by David Ellefson
This Article Was Originally Published On: June 3rd, 2015 #Issue 16.
Welcome to our initial offering of “Metal on Metal,” a new column by Megadeth bassist David Ellefson. In this column, David sits down 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. In addition, the interviewees get a chance to fire some questions of their own back to David.
For the first interview, who better to start off with than Robert Trujillo, currently of Metallica and Mass Mental, and formerly of such heavyweights as Suicidal Tendencies, Infectious Grooves, and Ozzy Osborne? This interview took place following the 2014 Warwick Bass Camp, which ended with a high-power performance of Mass Mental during the “Open Day” festivities.
[Editor’s Note: I was fortunate to be a fly on the wall, videotaping this exchange, and you can find the full video on the Bass Gear Magazine YouTube channel.]
DE – So, you just played Mass Mental here at the Warwick Bass Camp. How did that come together?
RT – Yes. Mass Mental is actually a collective kind of a funky, hard-edged collective band that formed with Armand Sabal-Lecco – an amazing bassist from Cameroon – whom I met back in 1993 during a Dean Markley ad. They flew us up to San Jose. The flight up, we didn’t know each other, and the flight back, we were best friends. At the time, they brought a case of beer for us, and we bonded. Soon after that, we started writing music, and a lot of the songs we played tonight were stuff we had written back in the ’90s. This would have been our sixth show.
When H.P. from Warwick asked me to perform at this wonderful event, I said that I would, but that I wanted to do it with Armand and Benji, the singer for this project. It’s a lot of fun. Basically, a lot of my friends that I’ve recorded and written with over the years. Any chance I get, it’s nice to kind of reconnect with them. Armand and I have done stuff for soundtracks, and a couple of the things we’ve done for Mass Mental were sort of involved in an animation setting. When I joined Mass Mental, this is actually what I was doing…
DE – Joined!
RT – Sorry! When I joined Metallica, I was doing Mass Mental.
DE – You “formed” Metallica and “joined” Mass Mental, right? [joking]
RT – And I was working with Ozzy. It’s great, because it was always something that we’ve been able to come back to and have a lot of fun. When the time’s right, we do it.
DE – You know, what’s cool is to see is you playing slap again, right? Because probably in your new day job, you’re not doing a lot of that.
RT – Right, right.
DE – I have this picture of us in 1993. It was Metallica, Megadeth, Suicidal Tendencies. You and our buddy Jimmy DeGrasso were playing together. I just remember this vision of you scooting across the stage, slapping, right? And it was cool to see you back doing that again. How was that, with that dynamic?
RT – It’s cool; it’s been a while. I had a performance with my old band, the Infectious Grooves, which would have been about four to five months ago at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. That sort of connected me to the spirit of that. It’s fun; it’s different. It’s sort of a different vibe, but it’s still the groove. It’s like you guys, you have that groove. Slayer has that groove. Metallica has that groove.
DE – It’s a window, it works, and you kinda keep it in that.
RT – James Brown had that groove, and the groove is everything. It’s really the attitude, the edge that you bring to the groove that makes it whatever it’s supposed to be.
DE – Infectious Grooves. It must have been fun to do that again. That turned all of us metal guys on our ear when that first came out. That was so extreme and over the top.
RT – Yeah, it was fun. It was really an experiment. When I joined Suicidal Tendencies, Mike and I started working with songs that revolve around the bass, not knowing what was going to happen, and we made an album that wasn’t really supposed to be made. Epic Records treated it like Mike Muir’s solo album, which is cool. We made an album for $75,000, which back then was not a lot of money. Albums were being made for…
DE – Hundreds of thousands of dollars…
RT – Yeah, a lot of money. And we managed to get Ozzy Osborne on a track.
DE – Is that what got you the Ozzy gig?
RT – I think it helped. It was a song called Therapy and he loved the song.
DE – Note to bass players: hang out with other musicians.
