While Megadeth fans continue to flood the comment boards with speculation as to the band’s next move, bassist Dave Ellefson has been keeping busy with one of his more absorbing side projects — the cinematic voyaging of Johnny Wore Black, whose second album, Walking Underwater Pt. 2 , (HELLHOUND Music) was released last month. Together with enigmatic frontman “Jay” (who prefers his first name only), the two have drawn deeply from the dramatic minimalism of 80s post-punk and the hooky free-for-all of 90s Madchester, distilling those distinct genres into a singular and darkly atmospheric clutch of modern alt-rock. Punchy riffs and blazing singalong choruses dominate tracks like opener Firefly and A Cut Above, while on Comfy Slippers and the Ellefson-penned Gift of Desperation, textured melodies blend into euphoric waves of fuzzed-out grooving.
So compelling is the music that it’s easy to overlook the colorful backstories of the two main musicians. While Ellefson’s metallic pedigree is well-known, to say that Jay is an international man of mystery is no understatement. When he’s not fronting Johnny Wore Black, Jay is an elite and as such, highly in-demand stuntman who has appeared in Game of Thrones, Les Misérables, The Dark Knight Rises, the Fast and the Furious franchise and most recently, Fury, with Brad Pitt. He is also a former Royal Marine Commando in addition to being one hell of a songwriter.
I had a chance to meet up with Jay and Dave to discuss the new album.
Is it true that you two met over a neck massage?
Dave: It is true! I was backstage at the Download Festival in 2009 when I met Jay. Aside from being an artist, a stuntman and an actor, he’s also a licensed osteopath. So he’s more than a guy who gives neck massages, he’s a licensed D.O. who went to school and who knows what he’s doing. We struck up a friendship there. I make it no secret that I see osteopaths and chiropractors all over the world to keep my spine aligned and my body in shape from all the headbanging for over thirty years. When I meet someone I like, I tend to keep their number and hang out when we can. Jay mentioned that he had a couple of tunes and he sent over a song called “All the Rage” — this was probably three or four years ago — and that’s where it started. I played on that and everybody loved the tune and the musical partnership carried on from there.
Jay, it’s sort of a ballsy thing to ask an established guy like Dave Ellefson to play on your record. What made him a good fit for this project?
Jay: Yeah, ballsy in a way, but I kind of feel like when you have a comfortable connection with somebody, it doesn’t feel ballsy anymore. It was easy chatting with Dave and I felt like we got on well and talking about music was a natural progression, so it went from there.
Jay: I came out of the punk era back in the day when I was growing up in the UK. So I grew up with the Sex Pistols, the Clash and bands like that, so those were my influences. Then I got into Depeche Mode for awhile and that sort of electronic scene. I suppose that for me, I draw a lot of inspiration from Tool and A Perfect Circle, the songwriting of Johnny Cash and more mainstream rock like Metallica, Megadeth, Mastodon and that sort of sound. I draw from a broad spectrum of sounds when I write.
Dave: It’s funny but I remember years back, when we were first getting going with Megadeth, the Cure was the big popular band but Sisters of Mercy were the cool underground band. New Order was getting popular and because I was living in L.A. at the time, I heard a lot of that stuff on KROQ, which was the creme-de-la-creme of alternative rock. You’d hear everything from the Violent Femmes to the Psychedelic Furs and all sorts of different things. A lot of it I didn’t care for, but I noticed the things that I did like were usually things that were coming out of Britain. It just piqued my interest, but I never sought out playing that music. When Jay sent me “All the Rage,” just to play bass, it took me back to the things I liked about U2’s Unforgettable Fire and things that I liked about that dark, haunting, melancholic music that was coming out of the UK twenty-five or thirty years ago. To me, this project required a very Adam Clayton-approach to the bass — a P-bass with a pick, playing only on one or two strings and moving up to the twelfth fret to play the E, rather than going up to the seventh fret. So it had this punk rock thing about it that I liked.
I have to ask you Dave, with U2 getting such a slating in the press and social media lately, it’s almost taboo to cop to liking U2, particularly among some factions of the metal community. Do you think that U2 are fairly rated as musicians?
Dave: I think U2 are a fantastic band, just like any big group that goes out and takes chances. Years ago, everybody wanted to hate on Metallica and Lars Ulrich because he fought Napster. Well, duh! He was right. Now there’s another big artist named Taylor Swift doing the same thing with Spotify. So it’s easy to hate people when they’re making bold moves that quite honestly, the rest of us can’t make. So it’s easy to hate the 800-pound gorilla because everybody sees them as entitled and privileged and they get to do what the rest of us can’t. But you know what? They work their asses off for it. I didn’t buy the last U2 record, it was given to me by iTunes. (laughs) I did listen to part of it on the airplane and there are U2-isms on there. I saw them when they played on the Tonight Show after Jimmy Fallon took over there was a moment when the Edge picked up an acoustic guitar from behind the couch and started playing “Stairway to Heaven.” I can tell a guy’s musicianship within the first two to three bars of him touching the instrument, whether he’s playing the drums or a piano or plucking an acoustic guitar. You can tell the quality of their craft within the first few notes and U2 have it. They’re a phenomenally great band. Whether you like their recent songs or not, whether you like some of the publicity moves they make or their business acumen, I have nothing but tremendous respect for that band. I’ve always said, the hardest thing is to start a band and the second-hardest thing is to keep a band together, and they’ve been doing it for a long, long time.
