Nowadays, the controversial thrash metal icon is kinder and gentler—but still has an edge, as our interview (and his band's killer new album, 'Dystopia') make quite clear.
Dave Mustaine is a machine. When I call him up, he’s at a hotel somewhere in California, working his way through a full slate of interviews to promote Megadeth’s upcoming new album, Dystopia—the band’s 15th—and an extensive North American tour that will kick off next month. That’s all he’s interested in talking about, too, as was made crystal clear in advance. The reminder email I got from his affable publicist that day underlined the fact that “Dave is only talking about the music and tour.” Since I wasn’t interested in a rote fluff piece of tour promo, I wrote back for clarification. We ended up on a call, wherein I assured him that I wasn’t out to get Mustaine—I just wanted to get to know him as a person, instead of a character. Despite his reputation as metal’s preeminent conservative blowhard, I wanted to see if I could get past that self-aggrandizing exterior. I did my best to do so once I got him on the phone, but the man is a brick wall.
Before the interview, I was apprehensive, anticipating a showdown on par with Christmas Eve at my FOX News-loving grandpa’s house—after all, my own leanings are a far cry from those Mustaine, a former Rick Santorum supporter, has been spouting for decades. He has recently shied away from declaring any particular political affiliation, but he’s also caught heat in the past for coming out with various outlandish statements on everything from his admiration of arch conservative Santorum and disdain for President Obama (lots about Obama, actually) to his acrimonious separations from past Megadeth members, his former bandmates in Metallica, and, occasionally, his own records. While I’d be the first to agree that some of his more glaring gaffes (like suggesting that the President was “staging” mass shootings in 2012, or especially his disgusting remark that starving women in Africa should stop having children and “put a plug in it”) are inexcusable for a public figure of his stature, I do kind of admire his dogged insistence on (literally) sticking to his guns, even when the whole world is against him. As he told me, “There are worse things in life right now to stress about than if someone likes me or not.”
We didn’t get into much of that, though, as he gracefully dodged the majority of my politically-minded lines of questioning, instead sticking to his self-penned script and its major bullet points with bullish focus. The man was unstoppable; either he’d rehearsed his answers in advance of this round of interviews, or he was just a straight-up cyborg. He gave me more or less the same answer to two different questions, hammered home his main point—of how happy he is with the new lineup and how great the new album is—and bristled when I characterized him as “conservative,” choosing instead to refocus on his core values of faith and loyalty. Judging from our conversation, even Dave Mustaine is tired of talking about Dave Mustaine’s political views.
The man I spoke to is a much kinder, gentler version of the fiery ginger iconoclast of old. How much of that was calculated media training from his management company, how much of is the result of his very public conversion into born-again Christianity, and how much came from the heart, I couldn’t say, but overall, our chat went a hell of a lot smoother than I’d expected. When I asked him how many interviews he had to slog through that day, his answer—delivered in a sunny Southern California drawl—immediately disarmed me, as he replied, “Quite a lot, but you know what, it's my first time talking to you, so I'm honored. How are you?”
I was charmed, is what I was. That light, chatty tone didn’t let up, either, even when he told me he was going to kill me.
It wasn’t because I asked the wrong question, or got his feathers ruffled; he was frustrated that I didn’t catch a reference to Bread’s 1969 single “If.” I pled ignorance due to my age (I was -21 in 1969), and he responded to my follow-up question in a snit, saying, “Huh? What? Sorry, my hearing aid fell out.”
He may have found Jesus and reined in some of his hell-raising impulses, but he’s still Dave Mustaine.
Noisey: Your new record feels meaner, and hungrier, and aggressive than we’ve heard from Megadeth for awhile. Where is this coming from? How much of that is due to your new guitarist, Kiko Loureiro [also of Angra], and having [Lamb of God drummer] Chris Adler drum on it?
