Megadeth: Meet The Real Dave Mustaine

It’s a hot autumn day in San Marcos, California, and Metal Hammer has just been welcomed into Megadeth’s rarely seen inner sanctum, Vic’s Garage. Set in a necessarily anonymous industrial unit complex, this is where the band rehearse, record, store their gear, edit both music and video content and, perhaps most importantly, hang out together. The walls are decorated with a seemingly endless supply of silver, gold and platinum discs commemorating the huge sales that Megadeth have notched up over nearly 30 years.

Elsewhere, all of the band’s 12 studio albums to date are celebrated with vast canvas reproductions of their artwork, while huge portraits of the current lineup – Dave Mustaine, bassist David Ellefson, guitarist Chris Broderick and drummer Shawn Drover – peer benevolently down from the walls onto a spacious rehearsal area and storage warehouse floor. In another room, a tasteful tribute to Dave’s early days with Metallica hangs on the wall, replete with gold discs for Kill ’Em All and Ride The Lightning (both of which featured many Mustaine-penned riffs, of course); in another, several of his guitars sit on stands, exuding as much charisma as inanimate objects can muster. As Dave leans forward from his seat and pulls down the neck of his t-shirt, revealing a very small and neat scar on his chest – evidence of the neck surgery that he underwent less than a month ago – a vast HD TV showing Fox News burbles brightly and tetchily away, as the faint sound of Dave’s son Justis checking out a track from Metallica and Lou Reed’s new album wafts through from another room. Professionalism be damned: we’re in the heart of Megadeth’s world and it’s fucking awesome.

“The scar’s there,” beams Dave, pointing to the tiny mark. “Small, huh? It’s right in where there’s a crease in my skin and hair grows there, so no one’s gonna see it. They did a great job.”

He sits back, wincing and looking slightly stiff. Hardly surprising, considering that a few weeks ago he was in excruciating pain, as a loose chip of bone from one of his vertebrae wreaked havoc as it floated around in his neck, jarring against his spine and, at one point, reducing him to a tearful wreck, unable to walk and in need of substantial pain relief. This all happened a mere few days before Megadeth were to join Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer at Yankee Stadium for what was billed as the Big Four show to (in theory at least) end them all; a majestic seven-hour spectacle to celebrate their collective achievements and noisily repay their US fans.

Suddenly struck down by his injury, Dave initially made the extremely hard decision to cancel his band’s appearance. Bay Area legends Exodus – whose guitarist Gary Holt was already standing in for Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman for the Big Four US run – were swiftly drafted in as a last-minute replacement. Meanwhile a long-time acquaintance of the band, that Dave is graciously unwilling to name, made disparaging remarks on the internet about Megadeth’s decision to forego performing, implying that something other than a physical ailment was behind it all. Already in pain, Dave found this needless side-swipe hard to stomach…

“It wasn’t like I wasn’t able to go and then I was OK and was able to go,” Dave frowns. “I wasn’t able to go at all! They said, ‘You need surgery now!’ It’s no different than if I got hit by a car and was hospitalised. I was hospitalised and I thought about it and I thought, ‘You know what? I’m gonna go out there and I’m gonna play and then I’m going to get the surgery!’ It had nothing to do with being dependable or being a good businessman. It was just the right thing to do. But you learn who your real friends are in situations like that. I won’t forget what was said and who said it. I’m not gonna do anything about it, but I won’t forget!”

One suspects that Dave rarely forgets anything. Over his career as leader of one of metal’s most revered and consistent bands, he’s experienced so many ups and downs and lived through so much turbulence that it’s almost impossible to imagine a situation that he could encounter that doesn’t remind him in some small way about the past. In fact, the last few years have shown exactly how important the past is to this multi-million-selling metal legend. From performing the classic Rust In Peace in its entirety around the world and remixing and re-releasing Megadeth’s second album Peace Sells! But Who’s Buying? to commemorate its 25th anniversary in 2011 to the publication of his autobiography, Mustaine: A Life In Metal, in 2010 and those extraordinary first few Big Four festival appearances that same summer, Dave has spent a lot of time in recent years revisiting or reliving the past. With that in mind, it should have surprised no one that the new Megadeth album, Th1rt3en, featured no fewer than four songs that had been recorded and released before, albeit in entirely different incarnations. Could it be that reminiscing had led Dave to reappraise the past and embrace it with newfound enthusiasm?

