Dave Mustaine, Matt Heafy, Mark Morton and Bjorn Gelotte on metal's ultimate tour

Dave Mustaine, Matt Heafy, Mark Morton and Bjorn Gelotte
(Image credit: Future)

Editor's note: this interview was conducted prior to the coronavirus pandemic. The Metal Tour of the Year is now the Metal Tour of Next Year, beginning July 9, 2021.

It's been 20 years since Megadeth teamed up with Anthrax and Slayer to headline the Clash of the Titans tour, arguably the first time a truly metal multi-headlining bill played to arenas of fans here in the States. 

That outing helped pave the way for bands at the heavier end of the spectrum to storm hockey-rink-sized rooms of metalheads. But that said, it’s been a minute since we’ve enjoyed a good ol’ thrash-ioned, arena-slaying, metal package tour. 

Thankfully, Dave Mustaine and Megadeth have once again come to our rescue, pairing up with Virginia thrash masters Lamb of God for a massive globetrotting jaunt, with support from two of metal’s other leading acts, Trivium and In Flames.

As for why these four bands decided to join forces for what will undoubtedly be the heaviest tour of 2021? “I think this is what metal needs right now,” Mustaine says simply. And if you ask why, well, Dave’ll tell ya.

“There’s so many different tours that go out where it’s just six or seven of the same band,” he continues. “That doesn’t do anything to promote the individuality of the acts, and it also doesn’t broaden the fan base.”

He acknowledges Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, Trivium frontman Matt Heafy and In Flames axe-man Björn Gelotte, who are gathered together with him on a Skype video call with Guitar World. “What’s really unique and special and great about this lineup is we’re all heavy as fuck, but we all have our thing going on, too.”

I’m in really good guitar company on this tour. I’m going to play so much guitar, and I’m going to watch so many great players and hear so many great solos. I couldn’t be more excited

Björn Gelotte

While the bands do all have their own “thing,” as it were, they also share deep musical connections. “Without the gentlemen I’m talking to right now, Trivium wouldn’t exist,” Heafy says. Gelotte, for his part, adds that “all you guys have been an influence on my guitar playing.”

Morton concurs, and also points out, “To put us all together, it’s exciting. Because every one of these bands is a headliner in their own right.” Indeed they are. But make no mistake – even though the four acts combined have something like a century of music-making under their belts, they’re also all rooted firmly in the present. 

Lamb of God and Trivium are touring behind new records – Lamb of God and What the Dead Men Say, respectively – and In Flames are out supporting their excellent 2019 release, I, the Mask.

Mustaine, meanwhile, recently got the all-clear after a battle with throat cancer, and in addition to the upcoming tour, he and Megadeth have been in the studio working on the follow-up to their 2016 release, Dystopia – arguably the band’s strongest effort in decades.

As for what the new Megadeth full-length, their 16th overall, will sound like? Megadeth, of course. “I’ve kept my thought processes pure,” Mustaine says. “Because if I go out on this tour with Matt and Mark and Björn and then all of a sudden the next Megadeth record sounds like a soup of all of us, it’s like, ‘Who are you?’ You do have to have your own identity.”

Mustaine, Morton, Heafy and Gelotte (with some input from Lamb of God’s Willie Adler, Megadeth’s Kiko Loureiro and Trivium’s Corey Beaulieu) got together with GW to have a chat about those distinct identities. 

They also took some time to talk touring and compare notes on gear, songwriting and how they continue to progress as players – as well as brainstorm a possible song for a suggested end-of-show all-star jam (you’ll be surprised at the answer).

Mostly, of course, they just talked about guitars.

“I’m in really good guitar company on this tour,” Gelotte says. “I’m going to play so much guitar, and I’m going to watch so many great players and hear so many great solos. I couldn’t be more excited about that.”

Nor could we, Björn. Nor could we.

What are each of you most excited about when it comes to this bill?

MATT HEAFY: “I’ll start. For us, these are three bands we grew up listening to at different stages of our career. In Flames, they taught us what it is to mix melodicism and heaviness together in one band. When I heard The Jester Race [1996], Whoracle [1997] and Colony [1999], if I didn’t get into those, I wouldn’t be here right now. 

“I could say the same for listening to Lamb of God. And Megadeth was one of the first metal bands I was ever into – I covered “Tornado of Souls” when I was 12 and a half. My voice was a little rough, but everything else was okay. [Laughs] I need to show you that, by the way, Dave!”

