Who is the real Dave Mustaine?

After a difficult show in Australia last year, Dave Mustaine took to live video-streaming app Periscope to rant about an unnamed guitar tech, calling him “a total waste of skin and life”. He snarled that he’d fired the man, and would make it up to his fans in Brisbane sometime – “maybe in Hawaii when we luau that fat pig’s ass”. The consequences of airing so brutal a character assassination on the internet seemed lost on the frontman, though the internet exploded with disbelief. He later “forgave the guy”, but today remains unrepentant about the public bully-boy mud-slinging.

“Growing up poor, I know what it’s like to have to work hard for your money,” he explains. “When you look at the price of a ticket these days, the economy isn’t great, especially for young people. They come out of university and end up waiting tables. So when people come to a concert they buy a ticket, a shirt, get dinner, some beer, pay for parking and gas – you’re looking at between $100 to $200. I wanna give my absolute best to the audience. It comes down to being passionate about this stuff. So when the shit hits the fan, I’m gonna start venting. Fuck it, this means a lot to me…”

In truth, the tirade would only have come as a surprise to anyone who mistakenly thought Dave might have mellowed with age. After all, this iconic rabble-rouser has been one of the most divisive personalities in metal for years – at least since his cruelly delivered expulsion from Metallica in 1983 – and his shoot-from-the-hip style and impulsive temperament have always been among his strongest identifying features. He still remembers the fallout from his onstage dedication to ‘the cause’ in the bitterly divided religious and political hotbed of County Antrim, Northern Ireland, in 1988, which he blames on his own naivety (and Guinness).

“Obviously Americans who go to Ireland and have a bit of red hair, they try to act like they’re Irish!” Dave laughs, recalling the incident. “But I didn’t realise at all what I was saying.”

He didn’t have the excuse of drunken youth when he declared onstage in 2012 that Barack Obama was “trying to pass a gun ban so he’s staging all these murders”, ineloquently fanning the flames of paranoid conspiracy. Or when he declared that African women who can’t feed their children should “put a plug in it”.

And yet, his willingness to say what he wants – however incautiously worded, or unpalatable to the moral guardians of social media – is refreshing in an age when musicians daren’t deviate from platitudes for fear of causing a Twitter-storm. In addition, his often dark, dry sense of humour loses some irony in translation.

I don’t give a flying fuck about my critics

“People sometimes take stuff a little bit out of perspective,” he reckons. “When something is in written form it doesn’t necessarily look the same.” Most importantly, his refusal to tone down his attitude or mince his words reveals the strength and single-mindedness that have kept Megadeth at the top for 30 years.

“I don’t care if you like me or not, it’s not gonna change my appetite,” he affirms. “But to judge me when you don’t know me is prejudice, and contempt prior to investigation is ignorance.”

The investigation is ongoing. Misunderstood genius or arrogant loudmouth: would the real Dave Mustaine please stand up?

Hammer is sharing a intimate leather sofa with the man on the eve of the release of his band’s new return-to-form album, Dystopia, the first to feature Lamb Of God drummer Chris Adler and Angra guitarist Kiko Loureiro. We find Megadeth’s fearsome founder sweetly anxious to get the best out of every encounter, laughing and joking, listening and reasoning, and responding with a world-weary honesty that’s often disarming. Although the man still bristles with defensive zeal when his hackles are raised.

Megadeth 2016 (left to right): Kiko Loureiro, Dave Mustaine, Chris Adler, Dave Ellefson

Megadeth 2016 (left to right): Kiko Loureiro, Dave Mustaine, Chris Adler, Dave Ellefson (Image credit: Mick Hutson)

“They can talk ’til they’re blue in the face, because I know at the end of the day I own them,” he says of his critics. “They’re so obsessed with making me recognise that they don’t like something about me, when I couldn’t give a flying fuck about them.”

Even so, Mustaine’s demeanour is warm, polite and even self- effacing at times. It suggests a newfound inner peace, perhaps the result of his family’s recent 2,000-mile move from San Diego to Nashville, where several Megadeth albums – including 1997’s Cryptic Writings and 2004’s The System Has Failed – have been recorded.

“Tennessee just resonated with my soul,” Mustaine declares. “Driving in California is so fucked up, you basically need a crash helmet to get into your car. In Nashville I was pulling up at the studio and it dawned on me: my heart isn’t pounding and I’m actually breathing normally, because I wasn’t in combat mode.”

His new home is “built like a brick shit-house”. “It’s got bulletproof glass and an elevator,”he adds. “And I’m thinking, ‘For a kid that was getting lunch tickets at elementary school and had people make fun of him because his pants were too short because he had to wear hand-me-down clothes, you’ve arrived.’”