RT – Yeah, right. We were recording in the same studio as Ozzy, a place called Devonshire, which is really a great studio. Ozzy had recorded there, and a wonderful bass player who is no longer with us called Jaco Pastorius recorded with Weather Report there. I was a huge Earth, Wind and Fire fan; they recorded there. So it was great to be in this prestigious element.
DE – Where the magic happened…
RT – And Ozzy was there at the same time we were recording Infectious. That’s when he was out of his mind. I remember this one incident. Mike Inez, the bass player for the band at the time, he brought his girlfriend – he wanted to impress her – and so he brought her into Devonshire studio. Ozzy was out of his mind. The first thing he did was tackle her. She had these cowboy boots on, and he actually bit into her cowboy boot, all the way through, and into her ankle. I saw it.
DE – That’s like worse than a snake bite, right? Which is the reason you wear a cowboy boot.
RT – Exactly. I heard the scream, I saw two legs in the doorway, two cowboy boots, and the back of Ozzy on the ground, and the next thing I knew, they were in the parking lot – not Ozzy, Mike Inez and his girlfriend – and he’s trying to, like…
DE – And this is his new boss, right? That’s one way to get your old lady to stay home when you’re out working.
RT – Ozzy bit a lot of people in those days.
DE – One thing I wanted to ask you; I saw a video online of you playing some flamenco guitar. What’s your history with that?
RT – Flamenco was probably the first music that I would have heard as a baby, because my father played flamenco. It was for hobby purposes, but that’s what he played all the time. I got used to hearing him play this kind of music. And also his finger technique obviously was, well, fingers. So, when I picked up the acoustic guitar, I immediately started playing like that. I realized at some point that I was gravitating towards music that was more bass driven.
DE – That translated over to your bass technique?
RT – Yes, to my bass technique. But also, at one point, I realized that the more rhythmic instruments, like bass and drums, were what really suited me. I wanted to be a drummer first, but we lived in an apartment and I couldn’t afford to get a kit and play loud. My father had a friend who actually had a hollow body bass guitar that didn’t work through an amp, but because it was a hollow body, I was able to play it. I kinda played on that for about a year, learning scales and that … And here I am.
DE – [turns to camera] Just downstairs, he was shredding Holy Wars on fingers.
RT – I was trying! That’s one of my favorite riffs, ever. Every time I see this guy [David], I’m like, “How did you write that?”
DE – “Dude, play Holy Wars!” [laughs] Yeah, but picks for me; I needed a pick.
RT – But now I get to ask you some questions!
DE – Right.
RT – I’ve always been fascinated with the riffs that came out of southern California back in the day, whether it was Hetfield or Mustaine, or Kerry King, or Jeff Hanneman. It’s similar to Birmingham, England and the riffs that started coming out of there, with Black Sabbath, Priest and all that. At that time, I wasn’t around. I was living up in Los Angeles, and I was a little bit younger than you guys; I came on a few years later. I was so impressed with that. What was the energy like on the streets of southern California when you guys were creating this kind of magic, this kind of heaviness? Is it the spirit of where you’re from, and what you experience growing up, in the culture of the streets and the “concrete jungle?”
DE – Here’s how I think it is. I moved from Minnesota out to LA in 1983 with the hope that something like Megadeth would happen. And the backup plan was to go to B.I.T. [Bass Institute of Technology]. Because every parent wants to know their kid’s gonna go to school.
RT – I went to music school, too.
