Dave Mustaine On Megadeth’s Legacy And How To Survive Metal
To mark the 35th anniversary of Megadeth, the U.S. thrash-metal legends are releasing a stonking 35-song greatest hits set dubbed Warheads On Foreheads. The name – which couldn’t sound more Megadeth if it tried – is a military term for targeting efficiency, using the right tool (or in this case, song) for the job.
And who’s leading this precision airstrike of thrash warfare? None other than Dave Mustaine, of course: the one constant in the roller-coaster journey of the ’Deth – currently completed by guitarist Kiko Loureiro, bassist David Ellefson and drummer Dirk Verbeuren – steering the metal pioneers through 15 albums since their 1983 formation.
We caught up with the legendary vocalist and guitarist to get the lowdown on Warheads On Foreheads and its painstaking formation, the band’s legacy and even a taster of their forthcoming 16th LP, due out later in the year. No rest for the wicked, eh?
How important was it that you chose the songs for Warheads On Foreheads, Dave?
“I’d like to take credit for choosing all of the songs, but there’s a couple in there that are other people’s personal favourites. We had to whittle it down, because we have nearly 200 songs, so it’s really hard to pick! People will ask why we didn’t put this or that on there, but if it was a 70-song greatest hits then there’d still be songs not on it!”
What are the logistics of going through and picking 35 songs?
“It was laborious. There were times where it was hard and at certain times it was easy, like putting [1986’s] The Conjuring on there. Now that we’re playing it live again, it’s interesting because so many people never heard it. There’s a new generation of Megadeth fans that weren’t around when we played it live and are just hearing it now. Then there’s songs like [1999’s] Wanderlust, which is a very personal song to me, because it reminds me of a really emotional scene in one of my favourite movies, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly: these prisoners are being beaten and there’s this feeling that it elicited in me that I wrote the music over. The lyrics to that song are a basic metaphor about being a guitar player. People call us gunslingers – lead guitar players like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai – but normal guitar players like myself are just that: guitar players (laughs). Dammit.”
What emotions were you feeling when going through the Megadeth catalogue?
“It was a really proud moment going back through my catalogue, because some of these songs I haven’t heard for quite a while. There were records that have great memories and records that are really powerful, emotional challenges – like the early records. Listening to the stuff that Nick [Menza, Megadeth drummer who passed away in 2016] did is really powerful and really emotional, because I miss him. You never know when they’re gonna go. Gar [Samuelson, Megadeth drummer who passed away in 1999] was older than me, but Nick wasn’t. That was really hard. But the other emotion I was feeling was that I’m really fucking lucky, because most bands don’t have 35 good songs (laughs).”
Are you the kind of guy who gets nostalgic for the old days?
“I do get nostalgic! I wax nostalgic all the time. There’s all this crazy talk on the internet about [Serbian-American inventor] Nikola Tesla being a time-traveller, which I find fascinating. I don’t believe it – but boy if I did, I’d be the first in line to just watch what we did! We changed the world. You can’t even watch a commercial anymore without hearing somebody palm-muting a guitar, and they weren’t doing that before we were doing it.”
Were there songs you included that you felt had to be in there?
“[1985’s] Mechanix is a good one to be on there because of the dispute that’s ongoing between me and my old comrades. [1990’s] Holy Wars… The Punishment Due has to be on there because of the whole faux pas with [Irish republicanism] ‘the cause’ over in Antrim [Forum, Northern Ireland]. I’d gone to see the audience outside like I always do, say hello to the fans, and there’s this little kid there and he spits at me and goes, ‘Fuck you, Dave Mustaine!’ I went back inside and I didn’t know if that was cool or not. In punk they do that all the time, so I didn’t take it as a diss. Over the radio I hear somebody is bootlegging T-shirts inside the venue, and I said go get them, and they said, ‘You can’t take the T-shirts because it’s for the cause.’ I asked, ‘What’s the cause?’ and the guy goes ‘It’s against religious prejudice. It’s the Catholics and the Protestants.’ I’d been brought up a Jehovah’s Witness so I don’t know anything about Protestants or Catholics, and I thought everybody should do what they want. So I got up onstage, I’d been drinking, I went up to the mic so innocent, like, ‘This one’s for the cause, give Ireland back to the Irish.’ What the fuck did I know? That’s why in Holy Wars I say, ‘Fools like me across the sea / Ask the sheep for their beliefs.’ I should have asked somebody else and kept my nose out of it. I learned a lesson and got a great song out of it. That had to be on the record, because it’s one of the most controversial songs we have. It’s so timely, too. When you write songs you want them to be timeless, but timeless and timely are two very different things, and to accomplish both with a song is great.”
