Dave Mustaine Talks Megadeth's New Album, 'Dystopia'

(Image credit: Jeremy Danger)

It’s a warm December day in Los Angeles, and Megadeth leader Dave Mustaine is, well, happy. Which is putting it mildly. “Right now I think [Megadeth bassist] David Ellefson and I are feeling like school kids who scored a bunch of bags of Halloween candy,” he says with a hint of genuine glee in his voice.

The reason for his elation? There are several, actually. First and foremost is Megadeth’s new album, Dystopia. It’s their 15th studio effort overall, and it’s a veritable metal monster. The common parlance is to say that a band’s most recent record is their best; in Megadeth’s case this would be a hard sell, given that they’ve produced some of metal’s most classic platters, like 1986’s Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?, 1990’s Rust in Peace and 1992’s Countdown to Extinction.

That said, it would hardly be a stretch—and it’s more likely the truth—to say that Dystopia is their fiercest and most guitar-crazed offering in at least two decades. From the jackhammer, staircase riffing of “The Threat Is Real,” to the labyrinthine, “Hangar 18”–esque solo tradeoffs of the title track, to the dizzying six-string shredding wrapped around the instrumental “Conquer or Die!” Dystopia shows Megadeth reclaiming their rightful position as metal’s tech-thrash masters.

Furthermore, much of that instrumental insanity comes courtesy of the two new players who contributed to Dystopia alongside Mustaine and Ellefson: Brazilian virtuoso Kiko Loureiro, the former Angra guitarist who has now joined Megadeth full time, and Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler, who helped out on the recording sessions. What’s more, Adler, who Mustaine calls “one of the best drummers I’ve ever played with,” will be joining Megadeth on their upcoming U.S. tour in support of the album.

All of which means that currently, in Megadeth land, there are good vibes all around. It’s a welcome turn of events after a particularly tumultuous stretch that began in November 2014, when then drummer Shawn Drover and guitarist Chris Broderick both jumped ship within hours of each other and eventually formed a new group together, Act of Defiance. Soon after, word leaked out that Mustaine had also attempted, unsuccessfully, to reunite Megadeth’s storied Rust in Peace–era lineup, which had featured guitarist Marty Friedman and drummer Nick Menza.

But after things went south in those discussions, Menza took to the web to criticize Mustaine for his dealings with the drummer. (Interestingly, while Broderick and Drover have each stated publicly—including, in Broderick’s case, in this magazine—that they left Megadeth in search of a situation that offered them more creative freedom, Mustaine reveals in this interview that, in his viewing of events, their departures were directly related to the Rust in Peace lineup talks.)

Nevertheless, even in the face of all this adversity, Mustaine and Ellefson—and, for that matter, Megadeth as an entity—have somehow emerged stronger and more driven. Indeed, after more than 30 years as a band, a period which has seen Megadeth create some of metal’s most indelible anthems as well as endure some extreme highs and lows, the group is now hitting yet another artistic peak.

And there’s no end in sight. “At this point, I don't think there's anything that could stop me from playing, and there won’t be for a long time,” Mustaine says. “The only reason to stop would be if I was unhappy doing it. But right now? I'm pretty fucking stoked.”

Since it was first announced that Kiko would be the new guitarist in Megadeth you’ve been praising him as a player—at one point you even called him the best guitarist you’ve ever had in the band. Now that you’ve finally released some new music, we’re all getting the chance to hear how he fits in. Judging by his performance on Dystopia it’s apparent that his style really works for what Megadeth does.

Absolutely. And the great thing about the music finally coming out is that everybody gets to hear this firsthand—and I don’t look quite so much like a braggadocio! Kiko just shows up and he lets the music do the talking, which I love. Plus, he’s a great guy to be around. He’s refreshing. And because he’s relatively unknown people are getting to experience him in a whole bunch of different ways. So I’m glad he’s playing with me.

In the past you’ve been open about the fact that you often tell your guitarists what to play in their solos. Was that the case with Kiko when it came to his leads on the album?

Pretty much. But in general I’ve always believed in the idea of, there’s your way, there’s my way and there’s our way. You should try to have as much of a democratic approach as possible—but sometimes when you write a piece of music you have something in your head you want to hear, and as much as you give freewill and license to the other players to do what they want, if they don’t know exactly what you want, it won’t translate. For example, with the beginning of “Fatal Illusion” Chris Adler said to me, “I need a click track to hear what you’re talking about because I can’t figure it out.” And I understood why he was having that problem, because the part has some really weird 6/5 kind of time signature. But in general when we got into the real nuts and bolts of these songs and allowed the guys to have their say in stuff, they ratcheted everything up. One of my favorite sayings was something Chris said to me in the studio. We were playing one of the new songs and it was reminding him of some of the older Megadeth stuff that he loved growing up. And he said, “Now that’s my Megadeth.” To me that was the catchphrase of the whole session: My Megadeth.

