Interview: Megadeth Guitarist Dave Mustaine on 2009's 'Endgame'
"You know,” says Dave Mustaine, “the other day I was trying to explain to a friend the story of King Midas, and how terribly lonely that must have been for him to have everything he touched turn to gold.
"After a while that’s gotta suck, don’t you think? Especially if you touched your loved one…” The Megadeth singer and guitarist lets out a big laugh. “Although given some of the people I’ve had in my life, I’d probably be better off.”
While it’s safe to say Mustaine’s career hasn’t been exactly 100 percent golden — he’s experienced his fair share of lineup changes, lawsuits, personality clashes, drug addictions, less-than-stellar records, career-ending injuries, breakups and reunions, for starters—he has been blessed with something of a Midas touch.
In the more than 25 years he’s fronted Megadeth, Mustaine has crafted a body of work practically unparalleled in the world of heavy music. Several of his group’s early albums — 1986’s Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?, 1990’s Rust in Peace and 1992’s blockbuster Countdown to Extinction — continue to have a great influence on metal bands.
Which is not to say that Mustaine’s best moments are behind him. By his own estimation, they’re staring him square in the face. The Megadeth leader recently put the finishing touches on Endgame, his band’s 12th studio album and, in his opinion, one of the strongest of his career.
“I don’t know that I could make a better record than this one,” Mustaine says proudly. “I know I have another record in me, and probably a few more good songs. But this one’ll be hard to top.”
He’s also energized about the current Megadeth lineup: Endgame was recorded with drummer Shawn Drover and bassist James LoMenzo, both of whom played on 2007’s United Abominations, and new guitarist Chris Broderick, who stepped in for departed lead player Glen Drover during the 2007-2008 Tour of Duty road jaunt.
Endgame marks Broderick’s first recorded appearance with Megadeth, and the former Jag Panzer and Nevermore guitarist not only holds his own alongside Mustaine but also against the impressive players who preceded him in the band. “Chris is an absolutely incredibly talented musician,” says Mustaine. “And I honestly gotta tell ya, if I compared the guys I have now to any of the ones from the past, it’d be really hard not to say that this lineup isn’t the best I’ve had.”
Which is saying something, given the fact that earlier in the decade it looked as if Megadeth itself had become solidly of the past. After suffering radial nerve damage in his left arm in 2002, Mustaine called it a day, abruptly disbanding the outfit he had led for most of his adult life.
He was, however, unprepared for what would come next. “There was a good 17 months there where I would talk to people and be like, ‘Hi, I play guitar…’ And then I’d stop myself and go, ‘Well, I used to play guitar.’ And that hurt,” Mustaine recalls. “Or I’d hear myself say, ‘I used to be in a band called Megadeth,’ and it was like, Oh my God, used to? Really? It felt like shit.” Following a year and a half of intense rehabilitation, Mustaine rebooted Megadeth in 2004 with a fresh lineup and album, The System Has Failed. United Abominations followed three years later, and now comes Endgame.
As for what the future holds, if Mustaine gets his way — and he usually does — there’s little doubt more golden moments lie ahead. But if there’s anything to be gleaned from the past, it could be said that the only constant in Megadeth is change. “I have fear about the born-on date on the bottom of my feet, and what that date is,” Mustaine admits.
“Like, when does Megadeth’s music actually lose its cool? Did we already go through that period and survive? I mean, I’m nearing the point where I’ll be viable to be a contender for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What’s gonna happen then? All I know is, every day there’s a new twist in my life that makes me excited to wake up and find out what’s gonna come next.”
GUITAR WORLD: Since you restarted Megadeth in 2004, it seems that each album comes closer to what many people consider to be the band’s classic sound. In that respect, Endgame sounds more focused than its predecessors.
I don’t think focus was ever a problem, but let’s put it this way: Things have become less distracted. The System Has Failed was a heavy record, and in that respect it was a return to form. But we weren’t 100 percent there as a band. That’s because System was basically recorded as a session album. I had left Megadeth; I hurt my arm, and as far as I was concerned, I was done playing guitar. When I got better and came out of retirement, it was with the understanding that I was doing a solo record.
But while I was in the studio recording System I got a call from [then record label] EMI. They said, Oh, sorry, we forgot to tell you—you owe us another Megadeth record. So you can go do your little solo project, but until you give us that album, we own you for the rest of your life. Long story short, I changed what was supposed to have been a solo record back to a Megadeth record and put together a band.
That’s when I met the Drover brothers. Having those guys in the band got me really excited again, and that’s when I decided I was going to do more than one record. So we did United Abominations, which was even more of a return to form. We just needed to settle in and get comfortable, get back in the saddle. Now, with Shawn, James and Chris on guitar, I feel we’re there.