“That’s a good point and I really don’t know,” he says. “It must have some kind of influence on it, because everything happens for a reason and I know that hanging out with my friends and stuff has been good for me for keeping things in perspective. Because when you’re by yourself a lot of the time, you tend to isolate and forget certain things. When we were on tour with Slayer, that was fun and it kinda set the wheels in motion for the Big Four. By the time that happened, we were all kissing cousins and swapping Christmas cards again; it was really great stuff. I’m excited that it all happened like that. When I see the Metallica guys now, we’re still close. We get together and talk when we can, and it’s still hard, I know, because of the emotional stuff that took place. When you know that people have said stuff, there’s still that leery thing in the back of your mind and I know those guys still have that protective kind of distance thing too, but that’s cool!”

While there’s no denying that both Dave and Metallica have added fuel to the fire over the years, the media have been consistently culpable when it comes to fostering conflict between the two camps, not least because the mythology of the two bands has always thrived and grown as a result. What’s interesting is that it is Metallica, by far the most commercially successful of the two, who have struggled creatively over the last 20 years. The odd mis-step aside (and even bits of Risk are killer!), Megadeth had stayed true to metal and rarely released anything that pointed to a lack of focus or direction. Did Dave think that he had somehow benefited from never quite having reached the insane level of success that Metallica achieved with The Black Album? Could failing to be fully assimilated into the mainstream prevent a band from losing their way?

“Part of me would’ve liked that success,” he smiles. “The little boy inside me that wants to be famous, the boy that sits with his guitar and plays into the mirror, you know? I want to be big, but how big is big? When you’ve played Yankee Stadium, what’s next? Skylab? The fuckin’ moon? ‘Hey Dave, we’ve got a gig! It’s a little far away!’ Ha ha! But I look at what we’ve accomplished and we’ve done a lot of really great things. There are a lot of things that make people feel value. I don’t want my worth, my esteem and my value to come from being in a band. I want that to come from things that I’ve done and things that I’ve left behind and the way that I’ve been a husband and a dad and a friend.”

In stark contrast to the standard, clichéd view of Dave – that, despite his now drug-free existence and Christian beliefs, he was still an obstreperous asshole at heart – 2011 found the frontman in a positive frame of mind. With certain demons now exorcised, friendships repaired and past misdemeanours atoned for, at least in terms of old allegiances that clearly meant the world to him, he was now eager to lead a positive, morally forthright existence. While still exasperated by world events, he seemed to have found a way to contribute without necessarily bellowing enraged dogma from his onstage soapbox!

“Last night I was at an outreach for an orphanage in South Africa,” he explains. “I donated one of my guitars a few years ago and they sold it in an auction and they were able to buy this oven for this soup kitchen. That makes me feel good. Not just walking around saying, ‘I’m a badass guitar player!’ but using the gift that I’ve been given to be able to help other people. The concerts are my work and I love doing them, but after a while it’s another day in the office. When you find out that you’ve auctioned a guitar and someone’s able to buy a stove that makes 1,500 loaves of bread a day, man, that’s amazing. I’ll keep doing it as long as I can help people that, but for the grace of god, could’ve been me. Me and Dave [Ellefson] were both homeless. I know what it’s like when your stomach’s been empty for a few days.”

The recent 25th anniversary remix and re-release of Peace Sells! must’ve brought a few memories flooding back for Dave, not least thoughts of the times when his band was plagued with drug problems, homelessness and a general state of turmoil that could easily have put a swift end to his artistic ambitions. Instead, of course, Dave proved himself to be made of sterner stuff and never really looked back. Maybe it was necessary to endure those hardships to become sufficiently tough and resourceful for the long, hard road ahead?