MARK MORTON: “To echo what Matt was saying, Megadeth was my favorite band when I was coming up playing guitar. I dreamed of being in a band like that. So to share a stage now… I mean, I’m still influenced by them. I still learn from them. 

“And it’s a similar thing with In Flames – I remember trying to wrap my head around just the depth of the guitar melodies they incorporated into their music, and how it was still so heavy and powerful. And Trivium are peers and friends and such great songwriters.

“We use the same producer [Josh Wilbur], so there’s kind of a family there. And you know, I think one of the best things about the tour is that it really showcases the strength of the genre as a whole. It’s the type of bill where, top to bottom, you want to be there before the show starts. I think that’s important for the fans, and it’s exciting for me, too.”

DAVE MUSTAINE: “It’s what America needs – some really talented tours with diversity. I think that a lot of the promoters over here, they’re stuck in that, 'Let’s get five of the same band' thing. Where, and you guys know this, our promoters that we use overseas they’ll put together a multitude of different bands. So you go to a concert and you see the B-52’s and then you see Saxon. And it’s like, “Whoa!”

How about you, Björn?

BJÖRN GELOTTE: “You guys have said it all, man. [Laughs] But this is a really exciting tour for us to jump on. Because Dave and Megadeth, the way they would weave melodies into the actual riffs, and the way the guitars would harmonize, that was something I’d never really heard before. 

“And the thrash sounds from Lamb of God and the clean vocals from Trivium, these are all things we have incorporated into our songwriting as well. Plus, I consider all you guys friends. As soon as we heard about this tour, we said, 'This is the tour we need to do!'”

Some people don’t really care about their sound that much – there’s a lot of the younger set that believes that volume makes up for tone

In terms of sonics, playing fast and intricate metal in large, cavernous rooms is no easy task. You have to deal with muddiness, and with sound reverberating around the venue in unusual ways. Do you think about your musical approach differently in an arena than you would in a club or theater?

MUSTAINE: “If you care about your sound, yeah. Some people don’t really care about their sound that much – there’s a lot of the younger set that believes that volume makes up for tone.

“But when I played with the San Diego Symphony [in 2014], one of the things I said to them was, 'Don’t worry, I don’t play really loud. I’m more concerned with tone than I am with volume.' And the guy that was the head of the symphony, he told me, “Great, that’s all I needed to hear. Interview’s over!” Because he thought I was going to come in there and… boom!”

HEAFY: “When it comes to sound, I can imagine the guitar tone of any one of our bands, of any one of the eras of our bands, and it’s so unique. That’s because we all care so much about every single aspect of what our band is. So I feel like we know how to handle bringing that sound into big rooms, because we all have so much experience playing giant shows all around the planet.”

MUSTAINE: “Matt, are you using Fractals?”

Within my Fractal there’s tons of effects and stuff. We’re just trying to get as close to what the records sounded like when we recorded them. And the Fractals can get you in the ballpark

Dave Mustaine

HEAFY: “We’re actually now going back to old-school rigs. We were using Kempers for a while, and now we’re going to run through heads with this thing called the Box of Doom.”

GELOTTE: “The Box of Doom – we’ve had that for years!”

HEAFY: “Dude, the thing is insane! We did use the [Fractal] Axe-Fx II for a while, but now we’re going back to real heads. I have a block [letter] 5150 that I found used, although I’m not bringing it out on this tour. But I’ve been collecting tons of heads, cabs, speakers and pedals, and I feel like I’ve got my favorite tone for myself right now.”

What rigs are the rest of you bringing on the road this time?

MUSTAINE: “Well, clearly I’m using uncool Fractals! [Laughs]”

MORTON: “I’m using my [signature] Jackson Dominion with my Boogies, and I sort of alternate between Mark IVs and Mark Vs. But what I do is I’ll split my signal into two heads, and my front-of-house engineer gets his head, because he needs different things out there, different tones, different things to add to the mix. 

“And then I have my own signal because I need a certain kind of response. And I’ve got my speakers onstage and there’s really not a whole lot of processing for me – I have a gate and a compressor and then I use a few pedals, mainly for solos.”

