Man, I’m turning 50 this year,” Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine declares. He seems as surprised to be uttering these words as any metal fan must be to see him reach the big Five-O. Few would have bet on it happening. Mustaine has always seemed one of those rock stars fated not to make it past 27. Chronic issues with alcohol bounced him out of his first band, Metallica, in 1983. But that only made Mustaine get mad—and get even. He launched Megadeth in 1984, establishing the band as a linchpin in the thrash metal movement of the Eighties and beyond.
Mustaine seems to thrive on adversity. In 2002, he underwent a difficult recovery from a severe injury to his left arm and came back stronger than ever. He’s also seen Megadeth through more lineup changes than even the most diehard trainspotter would care to track. Still, he has always come out on top.
Now he’s back with Megadeth’s newest album, TH1RT3EN, a disc whose title unites a host of numerological convergences. Not only is it the 13th Megadeth studio album but Mustaine was also born on September 13. He says he started playing guitar at age 13 as well. But like many people these days, he also seems fixated on the ancient Aztec calendar, which has firmly penciled in the End of the World for 2012.
So it’s not surprising that the new Megadeth album comes on like an armored tank, propelled by brutal Megadeth thrash metal rhythms, barbed-wire tangles of guitar mayhem and Mustaine’s croaking Nostradamus vocal assault. Standout tracks include the metal meltdown “Sudden Death,” featured in Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock. As if that weren’t enough, TH1RT3EN unites Mustaine with longtime Megadeth bass player David Ellefson, who left the band in 2002 and subsequently sued Mustaine to the tune of $18.5 million. The bassist returned to the fold early in 2010, just in time to take part in the Rust in Peace 20th Anniversary Tour.
“We just met and had dinner,” Mustaine says of the rapprochement. “Dave said he was sorry, I said ‘I forgive you,’ we hugged, and that started the road of reconciliation. And once we got back in the studio, it was apparent that there was no other person to play bass with me anymore; that no matter what, we would work out our differences, because we were best friends. And we still are. That’s important stuff when you’re playing together. Because if guys don’t make that connection, you can feel that in the music.”
Turbocharging the primordial rhythmic bond between the “two Daves” is guitarist Chris Broderick, a manic shredder who joined Megadeth in 2008. His entry into the band was something of a whirlwind affair, precipitated by the departure of guitarist Glen Drover on the eve of Megadeth’s Tour of Duty outing in Europe. “I knew I had to get 22 songs down in less than a month, so I started working on them,” Broderick says. “That was really my mindset. I’d always been more into the shredder guys—the more instrumental stuff. But when [guitarist] Marty Friedman joined Megadeth, I started to follow him when they came out with Rust in Peace. And then I started getting into their back catalog, and of course followed them moving forward. That’s how I got into Megadeth.”
Weaned on Eighties Shrapnel Records shredders, Broderick is a metal guitar monster. Blindingly fast, and deeply steeped in the legacy of guitar virtuosity, he’s the razor-sharp edge of the present-day, apocalyptic Megadeth juggernaut. “People used to say Marty Friedman and I were like fire and ice,” Mustaine says with a laugh, “although I always said it was more like love and hate. But I think with me and Chris, it’s more like thunder and lightning.”
With drummer Shawn Drover completing the quartet, Mustaine feels he’s fronting the best Megadeth lineup ever. “I can honestly tell you that it’s gotten to a point now where I’ve accomplished everything I’ve wanted to in this world. That includes playing with my old band again, being friends with them, being able to get onstage and do solos with my old band, the fact that I’ve got my old bass player back, and the fact that we’ve made what I believe is our best record ever.”
And if anything could possibly top that, Megadeth will once again share the stage with Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer as the Big 4 tour rolls into Yankee Stadium on September 14. Mustaine finds it a kind of vindication to be included in this august company.
“For years,” he says, “if someone read your fine magazine or any of the other guitar mags, no one would never mention Megadeth as an influence. But then something happened where it just started to change for us. I attribute a lot of that, personally, to my finding God and getting my head on straight. Because I was heading down a very bad road. And I think that’s made it a lot easier for people to look nto what we’re about, ’cause it doesn’t seem like I’m so pissed off all the time anymore.”
Far from pissed off, Mustaine and Broderick were quite pleasant and professional as they recently fielded Guitar World’s questions about TH1RT3EN and their guitar craft.
Did you guys do “Sudden Death” knowing it was going to be for Guitar Hero?
CHRIS BRODERICK: Yes.
So you sat down and said, “Hey, this needs to have a lot of notes”?
BRODERICK: Exactly. We knew that’s what we had to do for that song.
How did you approach dividing up the guitar work—leads and rhythms?
DAVE MUSTAINE: It’s a real simple formula we have. If the rhythm’s easy, I’ll solo over it; and if the rhythm is hard, Chris will solo over it. There are two reasons for that: I’m a better rhythm player than he is, so I can handle the more difficult rhythms, but the flipside of that is he’s a better soloist than I am. So the more difficult the rhythm, the harder it will be to play a solo on top of it. But then the simpler rhythms are something he can easily handle, and I can solo over those because my lead skills are a little more limited. I mean, I can play what I know how to do pretty well, but I’m not as exotic as Chris. So I play over the simpler stuff. And it’s easier for him, because his rhythm skills aren’t as good as mine.
