by David Ellefson
It’s time for “Metal on Metal,” a column by Megadeth bassist David Ellefson. In this column, David speaks with some of the top metal bassists in the world and asks them the kinds of questions which only a seasoned pro like David can articulate (and get away with!). In addition, the interviewees get a chance to fire some questions of their own back to David.
In this issue, David talks with bassist Emma Anzai, from the hot Australian group, Sick Puppies. Many thanks to Randy Walker and 22 Media Studios for helping record the conversation between David and Emma!
DE – So this is for Bass Gear Magazine, and it’s funny, you may know Tom Bowlus. I met him at the Warwick Bass Camp. It was the first one I went to, a couple years ago. He was the one who asked me at dinner, “Hey, would you like to write a column?”
EA – Oh, yeah, right.
DE – So this whole thing started at Warwick Bass Camp.
EA – That’s awesome.
DE – The first person I interviewed was Trujillo, because he played that year. Were you there that year?
EA – You know what, that was the first year that I went, too, now that I think about it.
DE – So it’s all part of the family, here.
EA – That’s so awesome. How great are those Bass Camps, though? I can’t believe it.
DE – Those things are really great. I didn’t go this year, because we just got back from South America on Monday.
EA – That’s awesome. How was that?
DE – Great, great. That’s kind of our big victory lap down there in Latin America. We go down there for five, six weeks. We get paid well, play a lot of big places, multiple nights in arenas and big stuff, and have a lot of fun. For whatever reason, the Latin America crowd loves our band. Part of it is, we went there years ago. We played Rock in Rio in 1991, and then in ’94 we went there, and a lot of those countries were just coming out of dictatorships. When you go where there’s oppression, depression and repression, heavy metal rules.
EA – Totally, yeah. Absolutely.
DE – So that’s sort of in our little territory down there.
EA – So cool. We’ve never been there. I wanna go so bad, though.
DE – I was just looking, and I see that Rammstein, Shinedown, Halestorm, Disturbed … like they just did a run this last week down there.
EA – Oh, really?
DE – Which was cool to see. I saw that Korn had just been down there right before we were, so it’s cool that more of the active modern rock bands are going down there, and it seems like it’s supported. So, hopefully, you’ll be able to get down there and break that open.
EA – Hopefully soon!
DE – Okay, so I’ll ask you some questions, and then you ask me a couple, so it’ll be “Metal on Metal.” It’s more like a conversation between two bass players than me being a journalist asking you questions.
EA – Sounds good.
DE – The first time I actually saw you play on stage was at Rock on the Range. My friend, Eric Luftglass, from Sirius Radio, comes over and says, “Dude, you gotta see Emma play!” and I said, “They’re on right now!” I knew you there and wanted to see you, so we went over to the deck, and the first thing that hit me was what a presence you are on the stage. Female or male notwithstanding, just as a bass player … you are a presence in the band – especially for a 3-piece band, where everybody really has to carry their own weight. It made me wonder who were your influences growing up, musical or otherwise, that got you on the stage and helped you mold who you’ve become as a performer?
EA – Well, first of all, thank you so much. It’s an honor for you to say that to me. Thank you so much. You know, I grew up in Australia, so unfortunately, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of the music that’s going on, here. Which I wish I was. The first band that really got me going, in general, with music, was Silverchair. They had a bass player whose name was Chris; he stuck to the kick and to the roots, but there was something about the way he moved and played on stage … I don’t know what it was, but I loved it. So that was the first thing that drew me into bass playing. As I went further along, I discovered Lewis Johnson. There was a Lewis Johnson instructional video that I came across, and I was like, “Wow, this guy’s awesome!”
DE – Wow, old school! That’s cool! When I was a kid, he was well on his way!
EA – Someone recommended it to me. There was this other band in Australia called Preshrunk, who had two bass players and a drummer. I met one of the guys at a party, and he was like, “Yeah, you should check out Lewis Johnson.” So, of course, immediately, I went home and got the video and started playing with that. Then, I discovered Mike from Green Day. I love those melodic bass lines, and that whole thing; the punk thing. Obviously, Flea from Chili Peppers, with his style, his slapping. And then Victor Wooten. Everyone loves Victor Wooten; he’s super progressive. I checked out his instructional videos, as well. It was a conglomeration of all those players, and the way they moved on stage was a big thing – especially with Flea and Chris from Silverchair. You know, when you’re frustrated in life or whatever, that’s a great place to get it out.