My rig looks insane when you see it, but it’s really a very pure signal

Björn Gelotte

WILLIE ADLER: “My rig will consist of my signature ESP Warbird guitars, coupled with a combination of Mesa Boogie amps and cabinets – specifically, the Mesa Triple Crown and the Mark IV. I’ll also be running a series of Mesa pedals along with a couple of Fortin pedals.”

KIKO LOUREIRO: “For this run I’ll be using my Ibanez signature models [the KIKO200, KIKO100 and KIKO10p] as well as Marshall cabs, Fractal, DV Mark and D’Addario NYXL strings.”

GELOTTE: “I have a Marshall prototype that sounds really good – it’s based off the [JCM]800 models. It has a built-in little gate in there and it works pretty good because it’s really active. But besides that I do pretty much what Mark’s doing. I split the signal so I get my own speaker onstage – not very loud, but just to be able to control feedback and stuff like that. 

“And then the other signal goes to the Box of Doom that Matt was talking about, which is basically an iso cab. And our front-of-house guy can do whatever he needs with that one. Then I have a [Dunlop] 95Q wah in there somewhere that I use all the time for all my leads, and an [Ibanez] Tube Screamer.

“And for the clean stuff I use a Marshall JVM amp. My rig looks insane when you see it, but it’s really a very pure signal. And my guitar is my own Epiphone Les Paul signature model; It’s based on my first Les Paul Custom, only there’s EMGs in there. For me it’s a trusty go-to pickup that always works. And they make them in gold now for me as well, so I’m happy.”

COREY BEAULIEU: “I’m really excited about going back to tube amps, but I’m not locked into what exactly that will be yet. I have my signature Jackson guitars, and my new Winterstorm model will definitely be on all touring for the foreseeable future. And Matt and I have always been huge Peavey fans and we’ve been experimenting with a variety of pedals.”

Dave, what do you have going on besides your Fractals?

MUSTAINE: “I’m using square Marshall cabinets with Celestion Greenback speakers. I’ve always liked the square cabinets for some weird reason. I think it’s because the slanted ones remind me of when I was with Metallica and we played with Vandenberg at this place out in New Jersey. Adrian Vandenberg was a great guitar player, but he used these slanted red-and-white Marshall cabinets. 

“I looked at that and I swore to myself, 'Never, ever, ever will I have red-and-white Marshalls. And I’m not going to use slant cabinets either, unless they’re rentals.' [Laughs] And the Celestion Greenbacks – guys that use low tunings and lower-gauge strings would probably prefer a higher wattage, but they work great for me. 

“Then within my Fractal there’s tons of effects and stuff – I could list through all of them, but it would just be like reading an index card. But we’re just trying to get as close to what the records sounded like when we recorded them. And the Fractals can get you in the ballpark.”

Each of you has carved out a sound and style that you’ve become closely associated with. With that in mind, how do you also continue to progress at what you do, and remain open to new ideas and techniques?

GELOTTE: “For me, one thing is that I’ve played with a bunch of different guitarists recently, just due to different lineup changes and whatnot. And they all have very distinct and different sounds and disciplines and ways of playing the guitar. So it’s been awesome to be able to jam with these guys and pick things up and get all their influences.

“That even comes down to things like learning new ways of practicing before a show. We always try to play guitar an hour-and-a-half, maybe two hours before we go on. It drives other bands nuts because it’s constantly noisy, but it’s good for us and it’s been very good for me.”

HEAFY: “One of the biggest things for me was getting into Brazilian jujitsu, which taught me what it is to build something from the ground up. I’ve only ever played guitar and sang in Trivium, so I’ve never known what it was to learn something new – basically I was always just doing what I enjoyed. 

“But getting my butt kicked for three, four, five years in jujitsu and gradually having to realize that you have to put in so much time and practice to get good at something was really instructional…

When I was a kid trying to emulate my heroes I saw how many hours it took. Now I just keep those hours going, even at this point in my career

Matt Heafy

“Another thing is about two-and-a-half years ago I started regimentally live streaming on Twitch, five days a week, two streams a day. That’s three to six hours a day of me playing Trivium songs to our fans all around the world. That much intensive extra practice helped my guitar playing and singing so much. Because I used to always be worried every night – 'Am I going to hit this note?'

“But you know, when it comes to practice, my dad’s a Marine, my mom’s Japanese and those two cultures are so regimented. When I was a kid trying to emulate my heroes I saw how many hours it took. Now I just keep those hours going, even at this point in my career.”

