Back in the ‘80s, when Megadeth bassist Dave Ellefson wasn’t onstage or in rehearsal, he was running rampant drinking, shooting heroin, and hooking up with groupies. Even with all the debauchery, he managed to focus on the band, but the idea of doing anything musical in his free time was a pipe dream.
Moreover, the metal scene had a different code of ethics than it has today. Bands that formed side projects with other musicians were considered traitors. Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford was even driven to leave the band he spearheaded to stardom because he wanted to play with another group, Fight.
“When you’re young and you’re first starting out, it’s important to be committed to one group and to really build that,” Ellefson tells Yahoo Music. “I come from the last era where record contracts were for multiple albums, and the whole goal was to really build a legacy, which I was able to do with Megadeth.
"Now that that legacy is intact, the goal now is to really have candor to take care of it moving forward, but also it’s not out of place to be involved in a few other things. It’s almost understood.”
Today, Ellefson is many years clean and sober and capable of wisely budgeting his time. In addition to effectively working with Megadeth – which he rejoined in 2010 after an 11 year absence from the band — Ellefson is now writing for and playing with alt-rock band Johnny Wore Black, whose second album Walking Underwater Pt. 2 is streaming in full here.
Professional stuntman Jay (who isn’t terribly fond of last names) launched Johnny Wore Black in 2009 between crashing cars and falling off horses in films such as The Dark Knight and Les Miserables. He met Ellefson backstage at the Download Festival in England, where he was performing with ex-Judas Priest vocalist Tim “Ripper” Owens.
“Jay was there doing chiropractic work,” Ellefson says. “He’s a man of many talents and I found him to be a colorful and interesting character. He asked me if I wanted to play bass on a track called ‘All the Rage,’ and I said, ‘Well, send it over.”
Ellefson received an MP3 of the song, which reminded him of alternative bands he liked, including U2, Coldplay, and Sisters of Mercy, but with a denser guitar presence that rooted the songs. “It was something very much out of my wheelhouse of what I normally do,” he says. “Being a guy who likes to make music and have a bass in my hand whenever possible, I played on it and that was the first Johnny Wore Black song that went out.”
Jay notes: “It’s great work with Dave because he’s an extremely talented bass player with his own unique flair and style which adds a distinctive sound to the music.”
Johnny Wore Black became a major side project for Ellefson in 2011, when Jay contacted him again and asked if he would help write music and lyrics. “I would send him back things that were clearly not thrash metal music,” Ellefson says. “It’s cool because we live in this world of virtual recording studios, so we didn’t have to be in the same place to work on the songs. He would send the tracks to me, and I did all of it in Arizona where I live.”
In February, 2014 the band self-released its first album, Walking Underwater, which earned it a devoted cult following. In an effort to retain the momentum, Jay started writing songs for the second Johnny Wore Black album in the spring of 2014, and recruited Ellefson to contribute even more music; he plays on seven songs, three of which he co-wrote.
“We recorded the bulk of it a few months ago at a friend’s studio. It came out great, and the new songs seem even more cinematic to me,” Ellefson says.
“I wanted to liven things up with Walking Underwater Pt. 2,” adds Jay. “The chains of the first album had been released. For Pt. 2, there is a change in mood. It’s a more uptempo, energetic album and some of the tracks are heavier and darker.”
One of the highlights of Walking Underwater Pt. 2 is “Gift of Desperation,” a bittersweet track that buzzes between hope and helplessness. The band shot a video for the track, and Ellefson has used the tune as an introduction to public appearances and book signings for his book My Life with Deth: Discovering Meaning in a Life of Rock & Roll.
“When you bring thrash, you gotta bring it full-on and it better be great,” Ellefson says. “That’s why I’ve learned over the years that if you have things that are outside of the scope of that which you’d like to do, you’re best served to find other places to explore those ideas. For me, Johnny Wore Black is a perfect outlet for that.”
Although Ellefson has made it clear he can’t perform live with Johnny Wore Black, he looks forward to working with Jay on future material. But first, he wants to finish up the full-length debut album by Altitudes & Attitude, a melodic hard rock band he formed last year with Anthrax bassist Frank Bello. The two started writing songs together while they were on tour with the Metal Masters bass clinics and the band’s three-song EP came out in February.
“That’s a fun collaboration,” Ellefson says. “Everybody knows our respective day jobs in Megadeth and Anthrax, and I think that’s why our fans like it. It’s something we can do that’s different, but it’s not interrupting the flow of the other bands that everybody likes as well.”
That doesn’t mean Altitudes & Attitudes is an afterthought. The songs on the EP were solid and propulsive, rocking in a way redolent of Foo Fighters. The follow-up should be even more developed and diverse. Ellefson hopes the band will be able to finish the record by the end of the year and release it in early 2015.
“A month ago we were in Los Angeles recording some new tracks,” he says. “We have nine new songs laid down. In a way, we’ve defined our roles a little more on this one. Frank is the singer; I sing the back-ups. He usually grabs a guitar to accompany his own songs and I naturally grab a bass.
"It was funny because Frank said, ‘Man, I just love how you play bass to my songs.’ I take that as a compliment from one of the great bass players of this world. I play bass very differently to Frank’s music than I would to a thrash metal tune. At the same time when I pick up a guitar I tend to be more hunkered down, playing a more rippin’ style of metal.”
For Ellefson, Johnny Wore Black and Altitudes & Attitude are great vehicles for exploration and experimentation. They also help cleanse his palate before he returns to Megadeth. “Any time you can have some endeavors with some other people, it makes you come back to your own band as a much stronger musician and a better writer,” he says. “It probably makes you more appreciative of your main band, too.”