DE – Yeah. It’s funny you mention all of those influences, because I’ve been hearing Maybe alot here in the United States, getting relentlessly played on every radio station. I remember clearly driving down the street right by the studio where I’m interviewing you (Shea Boulevard in Scottsdale), and I remember stopping at this one the corner and really listening to the song. It was late at night, and I was coming home, and it was just the perfect setting to hear just the quality of that track. It really blew up in a huge way, here. Of course, you’ve got a lot of singles, and an incredible discography, and the thing that hit me as I was listening through your work – and a particular track, like Rip Tide – you go from pick to fingers to slap, all within a phrase. The thing that hit me, too, was kinda similar to Flea, you are playing very aggressive bass lines within a melodic, like, radio single. And also coming up with, in many cases, even playing sorta mock guitar parts, and chord shapes and stuff. Are you composing those? Or are those things that as the song is coming together, you as a bass player just know that there are some holes to be filled? What’s your approach on that?
EA – A bit of both. Actually, when I first started, when I began to pick up an instrument, it was guitar, first. That was only for about a year, though. So I learned to play with a pick, and when I switched over to bass, I just kinda stuck with the pick. I just felt the mentality was – as a kid would think, naively – two strings less, that’s just what it is. Until I discovered the whole world of what bass is, with the slapping, and the rhythm, and all that. It was funny, I looked at the Trujillo interview you did, and he mentioned how the rhythm of bass and drums is what really got him. It’s the same thing with me. I love drums, but I just couldn’t play to save my life. But I love bass! You can kinda play drums on bass, like slapping and doing that percussive stuff, but then you can also play some guitar parts and do melodic stuff, too. That’s why I love bass; you can do both. As for writing those parts, I guess you either come up with a whole line, and then that starts the song-writing process, or things are already established, and you kinda play along, and then something comes up, and then it’s what sticks out. That’s pretty much how all that came about.
DE – Speaking to that, as best I can tell on your timeline, are you the only original permanent member of the group, from the beginning?
EA – Yes. Started the band in high school.
DE – And that’s been how many years?
EA – Ooh, I daresay, that’s been fifteen to seventeen years.
DE – So, it’s interesting, because you as the bass player, and as a female – and I think it’s important to speak to that, because these days, there are a lot of female artists. Being that member of the group, what has it been like, with the member changes and things coming together, as an original member and as a permanent thread throughout the band’s history? Musically, I think you’re well-stated, and you can hear that consistency throughout. But what’s it been like? For the readers, being in a band, and understanding what those dynamic shifts are like, when a drummer changes; when a singer/guitar player changes. You have been an anchor piece. I find it no coincidence that you’re the bass player, because bass players tend to be pretty level and even with those kinds of thigs. So, how’s that been, with those transitions in band members?
EA – It’s funny you say that. They always say the bass player is the most laid-back person in the band… It’s difficult; it’s like a marriage. With a lot of the interviews we’ve been doing – with this recent member change, with the singer – we’re always likened to a marriage, because we were around fifteen years prior to this happening. And you know we had drummer changes in Australia. It’s like a marriage where “the music are the kids” kinda thing, and you kinda want to stay together for the kids. Yeah, it’s difficult. I’ve not gone through a divorce, personally, but if I were to, I would think that this would be very similar, because you’ve got all the aspects involved. It’s emotional, and you’ve built something together. At the end of the day, you want to keep your band going, because it’s now not just you anymore, it’s its own thing; and you’re just a part of it. You just try to find someone that is compatible, and if you’re lucky enough to do that, then awesome. I’ve been lucky in that respect; we’ve been lucky.
