Dave Mustaine: "I know how it feels to have people gunning for you"

Dave Mustaine
(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

"I love my band. The fans are having a great time. The tour was wonderful.” Something weird is happening to the very fabric of heavy metal. Dave Mustaine is in an excellent mood. In fairness, he should be. Six years on from the Grammy-winning Dystopia, Megadeth are finally poised to release the follow-up, The Sick, The Dying… And The Dead! – their first since the recruitment of drummer Dirk Verbeuren and plainly the band’s strongest album since Endgame in 2009. 

Metal Hammer speaks with the Megadeth frontman a few days after the final show on The Metal Tour Of The Year across the US, wherein his band co-headlined alongside Lamb Of God, with Trivium and In Flames rounding out a guaranteed good time for all concerned. Today he is at home in Tennessee and looks healthy and refreshed, while also expressing heartfelt delight at the way the recent tour played out. 

“The line-up was great, the audience was really happy, and from the beginning to the end of the night, the cheering got louder and louder and louder,” he grins. “But it was truly great, because when the tour was over and we said goodbye to the other bands, it was the first time in a long time that we had an emotional farewell to everyone.  

"The tour had just been so good for everyone, just the brotherhood that was going on. That hasn’t happened since we toured with Maiden, and before that it was with Dio. During the last show, the guys from Dio came out on our set and goofed around while we were onstage. They were all wearing diapers, you know? Ha ha ha! I miss the goofy stuff people used to do when bands toured together, rather than it being ships passing in the night and no one gets to know each other. There was a lot of bonding this time, for sure.” 

Dave goes on to enthuse about his recent experiences. He speaks with great affection about Lamb Of God’s Mark Morton, with whom he hung out on numerous occasions, and makes a point to sing the praises of Trivium, and Matt Heafy in particular. There were times in the distant past when Dave was seldom seen as a unifying force, not least due to his penchant for barbed remarks in the press, but these days he comes across more as an avuncular father figure, speaking proudly of his musical descendants and relishing the responsibility of putting such an explosive – and harmonious – package on the road. 

“I was outside one of the venues and we were getting ready to leave for the next state, and [Lamb Of God bassist] John Campbell came up to me and said, ‘Man, I’ve got to hand it to you, you’ve put together the greatest group of people. I don’t know how you did it, but these guys are the greatest guys ever, every single one of them!’ I laughed. I said, ‘It’s been a long time coming!’ You know, this is the stuff that people don’t see, how smooth the shows go and how much work is involved in making that happen. But it’s been so great. We want to tour and play as much as we can.” 

The last time we spoke with Dave, he recounted the distinctly intense tale of his – ultimately triumphant – battle with throat cancer, noting that “if the process doesn’t scare you into changing your lifestyle, then shame on you”. Two years on, he looks ridiculously lean and sharp for a man of 60 and has clearly done all the right things for his long-term health. 

“I’ve been having a good time,” he nods. “There have been a couple of nights that have been harder than the other nights, because of my overall health conditioning and stuff like that. When you want to give 100% every single night, sometimes it feels like you just want to stay up there and play longer, and you don’t have the time. We had the dubious privilege of playing last. It’s fun if you do that, but you have to play extra hard and be extra convincingly good. But it’s cool. We can do that.” 

If Dave Mustaine hadn’t confirmed that he is in a great mood and having a splendid time, his new album might have set off a few alarm bells. In true Megadeth tradition, The Sick, The Dying… And The Dead! is a predominantly dark and vicious affair. From fast-paced, snotty pit-starters like Life In Hell and new single We’ll Be Back to the epic, turbulent thrash of Night Stalkers and Dogs Of Chernobyl, it is as uncompromising as anything the band have ever produced. 

Perhaps the most stunning moment is the opening title track: a brutish but eccentric paean to the Great Plague that could hardly be a more fitting anthem for the last few years. Impressively, Dave reports that The Sick, The Dying… And The Dead! was written before the pandemic, which effectively makes him Nostradamus. 

“Yeah, it was written before! Ha ha ha ha! But I think if anybody wants to take the piss about me being Nostradamus, there are plenty of other songs, like Peace Sells… and all that stuff. But this one was inspired by another virus, the Plague. I wrote that about the actual facts of the boats coming from the Baltic Sea to Sicily, and how it was a disease that was communicable via the rats and the fleas, and how that whole thing happened. 