To that end, you’ve said that Chris Adler is a big fan of Gar Samuelson, who played drums on Megadeth’s 1985 debut, Killing Is My Business…And Business Is Good! and Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?

Yeah, Chris is a huge Gar fan. And for me, being around Gar was really fascinating. He was a jazz player, and that was so different from anything I’d ever been a part of. It was the same with [Killing Is My Business and Peace Sells guitarist] Chris Poland, too. Before Megadeth, Chris and Gar had played in a band together called the New Yorkers, which was this crazy jazz thing. And when we all started playing together it just worked. I think that gave Megadeth its DNA in the beginning. People identified with us as being something just a little different because we had that jazz-metal approach. Another thing is, I remember talking to all the guys early on and saying, “You’re lead drums. You’re lead bass. There is no holding down the fort. There’s no ho-hum music in this band. If you’re not playing, then you’re just standing around waiting for your shot.” And I think that mentality kind of set the standard for us. It was this idea that, when you’re doing something you’re always going for it full-bore. And that’s what was happening this time.

As far as Chris Adler is concerned, you once mentioned that prior to his coming on board, you were looking at other drummers, one of which was [former Slayer drummer] Dave Lombardo. That would have been an interesting pairing.

You know, I totally love Dave and respect the hell out of him. But he’s got so many other projects going on and stuff like that. What we wanted was somebody for whom this gig would be his baby. And because Chris and Lamb of God are so tight it’s a little bit awkward right now. But we’re making it work. And the good thing is that we—David Ellefson and I—have a good relationship with the guys in Lamb of God. They know that I respect the hell out of the band, and vice versa, too, I think.

By the same token, were there other musicians you were considering for the guitar slot?

There were so many guys. And really good guys, too. But they were mostly younger players who had a little bit of a different kind of image than what Megadeth is about. If you have a guy that has really long hair in a band where everybody has really short hair it just looks different, you know? And if you have a guy covered in tattoos in a band where nobody has any tattoos it looks different. So there were several times where we had a guy that had a lot of the pieces that we wanted…but not all of them. And I made it real simple. I was looking for three things: Attitude. Ability. Appearance. If you look cool, if you play cool, and if you think cool, then you must be cool!

Before you settled on Chris and Kiko, you made an attempt to reunite the early Nineties Megadeth lineup with Marty Friedman and Nick Menza. You’ve taken some hits in the press and from fans for it not working out, but from the way I understand it, it was David Ellefson, not you, who was pushing for it in the first place.

Yes. Totally. And David has been kind enough to come to my rescue, because a lot of people have been trying to make me out to be the bad guy, which I wasn’t. So the reunion thing didn’t happen, and David came out and said, “Look, this was my idea. Dave [Mustaine]’s been really great about trying to make it happen and being supportive about it, but this was what I wanted.”

So you would have done it.

Well, put it this way: I love my partner David and I respect him enough to have given it a try. What I would have preferred was that Shawn [Drover] and Chris [Broderick] weren’t hurt in the process, and that they would have been able to have a much happier transition into their new group and us into this version of Megadeth.

So you’re saying that the reunion talks were going on while Shawn and Chris were still in Megadeth?

Yeah. That’s why they quit. They found out. I think David had said something along the lines of the fans wanting Nick and Marty back. And, you know, that doesn’t feel good.

Even though it didn’t work out with Nick and Marty, was there ever a point during your talks with them where you said to yourself, “This might really happen…”

Honestly, no. Nick seemed very nervous, like he didn’t really want to be there. And you know, I like Nick a lot. But he kept saying that he had butterflies in his stomach and stuff like that, which made me sad because I care about the guy. I think he’s really talented. And Marty just seemed like he really was so busy with the other stuff in his life that it wasn’t going to work even if we wanted it to, because there were so many other peripheral things going on his career. And rightly so—Marty’s a really talented guy. So is Nick. I pray that Nick will be able to get in a band and that he’ll be able to go out and play and find happiness again in his life. Because he is a good player and other musicians would benefit a lot from having him in their band. He’s a very smart guy when it comes to knowing what to do to be in a successful band. He just hasn’t been in a successful band in a while.

As far as Shawn Drover and Chris Broderick are concerned, have you had a chance to hear what they’re doing in Act of Defiance?

