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Dave Mustaine could well be the most misunderstood rock star of them all. He’s often portrayed as the bitter ex-Metallica guitarist who has rarely been seen without the quivering lip of a petulant child in the decades since his dismissal in 1983. But once you meet the real MegaDave you soon learn that he couldn’t be much more different. Disarmingly patient, judiciously curious and brilliantly sarcastic, the man speaking with Kerrang! today is one who cut his losses and came to terms with the past many, many moons ago.
The music that poured out of him in the aftermath of his life-changing exit from Metallica was the sound of bitter rage plotting the ultimate revenge. While he never quite surpassed the commercial zenith of his former bandmates, he did however manage to race beyond them in his need for speed – delivering music that felt pointedly faster and heavier.
Such maddening noises have long been his calling card, and while many of his peers have suffered from various levels of creative malnourishment or stylistic uncertainty over the years, time has proven the Megadeth visionary to be one of the more consistent and dependable of thrash’s pioneers.
Now 15 albums in, with numerous platinum certifications and GRAMMY nominations to his name – as well as a spot in the Rock & Rock Hall Of Fame for his time spent in Metallica, despite having not been invited to attend the ceremony by his ex-bandmates – here he passes judgement on the well-documented battles and tortuous paths that have led to where he is today…
How misunderstood do you feel all these years down the line?
“People don’t know me at all. They think they do, but they only know the guy Lars [Ulrich] and James [Hetfield] have been trying to smear for 40 years. They know the guy that usually responds to bad shit being said about them, but do they know me? No. I don’t usually come out and say stuff about people unless I’m provoked… especially nowadays. In the beginning, if someone said something I didn’t like, I may have retaliated in jest, but never seriously. I would never attack anyone without good reason.”
Going back to the very beginning, what do you remember about your early years growing up in sun-kissed ’60s California?
“Not much, though there are bits and pieces of everything. Whenever I drive from San Diego to Los Angeles it’s easy to find myself drifting on freeways I didn’t need to take. One of them goes past my old house in Huntington Beach, and Costa Mesa where I grew up. I remember seeing this local band called The Syndicate practice and something was out of tune. The drummer stopped and yelled, ‘Somebody’s outta tune!’ I remember thinking he sounded like such a dick.”
It certainly wouldn’t be the last time you felt that way about a drummer…
“It’s funny, because that was my first experience seeing a band, and ever since there has always been conflict. Whether you see it in public or it happens behind closed doors, there is always some shit going on. [Seeing The Syndicate] along with watching a guy play Rush at a keg party helped me realise this was what I wanted to do.”
Your childhood was notoriously difficult. You lived off food stamps with an abusive alcoholic for a father and a religiously strict mother…
“It was terrible. My dad drank a lot and was abusive, so my parents got divorced when I was young and it got worse from there. We moved up to Costa Mesa to move in with my aunt, who was a Jehovah’s Witness, and that’s when my mum became one too. They don’t believe in Christmas, birthdays or holidays. My life was ruined from that point onwards until I moved out.”
Did that make it hard to find friends?
“At school, whenever it was time to stand up and do the pledge of allegiance, I had to stand there with my hands by my side not saying a word. The other kids were all wondering what the hell was wrong with me. I couldn’t have any other friends because they were considered too ‘worldly’. I was only allowed to have friends from church, most of who lived far away and weren’t the kind of people I’d generally mix with. They weren’t even my fuckin’ age. Whenever it was a new school year, I would see my dad just to get money for the clothes and supplies, then I wouldn’t see him until the next one. Later on, whenever he found out where we were living, we would move. That would change you. It makes you not trust people. You can’t let anyone in because in a few weeks dad will come and you’ll be gone.”
In 1981, after already playing in Panic, you famously saw an advert to join a new band called Metallica. What do you remember about that first phone call and meeting?
“I called up Lars after seeing the ad in The Recycler and told him I listened to Motörhead. I also said I liked Budgie and [in a mock Birmingham accent] he answered, ‘You loike fockin’ Bodgie, man?’ He sounded excited about that. So I met him at his house in Newport Beach, and it was a lot of fun. I was in the garage where everything was set up. I was warming up and the guys were in the other room listening. Eventually I got tired of waiting for them, so I went in and asked if they were ready to audition me. They told me, ‘No, you’ve got the job!’ so I was like, ‘Awesome! Okay, let’s go!’”
Two years later, Steve Harris from Iron Maiden saw you playing live and complimented your guitar skills. That must have felt like high praise, coming from him?
“I was over the moon, but I also knew I was pretty good. It was the last Metallica show I played in New York. He was in a trench coat with long black hair, stood at the back of the club. He looked cool, like somebody who knew he owned the world. I love him. If you’re reading this Steve, where’s my tour? C’mon!”
One of your first run-ins with Metallica was when James kicked your dog at rehearsal…
“I probably shouldn’t have taken the dog there and I understand why James felt like doing that. He was probably trying to shoo the dog away – but there’s a difference between shooing and going overboard. Looking back, I totally forgive him and apologise for my part, but things happened for a reason. Dog or no dog, I don’t think I’d be in that band right now anyways. There were already conflicting personalities. It’s a weird dynamic when the lead guitarist talks to the audience and the lead singer won’t…”
On April 11, 1983, after you were fired by Lars, you were put on a four-day bus journey while everyone else flew home. That must have felt like the longest ride of your life?
“There was a silver lining in that cloud, but I didn’t know it. I don’t look at that situation with the same eyes as when it happened. It’s almost like it all happened to a different person, I’ve grown up a lot since. Sometimes you need the time to assimilate what’s happened to see your part in it. Because I did have a part in it… I was definitely dangerous back then.”
