Dave Mustaine is having a ‘moment’. No surprise, you might think, for a man whose reputation has been at least partially founded on his in-built reluctance to keep his gob shut even when it might have been a better idea to close his eyes, take a deep breath and count to 10.
But this is different. There’s no tantrums, no verbal flame-throwing, no crackpot conspiracy theorising. Nope, this is something altogether more unexpected. Megadeth’s frontman appears to be going through a mini mid-life crisis.
“There have been days when I’ve woken up and thought, ‘Do I matter? Am I still relevant?’” he says, in soft, measured tones utterly at odds with his gobshite public persona. “You listen to all the bands that have come and gone over the years, and you think, ‘Wow, has that happened to us?’”
Humility isn’t Dave’s factory setting, and it’s disconcerting to catch him in this mode. In the three decades since he formed Megadeth, he has carved out a niche as one of metal’s most divisive characters: he’s either a free-speaking maverick or a loud-mouthed arsehole, depending on where you stand. Recently, the scales have tipped towards ‘arsehole’ thanks to some ill-advised comments about the US government being behind a spate of shootings and an assertion that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US. Both theories are usually the preserve of tin-foil-hatted right wing conspiracists, and both prompted a response from fellow musicians and fans, the general consensus being: ‘He’s a fucking idiot.’
But today, Dave is perplexingly humble, not to mention polite, reasonable and uncontroversial, to the point where you wonder if he might have been brainwashed by the CIA (something which he once claimed has happened to US soldiers) or kidnapped by aliens and replaced with a robot (something which, in fairness, he has never claimed has happened, though there’s still time).
He’s here to talk about the 20th anniversary reissue of Megadeth’s fifth album, Countdown To Extinction. That record gave them the biggest hit of their career (No. 2 in the US, No. 5 in the UK), and it marked the point where the bitterness that fuelled his early career finally dissipated – he was no longer “the guy who got booted out of Metallica”, he was a properly successful artist in his own right. (If we’re being honest it was also Megadeth’s last true end-to-end classic, though 2009’s Endgame came very close.)
But there’s something else lurking in the background. We speak eight days before the most contentious US election in history, and Dave’s radar is primed for questions relating specifically to that or politics in general. For a natural born motormouth, he’s being uncharacteristically cautious – presumably, he doesn’t want to get burned again.
“The sad thing is the cowardice of the internet,” he says. “People being able to say stuff from behind a keyboard, just lashing out. That’s really hurt a lot of musicians. They can’t say how they really feel. They have to play it safe.”
Love him or loathe him, Dave Mustaine can never be accused of playing it safe. Controversies aside, he’s always been a political animal – just listen back to the title track of Megadeth’s mighty second album, 1986’s Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?, in which Dave scythes down Big Politics in a way that no metal musician had done before or has done since. Back then, he truly was a wild card in every sense – the widely loathed Reagan administration were in power, but you get the feeling that the Monster Raving Loony Party would have got it in the neck if they’d set up camp in the White House.
Each subsequent Megadeth album had its share of scalpel-sharp political invective. By the early 90s, Dave’s political edge had sharpened as his debilitating drug addiction had fallen away. Their commercial breakthrough, 1990’s Rust In Peace, was recorded and released against a backdrop of global upheaval: the aftermath of the Reagan era, the fall of communism and the first Gulf War, all of which fed into the music.
Countdown To Extinction, recorded in early 1992, was the product of similarly turbulent times, though this time the problems were much closer to home. The previous year, a black motorist, Rodney King, had been severely beaten by four members of the LAPD, an event captured on amateur video. In early 1992, the cops were tried for assault and use of excessive force. The verdict came in halfway through the sessions for the album. And that’s when things literally started to explode.
“The cops were exonerated,” recalls Dave now. “The city went nuts. I remember one scene in particular where a couple of black youths pulled a white guy out of a big rig tractor, and they threw a brick at him and hit him in the face. I thought, ‘God, that is so messed up – the guy didn’t do anything, he was in the wrong time at the wrong place’.”
In order to quell the subsequent riots, the authorities put the city under curfew – no one was allowed out after 6pm. Dave only lived two blocks from the studio, but his bandmates had to drive there and back every day, making for a potentially lethal rat-run.
“[Drummer] Nick Menza and [bassist] Dave Ellefson both had handguns in the car. I said, ‘You’re making a huge mistake there – you get pulled over for any reason, by cops or civilians, and they find those guns in there… well, there’s nothing more wrong than being shot with your own gun.’ We’d work feverishly on the record until 6pm, then it was like a school bell ringing and we had to make it home.”
Oddly, despite the tension, Dave denies that Countdown… was a politically charged record. He cites just two tracks – Architecture Of Aggression and timeless single Symphony Of Destruction – as “political songs.” He’s forgetting Foreclosure Of A Dream, a damning critique of the US government’s politics towards America’s farmers in the 80s inspired by the experiences of Dave Ellefson’s family. Its left-leaning lyrical sentiments are surprising in light of Mustaine’s recent proclamations, though, tellingly, it was written by Ellefson and not the frontman. This was level-headed commentary, rather than unfounded dogma.
“Commentary would be accurate,” says Dave. “Back then, we didn’t have any of that media sensationalism – where everybody and their brothers are trying to be an authority on stuff. People weren’t so damn mean-spirited. That’s one of the things that’s really sad about society right now – people are so mean. Television shows are all about putting people down, comedy is making fun of people.”
