Frank Bello and David Ellefson Talk Altitudes & Attitude Collaboration

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Frank Bello and David Ellefson are arguably two of the biggest names on bass guitar in metal, or any genre for that matter. So when you hear of these two heavyweights coming together to do an album enlisting some of their friends on guitar, you might expect a nuclear-level assault on your senses. That would be too predictable for Altitudes & Attitude’s debut album, Get It Out. Instead, what you get is strong songwriting full of memorable hooks, great riffs and tasteful playing for the benefit of the song. Guitar World recently sat down with Ellefson and Bello to discuss the project.

Can you talk a little bit about how your collaboration came about?

David Ellefson: The idea hatched when we were doing our bass clinics together during the Big 4 shows back in 2011, I think it was. I said we should write some backing tracks to have for our clinics.  When we started throwing ideas to each other over email, we realized that we’re actually real songwriters [laughs]. Our first EP had three songs on it and Frank brought in “Booze and Cigarettes” and “Tell the World,” which were pretty much complete as ideas. At least the framework was there. I brought in this track we titled “Here Again.” That was particularly something I wanted to use for backing tracks. 

We did actually use that at the Bass Player Live event a few years ago. We collaborated on the lyrics and completed it as a full song. That’s where it started. From there we had so much fun doing it that we brought in producer Jay Ruston who is also a bass player. He got the idea of it and understood what we were trying to do. As much as it spawned out of bass clinics, this record is anything but a bass-geek, self-indulgent thing. It’s very much a song-oriented album. That’s something we are very proud of.

Frank, what is it like being the “lead singer”? 

Frank Bello: It’s weird. But I find it’s the easiest way to get these songs out. It’s the most direct way to get what I have in the gut out. Thankfully there has been a lot of nice words coming back from folks and they are digging it. I’m pretty stoked. 

Did you find singing intimidating? Obviously you have been doing backing vocals throughout your career, but does it feel different when you step up to the mic and the eyes are on you?

Bello: No. I’ve always sung, just not in Anthrax. If you look back at the Anthrax history, I’ve done some B-sides. But everyone has their jobs in Anthrax. Joey [Belladonna] is one of the best and I love his voice. We don’t need another singer in Anthrax. I’ve always done some singing at open-mics in New York. I go downtown and try out stuff with an acoustic guitar. Now it makes total sense to do this.

When you guys wrote these songs, were you able to spend time together or did you need to rely on technology and virtual writing?

Bello: It’s funny you bring that up. I remember the first official writing session Dave and I had. I was playing in Arizona with Anthrax. Dave came and picked us up before soundcheck and we went over to his house and wrote a couple songs. We both had ideas for certain things that turned into songs. We had a great session there. We went home and wrote on our own for a little bit. We got together again periodically and got these songs. We then got together with Jay Ruston and it was really easy and seamless. It was a great vibe.

You obviously are both busy. Is it difficult to do this project given the time constraints or are you able to thrive in that situation? Some musicians seem to do better with a finite amount of time and some need to create when creativity strikes.

Ellefson: Because we are so excited about the process, the songs and their outcome, we love getting together any time we can. Sometimes it’s two days, other times we’ll block off four days.  Then there's Jay’s schedule. And thank God we got drummer Jeff Friedl at a period before he got really super busy in all of Maynard [James Keenan]’s bands to come in and track the drums on these sessions. He was playing in Devo and Pusifer and Maynard was doing Tool and A Perfect Circle. Now Jeff’s in A Perfect Circle. He’s as busy as we are. So there were certainly some logistical issues. But everyone’s excited to get into the room because they walk away from the sessions with this creative and emotional payoff. That’s a better motivator than any paycheck. 

When you are writing and noodling around on your own do you come up with things that you think fit Altitudes & Attitude or do you rely more on writing when you are together?

Bello: I write at home more, actually. My wife and my son bought me this “dad” chair, a recliner.  I sit on this chair when they are asleep at night. I put my amp on, the TV on mute and go for it and have fun. That’s where the stuff comes from. That’s my favorite creative space. I have my iPhone right there if anything good comes up. I can put a melody on it right there. That’s where the Altitudes & Attitude stuff came from for me.

Do you write with acoustic, with the bass, where do you start?

