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Dave Ellefson used his signature Jackson Concert 5-string bass and a Les Paul guitar on the Altitudes & Attitude EP, while Frank Bello used the same Les Paul and his ESP basses, including a new 8-string model.
Photo by Dana “Distortion” Yavin.
“I call it my grandmother’s gift to me,” says Anthrax bassist Frank Bello of the ’74 Fender Jazz Bass he recently rediscovered. Bello learned the basics on the instrument, but had believed it lost until his grandmother’s death several years ago. While Bello was cementing his legacy as one of metal’s most notable bassists, she kept it packed away. Unearthing the bass produced a flood of emotions, including the thrill of playing music for the first time. “Holding it again feels amazing,” he says.
For Bello and fellow bassist Dave Ellefson of Megadeth, their Altitudes & Attitude project is a way to re-experience such feelings. When the duo entered the studio to record a three-song EP, they made sure to keep their sessions off-the-cuff, with much freedom to experiment. Both musicians played guitar as well as bass, and the EP reveals the duo’s formidable songwriting and rhythm guitar skills, as captured by producer Jay Ruston (Anthrax, Steel Panther, Leonard Cohen) at his Los Angeles studio. Ruston recruited shredder Gus G. (Ozzy Osbourne, Firewind) and drumming phenom Jeff Friedl (A Perfect Circle, Devo) to round out the group.
PG recently discussed the project with Bello, Ellefson, and Ruston.
How did the idea for Altitudes and Attitude come about?
Dave Ellefson: When Frank and I started doing our bass clinics for Metal Masters. I was thinking about my friends Steve Bailey and Victor Wooten, and remembering when they started doing their Extreme Bass DVDs and clinics back in the ’90s. So I said to Frank, “Dude, we should write together!”
Frank Bello: We got a lot of support from Jay, a fantastic producer and a buddy of mine. We played him some of the bass-friendly stuff we wrote to use in clinics, and he liked it so much that he said we should just go for it and record it. Dave and I have been good friends forever. With the bass player vibe between us and the fun we’ve had doing clinics together all over the world, it just clicked.
Jay Ruston: I’m a bass player too, so I gravitated toward the idea of two bass players recording together. We thought it would be cool to just show up at the studio for a few short sessions and see what happened.
The EP covers a range of rock and metal styles—not just thrash.
Bello: I think people expected a vibe more like we do in our bands. But we wanted to try something new—and we couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out.
Ellefson: Both Frank and I are in bands whose sound has long been set in stone. So when you start something new, you have a clean slate—and the chance to try something new and fun. Both us can play guitar and bass. Frank’s a cool singer. Jeff is a killer drummer who can play anything you put in front of him. And Gus’s guitar playing is killer, too.
The music recalls the excitement of learning to write and play for the first time.
Bello: Dude, that’s exactly it. You hit it on the head. The risk makes you feel alive. These songs wouldn’t be on an Anthrax or Megadeth record. They’ve got a different vibe, and are more heavy rock-oriented, with maybe a touch of metal.
Why an EP instead of a full album?
Ellefson: We had about five or six songs on deck that we pared down to these three, because we wanted three really great songs instead of three plus a couple of fillers. [Laughs.] Because of the ability to do digital releases now, you can be more focused on creating better-quality songs.
Bello: Nowadays lots of bands put out EPs sporadically, with only three or four songs at a time. I like that because there’s no pressure. It keeps it alive and fresh. We’ve both got enough songs for another round, and we had such a great time recording with Jay and Jeff that we’ll do it again, without a doubt.
What was the songwriting process like, knowing you’d share bass and guitar duties?
Ellefson: We sent demos and ideas back and forth. We’d work with each other’s ideas, and then send our contributions back. “Here Again” was one of my ideas that Frank liked. He sent me the ideas for “Through the World” and “Booze & Cigarettes,” which were pretty much completed song ideas.
Bello: Dave laid some really great bass underneath that song. He’s an awesome player, and it was great getting to hear his ideas.
Ellefson: I brought some different ideas to moving the bass lines to give the songs a different energy. I like my playing to be very melodic and energetic, and I loved playing those “Here Again” bass lines.
Bello: And I got to write lyrics for it. It was originally supposed to be an instrumental, but when we started adding melodies and vocals, it took on a completely different vibe.
Did your friendship make the process easier?
Ellefson: It did, especially since we’re both bass players. I say that because bass players generally aren’t frontmen, but we have a definitive role in the band. Frank’s got a very dynamic personality that lets him step up and go. It not only helps him as a singer, but also as an actor and a very dynamic bass player onstage with Anthrax.
What challenges did you face in writing guitar parts, as opposed to writing bass parts for your respective bands?
Bello: When I play guitar, I hear the bass in my head at the same time. I look for the melody in a riff—even with a heavy riff, there’s some kind of melody in there. That’s important because it helps you figure out if it’s a good riff. While we were recording “Here Again,” Dave had a great idea of recording melody with an 8-string bass. That one small addition gave the song an entirely new feel.
Ellefson: Frank wrote “Booze & Cigarettes” and “Tell the World” mostly on guitar, and I wrote “Here Again” on guitar, too. I find that it’s always better to start writing metal songs on guitar. I say that because “Here Again” began as a sketch around some heavy guitar riffing and drum tracks. It sounded like something that might start off on a ’90s thrash metal record. Once the guitar and bass were in there, I picked up Frank’s ESP Custom Shop 8-string and threw in a bunch of little licks, and then asked Jay to back up to the beginning so I could try playing the guitar riff on the 8-string. It started to sound less like a thrash metal song and more like our song.