An Interview with Dave Mustaine, leader of Megadeth

The early history of Metallica is well-known to metalheads world-wide: they had this great guitarist named Dave Mustaine, but booted him — right before they hit it big… Well, I suspect two words were tearing Dave Mustaine’s soul apart while witnessing Metallica strike it big — with plenty of his riffs (he’s credited on Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightening), those two words being: “Pete Best.” Ouch!

No way! Anyone’s who’s followed Megadeth’s tooth and nail fight to the top; not just the top of the metal charts but the top of the pop charts since forming in 1983, understands that founder Dave Mustaine is a man driven. Driven to stay true to metal, to wear long hair and to play blistering fast guitar solos! That is, to never play false metal!

In addition to this mighty honor, duly earned, Mr. Dave Mustaine is a father of two, is a black belt, and has, perhaps wrongly, earned a reputation for being somewhat, shall we say, “difficult.” However, I found him to be quite talkative, polite, decent and, most of all, genuinely sincere in his love for his music and the fans of Megadeth.

Four songs from the latest Megadeth album, Cryptic Writings, have made it into the Billboard Top Ten, right now they’re on tour with the Ozzfest, and then they’ll probably tour around the world, hitting Japan a few times, since the new album is, like, platinum over there. I spoke with Mr. Mustaine right before Ozzfest began in early July, while he was relaxing poolside in his Arizona estate, watching the World Cup soccer matches, and I was sweating in my un-air conditioned room. Apparently he’d just returned from a cross-country flight…

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Hi, Dave!

Hello, David, if I sound a bit tired, it’s because I just got off a plane!

Oh, how was the flight?

Don’t ask… went to the airport at Toronto, took off, got to Miami, got to Milwaukee, 3 AM I get to Minnesota, at 6:10 I get to Dallas, and finally at 10 AM I get to Phoenix. I had no food during the flights ‘cos nothing was open. The funniest thing is that I managed not to kill anyone! It turns out a tornado had touched down and that’s why we were delayed and re-routed. They had to evacuate one of the airports and in comes this asshole: “Why’d you put me on this plane! They said I had a seat!” he complains to the poor kid behind the counter. I was thinking like, does “tornado” mean “bad weather?” I felt like giving the guy a knuckle shampoo in a second!”

Oh, are you prone to airport violence?

Not really, because there’s not much you can do, and airplanes are kind of like buses: there’s always another one, and if you’re there on time it’s fine, if not, it’s the way it happens. If you travel enough and are considerate of other people, you know stuff like that happens; this guy was just frustrated and overwhelmed. [A baby says something] That’s [five-month-old daughter] Electra in the background [I think he was holding his baby during the interview!]. My son’s [six-year-old Justis] on his way to the ice skating rink, he’s a future NHL Hockey player.

Did you teach him any of your martial arts skills?

He used to train at the school I taught, at and now he’s at this point if some kids are standing in his way, in hockey and when two kids are skating at one another, he’ll be the one left standing.

Do they know you’re a rock and roll star?

They come to the shows! Justis rides roller blades behind the stage during the shows, but we make sure that he wears earplugs and then gun muffs over the earplugs. And we try and keep him protected from some of the crazy stuff that goes on at concerts. I was playing the other day and he came out giving the “devil” sign, which I don’t want him to do. He can do the “surfer” version, but I don’t want anyone to think I’m not a responsible parent. Well, I love my kid and if there’s something he does that doesn’t make me happy, I let him know every chance I get. I send him to a good school, too.

I’m a fan of Megadeth’s for a lot of reasons, most notably your commitment to lightening-fast, powerful guitar-oriented, aggressive metal, even when it seemed for a while that metal was out of favor with the record companies. Are you comfortable or uncomfortable or even proud about calling your band a “metal band”?

People call us all different kinds of music, they call us a “speed metal band,” a “thrash metal band,” or heavy metal music. I didn’t really like all this putting us in categories; we’re hard rock, heavy metal. I think that’s there a lot of naysayers that just don’t know music, alternative is really withering and dying, hard rock and metal will come back, and I’ll always do it. My CD player in our van has the Sex Pistols, Slayer, Best Of Raven, Death Angel, after a show I might be going back to my room and listen to Mercyful Fate. I was influenced by punk and heavy metal, and I think that I would be alienating people if I didn’t say we were influenced by punk. Alice Cooper is my godfather!

Your snarling singing style certainly is punk…

I don’t do that on purpose! It’s the way I sing!

