Deryk Wehrley

David Ellefson on Kings of Thrash, Cult Classic Megadeth Records, & Reuniting With Jeff Young

They’re one and the same, but they’re really not, so in 2023, if Megadeth crosses your mind, so should Kings of Thrash.

While Kings of Thrash is a Phoenix and Los Angeles based band featuring highly accomplished Megadeth alums David Ellefson and Jeff Young, its origin story started right here in New Jersey. Bassist Ellefson was signing copies of his book at the Chiller Theatre Expo in Parsippany and many fans had the same question for him: “When are you going to play Killing Is My Business… and Business is Good! (Megadeth’s 1985 debut album) in its entirety?”

The requests got Ellefson’s mind ticking. He decided to recruit guitarist Young, singer/guitarist Chaz Leon, and drummer Fred Aching; the band was christened Kings of Thrash with a mission of bringing the spirit and energy of early eighties metal to the masses. Following a run of west coast shows, Kings of Thrash is now touring the northeast, playing both Killing Is My Business and So Far, So Good… So What! in full. The latter, the band’s third effort released in 1988, features Young’s searing solos and dynamic fretwork. 

Kings of Thrash is promoting their first, upcoming release, the CD/DVD set of Best Of The West: Live At The Whisky a Go Go (to be released March 24). The performance features a special guest appearance by ex-Megadeth axeman Chris Poland, who performed on Killing Is My Business. These thrash legends play at Starland Ballroom in Sayreville on March 4, too, following that with a stop at New York City’s Gramercy Theatre on March 8. Special guest Hatriot includes the sons of Exodus frontman Steve “Zetro” Souza. 

Killing Is My Business and So Far, So Good … So What! were important albums that helped chart Megadeth’s evolution and set the stage for its breakthrough efforts, Rust in Peace and Countdown to Extinction. The chance to hear them played in full is an opportunity not to be missed, and we recently spoke with David Ellefson about just that.

What is the origin story of Kings of Thrash? 

I was signing at the Chiller Theatre Expo in October 2021. People were coming to me in droves bringing their Killing Is My Business record in particular. I’ve never seen so many of that particular record come through an autograph line. It hit me that that record needed to be performed live. I had already brought it up when we reissued it in 2018, called The Final Kill, and I was hoping to go out and play it with the band just one night, but it kind of fell on death ears. Chiller Theatre cemented my belief that it needs to be performed, so I came home, I talked to the local promoter here in Phoenix, and he loved the idea.

How did you and Jeff Young become reacquainted?

In January of 2022, I had reconnected with Jeff through the making of the Nick Menza documentary called This was my Life. We gave interviews for the film. We went to dinner and he started talking about riffs that he still had from 1988. All of the sudden it was like, “This is it – this is how it’s meant to go.”

We went into the studio and we just wrote for four months together. Then, in May of 2022, just four months later, he called me to come over and do a jam at the Whisky in Hollywood. They have a night called The Ultimate Jam Night put on by Quiet Riot bassist Chuck Wright and they were doing a tribute to The Big 4. I booked a flight and went over and we played some of the songs that we did on So Far, So Good … So What! Now it’s like “Ok, we’ve got Killing Is My Business and So Far So Good. These are two of the sort of cult classics of the catalog,” so we booked the first run of dates back in October and we finished at the Whisky a Go Go, which ironically is where the whole thing started. We had a sold out show and we recorded it. We filmed it for a double live cd and DVD that’s coming out on March 24.

It’s kind of funny that this tour we’re doing a continued celebration of performing those two albums, but it’s also a way to set up the release of the live album. Usually you go out and tour a studio album, but, in this case, we’re going out and supporting a live album of two studio albums.  Chris Poland plays on the Best of the West, but he’s not able to do the tour because he’s got a day job back in Los Angeles. He was able to get away for a week to do those first four shows and record the live album, though, which was great.

How did you find your singer/guitarist and drummer, Chaz Leon and Fred Aching?

What’s funny about this is that night at the Whisky – at the Ultimate Jam Night – the organizer of the event put our singer Chaz Leon as our vocalist, so that just fell into place as a no brainer. As we were talking about drummers, Jeff happened to notice that Fred Aching had performed that same night. He played on a couple of the Slayer songs. We saw him play by watching a video on YouTube and said, “There’s our guy.” It’s great because they all live in LA so they can rehearse and be musically interactive with each other, and then I come in-and-out to rehearse and work with them. It really fell right into place. It’s funny, too, because Chaz Leon actually has a Megadeth tribute band called Woke Up Dead.  They actually performed at a book signing that I did in La Jolla, California. Of course he loves the music and we’ve got a really good, dedicated group when we go out and play. Everybody’s abilities are exceptional, so I think when we go out and play you’re really getting the full impact of what these records deserve and the performances that you would hope to see. 