Believe it or not, this was a really hard left-turn from London Bridge Is Falling Down. Because I was thinking about that poem, the nursery rhyme, and I’d heard that it was a really wicked child’s poem about the Queen. I can’t remember the explanation, but I do remember the explanation for Ring-A-Ring O’ Roses, ‘…a pocketful of posies, ashes, ashes, they all fall down…’ and all that. That’s what I say in the song, because during the Plague, people would stick flowers in their shirts as the stench of the dead was everywhere. After the song was written, I knew people would think it was about Covid, so I wanted to give you the full dirt.” 

And what about Dogs Of Chernobyl? Did you see the war in Ukraine coming? 

“Believe it or not, it’s a love song,” says Dave. “I watched a movie about 10, 15 years ago. It was a really shitty B-movie sci-fi thing, and I think it was called Chernobyl [it’s Chernobyl Diaries – B-movie Ed]. These kids made a trip to Ukraine and went on this extreme vacation trip down to the reactor, and their car broke down. One of the things they talked about was that when everybody originally evacuated, they all just left their dogs. I just thought that was so fucked up. 

I’m sure a lot of people fled for their lives and then, after the fact, went, ‘Shit, I forgot the dog!’ so I’d like to think that several of those animals were accidentally left behind. But I used the dogs as a metaphor in a love song, and I talk about somebody who gets left behind. The woman leaves him and he’s just left like a dog in Chernobyl, and he’s like, ‘I don’t understand…’ because there’s no explanation.” 

As if to make sure that Dogs Of Chernobyl is one of the bleakest love songs ever written, the song’s final section features a detailed, disturbing invocation of the effects of radiation poisoning on Chernobyl’s population, written by the radiologist who oversaw Dave’s cancer treatment. 

“I said to him that I needed a couple of phrases and some information about the radiation poisoning when everybody got sick at Chernobyl, so he wrote this masterful piece for me and I used it in full.”


(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

Another reason that Dave Mustaine is in an excellent mood is, as he states more than once during our conversation, that the current Megadeth line-up is hitting heights that even he wasn’t expecting. He cites the recruitment of guitarist Kiko Loureiro and drummer Dirk Verbeuren (in 2015 and 2016 respectively) as a significant turning point, noting that both men are “such sweethearts” that the whole Megadeth machine has run much more smoothly since their arrival. 

He speaks about Dirk’s contribution to the new material with particular admiration, favourably comparing the Belgian to Gar Samuelson, the late, great drummer on the first two Megadeth albums, Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good and Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? But then, of course, there is what we feel duty-bound to refer to as the Ellefson in the room.

On The Sick, The Dying… And The Dead! bass duties are handled by legendary thrash icon Steve Di Giorgio. Megadeth have been touring with former bassist James LoMenzo; a few weeks after today’s chat, he’ll be confirmed as a full-time member again. 

These events transpired due to the sudden departure of David Ellefson in 2021. He was abruptly sacked from Megadeth after admitting to “four or five masturbating encounters” with a fan, ending a musical relationship that stretched back to the band’s original line-up, occasional fallings-out notwithstanding. Understandably, Dave is not especially keen on discussing his former bandmate’s misdemeanours, but losing a bandmember in the middle of sessions for the new album must have been, at best, a massive pain in the arse. 

“Well, we’ve had a lot of really big things happen in our camp over the last three years,” states Dave. “Ever since Kiko joined the band, things have really started to come together. So how much of a disruption was Dave leaving? All the parts were written, and when we were demoing up all of the songs, a lot of the stuff that Kiko turned in, he played the guitar, bass and drums on it. Same with Dirk. So a lot of the stuff didn’t need to have anyone else play. The same with the parts I did, when I submitted an idea. I’d put a simple bass line along with the song. So it wasn’t a problem.” 

It seemed to be a rosy reunion with Dave Ellefson for quite a few years. Was this a difficult decision to make as a result? 

“I have made mistakes myself and so I know what it feels like to have people gunning for you,” admits Dave. “But what we had to remember is that Megadeth has a lot of moving parts to it. There are four bandmembers, you’ve got their families, their management companies, the agencies, all of their technicians and on and on and on. I can tell you, I’ve made decisions in the past that were detrimental to the security of the band, and I know what harm that caused. But I don’t want to be saying anything about anyone who is unable to defend themselves. God, it’s so hard to tap-dance around this…”

At this point, Dave’s assistant interjects on our call and asks, very politely, if we could change the subject. Rather gallantly, Dave insists on completing his thoughts.

“I want to give you what you need, so I think if I can answer this real quick, we can move on. Let me just say this – it was a hard decision that had to be made. There were a lot of people involved and I had to make a decision, because unfortunately, when you’re the leader, you’re the one that has to suck it up and face the music. All I wanted to do was make a clean break, and not hurt anyone, not hurt the fans and not hurt him.

