now know that that feeling is quite common among alcoholics and drug addicts. It’s a deep longing in the soul to feel a part of something. I guess that would explain the sense of ease and comfort that came over me the night I first drank alcohol at age 15.
How’d you hook up with Dave Mustaine?
I met Dave about a week after I moved to Los Angeles upon my high school graduation, in June 1983. I moved into an apartment just below his in Hollywood, Calif. This was just after his stint with Metallica ended a couple months earlier. He was just starting to write some new songs, figuring out what his next move was going to be. As soon as I heard his songs, they totally floored me. They were just plain great. They were very dark, very heavy and they scared me, which I loved. He was such a unique guitarist and good writer. He struck me as someone very focused on what he wanted and he knew how to get it, which impressed me. I went upstairs and jammed with him and quickly picked up on the material. So I started to learn the songs, and we began working out bass lines as the compositions were being written.
What was it like the first 5 or 10 years in Megadeth on the road and recording? Give us the good, bad and the ugly!
We were definitely focused and Dave knew that Los Angeles was not our home, but rather San Francisco where he’d spent the last couple years with Metallica. He knew that was where our music would be best debuted so we went up there two times in 1984 to debut the band.
For me, I was young and ready to make my mark in the world as a bass player. I wanted to play the most gnarly and wicked licks while making Megadeth the heaviest band ever.
Recording was definitely a run and gun mission. We would record in the late night hours and stay up all night because that was when rates were cheap and studios were available. It was also part of our lifestyle, if you know what I mean…
Life on the road was wild but a lot of fun, especially being young and full of optimism with our thrash scene being the new underground rage at the time. Plus, we were the next wave of music that was coming up the ranks and that is an exciting phase of ones career because the sky is the limit.
Our first tour for 'Killing Is My Business…' was in a van on an indie label, followed by the next two tours for 'Peace Sells…' in motorhomes. That was all we could afford so we just made it work. We headlined clubs & theaters, opened for Alice Cooper and Ronnie James Dio in the arenas and spent most of 1985-88 on the road full time.
I actually liked it because we put all of our money back into the band, so at least being on tour meant I knew I had food, beer, cigarettes and a place to sleep each night. When I got home off tour I was basically homeless in L.A. so I’d have to find a willing girl to take me in, usually at the Rainbow on Sunset Blvd. Then we’d go on tour and I’d have to break up with the girlfriend because having a relationship was not realistic as a young touring musician. It would definitely mess with your emotions. Those were the not-so-glamorous sides of a budding rock star.
What was your rock bottom? What made you want to change your life?
I hit bottom in 1989. It really started when I had to cancel some large stadium shows in Europe with Iron Maiden in 1988 after we played Castle Donington, which is now known as the Download Festival. I was really strung out on heroin and needed to detox. I didn’t really want to get clean per se, I just didn’t want to be quite so strung out. The bummer of a drug habit is this illusive quest to get it back to the good ol' days when the drugs kinda worked and didn’t interfere with everything important to you. I just wanted to have a buzz, but not blow it. I would quickly learn you can’t have it both ways….
I went to rehab three times during 1988-89 and knew something had to change because I just couldn’t keep it together while on drugs anymore.
So, one night after coming back to my apartment in Studio City, Calif., in November 1989, I lay on my bed and said a simple prayer of “God, please help!” Ironically, the next day I woke up and got through the day without a drink. Each day I would pray and quickly started to see the light. The desire to NOT use drugs started to come over me. I had a recovery sponsor and was following his instruction for a sober life so I was starting to turn the corner.
Then, I went home to my parents to celebrate Christmas a month later and my dad insisted we go to church. Sitting in the Lutheran church I grew up in all those years earlier, I suddenly had this overwhelming conviction of God and that my life was going to be OK. I felt total peace and clarity come over me and that sobriety and God were the same thing, not two separate entities. That was huge for me because I was trying rehab through this secular approach but suddenly I felt the faith component was the missing link. By March 1, 1990, I finally had my first real day of total abstinence and have been fortunate to stay that way ever since.
You and I are a couple of the many rockers who have had legitimate encounters with Christ and we're still changed to this day. A lot of people think the whole Christian thing is about turning into a "good boy." I've found that it's not about that. It's about actually having experiences with Christ or angels where God touches you and continually changes you into the best version of yourself. In other words, it's Christ's job to change us as we yield to Him. What's your experience been like with all that? Do you believe in angels? Any crazy supernatural stories?
I believe in angels because Satan was an angel himself, the fallen angel. I think in order to believe in God you have to believe in Satan as well, otherwise what’s the point in needing faith?