Bello: Never with bass. It’s very rare but occasionally with an 8-string bass. Dave has a Jackson 10-string bass and I have a signature 8-string bass with ESP. I used the ESP bass quite a lot in the studio with Altitudes & Attitude. It really worked with the foundation of the sounds. It always goes back to the days of Cheap Trick with Tom Petersson. That 8-string bass with those songs is almost like a piano-like tone on top of the actual bass note that filled up the atmosphere of the song. I always remembered that and how beautiful that was. We brought that into Altitudes & Attitude. There is a lot of 8-string stuff going on that Dave played. I didn’t play a lot of bass on this record. I played more guitar. 

Ellefson: I picked up the the 8-string bass and plugged it into a Kemper and it almost became like “lead” bass. The 8-string bass became the hook and the real sound of Altitudes & Attitude from a musical point. We’re blessed to be able to tap some amazing lead guitar talent with Gus G, Nita Strauss, Ace [Frehley] and a whole slew of people that were kind enough to work with us on this record. Then there were moments when we didn’t want to cop out and have someone else play it and played it ourselves. The 8-string bass basically tightened up a chasm. It created this whole other melodic component and added this beautiful harmonic backdrop across the entire record.

From a physical standpoint is the 8-string significantly harder to play?

Ellefson: It is. It’s the same transition as a 6-string guitar to a 12-string but by using the Kemper we added a nice, dirty top-end that made it so much easier to play. It’s kind of like how when you plug in an electric guitar and want to play clean it sounds like you are playing in the Fiftie. When you plug it into a Marshall and add some gain suddenly you are in the modern world. The guitar has an entirely different voice. The same could be said for the 8-string bass. The same thing happened with us. It was how we played it and what we played, and the Kemper added this terrific tone modification that just helped the instrument become a real seamless part of the band. 

David, I know you have played with your fingers and also with a pick. With the 8-string do you strictly pick?

Ellefson: Yes, I strictly pick. The 8-string that ESP sent down for Frank was really nice and I had Jackson make me a 10-string because I play 5-string and I wanted that luxury of the octave down on the low B. I will use that for live applications. We had to go to great lengths to get the bridge right. If you are a finger player you would want the octave string on the bottom because you pluck upward. But as a pick player you want the octave on the top because you are strumming down. 

Frank, as a bassist how do you approach writing on the guitar?

Bello: It’s really about riffing. Maybe that comes from Anthrax. Just playing along, experimenting.  If something catches your ear you stop and develop it. You let it flow and see what comes of it.  Something you hear would make a good bridge or a good chorus. Then you start remembering other parts and I go to my phone and I can marry parts. Sometimes it just comes out all at once too. 

It’s easier than the old four-track cassette days, trying to remember which tape had what.

Bello: [laughs] Those were hard days with that stuff just finding things. Rewinding tapes because you were sure it was at the beginning. It’s all we had and you do what you can do at the time. The great thing about technology is that it’s much swifter and it becomes a lot more cohesive. The bad thing is that it’s just too much. 

David, being the bassist for essentially another bassist, does that affect how you play at all, even subconsciously? Is it different than taking a bassline to maybe a Megadeth song where you’re the bassist?

Ellefson: Good question. When I’m sitting with Frank, he’s sitting with a guitar in his hand and he’s singing. I’m not consciously thinking, “I need to come up with something because this is the bass player from Anthrax,” I’m thinking, “This is my friend, Frank.” For me I immediately start playing bass to what the song needs. 

Once you have the guitar parts, how do you approach the vocal melodies? Do you write to what you have already recorded or maybe scat a vocal while you are playing?

Bello: That’s a great question. Case in point, there is a song called “Slip.” That song came from an acoustic guitar just playing one note, I think it’s a B. The melody I don’t know where it came from [sings melody]. The melody came off just that guitar part. It all worked. It differs. I love that that stuff can actually happen. I love melody. I’ve always loved melodic songs. I love a heavy riff with a good melody. 

Some musicians I know end up writing and singing words that mirror the guitar part note-for-note.

Bello: I always call it a song within a song. It’s two things coming up and melting together in this one cool thing. There some parts where you want to follow the song structure but for me the challenge has been going outside of it to add the extra layers on it. It can make it more interesting or catchy. I just like a good hook. Sometimes in extreme music I like straight out yelling. It may not be for Altitudes & Attitude but I like the challenge of that. I think it’s important to have everything. 

