“Vultures were on the bedpost. It was a dark road and I was losing my lust for life”: Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine is metal’s great survivor

Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine in close up in 2007
(Image credit: Press)

Having successfully battled drug addiction, endured countless line-up changes and been embroiled in an on-off feud with former bandmates Metallica, Megadeth leader Dave Mustaine is one of metal’s great survivors. In 2007, as the band released their 11th studio album, United Abominations, he told Metal Hammer about his recent health problems, his view of Satanic metal band and why the door wasn’t completely closed for former bandmate turned antagonist David Ellefson.  

Interviewing Dave Mustaine used to fill even the most hardened music writer with dread. Sharp of tongue, mentally agile and fiery of temperament, and still with a gigantic chip on his shoulder after being sacked by Metallica, Mustaine is a human quote machine. When Hammer last met him three years ago, Dave had re-taught himself to play guitar again after damaging his arm during a stint in rehab, revived the name of Megadeth for the The System Has Failed album and was recovering from being ‘duped’ (his words) into appearing in Metallica’s astonishingly candid Some Kind Of Monster documentary.

“I actually had aspirations to play with those guys again one day,” he confided sadly. “Now I don’t ever care if I fucking see Lars Ulrich’s face again – that was the final betrayal.”

With a court showdown looming, vitriol was also ladled upon David Ellefson, the bassist with whom he formed the band in 1983 and who had acrimoniously left the band in 2002. “Fuck Ellefson,” seethed Dave. “He’s been a professional ass-licker for his whole career.”

And yet signs suggested the icy persona was thawing. Asked if he feared his arm injury preventing him from wanking again, the Californian-born guitarist/singer exclaimed: “You’re kidding? I’m right-handed, but I’d have found a way to jerk off with my feet. Or tie a sock around the doorknob.”

The Mustaine that greets Hammer today seems preserved by the same ‘suspended state of cryogenics’ that he sang about almost two decades ago in Hangar 18. The physique remains wiry and the famous hair is long and only slightly less flame-red. But something’s changed. Snarls have been replaced by smiles, and our conversation is peppered by laughter.

The knowledge that Megadeth – completed for this past year by guitarist Glen Drover, ex-Ozzy/White Lion bassist James LoMenzo and drummer Shawn Drover – are back on track is a definite plus. Their first album for new home Roadrunner Records, United Abominations, to be frank, pisses all over 2004’s The System Has Failed and its 2001 predecessor The World Needs A Hero from a great height. Its precision riffs, razor-sharp shredding and topical subject matter are perfectly timed for a sea of younger fans that are latching onto warriors like Trivium, DragonForce and HammerFall. With nu-metal dead and buried – “You said that, not me,” chuckles Dave, “I never even gave a shit about nu-metal” – is Mustaine back to restore glory to a genre that detractors have unfairly written off?

“That wasn’t my goal, but maybe so,” he affirms. “I played a large part in the origins of metal, I don’t see why that role shouldn’t continue. ‘United Abominations’ takes me back to a time when there was nothing wrong with the scene. It needed an old-school record like this. I believe I have delivered.”

Megadeth posed for an indoor photo shoot in 2007

Megadeth in 2007: (from left) James LoMenzo, Dave Mustaine, Shawn Drover and Glen Drover (Image credit: Press)

Fair comment. But let’s not forget how badly Megadeth lost contact with their roots, not just with …Hero and …System… but through courting MTV during the 90s. With record sales going through the roof, they even received a Grammy nomination for Trust from 1997’s Cryptic Writings album. But Mustaine knew all too well that he sacrificed his credibility with Crush ‘Em, from 1999’s critically-panned Risk album. Mildly speaking, it was a cheesy anthem that was embraced by American sports fans after appearing on the Universal Soldier 2 soundtrack. “I dry-heaved outside my studio after recording that song,” he later admitted. “I crossed a line that I’d never return back over”.

That was then, this is now. “My manager at the time pressurised me into that song,” he says, apologising for Crush ‘Em. “I surrendered some control and although the song served its purpose, I knew I’d take a hit for writing something that commercial. It gave me a peek into a world that I knew I didn’t belong in. I’m a metal kid – okay, an old metal kid,” he splutters with laughter, “but a metal kid anyway.”

Megadeth’s reinvention is due in part to a conversation that Mustaine had in a Japanese nightclub with Anthrax bassist Frank Bello. “Frankie really inspired me,” he confides. “He said, ‘Dave, it’s time for you to get pissed off and write some angry shit again’. There was some truth in that.”

Being on a credible label like Roadrunner these days is another enormous plus-point, though the relationship hardly got off to the greatest start. Mustaine concedes partial truth in a rumour that the label turned down a first version of the album on the grounds that it wasn’t heavy enough. “They heard it before it was finished,” he explains patiently. “There were no solos or vocals. So, yeah, they were unhappy with that they heard, but it was basically a demo.”