“It was, but it also dulled my senses a little when it came to relationships,” he admits. “You might be thinking you’re sharp on the outside, but inside where it matters most, in the area of the heart, you need those key friendships, your best friend, your girlfriend or your wife. A few years ago I came home and I didn’t know who to call. I came home from tour, everyone went off to their different corners and I was in my house, my kids were at school and my wife’s out doing something, and I’m just sitting there thinking, ‘Who do I call? I’ve a lot of acquaintances, fans and people who work for me, but do I have a real friend?’ It was weird to even have to think like that. This year has been really interesting for me because I’ve met a couple of people that have really helped me to take a good look at where I’m at right now and I’m much more appreciative of what’s going on.”

During our conversation, Dave talks a lot about seeing things as they really are and not being distracted by other people’s agendas. You might describe him as being a little paranoid, but the truth is that Dave is nearly always brutally honest about how he sees the world and there’s a sense that he feels genuine dismay and disappointment when he finds that people around him aren’t repaying the favour by being honest back. You don’t survive in the music industry by chance. Knowledge is power, Dave avows, and the best way to steer a clear course through life is to pay attention to everything that happens around you.

“When the curtain is drawn back and you see behind it, ” he notes, “that happens for a reason and if you don’t look at those things, you’re missing out. There’s a Jean-Claude Van Damme film called Kickboxer. There’s a little scene at the end. Jean-Claude’s had his ribs broken by somebody and he’s fighting Tong Po, a black guy they’ve made to look Chinese or something. It’s pretty corny, but anyway, Tong Po kicks Van Damme in his side and he pulls this really dramatic face, right? Tong Po goes [raises eyebrows] ‘Aahhh!’, like he saw Jean-Claude’s weakness and he saw that it was his ribs and he knew how he was gonna take him out… until the great heroic ending when Jean-Claude wins, obviously! But when you see something like that and something is revealed to you and you don’t take notice of it? You’re crazy.”

The most powerful message that comes across during Dave’s autobiography (a must-read, incidentally) is that he’s now at peace with the setbacks and conflicts that occasionally threatened to derail his career. Certain things still rankle, of course (“With the Metallica story, there’s my side of it, their side and then there’s the truth!” he grins) but in stark contrast to the often obnoxious, embittered ball of fury of Megadeth’s first two decades, the Dave Mustaine of 2011 seems reassuringly happy with the way life has turned out.

“I really enjoy all the stuff that’s happened,” he smiles. “Looking back at my career it’s either, ‘Can you believe we went through all that?’ or it’s, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we did that!’ I like to look at all the things I’ve accomplished, like the book. Last night I was talking to this guy who’s a big DJ in town and he was talking about doing his book and he said, ‘You thought about doing a book yet?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, my book’s a New York Times bestseller!’ It was so flattering for me to be able to say that. I got an F for English in school, so to be able to say I’m a New York Times best-selling author? That’s an incredible feeling. I talked to this guy and it was cool to be able to share.”

After a wander around Vic’s Garage and a sneak preview of the new Megadeth video for Public Enemy No.1 (which is fucking hilarious), we leave San Marcos and head up into the San Diego hills to a gated community for the pretty-damn-rich. This is where Dave lives with his family – wife Pamela, son Justis and daughter Electra – in a French chateau-style mansion that is currently worth the best part of $2m. Set on three acres of land and replete with a stunning view across to the coast, it’s a beautiful house and every inch the rock-star residence that you might expect someone who has sold as many albums as Dave has would live. There are numerous expensive cars on the drive, including Dave’s Aston Martin and his wife’s Bentley, and a miniature horse, Rocky, living at the bottom of the expansive garden. Dave gives us the guided tour, both inside and outside the house, and regales us with information about the manufacturing process for his swanky Egyptian tiles and how his favourite inanimate possession is his shuffleboard table (“It’s a great beer-drinking game!” he beams) before offering everyone a drink and, after some cajoling, posing for photos with his ludicrously cute (and not very metal) dog Gunnar. Outside in the garden again, he points to a smart, painted wooden aviary that once housed his daughter’s pet hens!