You’ve talked about recapturing the spirit of the time and the genre. What is key to achieving that?

I think, first of all, you had to have been there in order to recapture it. For us, we’re just sort of going back through the family photo album and pulling out a moment in time. There needs to be a real vitality and a spirit to the music, and I think we have that. I think there was a youthful energy in the scene at that time and, also, for us, it was sort of this maiden voyage of going out for the first time to do our first tours. It was a lot about the unknown and that’s what your hear, especially on the Killing record and on So Far. Our genre was growing in the underground and it would hit the mainstream in a huge way in about two years later with MTV and everything else, but, in 1987 when we made the record, and 1988 when we toured the record, we were word-of-mouth still – a kind of a bastard child of the heavy metal movement. 

The tour we did was Dio, Megadeth, and Savatage. I remember specifically talking to Ronnie James Dio about all this at a hotel bar. He knew that we were the next genre coming up behind him. Metallica had Master of Puppets and was soon to release …And Justice for All. Our genre was really gaining momentum in 1988. As fast and thrashing as the music was we were refining the quality of it. Jeff Young was a big part of that. He was an educated, schooled musician and he came in and brought a virtuosity to it that Chris Poland had started on Killing and Peace Sells […but Who’s Buying?] and I think Jeff reinvented it with his own style on So Far.

Do you think So Far, So Good … So What! is somewhat underrated in the Megadeth pantheon? 

For sure. It’s nestled right in between the two big iconic fan favorites of Peace Sells and Rust in Peace, which was essentially a complete retooling and reforming of the band. So Far was the transition between the two and as serious as we were about that record, as it played out it was really just a steppingstone out of the eighties to kind of close the door on that decade.

What did Jeff Young add to Megadeth on So Far, So Good?

I thought back then that Jeff came in and played four solos and saved the day and that was it. Now that I’ve been playing with him, I realize he played on almost every song on that record. He played all the acoustic guitar, he played a lot of backing guitar, he played supporting guitar roles, and, of course, the big solos in songs like “Liar,” “In My Darkest Hour,” and “Mary Jane.”  His guitar playing touched that whole record top to bottom. He also really had an understanding of how Dave [Mustaine] played. Granted, it was 35 years ago, but it all comes back to him very easily and very naturally. When we perform Dave’s part of the record in the live show… it’s authentic, it’s real.

How do you see your evolution during those early years?

I think evolution is the perfect word. We were all charting new territory together. We were all creating the sound of the band together, but also creating our own individual sound and our styles within the band. With metal fans it isn’t just abut the songs, it’s about the personality, and that’s why metal fans get us. They’re involved in the charisma and the personalities inside of a lineup in a band. To us, as metal heads growing up, bands were our heroes. We lived and died on everything they said,  everything they played to us metalheads. I think So Far, So Good was just this nice sleeper album. It quietly grew in the background. 

By the time we got to So Far, that was our first real major label record. Paul Lani, the producer, had mixed Peace Sells, so we were acquainted with him., but now we were working with him from the very first note. I’ve always said my best bass teachers were producers. It made me a better player with every record I made – that’s true to this day. Paul Lani really upped our game. For him to bring in Steve Jones, a real, live Sex Pistol, sitting there telling stories about The Pistols and playing on our record, that was a total pinch me moment. The way the record came out with “In My Darkest Hour” as one of the lead singles, and being in the Penelope Spheeris movie, The Decline of Western Civilization, we were really in a movie and we were a featured track. Dave was on the cover. Everything felt like, “Wow, this is really going to the next level.”

Are there any plans for original Kings of Thrash music?

It’s funny. Jeff and I, when we met in the beginning of 2022, the first thing we did was go in the studio and [write] some new material together. And then the idea of the actual formation happened after that with the idea that we could go out and tour these albums. The original music is something that’s cool and it’s going to be interesting to see. It seems so natural. The song we’ve been working on is a natural progression. We’re looking to take that on the stage and perform it somewhere on the tour.