Now, long before I understood that, I had some gnarly experiences as I was getting off drugs in 1989 that led me to really believe there is a dark underworld of spiritual warfare out there, that our human condition is only one dimension of our existence. I felt like dark forces were in my apartment with me and that’s why I started getting into cats. I figured cats always freak out when anything is different in the room so maybe they could detect spirits for me! It turns out a war vet committed suicide in my apartment a few months earlier. I don’t know the details of spirits of the deceased, but it was a very real feeling. I also remember this feeling of what my friends would call astral projection, where you feel like you are leaving your body when you fall asleep. This would happen at night and was really scary. Maybe it was simply because I was newly sober and aware of new things, but I believe it was dark forces around me, like they were around me from the drug stuff. I’m convinced that when we are on drugs we open our soul to the darkest side of the spirit world. I also know that the greater my spiritual strength became in those first few months sober, those bizarre dark spirit experiences faded away.
As far as being a ‘goody two-shoes,’ the secular view of faith is to think we are all basically good people with a few faults here and there. The problem with that view is that when someone stumbles, the world looks at them like “what bad guy he is now, can you believe he did such a bad thing?" That leads to judgment and thinking we are better than other people. But, when we look at life through a theological view, we come to see that ALL of us are broken/sinful and that we should be amazed when any of us ever do ANYTHING good at all!! As the story lays out in Genesis 3, we live in a sinful, broken, fallen world and we are pretty much doomed on our own.
So, in realizing we all stumble and fall short (Christian or not) makes the issue not so much about “being good” as much as it’s about the need for reliance on a power greater than us to guide the ship and hopefully forgive us, otherwise, what’s the use? That’s the point when I hit bottom with dope, which brought about my faith conversion and restoration. That conversion actually led to me wanting to please God rather than just please myself all the time. That can be difficult in the narcissistic artistic world. It means serving rather than taking, which to the untrained eye, appears that I’m being a “good guy." Same result, different motive.
My drinking and addictions were struggles with God outside my life because addiction is a soul sickness as much as it’s a physical or mental illness. I also learned I needed to bring God into my family, my band, my finances, and so forth. The times I’ve experienced trouble in any of those areas is when I left God outside the room and tried to tackle them on my own. After all, what does God know about money, sex or heavy metal?!
Turns out, He knows a lot about them because He created them for us and through us.
With all the crazy, judgemental Christians popping off and running their mouths, do you ever get embarrassed calling yourself a Christian because of people like that?
At times I would get shy about it in the past because the truth is I was raised as a Christian my whole life and didn’t think anything of it until I moved to Los Angeles at age 18 and suddenly saw a melting pot of beliefs all around me. I kept an open mind but I was also naïve and probably let myself be led astray more than I should have.
But, when I came back to the faith through sobriety in 1990 I got to develop my own understanding of God. That is really what the last 25 years of my life have been, gaining an understanding of my own, rather than one of my parents or forced religious upbringing.
I’m getting ready to read your book 'My Life With Deth: Discovering Meaning in a Life of Rock & Roll.' Give us a glimpse of what the book is about?
Most of all, I think it’s the story of a musician. Sure, there are addiction issues, money issues, band issues and all that goes with that. But, I think the most compelling feature is that music was put upon my life at age 10 and I listened to that voice within that said, “Go, pursue this path… it is the right path for your life."
What does Dave Ellefson’s life look like in the next 20 years? What do you see yourself doing? What are you passionate about?
I’ll probably be doing what I’m doing now but just a little bit older and hopefully wiser. I’ve been in bands my whole life, be it metal, jazz, session work, leading worship at church, etc. I’ve produced, lectured, authored and all the rest of it because more than anything I’m a communicator at heart. As long as I’m inspired with a message, I may as well keep on communicating.
What’s next for Megadeth?
We are heading to Australia for the SoundWave Festival in February and March, South America in April/May then finishing up in Europe over the summer and the next record to follow.
Cool man, since KoRn is playing too, I will see you in Australia. I wish you much luck with the book’s success, my friend.
Brian 'Head' Welch is a founding member of the multiplatinum band Korn and frontman of Love and Death. He is the New York Times best-selling author of the book 'Save Me From Myself.' Brian has won multiple Grammys and MTV Music Awards and is currently active in both Korn and Love and Death, as well as traveling the country speaking. Follow Brian 'Head' Welch's schedule at www.loveanddeathmusic.com and pick up Love and Death's expanded edition of their debut album, 'Between Here & Lost,' at iTunes. Korn's new album, 'The Paradigm Shift,' is also out now, and can be ordered at iTunes.