Well, it’s got this great, snarly, aggressive effect! Nonetheless, I like the intelligence of your songs. I’m partial to your political songs like, to me, “Peace Sells” and “Hook in Mouth.” But you’re interested in all sorts of things like UFOs, conspiracies, stalkers, drug pushers, and all the rest. Plus, anyone who sees or hears live interviews with you has to understand that you’re a very intelligent man. And you’re not afraid to speak your mind, and you speak it well. And I think that your coverage of the 1992 Democratic convention was the most intelligent media coverage of the election year [see my review in the November 1992 Ink Nineteen]. Do you do research for songs? Or are you interested in a variety of serious topics?

Thank you. I read the news a lot because I’m such a people person. I like getting into conversations with people about all kinds of things. It’s really interesting to meet people at their level. Like, I try not to be an introverted spoiled rock star, that way you tend to make yourself a little bit more desirable. In Sioux Falls or somewhere like that, we were with the guys from Sevendust, and we all got into this taxi and the driver was a real idiot, like trailer trash, and just to be funny, I started talking about Jerry Springer, and the cab driver was telling us how sad he was about missing it! I really couldn’t believe I was talking about this…

What about being a teacher? How about opening Dave Mustaine University?

Maybe a high school! I was asked to teach some advanced classes, which was flattering, but it never came to fruition because I’m always touring. I really try to answer questions from younger bands on tour, giving them. If there’s a problem with some band’s equipment, we’ll have our tech guys fix it or we’ll lend our crew if something needs to be done. Here’s another thing, if someone in a band with us gets injured I’ll do whatever I can, martial arts healing or medicine, lend them our doctor, whatever, so they can stay on the road. One guy in a touring band would’ve had to stay out of action for six weeks, but I gave him some herbal medication and he’s playing every night!

Do you see yourself one day entering politics?

No, it’s just way too messy! Personally, I don’t think the American people want a person who’s a recovering alcoholic.

Really? I don’t think they’re that picky…

Well, I have the band, I have a voice, which is the music, and we sort of represent the disenfranchised in America. It’s better to go out there on stage where I’m capable of doing something without having people vote for me. I love this country, it’s the best place in the world. I’m kind of like a political Johnny Appleseed, the great thing is the people who were affected by what I did on the campaign. Which, with Michael Stipe [ahhh!] is helping the Motor Voter Bill get passed. We’ve been politically motivated, I have a lot of governors on my father’s side… I was on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher with [1984 Vice-presidential candidate] Geraldine Ferraro, though. I got into something I didn’t know about during a discussion about Bob Dole, and she helped me out of it. I started saying something and the whole audience goes “boooooo,” and it doesn’t take much to get my feathers ruffled… Anyway, I said something and this guy on the other side guy really got worked up over it and Geraldine Ferraro “rescued” me as the guy was going into a diatribe that I had no idea what he was talking about. I think Colin Powell is an amazing man, I would like to meet him.

You have a reputation, based upon what I’ve read over the years of following the band, of being very difficult to work with. This is just the perception that some people seem to have. However, since Rust In Peace, the 1990 album, your band has remained together. And that’s, what eight years now? Plus you and bassist David Ellefson have been collaborating since the beginning of the band. What do you think makes Megadeth so successful an act?

I think people need scapegoats, I mean, I want the music to be the best it can be and some people may not be able to understand that. I’m pretty demanding about music. Dave Ellefson, who I started the band with, and I have a very good relationship and have invested a lot in the band. In a very heterosexual way, I’m really married to the band. One thing I found was that then we got Marty [Friedman] and Nick [Menza, drums] into the band, and they were stunning, gifted players already, was that that were willing to put everything into the music as well. Every record we’ve recorded to this day has sold over 500,000 copies, contract forever. We’ve had managers that were able to take care of us, and make sure releases get out and everything, but it really comes down to the music.

Nick has some medical problems with his knee, possible cancer, will he be all right? [Note: Nick had a large, benign cyst removed from his knee this summer, but was not able to re-join the band, Megadeth made Jimmy DeGrasso Nick’s permanent replacement. DeGrasso, drummer for Suicidal Tendencies and Alice Cooper, was Nick’s replacement on the Ozzfest tour as well.]

Nick and I haven’t spoken. I think Nick is really scared about what’s going on, cancer is a scary thing and well, you know what, I’m not even sure if it is cancer, hopefully, everything will work out. We’ve tried with insurance to get him the best specialists. He had this going on for a long time, one of the reasons why I’m a little indifferent to the whole thing. I don’t really have a response, he’s had it for so long. I’m hoping it’s not cancerous and that it’s just a big, giant whitehead, like Bluto from Animal House.