DE – Finally, there are a lot of females who are getting notoriety, and probably themselves embracing hard rock and metal, these days. Do you see this as a new trend, or has it always been that way, and finally, females are getting a platform and getting their voice heard through the press; through it just being a bit more acceptable? Again, you’ve been doing this a long time, and I think to a large degree, with the other band member changes in Sick Puppies, you are kinda the anchor noticeable face, and the fact that you’re a female I think probably helped that. As a group, a lot of the females are singers, and here you are coming from the bass position. I manage a teenage female rock band up here in America, so I’m kinda around it, and I’ve got some female artists on my record labels;
I’m very tuned into it. I just wanted to get your read on it. Again, as a founder, as a long-time member, you’re from another country, you see things with a little different of perspective than Americans. So, is it something that’s been around, and just is now finally getting recognized, or are you feeling that it’s kind of a trend – and a good one – that allows females a platform, now?
EA – I think the latter. It’s been slowly growing that way, I think. When I first started, I was such a little young kid, I wasn’t aware of that, even. That whole gender thing. We were so young and just playing music, and I was such a tom-boy, anyway, I didn’t think about it. But then when we moved over here, it was kinda rare to see a female in a band. If there was, it would usually be the singer, that’s true. But yeah, definitely, these days, I’m seeing more, like, female drummers. Which I think is frigging awesome. We’re going out with Skillet, actually, this next tour we’re doing, and you know Jen, she’s fucking great. And Haley – I only met her once – she plays with Pop Evil, and I hadn’t seen that before. Especially back then, I wouldn’t have seen that. So I think that, yeah, slowly but surely, there’s been a wave of acceptance for females doing something other than singing, which is great. Because, why not? If they love it, and they’re great, then why not? The reason why it wasn’t happening – and I’m just speaking to my own personal experiences – sometimes at shows, these girls would come up to me, and they’ll be like, “Wow, I didn’t know that girls could do that. I didn’t know that was an option.” And that’s the sense I got. So I think that with more and more women doing it, it’s just subconsciously telling girls that, “Yeah, you can do it, if you want to.” Which is great.
DE – Good for you. That’s awesome, and I’m proud of you, and thank you for doing it.
EA – Thank you.
DE – I’m also a father to a daughter. Father to a son and a daughter, so from the daughter perspective, it’s cool.
EA – That’s really cool.
DE – So that’s it for me. Those are my four questions, and I’ll turn it over to you, if you have a couple questions for me. You can moderate, now.
EA – Alright, cool. I have a couple. I was listening to Dawn Patrol, an awesome bass-and-drum groove, and I just wanted to ask you where that originated from.
DE – You know, we were on tour, in 1988, with Ronny Dio, Megadeth and Savatage – and Savatage has now, basically turned into Trans-Siberian Orchestra; that’s the transition they did. So, we’re on the tour, and I became friends with Jimmy Bain, whom I greatly admired, as a fan and as a musician growing up – I loved his tone, and he played with a pick, and was a really aggressive, defined bass player. He and I became buddies, and when we came off the tour, I went over to his house. He had this rockin’ Yamaha endorsement. I lived in LA at the time, and I went over to his house in Woodland Hills, and he loaned me this 8-string bass. So, I took it home, and I pulled it out of the case in my apartment in Studio City, and I opened it up, and the first thing that fell off the fretboard was Dawn Patrol.
EA – That’s awesome.
DE – And it was cool, because sometimes you play a different instrument – in this case, an 8-string, with that kinda chimey, mandolin sorta sound – and my fingers went to the same frets, but different sounds came out of it. All of a sudden, I was inspired. Really, it’s just a riff that repeats itself, but it was just so inspiring. And in Megadeth, back in those days, we were still in standard tuning (we’re turned down a step, now), but in those days, A=440 and I played only 4-string on that record, on Rust in Peace. And it’s funny, because with Rust in Peace, everybody was saying, “You know, you’re one song short. You really should have an extra track on here.” And me and Nick Mensa had each submitted a track, and Dave came in and listened to it, and for whatever reason, he liked the vibe of Dawn Patrol and then added the lyric to it, to turn it into more of a song. It’s funny, because technically, it’s the only “ballad” of the record, and it’s this bass interlude.
EA – That’s really cool.
DE – Maybe the moral of the story is pick up some different instruments, compose, and then take that over to the bass. Sometimes, I’ve come up with some of my best bass lines when I’ve actually invented them on an instrument other than the bass.