BRODERICK: But our approach is really based on what the song needs. Where there’s a lot of area for solos, there’s usually a trading back and forth, which I really like. It adds diversity, and it’s this kind of cool musical dance.
Is that how it was on “Sudden Death”?
BRODERICK: That one was interesting. Because it was the first song of the new CD that was written and recorded, it was coming together as we were working on it. So Dave soloed over the whole thing, and I soloed over the whole thing. Then we mixed and matched the solos we had done and picked the best bits. That’s how that was balanced out.
There’s a similar trade-off on “Public Enemy Number One.” One or two of the solos seem like more of a rock solo, less metal.
BRODERICK: Right. There’s four of them total. Two are mine and two are Dave’s. Dave will always have more of a classic pentatonic kind of sound in his playing. Mine will typically sound a little more composed.
An obvious but probably necessary question, Chris: how the hell do you play so fast?
BRODERICK: [laughs] Lots of practice. That’s really what it is. I think when you start to get up to speed, you almost have to quit questioning things and just let your hands do what they know how to do. I’ll spend a lot of time practicing fast stuff 30 bpm slower—down to a level where I can visualize and keep up with it mentally. But when it comes time to perform it, then I’ll just play it up to speed and let my hands do what they know how to do.
I’ve read that, as a teenager, you didn’t have a life and just practiced guitar all day long.
BRODERICK: That’s true. It was pretty tortuous, actually, this self-imposed “I want to be the best” thing. It definitely helped my chops. I’m sure of that. But I do think there are better reasons to practice the instrument. I love fast playing, but there’s a point where it can get away from the musicality of things. Creativity gets lost. Now I practice more just for the love of the instrument and love of music. But back then it was like I had to practice because I knew I needed to get good.
But it was totally self-imposed? There was no, like, stage mother or anything?
Wow. That’s really a lot of discipline for an adolescent.
BRODERICK: Discipline or self-loathing, I guess.
Was it that kind of thing? “People won’t like me unless I play the guitar really great?”
BRODERICK: No, no. It wasn’t that at all. It’s just that all the players I was into, like Jason Becker and Paul Gilbert, were all so good when I first heard them. I just felt, “That’s what I’ve gotta be.”
By the same token, how does Megadeth get those incredibly tight rhythms down? Do you record drums first and then record the rhythm guitar parts?
MUSTAINE: Actually, we’ll record the guitar first, then we’ll cut the drums, and we’ll come back later and replace the drums. The simplest form of what we do is, we’ll create a Pro Tools session and we’ll make a grid. We’ll set the tempo that we want and then import the files that have the pieces on it that we like. Like if I demoed something, we’ll import those files in there, and then we’ll time-compress or expand them as necessary to make it fit that grid at that particular tempo. Any additional parts that need to go in there, I’ll just punch them in real quick to make that existing track. We’ll listen to the track, see if that’s what we want to do, and then I’ll just play a real quick scratch track from beginning to end, and that will be our guide. At that point what you have is the two tracks of guitar—one track with all the bits and pieces, and the second track, which is the scratch track from beginning to end. And then from there, the third track that would come down is the entire tracking of drums. And then we just go from there—drums, bass, rhythms, solos, vocals, ear candy, mix, master.
It’s really cool that the rhythm guitar is almost the metronome for the whole thing. That’s what’s driving the train.
MUSTAINE: Yeah. It totally is. This is a guitar band.
This is the first Megadeth album since Dave Ellefson rejoined early last year. What has that been like?
BRODERICK: It’s awesome. He’s such a professional. He came in, laid down his bass lines and just nailed it. To talk about what he’s done for the CD is to talk about the way he is in every other aspect. He’s always on it. Very accurate, very meticulous player. He’s got great tone, and he’s just easy to work with. It’s great to work with another iconic musician.
MUSTAINE: The amazing thing about Dave Ellefson is that he’s a better bass player now than when we parted. I don’t know if he spent the last eight years woodshedding while we were apart, but when he started playing again it was great on a lot of different levels, because he was my bassist. James MacDonough and James LoMenzo are good bass players, a good fit with the band, and we had a wonderful time together. But Dave, he’s my bassist. It’s like peanut butter and jelly. You just expect the two Daves to be together. Dave has been through a lot of personal changes in his life, and he’s really become a rock for us. Things have progressed so rapidly with our getting back our stature and status and everything that goes with that. Had Dave not been there to help me take it all in, I don’t know if I would have been able to put it in perspective and have a good run. Usually in the past, something would come up. Somebody would crash or somebody would burn. But here we are.
That said, what are your long-range plans for Megadeth? Where do you see yourselves going from here? Any thoughts of retirement?
MUSTAINE: I know I’ve alluded to stopping at some point, but then it’s always gotten real good and discouraged me from wanting to hang my harps up. But I’ll tell you right now, if this lineup changes, I don’t want to break anybody else in. I love Chris, Shawn and Dave. I just don’t think I could do it again. And I can honestly tell you I don’t want to do it again. I want this to be my band and stay this way.