Speaking of time, what is your favourite era of Megadeth?
“My favourite period besides now was the  Rust In Peace line-up. Nick and David were peas and carrots. Then there was Marty [Friedman, guitar], who’s a very peculiar guy because of being a guitar wunderkind. He spent a lot of time playing, and not a lot of time hanging out with us playing grab-ass and saying stupid shit. That, to me, was also the biggest we ever were. When [1992 fifth album] Countdown To Extinction became double platinum, that was an accomplishment. Youthanasia [1994 sixth album] came right out of the box and went gold then platinum a couple of weeks later. At the end it was bittersweet, because you have four guys in a band and if you’re all looking in the same direction then that’s great, but when people start wanting to go in different directions it pulls things apart. And we were getting pulled apart by more than just the four of us: there were outside sources, management, the label… They say there are four ‘p’s in the music business responsible for breaking up every band, and I guarantee you won’t find a band that’s broken up that wasn’t because of these four ‘p’s: ‘power’, ‘property’, ‘prestige’ or ‘pussy’. I hate to say the last one – and I’d prefer to come up with something less offensive – but it’s one of the ‘p’s.”
Megadeth have never actually split up. What do you think is the driving factor keeping it all together?
“I had an arm injury at one point where I had to stop playing, which was kind of like putting a race car up on the blocks for a while – you knew what it was capable of, but it wasn’t going anywhere. I felt like the hole in a doughnut. I’d meet people and I’d say, ‘I’m a guitar player,’ but I’m not a guitar player; that’s what I do but it’s not what I am. I love what I do, but that was such an amazing time for me to have my gift taken away from me. I couldn’t play. I couldn’t even hold a cigarette in my left hand. I went 17 months without holding a guitar, so when I started playing again it was a whole new world for me. It made me super grateful. That’s where I’m at now. I look at the line-ups and I think I’m so grateful for all the time I spent with Nick, even though we had a lot of really hard times at the end. I didn’t spend a lot of time with Nick at the end, I know he was working, he was playing, and I know he passed away doing what he loved: he was playing his drums, so god bless you, Nick. Believe it or not but Nick’s old man was the saxophone player on the Pink Panther song! When we first hired him, he was a drum tech, just like Chuck Behler was. We had Gar, Chuck was his tech, Gar messed up, Chuck got the job. Chuck’s the drummer, Nick’s the tech, Chuck messes up, Nick gets the job (laughs).”
You’re currently working on album number 16 right now. How’s it all going?
“It’s fun – it’s great! We just had Dirk Verbeuren out here. We’ve gone through a lot of different drum styles. A good drummer can play any type of drum beat, but guys that are weaned on certain styles, it just comes naturally to them. When we did the last record we had [Lamb Of God’s] Chris Adler playing with us, and Chris told me that Gar was one of his biggest influences. Gar was our first drummer, so Chris added a lot of that jazz element that I missed, and then when Chris couldn’t continue he suggested Dirk. And it was like the heavens opened and the angels went, ‘Haaaaah!’ I’m stuck looking forward when we play, but the band guys go, ‘Damn, you have no idea, this guy’s so fantastic.’ I say, ‘Better than Adler?’ And they go, ‘Way better than Adler.’ So okay!”
Is it a different-sounding beast to your last album, Dystopia?
“We’re trying to keep with that real heavy sound. Dystopia was more of us doing what makes us feel good, and there’s a lot of super-heavy, fast drumming at the end of some songs. My son was in the studio two days ago, and when we were doing Dystopia he was listening to the songs and making comments, and the ones he commented on were the ones that got the best response. When he came over this time we were working on a song that has the tentative title The Dogs Of Chernobyl, and the intro riff has kind of a Hungarian guitar part – kind of like something Mercyful Fate did on Into The Coven. The song comes in super powerful and strong and my son goes, ‘Oh god, that’s heavy as hell!’ and I just started laughing.”
Words: Luke Morton
Megadeth’s greatest hits release Warheads On Foreheads is due March 22 via UME Recordings. Their new album is expected later this year.