As with almost every album since The System Has Failed, you wrote the majority of Endgame entirely on your own. What’s your process as a songwriter?
I can give you any number of answers to that question, and they’d all be correct. Because there really is no set formula for me. I just let the music tell me where it wants to go. For example — and this is a touchy subject for me right now — I wrote the Endgame song “The Hardest Part of Letting Go…Sealed with a Kiss,” after my wife said to me, “We’ve been married 17 years and you’ve never written a song for me.”
So I did. And…she doesn’t like it. [laughs] Because the second half of the song talks about me bricking somebody up in a wall. And she’s like, “You better not brick me up in a wall!” So I told her, “Honey, this is no more about you than ‘In My Darkest Hour’ is about [late Metallica bassist] Cliff Burton.” People have always thought that that song is about Cliff because I’ve said that I wrote the music when he died. And the music is about him, but the lyrics are about [Mustaine’s former girlfriend] Diana. It’s a similar thing with “The Hardest Part of Letting Go.” I wrote the music for my wife, but the lyrics were inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe story, because I thought the song called for an interesting twist.
I assume that’s the first and last song you’re going to write for her.
At least for a while. But the thing is, music is totally for the listener to interpret. It’s understandable that I would write a song and expect her to get it, because she’s a musician’s wife. But as far as my expecting her to like it…well, she’s exercising her rights. She knows she’s safe with me, so she can say she doesn’t like the lyrics, and if she ever sees me with a trowel she’s going to kill me! [laughs]
When it comes to songwriting, in general you’re not a particularly collaborative guy.
I don’t mind writing with other people. The trick is in figuring out what each person is putting in: Is it like bacon and eggs, where the chicken made a contribution and the pig’s ass is on the plate? Or is it 50/50 and you’re both giving your all? What I’ve experienced over my career is that it can go any number of ways. There have been songs I’ve written with my guys where we’d all contribute. Then there are other songs where the band didn’t really contribute that much, but unfortunately when the credits go down on paper it says “Written by Dave Mustaine and so and so.” So there’s the problem. But would I mind collaborating with other people? No.
You seem pretty content with your current bandmates. How did new guitarist Chris Broderick come into the picture?
Glen Drover recommended him. When Glen first said he was leaving the band, I thought, let’s call up [Nevermore guitarist] Jeff Loomis or [Annihilator’s] Jeff Waters. Now, I certainly wouldn’t pick Waters anymore, but I did get in touch with Loomis, and he couldn’t commit because he was in the middle of doing a solo record. And I understood that, so I moved on.
That’s when I decided to take a look at Chris. I watched some of his stuff online, and I thought, He’s good. He’s really good. So we met, and I found him to be exactly what I needed. He’s really focused on his guitar playing…and his bodybuilding. So I told him, “The only thing you need to understand is that Megadeth fans are pretty particular about who we are. I mean, you’ve got a great physique, and it’s totally cool to be healthy, but let’s be real about it: you’re a guitar player. Instead of squeezing in Megadeth in between workouts, you need to understand you’re squeezing workouts in between being in Megadeth. Weightlifting won’t make you famous!”
Physique aside, you’ve stated that Chris is the best guitarist you’ve had in Megadeth. Taking into account the caliber of the guys who have come before him, that’s no small compliment.
There’s a difference between being a great guitar player and having that little extra something, that flair. And Chris has it. I’ve been saying that he reminds me of Randy [Rhoads], because finding Chris makes me feel like I know what Ozzy must have felt when he discovered Randy.
So we get along great. You know, people have heard me say that I “sang” solos to [former guitarist] Marty [Friedman] in the studio, and I did. I did it to [former guitarists] Jeff [Young], Chris [Poland] and Al [Pitrelli], too. But Chris Broderick? I only did it two times, and there are literally hundreds of thousands of notes on Endgame. Now that is a testimony to a guy who has studied his partner.
You’ve always been somewhat humble about your own guitar skills.
One thing I will say is that, recently, I’ve noticed myself being voted into so many of these “best-of” guitar columns, and that’s really awkward for me, because I’ve grown accustomed to never being recognized for my playing. I’ve always wanted to be great, but I think I became so used to being number two that I forgot there even was a number one. And the self-deprecating thing became a way for me to not get too caught up in it. I could say I’m not that good before someone else did.
A trademark of your guitar sound is the fact that you almost always play in standard tuning. You don’t drop-tune, which is de rigueur for metal acts these days.
