DAVID ELLEFSON – Manuscriptum Regius
Californian thrash metal outfit Megadeth concluded an inaugural round of international tour dates in support of Th1rt3en (November 2011) on December 1st, 2011 in Heredia, Costa Rica. Following this, bassist David Ellefson browsed through a whole folder of lyrics and ideas that he had compiled. Much of these lyrics and ideas had been compiled in the last several years, lyrics and ideas David wished to place somewhere. This would result in the genesis of Unsung: Words And Images, a book featuring hitherto unpublished lyrics and images.
“The idea of obviously writing music around them and going into the studio seemed a bit daunting, especially at the beginning of a whole world tour for Megadeth,” David admits, co-founder of the group. “A friend of mine – Brent Nelson – had written a poetry book called Out Of Darkness and he had done a similar type of thing, putting some really dark, intriguing images next to poetry. That’s what really spawned the idea for this book, so Brent actually helped me… I was actually working with Brent on co-writing a couple of pieces anyway, so the idea came together really quickly. I wanted to create this book using the photographs as a way to add depth and thought-provoking impact to the lyric, much in the same way music would do to the words if they were in a song. We got our editor Libby (Calaby) out of London and Raffaella, we used her photo images out of Italy. Very quickly everybody came onboard, and we hussled. Within the course of a couple of months we were able to compile all of the lyrics, find the appropriate images to go with it, and the book was born and done.”
These lyrics were never shown to Dave Mustaine and the rest of the Megadeth members for potential use in Megadeth compositions. “I write all the time, and inspiration hits at the dirtiest times,” the bassist reveals. “Obviously we went through a season last year doing writing for Th1rt3en, and I find that when I go through these creative seasons I produce a lot of material. Not everything is gonna be right for any particular use. In fact, I don’t usually write specifically for anything. I find that usually if I just let my ideas flow, that’s really just the best way to create without contriving. A lot of these lyrics were ideas that had really just flowed through me, and I saved them. Obviously pieces of things have gotten used in various settings and situations, but these are lyrics that for whatever reason I didn’t feel compelled to put any music around. Using photos instead of music to be sort of the background to the narrative of the lyric I found really intriguing, and a fun, new, and innovative way to create.”
Future compositions might actually include lyrics taken from Unsung. “Looking at it now, I can more easily visualise composing music to these lyrics,” David reflects. “Now that I see them in front of me visually with the photographs that coincide with them, it actually inspires me. It almost inspires me in a completely different way than just looking at them on a Microsoft Word document on my computer (laughs). I’ve copywritten them obviously and they’re my creations, but if anybody ever wanted to co-write or wanted to write music to these I would be fine with essentially offering them a license. We’d basically become co-writers of a composition together.”
As opposed to inking a publishing contract, the lyricist opted to self-publish. “The idea came to me so quickly that I didn’t wanna take the time of having to put something together, proposals, shopping and all that,” he notes. “I just wanted to put it out and self-publish it, and get the book going. Self-publishing offered me the opportunity to quickly get my idea completed because I was on such a roll with it. Now I’m looking into global distribution through other mainstream outlets like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com as well.”
Situated in Turin, Italy, photographer Raffaella Dagnese was introduced to David through co-writer Brent Nelson. “He had introduced me to her, and we began working,” he explains. “Brent actually has a whole catalogue stock of her work, and obviously I didn’t wanna use pieces that she had placed elsewhere – I wanted new things. I write and not always with the intention of placement, but I’m just creating and letting ideas flow. She does the same thing with her camera; she takes a lot of photos, and really composes with her camera. What you really have with Unsung is this book of lyrical composition as well as photographic composition, our two creations just intertwining at this point in time. Now that really worked out well for each other.”
The editing process differs between unsung lyrics and lyrics committed to tape. “In this case, when I was writing the lyrics a lot of these lyrical ideas were complete,” the author clarifies. “When you then introduce a lyric into a piece of music, you end up either editing the music or usually you end up editing the lyric to fit in over the top of the music. The difference between a lyric and a poem is that a poem has to have certain styles, prose and stanzas, and rhyme schemes, and lyrics don’t necessarily need to have any of that. Lyrics need to be able to be words that tell stories, but they need to also be musical. I didn’t want to edit out the musical cadence that these lyrics already had in them, and the beauty of not having them put to music is that I didn’t have to edit my storyline either.”
