Interview By Robert Cavuoto
David Ellefson is most famously known as the bassist for Megadeth but what people might not know is that he’s a coffee aficionado with his own line of coffee and opening a retail coffee store in his hometown of Jackson, Minnesota on January 10th called Ellefson Coffee Co.
In addition to serving a variety of custom blends of Ellefson Coffee Co brands, including Roast in Peace, She Wolf, Kenya Trash, and Urban Legend at the retail location; they will utilize the store as a satellite outlet for music titles and merchandise from Ellefson’s EMP Label Group. There will also be a “Museum of Deth” featuring permanently displayed artifacts and memorabilia from Ellefson’s personal collection.
I caught up with David just prior to the store’s opening to discuss his coffee passion, his business savvy, and of course Megadeth.
Robert Cavuoto: You must be pretty excited about your coffee store which opens on January 10th?
David Ellefson: It’s really cool to have the opportunity. It’s something that landed in our laps last month and has been moving quickly ever since.
Robert Cavuoto: How did you get involved in the coffee business?
David Ellefson: When I first moved to Hollywood from Jackson, Minnesota in 1983, Dijon Carruthers [Megadeth’s first drummer] and I would hang out at his apartment and drink exotic coffee – Chock Full of Nuts. Back in Minnesota, we were used to drinking Folgers [laughing]. Suddenly my eyes were open that there was more than one brand of coffee. Over the years visiting Europe and Latin America with their coffees and Espresso drinks; I started enjoying their cultures as well as the flavors of their coffees. Plus it provided me with a nice wake-me-up-kick when you are on the road. That continued through most of my adult life. Back in March of 2016 I was connected with Parliament Coffee Roasters out of Charlotte, North Caroline and that is when we started Ellefson Coffee Co. Paul Waggoner, the proprietor and I worked on the flavors and the roasts.
I also worked on the branding as it pertained to the origins, the name of the blends, and the labels on the bags. We started as a simple web-based mail order company as it was profitable from bag #1. It didn’t have a huge infrastructure and we didn’t have to ramp up with heavy out of pocket cost; so that made it enjoyable. To help make the move to the retail site, Susan Reiter has had a successful coffee store in Jackson, Minnesota called Coffee Choices for the last seven years. I always enjoyed visiting her shop. She is very creative and beats to her own drum. She is someone who thinks differently in a small town. That’s not an easy thing to do and be successful. Susan was looking to do something new with her store. My partner in the record label and coffee company, Thom Hazaert and Susan were chatting one night and came up with this concept to change her store to the Ellefson Coffee Co. and Susan would run it as she understands the nuances of the local community. Brainstorming over the phone two months ago has turned into a reality.Robert Cavuoto: Do you consider yourself a coffee aficionado?
David Ellefson: I think I am. I’ve always loved Sumatra coffee and that region’s coffee. I’ve always loved some of the African coffees from Kenya and Ethiopia. Even down in South America, there are certain Colombia coffees that I like as well. Ironically Brazilian coffee is not something that I had much delight in as a coffee drinker. Funny story, the very first coffee I wanted to offer though Ellefson Coffee Co. was going to be a Sumatra. I was insistent on it but Paul Waggoner kept telling me that I have to consider it being a Brazilian blend. I begrudgingly tried it and was like “Wow, this was amazing!” So our first offering Roast in Peace was Brazilian! I love it now. I put the Brazilian flag in the bag just like Megadeth did on the tour books from touring all the countries like a badge of honor for the band. I’m doing the same thing with the coffee company and honoring the origin of that coffee. Though Parliament; the premium level beans and roast that we have are all single origin, we buy directly from the farms where the beans were grown. I like that Parliament is very eco friendly and very commerce conscience on how they do business. The farmers get paid and go through a stringent process of how they are doing it as well.
Robert Cavuoto: The coffee industry is quite competitive for independent roasters like yourself, how do you differentiate yourself from others?
