Ex-MEGADETH Bassist DAVID ELLEFSON: 'We Weren't Really Threatened By Grunge'

May 24, 2024

Former MEGADETH bassist David Ellefson has weighed in on the never-ending debate about how the rise of grunge in the early 1990s forced most hard rock bands off the radio and MTV, with album and tour sales plummeting. Asked in a new interview with Greg Prato of Ultimate Guitar how he and his then-bandmates were affected by the downfall of the 1980s heavy metal scene, David said: "I loved grunge music. And I know that was not cool for a heavy metal guy to say that, especially a thrash metal guy. Because a lot of careers were pretty much upended because of Seattle music. And look, MEGADETH, we had to make some transitions. 'Cryptic Writings', in particular, was an album that was designed to reinvent the band at American Active Rock radio. Or we'd just go tour, tour, tour, and, like some of our contemporaries, took us back down to clubs and theaters. Whereas with 'Cryptic Writings', it kept us as an arena rock band. We got to headline radio station events, which were big festivals at that time. So I'm glad we did what we did, because I liked the direction that we went in, as opposed to, 'We're just going to stay true to the old school.' We kept the old school and then did what we did, which was add all the other flavors and layers that our band was capable of doing."

He continued: "So, MEGADETH, along with METALLICA for sure, not only survived it, but we thrived in it. And it still kept us at the top of the charts and the top of the bill, as young bands like CREED, GODSMACK, DISTURBED, and the new generation of nu metal stuff was coming up. Because I think that was as much of it for us. It wasn't just grunge."

"Grunge may have affected MTV, but I think overall as a hard rock, heavy metal genre, the grunge thing didn't affect us as much as you had to be aware of what was coming up behind us. And we saw it because we took KORN on tour with us on the 'Youthanasia' tour in 1995. We saw first-hand on stage that KORN, this was either going to go away tomorrow or it was going to change the world. And it changed the world. Just like when we took ALICE IN CHAINS out, when we took STONE TEMPLE PILOTS out. We took bands out with us in the '90s that were 'tomorrow's music.' We took a chance on those and we probably ushered them into their careers, which I thought was great. Because they weren't really 'heavy metal bands.' They were bands of a different flavor. I think, for us — we were able to see it coming, so we sort of adapted a bit. But we also weren't a band that was a one-trick pony. We weren't really threatened by grunge, to be honest with you."

Upon release in September 1991, NIRVANA's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" wreaked confusion upon the hair metal vanguard, putting an end to an era dominated by glamorous, androgynous and sparkly rock stars who absolutely saturated the radio waves and were almost exclusively what aired on MTV.

In a 2023 interview with Guitar World, MEGADETH leader Dave Mustaine reflected on the band's fifth album, "Countdown To Extinction", which arrived just months after a series of landmark alt-rock releases from NIRVANA, PEARL JAM, SOUNDGARDEN and more effectively transformed the music landscape. He said: "It was our biggest record. That's pretty much the way I measure it. A lot of it was because of the timing; it came out in '92, and '92 was when everything was imploding because of alternative music. You had PEARL JAM, NIRVANA, SOUNDGARDEN, MOTHER LOVE BONE and BLIND MELON fucking things up, and radio gravitated toward that. They thought the yuppies would listen to alternative music while drinking their Stella Artois. [Laughs] The types who don't drink Miller High Life and definitely don't listen to metal. And the advertisers who handled brands like Lexus, BMW and shit like that would advertise on alternative stations, which fucked metal. So, as these metal stations went the way of the great white buffalo, we had to decide, 'Are we going to be alternative? Are we going to change like every other band?' METALLICA cut their hair off, put makeup on and all that stuff, and I got little haircuts during that time, but I never chopped it off. We decided we wouldn't change to fit the trend and would tough it out. Sure, we made some minor changes at the behest of the record label, but that was as far as it went. The fact that 'Countdown' succeeded despite the shifts in popular music showed that the music was more potent than any trend. We didn't sell out like other bands. We didn't change who we were. I think that's the greatest measure of 'Countdown''s importance."

Ellefson was fired from MEGADETH in May 2021, days after sexually tinged messages and explicit video footage involving the bassist were posted on Twitter.

David was in MEGADETH from the band's inception in 1983 to 2002, and again from 2010 until his latest exit.

Photo credit: Maciej Pieloch

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