David isn’t a fan of poetry. “Poetry didn’t always make sense to me, but lyrics did,” he remembers. “Even in high school growing up I read poetry, and it just seemed complicated. It seemed very restrictive and it seemed confining, whereas I thought ‘Why can’t you just write the idea down on paper?’ When I heard lyrics, for some reason they spoke more clearly to me partly because they were in a song and you had the music that also created another emotion.
“The perfect song is when you have music that creates emotion and a lyric that creates maybe even a secondary emotion, or it could be something that really is the icing on the cake of the music. The two really compliment each other in some way, shape or form. This lyric book was my opportunity to put words on paper, and not be frustrated like I was when I read poetry in high school. This was an opportunity for me to just lay it out, be really simple, and be really clear. Sometimes they rhyme, sometimes they don’t. I tried to make the storyline just as clear though as it would be if you heard a song on the radio coming to you over your speakers.”
A writer in his own right, the Scottsdale, Arizona-based musician has a varied range of favourite lyricists. “I think growing up, the one lyricist to my age group that probably rocked all of our worlds was Neil Peart (drummer),” he discloses. “Rush suddenly became this band that was not only musically progressive and really spoke to our musical sensibilities, but his lyrics added a whole other dimension and also a whole other intellectual dimension to Rush’s music. I also liked Steve Harris’ (Iron Maiden bassist) lyrical writing, and then out of the more rock genre I always loved how Bernie Taupin wrote lyrics for Elton John’s songs. You hear Elton sitting down and playing these songs and they come across the radio, and I couldn’t imagine that that was two separate people. That’s how perfect that co-writing team works; for Elton to write that music and for Bernie to write lyrics for it was just amazing. Even further than that would probably be Tim Rice writing lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, and one of my favourites is Evita (1978).
“I think Evita is a favourite for me just because of going to South America and Argentina, and it being such a big fanbase for Megadeth. When we first went there back in 1994 it just blew us away; all of a sudden, South America became the new Japan as far as fanaticism. Especially Argentina had this affinity for Megadeth, and two years later when the Evita movie came out that had Madonna in it I thought Madonna and Antonio Banderas did just such a great job. I didn’t know really any of that history about Argentina because the original Evita was many years before, before my time really. That recreation with Madonna brought it home to me because I had just been in Argentina. All of a sudden now I’m hearing and reading about the Peróns, and to me that lyrical writing told a great story and of course Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music. I’m not a big fan of plays so to speak and of Broadway theatre, but those two really bring it home for me.”
Beyond mere enjoyment, the likes of Neil Peart, Bernie Taupin, Tim Rice and so on are inspirations as well. “To me great lyrical writing is story telling,” David reckons. “It’s one of the things that I really like about Nashville music; I guess by and large that would mean country music, but not necessarily. Years ago when Megadeth went down to Nashville to make the Cryptic Writings (June 1997) and Risk (August 1999) albums with Dann Huff, Nashville all of a sudden seemed like it had embraced pop and rock ’n’ roll music. I think that made country music so popular in the mainstream, because all of a sudden it had this real kick ass guitar playing. It became something that was less twang and more rock, and that appealed to me. As we went down to Nashville, as a composer I was really listening and paying attention not only to the instrumentation but especially the lyrics. I still to this day admire how Nashville songwriters can tell such clever stories in such simple and clear ways, and often using very few words.”
One Nashville, Tennessee-based songwriter that the bassist admires might come as much of a surprise to Megadeth fans. “More recently is probably Taylor Swift,” he chuckles. “That’s only because I hear it every day in the car when I drive my daughter to school. There’s such innocence in her songwriting, yet I watch her connect with my daughter. With the songs that Taylor Swift writes, she is the voice of this entire generation of young girls. It reminds me of when I was listening to my Kiss records, Kiss singing ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’ and ‘Rock Bottom’ (both from March 1975’s Dressed To Kill), and ‘Shout It Out Loud’ and ‘Detroit Rock City’ (both from March 1976’s Destroyer). Those were the soundtrack to my life when I was 13 to 15-years-old, and now I’m watching someone like Taylor Swift do that for my daughter.”
Unsung touches upon a wide spectrum of topics. “The first one that I wrote was actually the one that I sent over to Brent Nelson, and then he and I started co-writing,” David recalls. “I had most of the idea, but I just couldn’t quite finish the idea. That was ‘Manuscriptum Regius’, which is basically about secret societies as far back as the Book Of Solomon. I’ve then got other lyrics like ‘Goddess Divine’ which is very much a passionate, romantic type of lyric, something that is hard to do in a heavy metal / rock band setting.