Dave Mustaine: Well, I think it's all relative. I think we all wanted something great for ourselves and the band as a whole, because Kiko was a fan of the band, Chris was a really big fan of Megadeth, David Ellefson's tenure with the group, and obviously, it’s my baby. We wanted what was best for all of us, and it's really just such a really bizarre, quick friendship that we formed and it's deeper than just about any lineup we've ever had with Megadeth; even in its strongest period, it was never as congenial as it is right now. We really get along well, and you can see that when we play together. Megadeth never used to really 'hang out' together when we weren't on stage, because everyone was doing stuff and we were all working so hard; when we would pull into the hotel, it was kind of like, “Oh, I'll see you tomorrow,” but with this lineup, everybody is just so close and enjoys everybody's company so much that, as soon as we get to the hotel, it's like, “Oh, you wanna go eat, wanna go see a movie, wanna do this, wanna watch the UFC tomorrow, wanna watch the football game tonight?” And it's such a great feeling to have that vibe in the band again because it takes me back to that place that made me want to be in a band.
It must be nice to feel like you’re just one of the boys again.
Yeah, you're absolutely right.
The lyrics on Dystopia are as dark as ever, though, especially tracks like “Bullet to the Brain” and “Fatal Illusion” (which is the first song I’ve ever seen that brought together the idea of prison reform and zombies). I’d love to hear more about the stories behind some of the titles on this record.
Well, you can see that the world has changed considerably in the past ten years, and the way that America particularly was involved in keeping peace in so many places, whether they were there by invitation or invasion, or whether they were good guys or bad guys, whatever the circumstances. The America that we have today is way different than the America we had about ten years ago, and so is the way that America has influenced the world; I'm not saying The United States Of America so much as I am about that Western mentality—TV, American Idol, cell phones, selfies. You know, I went into the restroom at the hotel that we're staying at here in Hollywood, The W, and the mirror in the bathroom, in the men's room, goes “I'd do you.” Oh my god, when would you ever walk into a men's room and have the mirror be saying it’d like to fuck you? What world are we living in now? It didn't bother me so much but [whistles], times they are a-changing.
Megadeth has always been a politically aware band, and you first formed during the Reagan years; now, we’re at the end of the Obama years, and it seems like things are only getting worse. Does it bum you out knowing that you’ll probably never run out of material to sing about?
I seem to have a little bit more faith in humankind. Even though I know that heavy metal music is most poignant when the fuse in the world is at its shortest, there's a lot of hope for mankind, and like Martin Luther King said—and I'm going to paraphrase this—only love can drive out hate, I think that even though Megadeth has kind of a bad boy image, and we've had a very checkered past, our goal has always been to be loyal to our friends, and to be loyal to our music, and to be loyal to ourselves. I think that if you treat people the way you want to be treated, if people around the world would do that, there would be such a profound change. The world would be a totally different place, and going back to “Post-American World,” it talks about how you might not like the America that it is right now, and people are saying “Get the fuck out of my country, we don't want your military presence here, we don't want that,” but then there's a dichotomy at how quickly do people want to move here? There are so many things that have happened that have been good for places to have that Western mentality, but the same thing, you look at democratic countries, the UK, Canada, stuff like that, that's pretty much considered the new frontier, the new West, so I'm not just saying a post-United States of America world.
When you look at places like Canada and the Nordic countries, they seem almost utopian, while over in the US we’re dealing with all of this dystopian chaos. Naming your new album "Dystopia" says a lot in one word.
Thanks, you know the influence for this was that movie 12 Monkeys, and the original Planet Of The Apes and the Return To The Planet Of The Apes. For me, looking at all of these fucked-up civilisations, like Total Recall and Minority Report and all these things that show how technology and society are doubling and tripling in speed, it shows you how accurate that some of these old books like 1984 were. I mean, you read 1984 and Animal Farm, right?
Of course, George Orwell is one of my favorite authors. Dystopian art in general seems to be having a real resurgence in pop culture right now, because I think it feels like Brave New World isn’t that far off. What message are you trying to put out there with Dystopia?