What made you so dangerous?
“I had already punched James in the face and jeopardised [the band’s] physical and financial security. I understand why they wouldn’t want to take chances on me when there was so much riding on Metallica. But at the time I wished I got a second chance. Just, like, someone saying, ‘Hey, Dave, you’re drinking too much and please stop punching the singer in the face!’ I probably would’ve been fine with that.”
So, naturally, you decided to start a new, meaner and angrier band...
“The music was driven a lot by revenge and animosity towards my previous band. I guess we’re kinda friends now, but at the time I was pissed. Eventually I got to the point where I no longer cared, because what I was doing felt more important than what they were doing. Looking back now, I’m happy with how things have gone and wouldn’t change a thing. I would go through every single hurdle [again], because I love who I am now.”
Speaking of hurdles, you became a heroin addict after that. Wasn’t there enough poison in your veins at that point?
“I didn’t look at it as poison. It was more like a buffer when you’ve had your life’s work taken away from you, with a group of men spending every waking moment of their lives trying to discredit you, saying you’re not a good guitarist when you’re one of the best. That fucks with your head. Drinking and drugging wasn’t a great solution, but it kinda helped.”
You were living hand-to-mouth then, too, but in many ways you must have grown accustomed to that kind of existence…
“I was struggling to survive, there was a lot of self-preservation going on. We had gotten a pretty horrible record deal for $8,000 and the guy managing us took half the money up-front to go buy drugs. Nobody knew he wasn’t a real manager. I mean, we had our suspicions he was more of a drug dealer. And shit, we didn’t know better – we thought all rock managers were dealers.”
In 2002 you were diagnosed with radial neuropathy and told you couldn’t play guitar, breaking the band up. While recovering, you became a born-again Christian…
“That was devastating. When the doctor told me that, it was a misdiagnosis and I refused to accept it. Just because he was a doctor didn’t mean he was right. I believe in a spiritual world as much as I did when I got involved with the dark stuff, like black magic. If there’s a dark side, there must be a light side. I think a lot of spirituality comes from doing good things for people, like playing songs with a positive message – that’s the payoff, I think. Likewise, if you’re cutting people down, making them feel bad and demonising them, that will deplete you and turn you into a spiritual vampire.”
The Big Four shows still feel seismic in heavy music history. How hard was it to make those events happen?
“It wasn’t really that hard for me to make happen. Basically all I needed to do was agree to them. We were out on the road and our then-manager said Metallica were talking about doing it. My reply was, ‘As long as it’s the Big Four and not Metallica and the three amigos, I’m down!’ The first show was in Poland [in 2010] and Metallica hosted a ‘welcome to the tour’ party. We all went to break the ice.”
Was there an expectation you wouldn’t play nice?
“I think there was a lot of expectation that I wasn’t going to be happy, but I was very happy. People thought I might cause problems, but I was content with the whole thing, though for some of the shows I felt we should have all been on the same stage.”
Do you think there will be any more Big Four shows in future?
“Honestly? No. I would love for there to be more, and I’d be willing to do it. But remember, Slayer are retired, and for some reason Lars is afraid of doing more Big Four shows. He’ll tell you it’s already been done, but I think the fans want it. The heavy metal community wants more Big Four shows.”
You courted controversy in August 2012 after making comments onstage in Singapore about then-President Barack Obama “staging” murders and turning your country into “Nazi America”. You’ve kept out of politics for the most part ever since. Do you have any regrets?
“I have no regrets. If you weren’t there, you won’t know what happened. We were in Asia and soon discovered that the guy doing our monitors really wasn’t a monitor guy, the first two shows had been disastrous. We got a local guy to help us and it was a fucking mess. Naturally, I threw caution to the wind and we knew we couldn’t take the gig too seriously. That night I had a couple of drinks and I was really just joking with the audience.”
What was the joke then, exactly?
“What I said was how much I wanted to live in Singapore because it’s beautiful – the streets are immaculate, there’s no graffiti, and hardly any crime at all. It really is a remarkable Asian paradise. I was drinking and started talking about the shootings in America. All I said was next time it happens, I’d come and live out there in Singapore. Whatever else came out along with that was to soften the blow to the audience about the sound issues. When I say stuff that I mean, I stick by it and nobody can shake me from it. And when I’m joking around and laughing, people need to be smart enough to know it is not meant seriously.”
Kerrang! described 2016’s Dystopia album as one that “sees Megadeth come within hailing distance of their dazzling best”. What’s next for you?
“I still have a couple of goals left. I’d like to be in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame at some point. I know I’m there already with Metallica, whether they invited me or not; I feel everybody knows that was a chump move and I should have been there. But that’s okay, I’ll get there. We have plenty more records and tours left in us. I feel like my band are really just getting started!”
Speaking of which, when was the last time you were in contact with James or Lars?
“The last time I spoke to Lars was at the 30th anniversary Metallica gig [in December 2011]. And the last I heard from James was when he called to talk about the [Metallica demo] No Life ‘Til Leather re-release. He was trying to get me to give publishing over to Lars, despite James and I being the sole songwriters. Lars wanted a percentage and I just said no. I love James, he’s a terrific guitar player, but yeah, I can’t do that. The songs are already out there. I’m not going to release something just to have a product to sell – especially if they are perpetuating false information. Lars did not write the songs. It was just me and James. Period.”
So looking back now, what have you learned from it all?
“What they say is true: life is like a roll of toilet paper – it all speeds up at the end.”
This interview was originally published in a 2018 issue of Kerrang!
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