“I also have other lyrics like ‘The Gift Of Desperation’ which really talks about hitting bottom, and about how we essentially get reborn and get rebirthed into a second life within one lifetime as a result of our own self-induced failures. ‘Action-Reaction’ is about a guy and a girl who get into a relationship; the guy is broken, and the woman comes to the rescue. As the guy gets better and becomes more complete in his own life, all of a sudden the relationship changes because the woman is used to being this sort of domineering caretaker. As the man comes into his own manhood he starts to question the validity of the relationship, and all of a sudden the relationship becomes broken again. The one that was originally broken becomes well, and the one who was well actually ends up being the broken one.”
The lyricist feels that most of Unsung’s content “would be perfect on a metal record. It’s funny that this book inspired me… I’ve always been a fan of Therion because they write these conceptual records and they bring in all this instrumentation, the same way I was a fan of the early Trans-Siberian Orchestra records. Probably the record when I was growing up when I was just a young kid was the cassette my mom had of Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), again by Andrew Lloyd Webber (laughs). I love… I hate to call them concept records, but they’re basically sort of linear storytelling and I’ve never done a record like that. This book opened my mind up to considering doing that one day. Even though this book isn’t necessarily a conceptual book with a running theme, it has a lot of different topics that could actually flow together. The book opened my mind to being able to write a story inside of a record.”
Such a story forming the backbone of a Megadeth full-length is unlikely, however. “I don’t know that Megadeth ever would do a concept album, but I think we could,” David offers. “The problem with it is that usually when bands do that… Maybe Queensrÿche being the one exception because they started early on writing records like that, so they became known for it. I think that sometimes when bands start to do that, it generally tends to be frowned upon by the fans as though ‘Here comes the narcissistic, self-righteous bloated kind of rock formula or something.’ That’s definitely something that Megadeth does not do, so I think conceptually we could do it but realistically I’m not sure that it’s something we would ever do.”
One concept album arguably frowned upon by fans was Nostradamus (June 2008), the 16th studio outing for Brummie metallers Judas Priest. “I listened to some of Nostradamus and I liked the music that I heard on it,” the musician begins. “Again though, to me Judas Priest was one of these bands that I loved where every song was three or four punches in the face and with a different concept. I liked that. I think that when a band starts out as a real kick ass rock ’n’ roll band or metal band, to try to go into this conceptual thing is too far of a stretch for the fans to follow. That’s why, again, this book opened my mind to it. I’m not saying that I would ever even do it, but I’ve always admired like say Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails mainman) who got into writing film scores. With film scores you’re writing music that essentially substantiates the storyline, so music serves a lot of different purposes. That’s not to say that each and every one of us needs to do all of that though, because I think we’ve all got our place in this world and the things that we excel at. I think especially for bands like Megadeth who have a very big fanbase, our fans have come to expect a quality and a style about us. I think that at this point we know what that is, and that’s what we feel best doing with our fans.”
Some of Unsung’s lyrics are of a quite personal nature. “There’s a song called ‘Sweet Affections’ which I started initially writing about the pure innocence of young love before we’ve had our heart broken, before we’ve been jaded,” David imparts. “As I started to write it my daughter really came to mind, and that really helped me complete the idea of it. There’s a couple of songs like that that are personal to me. ‘The Cycle’ is essentially a three-part lyric and actually a true story of something that happened to a friend of mine, so that real life story inspired me to write that lyric.”
Faith is one of many factors which determine Unsung’s lyrics. “Faith runs concurrently with life, and by and large it’s the seed of life,” the author believes. “If you try to live without it then life becomes empty, shallow, and meaningless. When I was 25 I had this ‘come to faith’ moment where living life the way I was living wasn’t working. To me, it’s been more about a constant opening of the door and looking deeper into the room. There’s one song called ‘Fallen Is Babylon’ that I actually took out of Revelations 18 and 19, and I think it’s pretty obvious what that is about. I also wrote another song called ‘How Long’, and it was actually inspired by something out of the Old Testament. I think it’s a universal cry which we all ask. ‘How long must I call for help Lord? Why don’t you save me? Why don’t you help me?’ It’s that desperate cry that we all have at various times where we feel like ‘Why has God forsaken me? Why am I here by myself?’ As the story goes on, we find that the master plan is not always one that we’re supposed to know. That comes back to the fact that God doesn’t need our help running our lives; he’s asked us to do other things, helping other people and helping them enter his kingdom. Meanwhile he takes care of our lives, so sometimes it’s a matter of getting ourselves out of our own way.”
Unsung: Words And Images was self-published on February 27th, 2012.
Interview published in April 2012.
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