DE – I get there, I move into an apartment beneath Dave [Mustaine], and knock on his door, “Will you buy us some beer,” as the story goes… And when I sat down with him and he first started playing – it was a song called Megadeath; we changed it to Set the World Afire on our third record – but those riffs and that “spider pattern,” which is in some songs like Ride the Lightning, and all these different songs that he had written back in the day. It was so cool, because you could tell it was something that involved punk and metal. I think our age group, we grew up with Sabbath and Priest records, but we also had Dead Kennedys and Sex Pistols records. And that was the energy that created thrash. I remember Dave saying we’re never playing any clubs in LA, and here I am, I grew up on bands like Van Halen and all these clubs in LA and all this stuff I’d heard about. And I move there, and he’s like, “We’re never playing any clubs here.” I guess he had just played with Saxon at the Whiskey, so he says, “We’re going to the Bay area.” So we go up to the Bay area, and it was off the hook. In fact, we had Kerry King with us; he came up and played the first few Megadeth shows with us. I think Slayer was a little bit in limbo with what he wanted to do with it, and as soon as he saw that, and kids were coming up to him saying, “Dude, what’s going on with Slayer?” And then Kerry saw Tom Hunting from Exodus, and saw how fast the music could be, suddenly it became this contest of who could be the fastest.
This fan letter came. Brian Lew, who ran our fan club up in Palo Alto, he sent this letter down to Dave and it was basically challenging him to speed the music up. That one fan letter changed the course of our band, and probably helped spearhead the direction of certainly Megadeth, Slayer, right? It was more this energy that was going on, because everything on the Sunset Strip was taking off. Motley had just gotten signed; WASP was getting signed. All these bands were firing off the runway, and they weren’t what we were doing. We were the next wave behind it, and the hardest part was watching these people take off and be all over MTV, make millions of dollars and sell millions of records, and you just go, “When is our turn?” And our turn finally happened.
RT – It was similar to with Suicidal Tendencies, because we got to the point where Suicidal couldn’t even play Los Angeles because of the following that the band had.
DE – I remember that. It was violent.
RT – It was a violent following. So, basically Suicidal ended up doing the majority of the shows in California in San Francisco up in the Bay area.
DE – And tape trading, right? And the magazines, were social media, before there was social media.
RT – Right. It was cool and very organic. When you have that kind of passion, I think, and also there’s that competitive spirit, you’re going to push each other to write something like Holy Wars, or Reign in Blood.
DE – Absolutely. And our songs – I don’t know how you guys do it – but back in the day, we would take the tune and get it to a point and set it aside. Then, we’d bring it back and we’d add more, we’d add more, we’d add more. We keep trimming and cutting and slicing and adding… And pretty soon, there was this full composition. It wasn’t just a song with a verse and a chorus, a solo and out. It was this elaborate process.
RT – That’s exactly how it is with Metallica. Which is the opposite of a band like the Infectious Grooves, because that was really more of, “I’ve got some bass riffs.” We’d get together, and the magic that we tried to catch was actually really from the drums. We wanted the second take, you know what I mean? We’d go into the rehearsal room, like say four days, and we’d go in for four hours a day; four songs each day. And at the end of the week, that was going to be the album. The next time you’d hear these songs was on the cassette in the studio.
DE – Almost relearning a jam.
RT – Right, relearning the jam. And then you’d record that. We had a drummer called Brooks Wackerman, who was phenomenal, and a drummer called Josh Freese. And those kids – they were like 16 years old – you would get the energy and the impact of that take. That’s how that band kinda ran with it. And then Mike would come up with the lyrics. Suicidal was more developing the song, and the process and the riffs. Then the producer would get involved.
DE – Suicidal was one of the first bands that had a real metal guitar kinda playing … with the violence.
RT – “With the violence!” [laughs] Add the violence, and you’ve got Suicidal Tendencies. But that whole thing was a movement. You’ve got the skateboarders who were really connected to that.
DE – There was a whole scene, with the hat that was flipped up, and the boards; everything like that. That was part of that scene. It wasn’t just the song and about the music, it was an entire lifestyle.
RT – It was a lifestyle. I mean, I’m wearing my Dickie shorts right now, and I still have a baseball cap. I’m just a big kid. I’m going to be 50 years old…
DE – When do you turn 50? I turn 50 in November.
RT – I turn 50 in October, so happy birthday to us!
DE – Here’s to old heavy metal bass players, trying to be young. Because we are young.
RT – Right on.
DE – Robert, David, here with Bass Gear, “Metal on Metal.”
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