Jay: When I was a kid I saw them on the Top of the Pops when they were charting in the UK. They were still a relatively small band then and it was quite exciting. I agree with what Dave said — I have tremendous respect for bands that have stood the test of time, whether it’s the Rolling Stones, U2 or Metallica. They each have their own way of doing it but they all work very hard to get there.
Jay, you’ve got one of the most unique biographies that I’ve seen in a music PR — you’ve been a Royal Marine Commando, you’re a stuntman in huge action films and of course and as Dave mentioned earlier, you’re a licensed D.O. By the way, did I see that you’ve worked on Game of Thrones as well?
Jay: Yeah, I have. I understand that’s very popular in the States. I find that interesting.
Jay: I think that with any show, it’s interesting how in some territories in the world, it’s adopted like a national pastime. It happens with movies, musics, television shows… I was over in California last summer and I remember talking to some people about Game of Thrones and you could see by the look on people’s faces when you mention that show that it had grown into something huge over there.
How have these other experiences informed your songwriting?
Jay: Somebody once described me as a “collector,” which I think is a very accurate description. You go through life collecting experiences and with music, you translate those experiences into your works. That’s it for me. The different experiences I’ve had and that I continue to have become parts of songs. It’s a continually evolving process. My experiences and my impulse to push through boundaries are what I express through music. I don’t regret a thing I’ve done in my life. My experiences are all valuable material for both writing and for expressing musically.
What are the lyrical themes that we see on the new album?
Dave: “The Gift of Desperation” was a lyric that I had after hearing someone say that one day. I just applied it to my own life and quite honestly, I wrote my life in those lyrics. One day a couple of years ago, Jay had emailed me and asked if I wanted to collaborate on some more music and I said, “You know, I have these lyrics and there’s no music for them.” So I sent it over to Jay and he trimmed and tweaked it a bit to shape it into something he could sing and he and his guitar player came up with a really cool riff that outlined the verses. So they basically did the music and I contributed the lyrics. It was a cool way to co-write. I mean, we co-write with the Atlantic Ocean between us. (laughing) It’s pretty cool how those collaborations can work, because often times they don’t. I’ve sent people lyrics and music in the past and they’ll come back with something that’s worlds apart from what I had in mind. But Jay and I have a really solid collaboration and I was very proud that my life story could be told through that song an with music that Jay had provided.
Jay: I think that in general, “The Gift of Desperation” felt quite personal. I remember the first time singing the song. I was in the studio with my buddy and I remember singing the lyrics and feeling like I was telling Dave’s story, which was an interesting experience because in some ways I felt a bit of pressure. Not a negative pressure but a different kind of pressure, where I wanted to express things in a way that Dave would express them. So that was an interesting song. This was something that I knew was a personal journey that Dave had passed on to me and I was humbled that he would give that to me and say, “Why don’t you see what you can do with this?” Other lyrics come from a whole collection of different experiences. “I Do Dissolve” is about a time in London when there was a whole new phase of terrorist attacks that lasted about a month and the underground system was shut down because of threats. For that month, British people actually felt like they were becoming much more unified. Instead of us squabbling and not caring about each other and dealing with our own shit, suddenly the British — and especially Londoners — all felt like we were really sticking together during this time of struggle. “Shine On” is about a friend of mine who had some personal struggles that have caused her to spend too much time in hospitals. Different influences come in for each song.
Your first collaboration with Dave, “All the Rage,” explores a heavy military theme and of course, you’ve got a rather unique military background. At least in the States, definitions of patriotism can be very different according to people’s age, location, experience, etc. Do you think the concept of patriotism is the same as it was, say, sixty years ago?
Jay: That’s a good question. I think that we’re in a very difficult time and I don’t know if you’d agree with it, but if you think about the sort of threats that the world is under, they’re very different nowadays than they were in WWII. It’s less about one country having a beef with another country. I think that the threats that we’re under now tend to affect us here at home just as much as a soldier on the front line in a foreign country. So I think that patriotism is stronger when there’s a direct threat to a particular nation. Maybe a bit like that track I mentioned earlier, “I Do Dissolve.” When there’s a direct threat to your community, which includes your family, your friends and your friend’s friends, then you get a stronger sense of patriotism. I suppose my experience is more about the United Kingdom. My experience within the military was that the team that you train with and you pass out of basic training with and you stand together with, the camaraderie, the unity and the sense of patriotism is very much about that team and the job that they have to do. It’s a really interesting question and I’m sorry I don’t have a simple answer for it.
How does Pt. 2 differ from the first installment?
Jay: I’d say that it’s picked up in both pace and energy. In a sense, the purpose of having two parts was really to clear out some material that I wanted to release. The majority of that was in Pt. 1, with a bit more in Pt. 2, along with some new songs. It was really a cathartic exercise to process all this material that I needed to put out there. In a sense I have a little bit of impatience because I’m really excited about the musical journey continuing through 2015, but for that to occur, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 had to be completed and released.
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