You guys invited Ace Frehley to contribute a solo. Frank, as a New Yorker, did that blow your mind that he was playing on your record? 

Bello: If you would have told the 15-year-old Frank Bello that was waiting in front of Madison Square Garden in front of the Ace poster, that Ace was going to play a lead on his album, I would have thought you were high. I would have never thought it possible, plus it was a classic Ace lead.  It was so what I wanted. Dave and I really chased Ace for a while because he was so busy. It meant so much to us and the solo came out incredible. He really liked the track and I was psyched to hear that. It was a great thing.

Obviously you guys have a million contacts in the industry. How did you go about selecting the guest guitarists on the album?

Ellefson: Jay Ruston was really helpful because he’s really networked into a whole crew of people in Los Angeles. He made a lot of suggestions. I was so thrilled to have Christian [Martucci] from Stone Sour. I’ve made records over the years and done demo songwriting. I’ve always admired the guys that could come in and layer. Sort of the unspoken, un-heroic guitar parts that really fill a record out. The guy that could play a Rickenbacker through a Vox with that chimy sound or add an arpeggio to the second part of a verse to build up to the chorus. Christian was that guy. Even some of the Hammond organ laid down by Randy Walker can beef up a track or Athena [Ellefson’s daughter] who added piano to the outro of “All There Is” can add a tail to the song. Ace was a childhood hero. “Leviathan” with Russ Parish [Satchel from Steel Panther] was this bass line that I had. I wrote it on a 5-string and laid it down with the 8-string as you hear it. I thought we needed something else. Jay suggested Russ. He just took that song to a whole other level. I wasn’t that familiar with his playing other than Steel Panther. I didn’t know the depths of his playing. It sounds like something that blew my mind like the first Michael Schenker Group album. It went deep down into these other avenues I would have never thought of. And Nita’s track...she’s just kicking your face in!

In using several different guitarists, did you give any thought to having a cohesive sound or mix it in any way to have a consistent tone? Or did you want people to recognize these players as individuals?

Bello: I think they all did a great job of speaking for themselves. Working with Jay Ruston, he knows all these players. He knows how they work. He gets it out of them. These players, I say this will all fondness: They came with it. They really matched the songs, it fit. I’m such a fan of all these folks and how they play.

Ellefson: We didn’t want this to sound like an all-star album. Frank and I are already famous enough [laughs]. The two of us coming together is the hook. 

What’s cool is that it’s a musician’s album, but it’s also approachable and, dare I say, radio-friendly. It’s an album you can throw on in the car, not just a guitar-geek sort of thing. 

Bello: You just hit it on the head. That’s the kind of record I wanted. You open the windows in the car and put it on with your buddies and have a great time. 

Did you have a preconceived idea of wanting to make a very song-centric album or was it more of a natural direction based on your collaboration?

Ellefson: It’s where it naturally took us. You let the creative process take you instead of always having to direct where the creative things go. The other day someone asked me in a master class about creativity, modes and scales and I said when I create I forget all the rules. I set all theory and music knowledge aside because that is where you really take down the walls of creativity.  Sometimes putting your hands on a guitar, a bass or even something you don’t often play can open up a half hour of improvising. I don’t have a big, huge digital workstation at home. For me it’s my phone. It’s more important to capture a moment or an idea. Then in this case when I’d take an idea to Frank we’d be in the studio and the two of us would build something up even greater. He’d bring in pretty much complete song ideas. I’d bring in musical ideas and maybe a little thought on a lyric and he’d jump in. That was a real joy for me. I loved it as well because it’s an entirely different genre than hard rock or thrash. My bass lines are like little sub-songs within the songs.

Bello: It’s all about the songs. Dave and I can do the bass thing but that has been done by a lot of great players. This is something I always wanted to come out with. Dave and I have a lot of songs inside of us. Hence the title, Get It Out. It’s a release.

Obviously you are both busy with touring with your individual bands. Is there time for much more touring for Altitudes & Attitude?  

Bello: That’s always been the agreement that Dave and I have, this is a cool thing when we have time. Dave and I have some dates in February but then it’s on to a plane and straight to Australia with Anthrax and Dave goes to the Ozzy/Megadeth tour. Hopefully people understand that when we have time we do what we can.