Hailed by this very magazine as “a scintillating, kick-arse heavy metal record,” and, “the heaviest that Megadeth have sounded in over a decade”, United Ambominations was cut in Los Angeles and at Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s medieval farmhouse in the UK where it was produced by Mustaine, with assistance from long-time band associate Jeff Balding, and mixed by Andy Sneap at his Backstage Studios in Derbyshire. Gilmour’s home is said to be haunted, and seeing a spiritual apparition terrified Balding’s wife. Mustaine went to hospital for kidney stones twice and broke his foot after tripping over on the same spot three times.

“I don’t believe in ghosts, but the world has its dark side. The sessions were weird in many ways,” grimaces Dave at the memory. “I injured my leg in the dark on a cobblestone pathway from the studio to the house and the hospital wouldn’t even give me a cast. What kind of a country wouldn’t do that for you? Oh okay, we’re in England.”

There was also emotional pain as he temporarily split up with Pam, his wife of more than 15 years and mother to his sons Justis and Roman and daughter Electra. Proof that this situation is resolved lies in the fact that his family occupy the next room, but it was serious. Dave won’t spill the beans completely on what occurred, but confirms, “vultures were on the bedpost and we became separated. I was headed for divorce. It was a dark road and I was losing my lust for life.”

The contribution of Sneap, the former Sabbat axeman who’s worked with Killswitch Engage, Trivium, Arch Enemy and Opeth among many more, helped to pull the project through. “I’ve immense respect for Andy, and it was useful to have the opinions of another guitar player,” enthuses Mustaine. “Besides being English and not having a sense of humour, he’s young and extremely professional. He’s got a long career ahead of him.”

As well as rekindling the musical fire of the early Megadeth albums, United Abominations offers some political viewpoints as well, something that dates back to the Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? and Countdown To Extinction albums in 1986 and 1992, and Dave’s spot covering the same Democratic National Convention for MTV News, also in ’92. Amerikhastan, for instance, reveals his scathing take on his homeland’s invasion on Iraq. Was he opposed to the Gulf War from the start, or frustrated by the disastrous way it turned out?

“I’m not against the war, I fully support our troops and those from your country for being there and doing their jobs, it’s the way the conflict has been handled that saddens me,” he clarifies. “I’m confounded by the loss of human life. And you know the real problem? The job was left undone by the first Gulf War [in 1991]. The enemy should have been completely destroyed but it wasn’t, so this is all about cleaning up that mess.”

Hammer wonders aloud whether it’s even the place of rock music to offer opinions on such a controversial and important issue. Mustaine’s eyes narrow for a moment and then, thankfully, he laughs….

Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine playing guitar onstage in 2007

(Image credit: Larry Marano/Getty Images)

“I’ve never told anyone who to vote for,” he protests. “But I’m not one of those guys that wears a t-shirt saying ‘Bush sucks’. I actually got involved with the Democratic National Convention. I’ve been to the White House, I’ve shaken the President [Bill Clinton]’s hand, I’ve been involved in legislation that’s become law. So it disappoints me to hear musicians involving themselves in politics when they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. When you’re young you sometimes say what’s popular and not what’s true. You just don’t realise the effect that it can have on developing minds.”

Whoah, back up a second there, which law did you play in a role in passing?

“In 1993, Michael Stipe [of REM], Dwight Yoakam [country-rock musician] and myself were among a group that promoted the Motor Voter Law. You go to get your drivers’ licence and you’re asked to register to vote. When I got my Californian drivers’ license recently the bottom the form said, ‘Do you want to register to vote?’ and I thought, ‘Son of a bitch, that’s me!’ It’s very cool.”

On a lighter note, Blessed Are The Dead was inspired by The bible’s Book Of Revelations. Mustaine has also hooked in Lacuna Coil’s Cristina Scabbia to re-record A Tout Le Monde, a song from 1994’s Youthanasia album, as a duet, extending the title to A Tout Le Monde (Set Me Free). Intriguingly, Scabbia stepped in after an arrangement with Elvis Presley’s troubled daughter and former wife of Michael Jackson, Lisa Marie Presley, was canned.

“She was literally getting onto the plane,” reveals Dave. “I felt awkward about it, but I’ve got a bad enough reputation and so has she. Cristina is the best of all the female singers around at the moment and I hope it helps her band’s career.

“That song was never respected by the record company [Capitol], or by anyone except myself at the fans,” he continues. “Being one of my most beautiful songs, I thought it deserved a better chance before I went into retirement.”

Dave’s joking, of course. Or is he? Another interview quoted him as saying that United Abominations is his ‘last real shot at achieving anything significant.’

“It was a joke,” sighs Dave, unable to hide his frustration. “I’m sitting here being sarcastic with you, and you’re getting it. That guy obviously didn’t. I mean, what do I have left to do that’s significant? I’ve done just about everything in my life.”