One reason he polarises opinion is that there’s no cut-and-dried personality to get a handle on. It seems there are many Dave Mustaines: the fucked-up junkie of the past and the sober, middle-aged family man of 2016; the born-again Christian who doesn’t seem to have much truck with religion (“I don’t even like to be called a Christian,” he insists. “I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, that’s it, I don’t wanna push it on anybody”); the anti-authoritarian free-thinker frequently accused of being a right-wing tub-thumper. “People think I’m a conservative Republican, and I’m not,” he insists. “I’m a person who loves my country, loves my family, loves my God, and doesn’t want to take shit from anybody.”

He is sensitive to being misunderstood politically. He stresses that he has never opposed gay marriage, although neither has he supported it. He’s certainly no fan of Obama, but prefers not to comment on the US presidential race, claiming previous remarks on the subject were widely misinterpreted. “There have been 10 presidents since I was born and I’ve never endorsed any of them,” Mustaine proclaims. “I’ve voted Democrat, and Republican, I’ve abstained… So if anyone’s saying they know how I’m gonna vote, they got their heads up their cooters.”

He’s more unpredictable than most of metal’s figureheads – or perhaps he’s just the most candid – but his political personality has always emerged most truthfully in his savvy, sardonic lyrics. “I’ve always brought out political conundrums,” he asserts, “and contrary to people who say I’m a right-winger – which I’m not – it’s never from the situation of, ‘My way’s right and yours isn’t.’ It’s like in Holy Wars: ‘Ask the sheep for their beliefs, do you kill on God’s command?’ I don’t fucking know.”

But there’s one subject MegaDave does know best: Megadeth. It’s this, he insists, which is the cause of the internal tensions that have resulted in the band’s ever-revolving cast.

“The reason there have been so many lineup changes is because you get somebody into the situation and all of a sudden they forget what the main ingredient is, and the main ingredient is my songwriting,” states Dave. But even if he does have ultimate dictatorial power, he wields it benevolently when he wants to; when it’s right for the band. “When you’re in Megadeth and we’re all together, we’ll create something that’s cool,” he reasons. “But if someone writes something and says, ‘Here’s my song’ and it’s not right, I don’t wanna put out a song somebody else wrote that doesn’t sound like Megadeth.”

“Dave’s a gentleman – a guru and a mentor,” says Kiko Loureiro

“Dave’s a gentleman – a guru and a mentor,” says Kiko Loureiro (Image credit: Mick Hutson)

He remembers the band’s management stepping in to inform ex-drummer Nick Menza that the songs he’d written were “a dime a dozen, maybe a nickel”, which even Mustaine thought a little harsh. But in 2014, Megadeth’s lineup seemed more stable than ever. Original bassist Dave Ellefson returned to the group in 2010 after an eight-year absence following a legal spat; Shawn Drover had been sitting on the drum stool for a decade, while guitarist Chris Broderick had been with them since 2008. At the end of the year, however, Drover and Broderick left – a matter they still haven’t discussed with the frontman.

“Like everyone else, I found out in the press,” Mustaine says, sounding more sad than angry. “We haven’t spoken before they quit or after they quit, and that’s a character issue that they’re gonna have to deal with for the rest of their life.” (Chris Broderick recently confirmed to Hammer that a primary source of his discontent was a desire to record his own material, stating: “I had been considering it for a long time, because I had all of this music that I’d written that I knew would never get out there unless I could release it on my own.”)

He and Drover went on to form Act Of Defiance, but Dave has no interest in hearing the music his ex-bandmates thought worth leaving his band for. “If they think, going from Megadeth to their own new band, things are gonna be the same, I got fuckin’ news for you guys,” Mustaine intones. “You’re starting over again. I hope that our fans will be kind to them and give ’em a listen, but I have no desire to listen to what they did.”

After the split, Mustaine and Ellefson attempted a reunion of the fan-favourite 1990 Rust In Peace lineup, but after a few rehearsals the mission faltered, with Nick Menza subsequently insisting, “They just didn’t wanna show me any love at all.” It was Ellefson who eventually pulled the plug on the project, not the frontman (“Everybody immediately trashed Dave Mustaine,” says Mustaine. “No matter what the fuck happens it’s always my fault”), although Mustaine clearly wasn’t convinced of the reunion’s merit: “When you do stuff like that, people know that it’s a cash-grab, and I’ve never done this for the money,” he states. “This is why we’ve made the sacrifices that we’ve made: it’s for the art, not for the money.”