EA – Yeah, you know what? I’ve heard that a lot. I don’t do that, much – I just stick to the one thing. But you’re right, so many people say that. Even to pick up a different brand, like a Music Man, or a Fender, or just something you’re not using.
DE – Totally.
EA – Which brings me to my next question. When you do write, you’re always inspired by something, and stuff comes out. But what happens when you get a writer’s block, or sometimes you have ebbs and flows in life, even. Especially with the long career that you’ve had, I’m sure that might have been the case. What happens when you’re in a lull, and you can’t get that inspiration? What do you do to get it back?
DE – Very timely, your question, because I’m actually going through … I wouldn’t actually call it “writer’s block,” but we’ve been really touring hard for the last eight, almost nine, months. I’ve noticed over the years on world tours, I get into this “performance mode.” You’re about the presentation, you’re concerned about the lights, the lighting cues, movements on stage… The songs and playing the part, is so “autopilot,” now. I just don’t even think about playing. In fact, I don’t really even warm up very much. I just pick up the bass, maybe hammer the first few bars of Hangar 18 and run through a couple of riffs of Symphony of Destruction; “Yeah, okay, I’m warmed up, let’s go hit it.” And sometimes, backstage, I don’t like to warmup a whole bunch, because I‘d rather save all of that energy for the stage. So, as long as the motor skill and that thing’s feeling pretty loosened up, I’m all about, “Let’s just walk on and go kill this, right now.”
EA – Nice.
DE – The problem with that is, you’re not really in a creative headspace during that season of your life on a tour. Now that I’ve been home, even for a week – we’re on a two-week break, right now. Even for a week, I’ve got some basses and guitars sitting out by my desk in my office at home. And I purposely leave them out – of course, it’s usually better to keep a guitar in a case in a closet, so it stays nicer – but I just leave them out, dust and all (I live in a desert), because I’m more inclined to pick them up if they’re sitting there, easily accessible. Just this week, I’ve been picking ‘em up, and playing. And kind of like your first question, because they’re a different tuning, a different instrument – it might even be the same brand, a Jackson, but for some reason, the black one sounds a little different from the silver one.
EA – Yeah, totally.
DE – So all of a sudden, I’m picking it up, and my fingers are going to new places, and I haven’t been playing Hangar 18 five nights a week. So I’m in this kind of “loosey goosey” mode, and all of a sudden, I started writing some new riffs and I started to create. I’ve discovered, as a friend told me many years ago, part of the creative process is to just always try to be in it. You’re probably not going to just sit down one Saturday and write a solo album, but a little bit, every day, pick the instrument up – even if it’s only for ten or fifteen minutes – to just kinda stay loose with it. Those are the times when I usually stumble onto something. I keep my iPhone right by me, and I film it, so that I can go back and reference what I was playing and where my fingers were.
EA – Oh yeah, good idea; video, instead of just audio.
DE – And then you can throw it up into iCloud, or put it on your computer. You’ve got some backup, in case you lose your phone. [laughs] I try to catalog all my riffs, all the time. For me, by the time I find my laptop and open Pro Tools, and I plug in, already, I’ve lost my inspiration.
EA – Exactly.
DE – I try to keep it just about as dumb and simple as you can. Just try to catalog it and get the idea down, as crude and rough as it might be. I’ll just try to compile as much as I can, and then in a couple months, suddenly the phone’ll ring, “Hey, you want to come over and write on this thing?” or “Let’s do a record together.” I can walk in with maybe a dozen ideas, while they may go through their own transition in a musical setting. I’m always about collaboration. Maybe that’s my mindset as a bass player, but I’m always about bringing things in and, “Let’s now, you and me together, work on this thing and make it our thing.” That’s always been my approach, and that’s why I love to be in collaborative environments.
EA – That’s awesome, I love it!
DE – Emma, thank you so much for taking some time on your break, here, on a Monday morning. I look forward to seeing you somewhere out on the road, again.
EA – Absolutely. Thank you so much. That was an awesome interview, I loved it.
DE – Yeah, again, it all started at the Warwick Bass Camp.