You're totally right. You know, people have asked me before if I would ever do a concept record, and I think probably the most conceptual I've ever been is just this kind of “the world as Dave sees it” approach. I had at one point talked about my follow-up to my best-selling memoir, I was going to write a book—and we haven't ruled this out yet—but something cheeky like, you know, if I was president, what would the world be be like? I to think that if you have someone who has had viewpoints along the lines of myself or some of my fans or some of the people I look up, to that the world would be considerably different right now; if not for a short period of time, maybe for a good long period of time.
And I know you’re coming from that more conservative viewpoint, which is more common in heavy metal than people may assume; it’s a genre that places an emphasis on tradition and individual freedoms—views that are themselves often interpreted as conservative.
I'm not really that conservative, by the way. I'm loyal to what my viewpoints are. My mom was first-generation American, she was born in Germany, so I have a lot of European influence in my upbringing, and I don't really think that I'm conservative as much as some of the other people, but I do know I'm loyal to the bands and the people that I like. People have made a big deal about my faith, but for god's sake, the bass player of Megadeth is a pastor, why doesn't anybody bring that up?
Because you’re the lightning rod.
Yeah! It has nothing to do with Christianity, it has to do with me and what I believe in. I could be a Presbyterian, and say that when you die you get thrown up onto the roof of your house or something like that. It’s because of what I believe. No one goes up against David Ellefson and says, “So you believe in God, huh?” Dave is kind one of those dudes that he's not the lightning rod.
You obviously have this reputation as a controversial figure. Does it bother you that there’s this negative perception of you out there?
No. People talk shit about me. People compliment me all the time. You have to take the good with the bad. If you go through life trying to make everybody happy, then what's your purpose? Because you're never going to make everyone happy, you have to accept the cards you've been dealt and a make the best out of it. There's a lot of things that have happened to me in my career that I love, some that I don't; there's a lot of stuff that hasn't happened to me in my career, some that I love, some that I don't.
Are you still gunning for that Grammy? I was honestly surprised that Dystopia didn’t make the ballot this year.
Thank you. The thing is, in the beginning, the Grammy thing was really important to us. Then, we started to see that it wasn't really as easy as somebody would think, because the people that are on the board, they've gotta listen to 45 Latin records and a bunch of Hawaiian stuff and then Weird Al Yankovich kinds of records, and so when it comes time to listen to metal, they just go, “Oh fuck, I ain't listening to that, what's the name that I recognize there?” and that's why they saw Jethro Tull and went okay, give Jethro Tull the metal award. There's been some bad ones. But I'm cool with it, if I get the Grammy or if I don't get the Grammy, I've been recognized by my peers a lot, I've been nominated almost a dozen times so at the end of that day it's like, are you satisfied with what you have? And I'm—let's say this—I'm content, I'm not satisfied. I'm not giving up yet. I'm hoping that I'll be inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, too, but you know, if they don't want me in there, it's okay. I mean, I am in there vis a vis Metallica, and no matter what those guys say or what anybody believes about their induction ceremony, they wouldn't have been there if it wasn't for me being in the band, because I was there in the beginning, so I have some satisfaction.
It’s got to be frustrating when you’ve done so much in your career, and people still focus on things you did so long ago.
I don't hold any grudges, and I think we had a really wonderful thing when we did it. You have four really young guys that changed the world, and I wouldn't change a thing because we did something that made a really big difference, I taught a lot of guitar players and taught them stuff about themselves as guitar players that they really can do this, and gave them a lot of encouragement. Because even though, my whole life, and the stuff that I went through, I just wanted to give up but I kept hammering it out, and I think that a lot of the other guys that were having hard luck and stuff that was just going wrong they were able to say, “Dave is doing it, I'm going to do it too. If Dave can do it, I can do it too. I can do it.” And I love that, having that relationship with our fans and with heavy metal fans in general. I've got a lot of people who like Megadeth music, and some of it's because of the music, but almost more often than not, everyone who likes this band marvels at how we've been able to stand up against adversity, because it almost seems like somebody's putting their thumb on the scale, you know what I mean? But you know, I don't really care, because I love what I'm doing and I don't let it get me down. There are worse things in life right now to stress about than if someone likes me or not.