LOUREIRO: “I’m constantly learning and changing. I’ve been focusing a lot on rhythm guitars since I joined Megadeth [in 2015], and I’m trying to expand my symmetric and intervallic phrasing. 

“Regarding songwriting, I have my way of doing things; when I compose it usually starts with an acoustic guitar or piano – but it’s also been a great experience to see how Dave writes. Very inspiring!”

ADLER: “Other than simply continuously playing and writing, I’m always looking for new ways to be inspired. Currently, I’m obsessed with Toontrack’s EZkeys – not only does it aid in crafting interesting melodies, it’s brought me right back to a bit of my piano-focused roots.”

MORTON: “Now that we’re all at home and not working [due to the Coronavirus shutdown], the other night I learned Larry Carlton’s solo from [Steely Dan’s] Kid Charlemagne. I’ve always loved that solo, so I just sat down with it. 

“It’s not so wicked technically, but it’s just different shapes and different kinds of stops and note choices that are outside of my kind of ingrained comfort-zone patterns. So it helps to push the lane out a little bit. It’s been 35 years and I still feel like I’m learning how to play guitar. But it’s fun, man. I still have fun doing it.”

It helps to push the lane out a little bit. It’s been 35 years and I still feel like I’m learning how to play guitar. But it’s fun, man. I still have fun doing it

Mark Morton

Mark, I would imagine that one thing that has been different for you is doing solo music, including an acoustic EP.

MORTON: “Yeah. In early 2019 I put out a solo record that I’d been working on for a long time.”

MUSTAINE: “Kickass, by the way.”

MORTON: “Thank you. And then I did an acoustic EP earlier this year. And you know, I’d say probably the last seven or eight years I’ve really focused more on songwriting than playing guitar.

“I’m a guitar player, so I write songs on guitar, but I’m definitely more interested in structure and how all the components work together and support each other and that kind of thing. So the solo record, just by virtue of the fact that it was so diverse stylistically, it kind of pushed me to play in different ways. 

“I’ve always been into blues and classic rock – my favorite guitar players are Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Billy Gibbons, and that’s always been the case pretty much since I picked up the instrument. But developing that in a songwriting context and being able to put that album out, that helped push my playing a little bit.”

How about you, Dave?

MUSTAINE: “Well, I always have a great opportunity to go out and play with different people because I’m an asshole and they all quit! [Laughter all around] I’m just kidding, but Mark, I’ll tell you, my favorite guitar players growing up too were both of the Jimmys. 

“Although not so much Billy Gibbons. For me it was probably more Michael Schenker, which is why I gravitated toward the V so much. Also, as far as the songwriting and stuff is concerned, it’s so interesting what Mark was saying about how he’s a guitar player but he’s also a songwriter.

It’s coming up on 40 years I’ve been doing this, so I’ve also used those old cassette decks where you push the two buttons down and you carry it around like a really lame robotic purse

Dave Mustaine

“Because you try telling that to most normal people that aren’t musicians and they’ll look at you like you’re trying to teach a pig how to sing. They just won’t get it. But I would imagine all you guys have written lyrics down on a shred of paper, or sung a melody into your cell phone.

“Me, it’s coming up on 40 years I’ve been doing this, so I’ve also used those old cassette decks where you push the two buttons down and you carry it around like a really lame robotic purse kind of a thing.

“So how I get the ideas down has maybe changed and progressed over time. But writing and recording and all that stuff, for the true musician, it doesn’t matter how you do it – it just matters that you get it out.”

Finally, here’s the million-dollar question: With tours like this, the idea of a big onstage jam at the end of the night is a thing that is often talked about, even if it’s easier said than done. But let’s assume it was going to happen at each stop on this tour. What would be the song you guys would jam on?

MORTON: “Dave’s choice, man!”

MUSTAINE: “Okay – Gimme Shelter. And Randy [Blythe] has to sing. [Laughter all around]”

MORTON: “I love the first part of your suggestion!”

Does Randy also have to do the background vocal part?

MUSTAINE: “Of course!”

MORTON: “[Laughs] I believe in him. He can do it. He’ll figure it out, man!”

The Metal Tour of the Year begins on July 9, 2021 in Detroit, and ends September 10 in Las Vegas.

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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.