I just wanted to move on, and I hope the gentleman concerned is doing okay. I imagine there was some adjustment that had to take place when it happened. It was hard for me when I lost my job. But I’ve forgiven him before when he sued me [Ellefson filed a lawsuit against Mustaine in 2004, claiming that he was owed millions in outstanding royalties. The case was dismissed] and I’ll forgive him a thousand times. I just won’t play music with him anymore.”

Speaking of forgiveness, it was interesting to see In Flames sharing the bill with Megadeth on The Metal Tour Of The Year, given that ex-Megadeth man Chris Broderick is currently filling in as second guitarist for the Swedish crew.

“Well, yeah, In Flames have someone with them who famously left Megadeth and sent his letter of resignation publicly through the internet,” Dave says, with a mock heavy sigh. “But that’s all water under the bridge now, and I guess people have to do things the way that they best can handle things at the time. But that gives you an idea of how serious I am when it comes to forgiveness. I still think Chris is a terrific guitar player.”

There was a time in the not so recent past when Dave Mustaine was notorious for saying things that at least seemed designed to ruffle feathers and generate headlines. These days, he cuts a much more thoughtful, almost Zen-like figure, even though his music remains a reliable sledgehammer to the cranium. 

In fact, the stereotypical, cartoon version of Dave Mustaine that persists in heavy metal folklore is a rather lazy oversimplification. Yes, he does have an occasional penchant for paranoid conspiracy theories and yes, his politics at least appear to be consistently Republican-leaning. For example, he mentions in passing that he is on friendly terms with ‘pro-life’ Tennessee senator Marsha Blackburn. 

But then again, he’s also mates with Ice-T. The legendary LA rapper and metal frontman delivers a typically furious cameo on new album highlight Night Stalkers, further cementing a friendship that stretches back three decades. It’s an unlikely meeting of minds, and yet – given how fiercely individual and uncompromising both men have always been – it makes a strange kind of sense. 

“Yeah, it’s been about 30 years,” says Dave. “I like Ice a lot. I really admire what he’s done. He’s a talented person. The opportunities he was presented with, he made them work for him. He did what a lot of the artists from the cities, deep down in the cities, would do. He talked about the blight and the hardships and how they were going to make it, and that determination is always such a great motivator, whether you’re white or black. Listening to the music he makes, it’s still motivational. My favourite thing I heard him say, right in the beginning, was something like, ‘My mind’s a lethal weapon and I’m going down to the library to get some more ammo…’ That’s a great line, man.” 

As for Night Stalkers, Ice-T was the perfect choice for a song about high-tech helicopters in hostile territory, not least because the veteran rapper and TV actor served in the military in the late 70s. Charmingly, Dave is more interested in the Body Count frontman’s charitable efforts. 

“We just have a friendship that’s based on us being outspoken in our genres, and I think he’s done it with savoir-faire, and he’s really made a name for himself and opened a lot of doors for young black artists and actors. I love that. I love doing stuff like that myself. When we get the opportunity to help people, we do it. There is nothing I love more than having somebody who’s young and talented, and giving them something that can be applied in their career and their world, and help them to make a better life for themselves. I know that sounds kind of kooky, like a Coke commercial, but it’s true! Ha ha ha!” 

With songs such as vitriolic character assassination Killing Time (“It’s about someone specific,” says Dave, “but I’m not telling you who it is”) and a deeply gnarly bonus cover of Dead Kennedys’ Police Truck, the new Megadeth album has more than enough spikiness and snot to allay fears that Dave has turned into some kind of hippie. But equally, there is no getting around the fact that he seems to be mellowing, ever so slightly, as the years pass. 

“Am I mellowing? [long pause] Well, it depends, I guess. I’m still working hard, still doing martial arts. That’s not mellow by any means. It takes a lot of commitment. I’ve been doing jiu-jitsu for five years now. But the best thing I ever learned from martial arts was to walk the other way. If walking the other way doesn’t work? Run. I’ve walked away from more fights than I’ve been in, and I think that’s the best thing about it. You think, ‘Well, I know a bit of stuff, but how do I know what you know?’ Don’t raise your hands unless you need to. It’s simple really.” 

He shrugs, smiles, and leans back in his chair, hands behind his head. Dave Mustaine is in an excellent mood, and seems likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. As long as we’re not all swept away by a new plague, of course. 

“I’m excited now, probably more excited than I’ve been in a long time,” the frontman concludes. “There is a musical renaissance going on inside me. I feel strong. I don’t feel like I did when I was in my 20s, but for a 60-year-old guy with a broken neck who had cancer not long ago? I feel pretty fucking good.”

The Sick, The Dying... And The Dead! is due September 2

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.