I saw your show, what was it, last summer, here in New York when the Misfits opened for you. First of all, how did you like touring with that particular incarnation of the Misfits?

It’s interesting that you say “that particular incarnation.” I thought that Glenn Danzig was going to be there, but when they showed up, I mean and those guys are huge. We went back stage and saw these guys on the first day of the tour and they come back there and the bass player, this guy, his arms are like legs, and he’s got black circles painted under his eyes, a spike on his hair, and wearing all black. I thought he looked like the pro-wrestler, the Undertaker! The guitar player is just as big. I saw their drum set with all the spikes all over it and thought, “oh, shit!” We’re going to get killed! But they were the nicest guys, and they were so loving and literate of the touring mentality; you know, when you get out there you have to watch each other’s back. Now there were a couple of situations where guys were hanging out back stage, and they didn’t really understand the concept of back stage, but that’s one the of the things that reminds me of good time rock and roll!

During the show, you made some really harsh comments about the so-called “hardest rock” radio stations not playing your songs. I think you were on Howard Stern or something like that. But now you have songs “Use the Man” and “Trust” in the top ten and “Trust” was nominated for a Grammy! Do you think the radio stations have started listening to you, or is it that they finally are playing good music? I remember in ’92 when the video for “Symphony of Destruction” came out and it blew everything else away! What’s up with “hard rock” radio stations not paying attention to the genuine article, like Megadeth?

Well, I was told by a couple of program directors that a certain DJ had made some comments about my martial arts skills, I would’ve gladly shown him… But they weren’t playing the record, and that’s a shame, because “Trust” was the number one song in the nation. I don’t know if that had anything to do with me, but surely they’ll catch me on a bad day and pass judgement, but you can become a radio sweetheart

Now about touring. The Cryptic Writings tour has been going on for a year or more, hasn’t it? I was at the Lakeland, Florida Clash of the Titans show in 1991, where I first saw the band and I also had the privilege of a “meet and greet pass,” and thought the band were damn decent people! I shook your hands and got your autographs! Thanks! Anyway, are you enjoying the tours? It looks like, judging from the sell-out crowds, that you’re getting the respect you deserve.

I remember that! We went out of our way to meet people and be nice. We have to be professional and we really care about our fans. You know, there’s a difference between, fuck yeah and fuck you. If someone in the crowd is trying to mess with us, I either ignore him or play with them depending how long he does it. Some guy was shining a laser pointer on me at a show and I told the audience that whoever beat him up would get a backstage pass! And I never saw the pointer again! When people throw things on stage, I tell the crowd “the next time you see someone throw something up here, hit him! If he’s too big, throw him up here and I’ll hit him!” America’s way too uptight about concerts, we need to go back to the people would go to concerts and mingle and girls would take their tops off, now it’s, like, indecent exposure! I think that’s absolutely ridiculous. Personally I think people should bring their signs and banners and have a real good night, and not get hurt. That’s what a fan of metal should like.

I’m going to catch the Ozzfest on July 3rd. Are you excited about Ozzfest? I think your version of “Paranoid” on the Nativity In Black Black Sabbath tribute is one of the best tracks on that album. Your guitars are raging! Did you work with Ozzy or anyone in Black Sabbath before? Do you anticipate touring with Alice Cooper, now that you’ve recorded “School’s Out”?

The Ozzfest was another coup for us! You know, Ozzy evidently didn’t like the “Paranoid” cover! I liked it, though!

I thought it was great!

We also covered “Anarchy in the UK,” and Johnny Rotten didn’t like it and Steve Jones played on it!

I don’t expect Johnny Rotten to like anything…

One thing at Ozzfest I know I’m looking forward to is hanging out with Motorhead. They’re one of my most influential bands. I want to shake Lemmy’s hand and thank him for all their great music.

I kind of think that Ozzy, Megadeth, and Motorhead makes an interesting metal “trinity” for a show…

It’s interesting that you say that, because that’s what I say, you have three of the most influential bands at one hard rock show, I mean, Black Sabbath/Ozzy, Motorhead, there’s the whole the hierarchy of all the different directions of metal on stage. I really look forward to it!

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Catch Megadeth on tour with Ozzfest! Catch ’em headlining! Bang your heads!

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