No. Not interested.

Getting back to Dystopia, one thing that can be said about it is that it’s a heavy, riffy record—certainly more so than your last one, Super Collider. Would the album have gone in the same direction whether you had had Chris and Shawn, or Nick and Marty, or Chris and Kiko playing on it?

Well, I had 10 of these songs already written, so the record was getting some equilibrium before any of this stuff happened. It was starting to become apparent how the music was going to sound. And actually, some of these riffs came from folders that I’ve had since Nick and Marty were in the band. Also, Chris and Shawn were still there when we first started noodling around with some of them. So it’s been coming together for a while.

Do you have any favorite guitar moments on the record?

I think the ending of “Dystopia” is really beautiful. I love the way it continues to shift gears, and how the horsepower just increases exponentially. But I also like some of the things where we’re really reaching with the guitar approaches, like in “The Threat Is Real” or “Poisonous Shadows,” where there’s an oriental approach with the scales and stuff like that. And in other places there are Hungarian scales, there are Hindu scales, Arabian scales, all kinds of things. And you know, even when Kiko would tune up a little bit before he was ready to do his solos, some of the things he would play were so mind-bending, so mindboggling. It was the kind of stuff that makes guitar players weep.

On the other end of the spectrum, as far as your lyrics this time around, they seem to be even more politically minded than usual.

Well, I think my songwriting style was carved out a long time ago. There are four basic proponents that make up what I write about: War, politics, drugs and the occult. That’s kind of my Mount Rushmore. I can’t climb back up the mountain and do a facelift on any of those things.

In “Post-American World,” for instance, you say, “If you don’t like where we’re going then you won’t like what’s coming next.”

I thought, here we go, there’s this separation of different classes, and me trying to stand up for people like with “Peace Sells”… Only whereas in that one I was saying, “This is who we are, don't judge a book by its cover,” in this one I'm saying, “Hey, this is where it's going. If you don't like what's going on now, better hold onto your ass because it’s going to get a lot worse if people don't do something about it!”

Do you feel we’re entering a post-American world?

Well, you see things like how we've lost so much credibility in the world, or how so many different countries are coming off the dollar as the reserved currency, or how if you feel different about something than someone else does, you’re persecuted over it. It’s like, “If you're not with us, then fuck you!” On the last record we had a song [“A House Divided”] that said, “I'm supposed to hate you and you're supposed to hate me/We can never agree.” Now we’re at a point where there's no kind of civil discourse at all between people that don't like each other. It's just, “You're the enemy and you should die!” Why? Because I use Splenda and not NutraSweet? “Yes! You should fucking die!”

On “Lying in State” you say that we’re witnessing the decline of western civilization, and that “there’s nobody playing by the rules anymore.”

No one is playing by the rules anymore. I mean, look at all the circus bullshit that's gone on in the last six years. No one is being prosecuted, and the rule of law means fuck all to anybody. But be late on your mortgage? Be late on your taxes? Be late on your utility bills? You're done. I saw this shirt the other day that said: Republicans are red/Democrats are blue/and neither one gives a shit about you. I thought, Wow, that's a great shirt…

But really, whatever the time period it’s always the same thing. It’s good versus evil. It’s Big Brother. It’s the Illuminati. It’s the Committee of 300. It’s all these things, whether they’re real or not real. There’s always an “us against them” thing going on [in the world]. But I’ve always been a believer that it’s us…against them. And regardless of who them is, with the lyrics that I write it’s always about making it feel like, “Hey, it’s gonna be okay because you’ve got someone on your side.” I may be the only one on your side, but at least you’ve got someone. And I’ve never tried to push my viewpoint on other people. I’ve always said, “Okay, here are the circumstances. These are the facts. You decide for yourself.”

But because you do come out and say “I feel this way,” do you also feel that sometimes you get attacked for it?

I wouldn’t say I feel like that—it’s a fact. It happens. Do I give a shit about it? No.

Despite everything, Megadeth has managed to persevere for more than 30 years. Even as you look back on this long legacy, does it feel like, with Chris and Kiko on board, you’re also in the midst of yet another rebirth?

It does, and in a very cool way. And you know, I’ve got a lot of old friends who’ve been through the ups and downs with me. They’ve watched the music be really successful, and they’ve also watched it be kind of obscure. And they’ve stuck with me through thick and thin, whether the music was good or not, and whether I was being a bad boy or not. And we’re getting a chance to be vindicated, because Megadeth has a really great new metal record. So right now? We’re all very happy.

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.