“A hawk came down and took one of the chickens,” Dave recalls. “My daughter was traumatised. She watched as this hawk slowly disembowelled the bird in front of her, up there in that tree. That’s when I decided it was time to get a gun. Wild coyotes come into the garden and chase our dogs sometimes, so now, if anything comes in to the garden and we don’t feel safe, I shoot it. You can sue me for it if you want, but if it’s a choice between my family and a coyote, I’m firing my gun.”

Despite the need for weaponry, it’s obvious that Dave relished home life and the stability it brought away from the chaotic and uncertain music world. Looking back on the recent past, it’s clear that Megadeth had been on fine form since 2007’s United Abominations; the moment when the revolving-door personnel issues that affected earlier albums like 2001’s The World Needs A Hero and 2004’s The System Has Failed began to recede and a newfound sense of focus took over.

The follow-up to 2009’s monstrous and rightfully acclaimed Endgame, Th1rt3en is the first Megadeth album to feature the line-up of Mustaine, Ellefson, Broderick and Drover and, in many ways, the most focused and potent album the band had made since Countdown To Extinction in 1992. A tranquil and comfortable home life certainly had some impact on Dave’s revitalised creativity, but were there any other specific reasons why Megadeth seemed to be enjoying such a self-evident purple? Dave took a seat and pondered the question.

“I don’t know if there was any one thing that turned us around,” he shrugs. “We got to Cryptic Writings and I had no idea what was going to happen. Trust was the number one song in America, we had five top five singles on that record. Countdown was a double platinum record and Cryptic got us our elusive number one, so there didn’t seem to be any sign of stopping! But then we made Risk and Nick Menza [Megadeth drummer 1989 – 1998] crashes and burns and we end up getting Jimmy DeGrasso [drummer on Risk and The World Needs A Hero].

“The bummer was that Jimmy just wasn’t right for this band. Nothing after that line-up was right until this line-up [the original Megadeth line-up is pictured below]. Everything else was musical chairs. Not taking anything away from DeGrasso or Al Pitrelli [guitarist on The World Needs A Hero] or Glenn or James Lomenzo [bassist on United Abominations and Endgame]. They were all good guys and they helped for a while, but I was lost at that time, as everybody was. The music business had imploded.”

Megadeth seemed to survive the 90s fairly well, though. Risk polarised opinion, of course, but it seems more like a temporary blip than an outright disaster. How did it feel from your perspective?

“Well, these days no one remembers about nu-metal – all that shit that was out!” Dave grimaces. “No guitar solos! Everyone played with their pants down round their ankles, y’know? Most people in the music business, when something like that happens they’re dead. They don’t have the capacity to reinvent themselves and if they do reinvent themselves and it doesn’t work they don’t have the catalogue to rely on to pull them through. It was a bleak period, but we came through it and now we’re in a really good place. Chris is the guitar player and Shawn is the drummer that if I’d got them in the first line-up with Junior [David Ellefson], it would never have changed. Well, besides the fact that Chris would’ve been about eight at the time! Ha ha ha!”

You’ve stated before that when you first saw Chris play guitar, you were stunned and realised that you had to step your game up!

“Yeah, and I did that with Marty too,” Dave nods. “When we made Rust In Peace, Marty came in and I went and bought heroin because I was so blown away. When you haven’t done it for a while and then you do it again, it’s like walking across the bridge over a low river of shit and you’ve fallen off the bridge, so now you’ve got to tell everybody that you really haven’t fallen off but it’s undeniable because there’s shit everywhere! I was awestruck with Marty’s ability to play.