As Dave Mustaine bemoans the lack of politeness in others, somewhere the irony police are dropping their donuts and making a mad scramble for their cars. He’s hardly been backwards in coming forwards with his opinions about others over the years, be they musicians or politicians.
It was presumably this character trait that landed him a gig reporting on the 1992 Democratic Convention for MTV. Articulate, confident and socially conscious, he seemed like a great fit at the time. It was a significant moment: the first time a metal musician had explicitly engaged with mainstream politics.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” he says. “It was shameful the way the public had treated heavy metal people. Granted, a lot of those people, they don’t get the greatest education or the greatest jobs, but that doesn’t mean their heart isn’t big. I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to go and represent.’ I was the unofficial, unelected representative of the disenfranchised youth of America.”
What did you learn from that world?
“Well, I sure honed my skills at lying.”
How do you mean?
“By watching any political process, or commentary from the last couple of decades, you realise they’re just talking heads. It’s scripted, it’s safe. They just say what they’ve got to say to get votes, and as soon as they get into office, they show you who really are. It’s about lobbying and making promises to unions and the big pharmaceutical companies. All the parties do it.”
“I voted for Clinton a long time ago, but I was a very conservative Democrat. I’m like a dying breed.”
What about in 2012?
“I know who I’m voting for, but I wouldn’t want to influence any of our fans to vote the way I vote. I just want to encourage them to vote.”
He pauses and sighs. “A lot of stuff has been said lately by me, they just don’t get it. Sometimes when it’s in text, you don’t get the ‘ha ha ha’ behind it. You can’t see that I’m smirking after it.”
But some of the things you’ve said recently have been pretty provocative. Onstage in Singapore, you said that the US government was behind a recent spate of shootings, and that America was becoming a Nazi country.
“Well, people don’t see things in context,” he says, sighing again. “I was joking around with the audience all night about where I was gonna live. I was really impressed with Singapore – it’s a beautiful place. I brought that up [his outlandish claim about the US government] in an effort to say how much I liked Singapore. It didn’t come out the way that I wanted it to. The sad thing is that I was vilified, and the guy who had said that in the beginning [US pro-gun activist Larry Pratt], he didn’t get attacked like that.”
And what about your claim that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States?
“That stuff about me saying where he was born or not, I don’t ever remember saying anything about that.”
There’s a clip of you on YouTube saying it. Your exact words are: “I know he was born somewhere else than America [sic].”
“I don’t think I’ve ever gone on record saying he wasn’t born in the States,” he says adamantly.
OK. What do you think when Chuck Billy or Nikki Sixx call you a fucking asshole when you say this sort of stuff?
“I like Chuck Billy, and I don’t know why he would say something like that. We’ve had a long relationship. With Nikki, I can imagine a lot of that is because he’s got a radio station, and he is a radio personality now. You’ve got to consider the source.”
Say what you will about Dave Mustaine, but at least he’s consistent. He’s been spouting controversy and frequently ill-founded bollocks for much of his career – as far back 1988, he caused a riot at a gig in Antrim after dedicating a song to the IRA. His suggestion that some of his outlandish proclamations were taken out of context, or were merely jokes, is risible.
But here’s the rub: he’s got every right to say exactly what he wants, no matter how batshit crazy you or I might think he or it is. He’s been riding along on a free speech ticket since the 80s: just listen to Hook In Mouth, from 1988’s So Far, So Good… So What!. If we’re being pretentious about it, 18th century French philosopher Voltaire summed it up perfectly. “I disapprove of what you say,” the old fop said, “but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Dave himself flips that on its head. “You can say what you want, you’re entitled to your opinion. I have my opinions, you have yours. The sad thing in America is that we hate on people because of how they vote. It’s like, ‘Dude, if we walk into a McDonalds and you get a Big Mac and I get a Quarter Pounder, I ain’t gonna hate on you.’ It’s your choice – why is it different when it comes down to who you think should run the country?”
Putting aside the fact that politics is a much bigger deal than what you’re having for lunch, can you see why people say things about you when you say some of the things you do?
“Just because I don’t support something doesn’t mean that I hate somebody,” he counters. “And to tell you the truth, honestly, I pray for Obama. That’s the thing that makes it laughable when people say stuff about me.”
He says that all the furore will impact on Megadeth’s next record, though not necessarily in the way you’d expect. He’s amassed a stockpile of stuff that runs the gamut from “galloping stuff to fast stuff to chugging stuff to stuff with weird timing.” He’s got “lyrics galore”, though, tellingly, he’s steering clear of politics.
“We believe that we’re the greatest country in the world, and yet right now there’s so much attacking on both sides – race wars, sex wars, religious wars. It certainly gives me a lot to write about musically, but it’s real predictable to write about politics. At what point have you got to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to write about politics again? Or do I write about the occult or the macabre?’ [With heavy irony] Stuff like that, where it’s a little bit safer?”
Or you could put your money where your mouth is and run for office.
“No, no, that wouldn’t work,” he says. “They’ll probably bring up the fact that I did heroin and things like that.”
He laughs wryly. “There’s a lot of stuff that people would find fault with.”
This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer #239.
For more on the early days of Megadeth, then click on the link below.