Instead, at the beginning of 2015, the two Daves set about moving Megadeth forward with a double injection of new blood. As Dystopia loudly attests, Kiko Loureiro and Chris Adler have not only given Megadeth a shot in the arm creatively, they’ve turned them into a close-knit band of brothers. “It was a real blessing that everything fell into place as quickly as it did,” Dave Ellefson reflects. “A lot of things were discovered on this journey; one was that the things of the past, past lineups: just let that rest. As always with Megadeth, forward is the motion, never backwards.”

Finding a guitarist was the hardest part of that forward motion, especially with Mustaine’s exacting requirements: “What I look for in a guitar player is attitude, ability and appearance,” he reveals, “and we’d get close to the finish line and something would go wrong every time. One guy’s too young, another guy’s got crazy tattoos all over himself, another guy doesn’t have hair, another guy says in his bio that he hates metal and only listens to prog… so it was, like, oh, man.”

Fitting all the right criteria, Kiko sealed the gig when Mustaine saw him triumph in a guitar duel on YouTube: “I knew he had the attitude, appearance and ability, I just wanted to make sure we had the friendship,” the frontman explains. “For me, it’s really important that you know the guy you’re working with, otherwise you’re sitting in an airport next to this guy, you know tons of songs together, but you don’t know anything about him. The last several guys that we’ve played with, I wanted to be really close with, but I never could transcend that imaginary line which kept us from going from partners onstage to buddies.”

“He’s got such a love for life,” says Mustaine of new guitarist Kiko Loureiro

“He’s got such a love for life,” says Mustaine of new guitarist Kiko Loureiro (Image credit: Mick Hutson)

The notion of a Megadeth lineup hanging out as buddies might seem oxymoronic to those who grew up observing the tension between the fiery bandleader and the men he allowed through the ranks. But when Kiko went to visit the frontman in Nashville, the two guitarists bonded over a steakhouse meal. “We drank a beer and just laughed and joked and talked,” the frontman recalls fondly. “I told him what to expect, and when I knew he was in, I was like, ‘Son of a bitch, it’s real!’”

Few could have foreseen how intimately the Brazilian virtuoso would settle into the group; he seems to have already brought out a warmth and tenderness few ever associated with Dave Mustaine.

“Kiko and I are so close right now,” he emphasises. “He Facetimes his daughter and he’ll be like, ‘Say hi to Olivia’! So I’m talking to his daughter! I never did stuff like that with any previous guys, because we didn’t have that kind of relationship. Maybe it’s something to do with him being from Brazil. He’s so passionate, he’s got such a love for life, as well as being a highly educated person. He has this weird melodic flair; I’ve always wanted to have something like that and not known how to do it. When you have a new flavour and you use it right, man, that’s such a good experience.”

Kiko also speaks cheerfully of their time getting to know each other. “He’s a gentleman and very calm – completely different to how people talk about him,” he exclaims. “He’s very reasonable and intelligent. He’s not some crazy rockstar where everyone’s doing everything for him. He’s been a guru and a mentor, showing me how to play guitar in a way that sounds more ‘Megadeth’. I could play the stuff he was showing me, but there was a Megadeth way of doing it. The Dave Mustaine way of playing! He created the band’s style, and I wanted to get it right.”

For Chris Adler, his appointment to Megadeth was a teenage dream come true: “When I was first asked to be part of it, I was like a kid in a candy store,” he enthuses. “This is the band I grew up listening to, the band that made me want to do what I do now.”

Ellefson remembers the excitement when Chris’s name came up: “That was huge,” he confesses. “We’re friends with Chris, he’s been a great ally to Megadeth over the years, so that seemed to be a real natural fit right out of the gate.”

But this lovey-dovey, mutual appreciation society of a lineup hasn’t blunted Megadeth’s venom or spite. On their 15th studio album, they’ve dramatically upped their game with their sharpest, most aggressive album for over 20 years, steeped in joyous, flamboyant melody, but twisting and seething with rediscovered energy, focus and power, and it seems the new guys were instrumental in coaxing out this return to form. As a founder of one of the world’s other biggest metal bands, Chris had more scope than most to bring criticism and honesty to Mustaine’s table.

“I didn’t think I’d be allowed to bring anything in creatively,” Chris admits. “No one can come in and change Dave Mustaine’s mind about what Megadeth should sound like. I was going to say it’s his baby, but it actually is him. He embodies the whole thing. But I was looking at how to get back to the way Megadeth was special to me when I was 16 years old. How can I help make that happen? Can we get back to that pissed-off place, the thing that made you wanna start? All that teenage adrenaline and testosterone. Is there still any in the tank? Because that’s what we need!”