“It will always perplex me, when everything’s said and done, that a guy at the height of his powers and in his heyday wanted to go and do pop music with a Japanese chick! But he’s happy now and I’m happy for him. I wish it had happened differently because it would’ve been great to go straight from Marty to Chris. Those lineup changes are hard on you. You go through breaking a person in with all the new songs and you talk through the history of the band and things we like to do and some things we don’t like to do and what teams we support and what teams we don’t!”

And which teams do you support?

“Shawn likes the Steelers and I absolutely hate that team! Well, I don’t hate that team, but I basically hate all NFL teams now because they all have long hair and that’s stupid. Their hair goes down their back. The first guy who did it from the Steelers, Shawn’s team, said that he was from a Polynesian island and that it’s his religion and that’s cool, but you see white dudes with long hair and they say it’s their religion? No, it’s not. Go and cut your hair! For me, I like athletes that look like athletes. As soon as they miss a play, I’m like [shouts angrily] ‘It’s because you’ve got your fuckin’ hair in your eyes!’ Ha ha ha!”

A fully united, all-for-one band for the first time in over a decade, Megadeth have rarely sounded as vital and forceful as they do on Th1rt3en. Admittedly, this is not an album that relies heavily on the technical dexterity and structural complexity that made Endgame such an unparalleled joy, but there is a real sense of urgency and untrammelled aggression that shines through on the pounding, hook-laden likes of Public Enemy No.1, Whose Life (Is It Anyways?) and New Fast Lane that marks this as one of the best things the band have done since their early 90s glory days. The production is gloriously concise and destructive too, courtesy of renowned studio guru Johnny K who’s worked with Machine Head, Disturbed and Sevendust in the past.

“We talked about having Andy Sneap do this record and he did the original version of Sudden Death [the first new Megadeth recording in over a decade to feature David Ellefson; originally released in 2010 for the Guitar Hero videogame] but he wasn’t available for the timeframe that we were available,” Dave states. “We were only available for two months. He’s a great guy and would’ve dropped some of what he was doing for us, but we couldn’t ask him to drop everything. I thank him for everything he did to help us to get to where we are now. David Ellefson said, ‘You should use Johnny K!’ I didn’t know who Johnny K was, so going into the studio with him was almost as much about getting to know the guy as it was getting to know how to work with the guy. It worked out great, though.”

As with United Abominations, which featured a re-recorded version of Tout Le Monde, Th1rt3en is not entirely built from brand new material. Four tracks on the album have been recorded previously, albeit in a notably different form, including album opener Sudden Death and Black Swan, a song that was originally given to Megadeth fan club members back in 2007.

“The song selection that we had before we started was met with a little resistance from people outside the band because they wanted us to write a whole new record,” Dave explains. “I said, ‘Let me tell you something! New World Order’s never been released properly, so record it right and sing it right and play it right, it’s gonna sound good, trust me!’ Millennium Of The Blind was never really finished either. Again, I said, ‘If it’s done right and finished right, you will be very happy with it!’

“Black Swan was not finished and it was never released commercially. It was given to people who bought our record in advance through our fan club. So if even 300 people have it, I’d be surprised! So we went back and redid it. Then there was Sudden Death, which needed to be redone so that it matched with the rest of the material.”

Although it’s clearly a very contemporary record in sonic terms, parts of Th1rt3en seem to hark back to the Countdown/Youthanasia era. Was that intentional? Did you consciously draw inspiration from that era?

“I think that there’s a certain energy there that’s not really prevalent with a lot of young bands or current bands right now,” Dave says. “Listening to this record I hear a lot of that sound and energy that was really quite magical back then. Not that what we did was particularly magical, but there’s a certain listenability to some records and for other records it’s really quite a chore to get through it and you’ll find yourself hitting the fast-forward button. I’m glad that this isn’t a record like that.

“I had it playing over and over in the background this morning and there wasn’t a moment when I didn’t like what was playing. That’s a really good thing for me. I heard an artist that I looked up to a long time ago say that he can’t listen to his first records unless he’s drunk and I thought, ‘That’s a shame!’ I can listen to my first records drunk or sober, you know? I’m proud of all that stuff.”