David Ellefson: I’m leading with my strongest asset which is my musical legacy and that right there gets people’s attention. I name the roast around rock n’ roll names like Roast in Peace, Kenya Thrash, and She Wolf. To grow the business outward we now have the retail shop. We will put my memorabilia on display in the store as well. There is a traffic opportunity so we will also offer merchandise, coffee, tea, energy drinks, and baked goods. I’ll be putting musical offerings from our EMP Label group [Ellefson Music Productions] as well. In turn, it becomes a downtown record store and coffee shop.
Robert Cavuoto: I know that Joey Kramer of Aerosmith recently opened his own coffee shop and wondering if you are friends and perhaps he gave you some advice?
David Ellefson: No we haven’t discussed business. Joey and I know each other a little bit from past touring days and at fantasy camps, we did back in Boston 10 or 12 years ago. We run in different circles and sub-genre of rock n roll. Our pasts have crossed. I was back in Boston this past December for some Megadeth acoustic shows and was aware of his coffee store. I also saw his coffee in my friend’s house. To have this retail opportunity I think it is a cool way to build community within rock n’ roll. As much as we have our own brands I think when you get into this side of the business, branding, and commerce, it becomes less of being a competitor and more of being “Oh, you have a product too, that’s awesome!” All of sudden, there is a friendship. It’s very synonymous with the creative musician lifestyle.
Robert Cavuoto: Do you envision growing the retail outlets to other locations in the US?
David Ellefson: I would love to continue to expand. The way it fell into place to flip a store over to my brand and keep the components of the successful store in place was a terrific way to enter into the retail business. To just randomly find a building and start from scratch is incredibly expensive.
Robert Cavuoto: How important is to stretch out beyond Megadeth with coffee, producing bands, and having your record label [Ellefson Music Productions] for retirement or should Megadeth come to an end one day?
David Ellefson: It’s very important. In the early days of Megadeth we had success in spite of ourselves [laughing]. We were young, wild, and rocking hard but there came a point in the 90’s when we realized we had to change our lifestyle and how we operated. That provided us with a new mindset around our organization. That has helped us thrive and survive until the current day. I think Megadeth has always have had a strong business acumen on top of the creative side. The Ellefson family through the generations has always been business minded-educated men. I’ve gone to college, worked in business and think it requires a level of being able to step back to be an observer as well as a servant at the same time. Business is really about serving your customers where rock n’ roll is about icon worship [laughing]. I think there is this left brain/right brain mentality that I have always enjoyed in my life. To have that balance so when I step away from the stage to do other things it allows me to enjoy the stage that much more; rather than the stage being the only thing I have in my life.
Robert Cavuoto: Speaking about those earlier days in Megadeth; how was the band able to write, play, and perform under heavy influences while still managing to secure and maintain record contracts?David Ellefson: That’s a good question and there are two answers. In the beginning, it worked but by the end, it didn’t. [laughing] I think the end came for us in 1989 as it was a very dark year. The band had splintered, management had splintered, and Capitol records sat idle waiting for us to get our act together. Ironically we wrote one of our fan favorite records, Rust in Peace during that time. What’s interesting in another dark and tumultuous time we managed to write another one of fan favorites Peace Sell…but Who’s Buying just a few years earlier. What starts to trouble you as an artist is you realize that in your darkest days you wrote your best music. There always a looming call to go back to it so you can recapture it. Unfortunately, as a human being living in the world, you can’t operate under that premise. What made Rust in Peace so successful was that we wrote the record in a very dark time but got clean & sober and recorded it stone cold sober. Then we went out and were able to tour to bring the band on to even greater success with sober judgment. Even with Dystopia, it was a record written in a dark time in the band’s career with lineup and management changes. All these sorts of things turning around in the camp and I think in a weird way it created this disturbance “within” that created this terrific music for “without.”
Robert Cavuoto: Congrats on the Grammy nomination for “Dystopia” in the Best Metal Performance category. Where were you when you heard the news and what was your first reaction to it?
David Ellefson: Thanks, I was at home as they announced it in December. We have been nominated for quite a few times and it’s always a thrill because the Grammy’s are the biggest music dance in the world. To be invited back is always an esteemed honor. It makes you realize that you are just a small part of something bigger. It’s always humbling and gratifying, I’m very thankful for it.