Chris admits that, like many older fans who grew up in the band’s ‘golden era’ of 1986-92, he had “kinda lost track” of Megadeth in the last decade or so.

“I bought the albums, but they didn’t connect with me as much,” he confesses. “And I thought, going in, Dave might fire me for saying, ‘I dunno about this one’, or, ‘Why don’t we pull on a guitar and write something new?’ I didn’t know how that would go. But I think he respected the fact that I was able to speak my mind. I think it was the first time in a while that anyone had told him what they thought, instead of just agreeing with him.”

Although Chris says there were disagreements in the studio, both Daves were taken with the drummer’s notion of what he called “My Megadeth”. They took on board Adler’s suggestions, spoken from a desire to push the band to greater heights, and on Dystopia the results speak for themselves.

“This is the band I grew up listening to,” says drummer Chris Adler

“This is the band I grew up listening to,” says drummer Chris Adler (Image credit: Mick Hutson)

“It was just about, can we make this song better?” Chris affirms. “Don’t look at me as an enemy. I don’t want to write a different song, I don’t want more money, I’m not trying to change your music, I’m just trying to make this song better. With me not willing to just do what I was told, and caring about the band, we were able to push each other. I think it came out really well.”

With an unprecedented degree of openness and friendship, and a blistering new album, Megadeth are poised for a creative renaissance that many fans have been praying for since 2009’s Endgame. Chris and the band hope he can continue dividing loyalties between Megadeth, Lamb Of God and family commitments. But for Dave Mustaine, this new dynamic has allowed some of his most inspiring contradictions to emerge. Although his vocals, lyrics and music have regained the underdog rage that defines the best of his youthful output, he’s happier and more secure in his new working environment.

“With Dystopia, there’s such a feeling of healing and new energy in the band,” the frontman reflects. “You can tell we were in a good place when we were playing. Listening to Dave Ellefson play like this again is really great, and experiencing the two new guys was just… every day it was one more treat after another. After a while you think, ‘Am I drinking the Kool-Aid or is it really this good?’”

Misunderstood genius or arrogant loudmouth? The truth is that Dave Mustaine is a bit of both. He sees himself as a truth-sayer, someone unafraid to say and do what he thinks is right – for himself, his band, his country and his fans.

If other people don’t live up to his exacting standards, like the hapless roadie in Brisbane, or disagree with him, like half the media, well, that’s hardly his problem. You might not like his worldview, but you have to admire his refusal to comprise his integrity. And in making the journey from having nothing to leading a successful band and living in a bulletproof house, he’s retained a sense of humility, too.

“You need to make sure that it doesn’t go to your head, that it goes to your heart,” he emphasises, “and that you remember and show that gratitude by loving all your fans. That’s why it bugs me when people say that I’m mean or I don’t like people. It’s like, ‘You haven’t got a clue!’ The reputation is still in circulation, but it’s never been right.”

“No One’s Been Butt-Fucking On The Console!”

Dave explains why Megadeth keep returning to Nashville to make records

**“This is the fourth record that we’ve done there, and you’ve gotta remember, every studio effects unit has a metal side and a clean side, and the cowboys in country bands all use the clean side, so the metal side is all virgin material. It’s like the first time anyone stuck a plug into that hole, you know? The studios there are set up for these huge stars, and the sonics in there are great – it’s not like some studio in Los Angeles where a band has been in there all night on a coke binge and butt-fucking someone on the console! These places are clean and ready to rock, and the quality of the staff there is great.”

**“One thing’s for sure: great records are made in LA, and bad records are made in Nashville, but to me all the places we’ve recorded in Nashville have been very conducive to good work. Making a metal record is very stressful, and you wanna be in a really great environment. To me, the most positive experiences I’ve had recording are out there. There’s nobody dropping in going, ‘Hey bro, I brought some beer…’”

**“I’m not a country music fan. I respect it a lot, like I respect a lot of different music – I was brought up on Motown. The cool thing about country music is, a lot of the guys in those bands are metalheads!”

Dystopia is out now via Universal. Megadeth play Download festival on Saturday June 11

Chris Chantler

Chris has been writing about heavy metal since 2000, specialising in true/cult/epic/power/trad/NWOBHM and doom metal at now-defunct extreme music magazine Terrorizer. Since joining the Metal Hammer famileh in 2010 he developed a parallel career in kids' TV, winning a Writer's Guild of Great Britain Award for BBC1 series Little Howard's Big Question as well as writing episodes of Danger Mouse, Horrible Histories, Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed and The Furchester Hotel. His hobbies include drumming (slowly), exploring ancient woodland and watching ancient sitcoms.