Coffee break with Megadeth’s David Ellefson
Interview by Melanie Falina
Coffee lovers have come a long way since the days of the larger-than-life tins of Folgers or Maxwell House found in most every American kitchen. Today, not only have the standards for ‘good coffee’ skyrocketed, but the passion for fresh-roasted coffee has come to rival even the wine aficionados and beer connoisseurs of the world. And should you be a coffee-swigging, horn-throwing fan of heavy metal, then the world got even more flavorful in 2016 with the formation of Ellefson Coffee Co. by Megadeth bassist David Ellefson.
In just two short years, what began as a web-based mail-order business, Ellefson Coffee Co. has since sold thousands of bags of its coffee, formed an array of retail partnerships, and put roasts like Roast In Peace, Kenya Thrash, Urban Legend, and Rock N’ Rose on the map in the coffee world. UnRated Magazine recently had the opportunity to talk to Ellefson about the beloved bean-based elixir, but also what it’s like to run a rock and roll coffee company.
Melanie Falina: How are you David?
David Ellefson: Good. How are you feeling?
Melanie Falina: Good – I’ve already had my coffee today so things are good. [laughs]
David Ellefson: Good job, me too. A couple cups in…
Melanie Falina: One of your own roasts or something else?
David Ellefson: Actually, today I’ve been sampling stuff, we’re always getting stuff from new roasters. The other day I was sampling their stuff against [Ellefson Coffee Co.’s] Rock N’ Rose against Starbucks, and so today I just opened a brand new bag of Starbucks’ Anniversary Blend. Sumatra is kind of the basis – kind of the base coffee of a lot of coffees. I don’t really drink McDonald’s and I’m not really a big fan of Dunkin’ Donuts so Starbucks has always been my baseline, and they sell a lot of coffee so I go back to ‘what is the world buying right now?’ It’s kind of like radio, whether they like it or not this is what they have to listen to, so that’s how I benchmark our coffee. A lot of roasters come to us and go, ‘ours is the best,’ but it’s not always about the best, it’s about whether people like it or not.
Melanie Falina: As you know, a lot of musicians have products now that they put their name on and sell – be it wine or scotch, beer, coffee, hot sauce – whatever, but your coffee business is almost a full-time gig on its own – it’s a really good thing that you drink so much coffee because I don’t think you sleep!
David Ellefson: [laughs] Yeah! It’s funny with coffee, I’ve always been a guy who’s started everything. All the bands – I’ve seldom done side-man work, I’ve enjoyed the ones that I’ve done but I’m a guy who when I see something I just set out to do it and I put it together myself. And I’ve been like that from my first bands, to my label [EMP Label Group], to the coffee company, and yeah, it sure would be a lot easier to just license my name out [laughs] and sit back and receive royalty checks. But at the same time, my nature and how I enter into certain things, I’m just that guy that likes to build it from the ground up. And that requires me to be hands-on with it – but when passion drives something it’s not really like you’re working at it, you’re just doing it because it’s who you are, it’s a part of you. And it’s kind of like that with bands, that’s why they call it ‘playing’ music instead of ‘working’ music [laughs], because you show up and you want to play.
Melanie Falina: That’s awesome that you have this whole other business that is as fun and rewarding to you as your music!
David Ellefson: I’m blessed to have great teams around me – there’s a team that came together with the label, there’s a team that came together around the coffee, and that’s what makes it work; as much as I’m the figure-head and I’m the famous guy – and that’s part of my role in the company – I also understand business. I’m certainly glad I went to college – there’s a part of me that always felt like everybody knew something I didn’t, so that’s why I went to college to make sure that I had it all buttoned up. And it’s funny how a lot of times, things I learned in college – 10, 12 years ago – are suddenly really coming to fruition now. It’s kind of like when you take a guitar lesson and you learn a pentatonic scale and you don’t really understand it until you learn a song and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, there’s that pentatonic scale! I use it all the time and I didn’t even know!’ Knowledge can be power, but knowledge without application is useless.
Melanie Falina: So what’s the next plan with your coffee – do you want to be in every grocery store, do you want to rival Starbucks, what’s the long-term plan for Ellefson Coffee Co.?
David Ellefson: Well, you know, even Starbucks got really popular because, as I understand, it started with just a couple of guys roasting coffee. And then another guy came along and he brought back the whole European coffee experience and wanted to build it out – again, team-built and a concept and a vision. So I think you just can’t have growth without substance, and to me the coffee company is no different than a rock band. You can’t just suddenly be on top 40 radio because you want to be – you have to earn your way there – you have to have something that’s of merit, you have to have something of substance, and it has to be believable.
David Ellefson (continued): To me, we’re a rock and roll coffee company – that’s what we do. And I think until we get really good at being that we can’t grow anywhere else, and that’s been our focus. We say that to each other all the time on the phone, ‘Hey man, we are a rock and roll coffee company,’ because I swear about every week someone walks in our door and says, ‘Hey, I can do this, you should do this, you should do that – why aren’t you in the grocery stores?’ They come in with these grandiose ideas and again, it’s just like a band, if someone walks in and says, ‘You guys should be on tour with U2,’ or ‘You guys should be huge! Why aren’t you playing the stadiums?’ And again, to the untrained, unknowing ear that’s all they know, but when you’ve been in the trenches like we have for the last couple of years with the coffee company we started right away with heavy metal, rock and roll coffee – that’s what we wanted to be and that’s what we are. And just like every great band – you build your fan-base and you stay true to who you are and that’s why people believe in you, they trust you and they come to rely on you because you’re not a sell-out and not just in it for the buck and as a cash-grab. And we’re not, believe me we’re not. [laughs] There’s a lot of work to starting a company from the ground up! So for us, Ellefson Coffee and all of our roasts we do, our cups, everything we do – it is being in a band. I work out of a tribe of misfits in the coffee company so to me Ellefson Coffee is just an extension of everything I do with music.
Melanie Falina: Is there anything else you’d like to add, or say directly to the coffee drinkers of the world?
David Ellefson: Just enjoy a cup of coffee! Hopefully it’ll be in an Ellefson Coffee cup. [laughs]