One of the obvious highlights on an album that bulges with great songs and thrilling moments, Th1rt3en’s title track is one of the most thoughtful and emotionally charged songs in Megadeth history; a reflective and sober piece of soul-bearing intensity, it’s the kind of idiosyncratic dark ballad that only Dave Mustaine seems able to write. It also brings the album to a suitably thunderous conclusion and, with a mischievous flourish, poses more questions than it answers, principal among them being: what is the significance of the number 13?

“Well, I was born on September 13th, I started playing when I was 13 and this is our 13th record,” he says. “Then there’s 13 in so many other incidences that turn up in life, like Jesus and the disciples and in our politicking there’s this super-committee that’s six people from each party and the President, and on the $1 bill there’s all these levels of 13, like 13 arrows, 13 stars, 13 steps and so on. Most people think that 13’s a bad number, but I don’t think it’s a bad number at all. There’s supposed to be 13 lunar cycles, not the 12 that we observe, which is really interesting. There’s a lot of 13s.”

People associate 13 with notions of luck, either good or bad, so do you believe in luck?

“Nah, luck to me is not having faith,” says Dave. “I totally have faith in where I’m going right now and what I’m doing, and I think luck kinda leaves things open to chance and I know exactly what I’m doing right now. As you get a little further on in life, you change a little bit. I was thinking the other day about some comments I’ve read about how I’m not writing the same angry material anymore. Well, the stuff that pissed me off when I was in my 20s doesn’t piss me off now I’m 50, I’m sorry! Right now, all I’m concerned with is not having my beard going grey!”

You’ve stated in the past that when Megadeth began you were motivated by anger and clearly you’re not that angry young man anymore, but this album still has a lot of fire in its belly. So what motivates you now and where does that fire come from? You can’t fake that, can you?

“I still think there’s a lot of things that may not affect me now that I’m this age, but they still affect my fans and my children. As I get older, I look at some of these things and yeah, it makes me angry. I saw something on the news just now. Some woman stopped a bus and walked to the back of the bus and made a mom and her kid get off the bus because the kid was crying, now that fuckin’ pisses me off a lot, because you can clearly see from the tape that the mom’s having problems and she’s trying to quieten the baby and none of the passengers are looking back at her, so it’s not bothering them. So the woman walks to the back and kicks them off, and the woman says she’s gonna sue and I think rightly so! You should sue. And the woman who did that? They should chop her uterus out! [long pause] Not really, but it sounded like something I’d say, right? Ha ha ha!”

Times change and Dave Mustaine was changing too. He was still a spiky, cantankerous bastard and you can hear that in every riff, solo and invective-laced lyric on Th1rt3en, but even though you definitely wouldn’t want to piss him off, he was also one of the most engaging and likeable people in metal. He was also one of the few musicians from his generation that knew exactly what metal was supposed to sound like in 2011. And if being a spiky, cantankerous bastard is one of the main reasons that Th1rt3en wiped the floor with the majority of the competition that year, then let’s hope that he never completely lightens up or stops flooring the accelerator in his Aston Martin to career headlong against the grain.

“People ask me to do stuff and I’ll say, ‘No, I can’t do that!’ and instead of saying, ‘He couldn’t do it,’ they’ll say, ‘No, he’s a dick!’” he states with a dismissive shrug. “Because that’s the easiest thing to say, right? The easiest thing to say about Dave Mustaine is that he’s loaded, he’s drunk, he’s an alcoholic, he’s mean or whatever. Dude, let me tell you, if I was an alcoholic there’d be a beer there right now, instead of a Coke and a water! If I was really mean like I used to be, our friendship would never have taken place and if I was a drug addict like people think I am, there wouldn’t even be a point in us doing this interview! I’m just doing my job, man. Give me a break! Ha ha ha!”

Megadeth released the album Countdown To Extinction on July 14, 1992

What’s going on with the new Megadeth album? Find out here

Read a classic interview with Dave Mustaine here

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.