I feel that the guitar needs to be tuned to A440 so you can get the correct response out of it. And I believe that if you play some of those low-tuned songs on a guitar in standard tuning, you’ll hear that a lot of them don’t have good melodies. It becomes almost atonal and percussive. But now everybody does it, and because everybody’s in a band and has a song, you hear it more and more. A study was done recently that said there’s something like seven or eight million bands on MySpace. Now, how many of those bands do you think suck?
I don’t know. Seven or eight million?
A lot of ’em, yeah! I’m a professional, and a lot of people I know who are professionals suck. There was a period when I kinda sucked.
You think so?
I think that the [1999 Megadeth] record Risk would have sold if it had been called the Dave Mustaine Project. I think people would have loved that. But they expected to hear Megadeth, and they heard the record and were like, You know what, Dave? We know you’re having problems with Marty, but you’re the leader, so tell him to shape up or ship out.
Well, I kinda did, and that’s why he shipped out. After Risk I told him, “Man, we need to go back to our roots.” And he had a nervous breakdown. I mean, God bless the little fighter, but I didn’t want the guy to have to have a day nurse with him. You know that footage of Michael Jackson walking to court in his pajamas? That’s kinda how Marty was showing up at the end. He would walk in and it was like, Oh my God. And I thought, You know what? This is because we worked him too hard.
Do you ever talk to any of the former members? In particular, do you have a relationship with Dave Ellefson, with whom you had a pretty public falling out after almost 20 years of playing together?
You know, Dave sued me for 18-and-a-half million dollars. [In 2004, Ellefson filed suit against Mustaine claiming, among other things, breach of fiduciary obligation, libel and emotional distress.] And he lost. That had to have hurt. And the fans—a lot of them turned on him. That had to have hurt. He lost one of his oldest friends. That had to have hurt.
There probably were a lot of changes, financial and otherwise, he had to make in his life after Megadeth. That had to have hurt, too. And I’m not the kind of guy to sit back and watch that happen to somebody who, at one point, I loved. So I met with Dave a while ago and we had dinner, and he said, “You know, [suing you] was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. I wish I never did it.” So I forgave him. Bottom line for me is there’s this one little thing I’ll always be curious about: I just keep thinking, if he had won the lawsuit, what would he have done? Would he have taken 18-and-a-half million dollars from me? Or would he have just said, You know what? I was just trying to prove a point. Let’s get back together and you behave yourself.
Do you think he wants to be back in Megadeth?
I don’t know. I think a person would be nuts not to want to be with me. I have a successful enterprise here. The band is better now than we’ve ever been. And I think our success right now is probably more obvious than it’s ever been.
That must feel good, given that you’re a quarter-century into your career with Megadeth. Did you think you’d be going this long?
Well, one thing that I realize is that when I started playing, things were so different in terms of what we considered “excess.” Marijuana was a juvenile drug, cocaine was kind of like a sophisticated drug, and heroin was for the serious guys. And it got so out of control in the late Eighties and Nineties.
My god, how many people OD’d during that time? I was one of them. Nikki [Sixx] was one of them. Several people died. It’s just crazy what we were doing. But it was all in the name of rock and roll. A lot of it, I don’t even remember what happened. Someone would come up to me and say, ‘Yeah, you died yesterday.” And I’d go, “Really?”
Does it surprise you that you’re still standing?
Yes, but here’s the thing that I love — the way the story is coming to a climax. Retirement is looming, and I’m actually okay with it. It’s a lot different when you surrender the baton as opposed to having someone take it out of your hand. And I’m ready to pass the baton because there are so many guitar players that are better than me right now, and there have been all along. I think there’s a new generation out there that needs to have its shot.
When you say “retirement is looming”—just how close is it?
I’ve got one more record on my contract. Then I’m done.
What will you do after that?
I’ll probably move off into the private sector. I have a studio going [Vic’s Garage, in San Marcos, California] that I’m handling with my son, and we’re trying to do a little “metal academy” type thing there. Just something cool to give back to the community, because man, I’m so overpaid and underworked, I have to give something back.
So you’ll become more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy?
As I get older I have to. I have to go get surgery on my back in a couple days. I’m losing my mobility because of headbanging for all these years. So just by process of elimination I’m having some things taken away from me. And if I can’t do it onstage anymore, I don’t wanna do it at all. I’m too much of a proud person.
When that day comes, will you leave feeling you accomplished everything you set out to do?
I feel that way right now. So I very much could walk away. And I’m actually leaning more toward leaving then staying because of my own pride and concern for wanting to go out on top. It’s important for me to do the right thing, and I think it would be great, if I was going to stop, to do it on the right level. Especially in this business, because people are always clamoring for more and more. But like I said, it’s time for me to start getting into some philanthropy.