And yet, he doesn’t deny that stenosis, a nerve disorder in his back, is making it tougher than ever for him to play.

“It’s a bummer, but I don’t want to worry about that right now,” he says dismissively. “I’m a tough guy. I’ve got two black belts in karate.”

Mustaine won’t appreciate Hammer pointing it out, but he turns 46 in September 2007. The issues with his arm might have forced him to pull the plug on the band five years ago, but metal is the prime focus of his life once again. So, is Megadeth the one drug that he cannot give up?

“Oh, there’s harder, far more addictive drugs,” he smirks. “I experienced real decadence with Gar [Samuelson, the band’s late original drummer] and Chris [Poland, former guitarist] in the 80s. Pills and heroin were hard to kick, so was being addicted to cocaine.”

Cognac-guzzling long behind him, the only alcohol that Dave touches now is the occasional pint of Guinness and some red wine. “You’re right, Megadeth has become my only drug,” he nods. “But when my life changed for the better six years ago, it left me with everything I need.”

He refers, of course, to discovering Christianity. 

“After being baptised as Lutheran and brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness, then getting into witchcraft, black magick and Satanism, where else do you go?” he chuckles. “One day I found myself looking at a cross and decided I had nothing to lose. And so far my life has been profoundly different. In what way? Well, before when I got pissed off I’d assault people. Now I go, ‘Grrrrr’ and keep it inside,” he growls, sounding like someone squeezing out a particularly nasty turd.

Despite the above, threatening to pull out of a 2005 festival in Athens unless local band Rotting Christ were kicked off the bill seemed rather petty. “I have my faith and my health, and I won’t play with Satanic bands,” he insists.

But it’s just a name, Rotting Christ aren’t anywhere near Satanic.

“I don’t care. I have my standards. What they call themselves is offensive to me.”

As guiding light of Gigantour, which rolled across America in 2005 and 2006 and resumes again in 2008, Mustaine acknowledges extra responsibility. Pointedly, unlike certain other festivals, he selects bands with high levels of musicianship and integrity – try Dream Theater, Opeth, Arch Enemy, Anthrax, Dillinger Escape Plan, Lamb Of God and Symphony X – to join Megadeth on the bill. 

“I don’t see myself as a patriarch, though I guess I might be one,” he considers. “I wanted to keep the tickets very affordable, but to put on a festival that was all about playing and listening to the metal that we all grew up loving.”

But call him ‘respectable’ at your own risk.

“I’m definitely not corporate,” he protests. “Being the good guy is fun, but you never know when the villain inside will burst out again. Put it this way: People that deserve black eyes still get them.”

Megadeth posed for an indoor photo shoot in 2007

(Image credit: Press)

At the time of writing, Megadeth are special guests on a US tour headlined by Heaven And Hell, the Ronnie James Dio-fronted Black Sabbath line-up (Down open the bill each night). A few days earlier, Mustaine’s old sparring partners Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield had made headlines by dropping by to see the trek’s stop-off at the Forum in Los Angeles.

“I drove straight home after our set and didn’t see them. I didn’t even know they’d attended till a few days later,” he shrugs dismissively. “There wasn’t some sort of homing mechanism pulling me towards them.”

However, somewhat surprisingly, Mustaine does reveal that he’s received Christmas cards from Hetfield, a man who he punched in the eye to instigate his dismissal from the band. “I tried to respond but they came from a Post Office box,” he chuckles, mischievously blowing a raspberry.

If Mustaine sounds marginally more conciliatory towards his former band-mates, this is reflected in a statement he made in late 2002. After hosting a Headbangers Ball tribute to Dimebag Darrell Abbott, Mustaine posted an emotional web statement, vowing to try to be more like the fallen Pantera/Damageplan star, promising to put feuds with Metallica and Slayer behind him.

“You know what? I think I’ve achieved that,” he maintains. “I don’t search the web to see if anyone’s fanning the flames. They’re so far off my radar, I really don’t care anymore.”

Dave won’t comment about his his ex-bandmates using producer Rick Rubin to claw back a little of their long-lost credibility, but out of the blue he volunteers: “I’d love Metallica to appear on Gigantour some day. Obviously, some discussion would be necessary. Iron Maiden would be welcome, too. Dave doesn’t have to be on Gigantour for it to be Gigantour.”

Mustaine even extends an olive branch to the aforementioned “professional ass-licker”, David Ellefson [who would rejoin Megadeth 2010, three years after this interview, before being fired again in 2021], revealing that while he “soundly beat” the ex-bassist in a lawsuit, he drew a line.

“Ellefson aired dirty laundry that was never supposed to be talked about,” he sighs. “I could have taken his houses and destroyed him. But I hugged him and said, ‘I forgive you’. I’ll be wearing galvanised underwear next time we meet, but what was to gain from putting my ex-friend on the street?”

Spoken like a true Christian.

Originally published in Metal Hammer 167

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.