You’ve said before that you enjoy bringing younger bands on tour, and giving them a chance; you did it with Gigantour, and you’re doing it on your upcoming tour with Havok. Do you feel a responsibility to reach out to these newer bands?
Yeah, I think responsibility is the wrong word, I think I have the opportunity to do something great, to pass it on, and I think it's like the closing and opening of a circle. You know, for me, when you do something good for somebody, it's kind of a form of charity work, and in our business—unlike the pop business where there's a lot of backbiting and sniping and stuff like that—in the metal community there are some very deep, long-running friendships. For myself, for example, I can see somebody that I haven't seen in years, and we catch right up from the last place we saw each other, and I think all that is because the heavy metal community. Sharon Osbourne had said something to me in Spain, she said, “I only know one person in heavy metal who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.” The rest of us were all born salt of the earth. I love Sharon, I think she's awesome and when she said that to me, I thought, “No truer words have been said.”
What album do you think is the best one for a new fan to start with, that encapsulates Megadeth best?
Well, this is probably going to sound really shallow and an obvious answer, but I think we kind of had a spell where we weren't playing music like Dystopia for quite some time. I think that Dystopia would have been dropped in after Countdown To Extinction, it's a full-on natural progression. Killing, Peace, Rust, Countdown, Dystopia, I think those are probably my top 5 favorite records.
What did it take to finally come out with this kind of record?
Well, I think that some of these songs, the lyrics that went along with it, you could’ve probably change the lyrics very easily to something different and the song would still have the intensity, but sometimes when I hear songs there are certain pictures I get in my mind's eye where it's just a snapshot, but that one picture can tell a thousand words, like, what's that band, Bread, right? [sings a few bars of what turned out to be “If”] Come on Kim, help me out here!
I’m not sure, it's a little before my time..
Aw, Kim, I’m gonna kill you now! No presents for Christmas.
Lots of veteran thrash bands are still releasing albums, and still treading the same path lyrically; you’re one of the only bands left that seems to practice what you preach when you’re singing these political lyrics, even if not everyone agrees with you. Why are you still so fired up?
I think a lot of that is attributable to Kiko and Chris coming in, and watching David get excited again, and me being the leader—when I see that, these really respectable musicians that are all happy to be in a group, man, how can you not? We're emotive creatures; most of us are real comfortable sharing how we feel, and I'm sad for people who can't openly describe what they're feeling or are afraid to share what they're feeling out of fear of being rejected or made fun of, because I just plain don't give a shit what people think about me. So when it comes down to being happy with this record, all that matters to me is that if you watch us on stage, seeing Chris back there laughing and smiling, and seeing David Ellefson laughing and smiling, and seeing Kiko laughing and smiling, you almost think, “What's the fucking joke, why is everybody so happy?” Before we go on stage we get in a little circle and we do a football huddle prayer type of thing, and then we go out on stage and we have fun, and then after the show's over we get back into the dressing room and instead of “God, I'm so exhausted, I can't wait to have a beer, I'm going to go to sleep, man, whatever, bitch, moan, complain,” everybody comes in, and they're excited. Same with golfers; amateurs talk about the shots they made, and professionals talk about the shots they missed.
You recently moved to Nashville to facilitate your daughter’s country music career. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve realized while living in the middle of a country music mecca?
One of the craziest things I've learned is how many of the players there are metal fans, and how many of them really like Megadeth. Two is that it's frightening—you can go into any restaurant in Nashville, and the guy serving you your dinner is as good as you are on guitar. You've got these guys who are so deeply talented and they come out here to make it, and then between gigs they're doing normal jobs. That's been really humbling for me too, to know that wherever you go, you know what, you're not that special. There's a lot of people out there that are at least as good as you are.
It's a good feeling. It feels good to know you matter, that people know your name and that you've made them happy or helped them carry a burden. It's a great feeling.
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.