Take No Prisoners: Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine on Life, Death and Winston Churchill

Music Features Megadeth
Take No Prisoners: Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine on Life, Death and Winston Churchill

“What I do best is play thrash music.”

For the band’s 15th full-length, Dystopia, Megadeth waste no time reminding long-time listeners why the hell they loved the band in the first place. For Dave Mustaine, that’s the only thing that matters. As the band’s founding member and vocalist/guitarist, Mustaine has now spent over three decades hammering Megadeth into the heavy metal consciousness, elevating the band to iconic status within the genre’s history. In terms of resumes, that the phrase “former lead guitarist for Metallica and founding member of Megadeth” belongs solely to Dave Mustaine is enough by itself to ensure memorability. Add to that the fact that Megadeth’s Peace Sells…but Who’s Buying?, Rust in Peace and Countdown to Extinction remain just as pivotal to heavy metal as any other album released in the genre during the mid-’80s to the early ‘90s, and Mustaine’s career has and continues to be nothing less than extraordinary.

In recent years, Mustaine’s notoriety has come more from his political views than his music. For many, the very idea that one of heavy metal’s most talented and revered musicians would embrace values and/or beliefs contrary to their own is unacceptable. For others, it’s difficult to pay much attention because the music is turned up so loud and there are far too many riffs to focus on to worry about which conspiracy theory which celebrity is shilling today. Considering that this is heavy metal we’re talking about, where one of the genre’s most celebrated artists is a tiny man who wrote songs about elves, dragons and shiny diamonds—well, yeah, perspective is perspective. Mustaine recently spoke with Paste about his own changes in perspective and the effect it’s had on his music as he’s grown older.

Paste: You’ve mentioned that you haven’t been as excited about a record in a long time as you are with Dystopia. Why is that?
Dave Mustaine: I’m happier than I’ve been for a long time with the setup for this. I was telling my son just the other morning that we haven’t had a record recorded, set up, distributed, received by the audience, and get the accolades that this has since Countdown, and I told him that that was before he was even around. [Laughs] That’s a great thing. To be able to know that great things will happen for you if you work for them—that’s just really encouraging for me. I think that’s one of the things that’s important for all of our fans to know. I try to share with them about being homeless, about my past, and all that kind of stuff because I want them to get out of the rut that they’re in if that’s their situation. Some people like that rut, but eventually both ends of that rut will close, and it will be your plot, and I don’t want them to enter the grave any sooner than necessary. I think that’s one of the things that happens with people who turn into armchair quarterbacks, but they never really try what they’re criticizing. I used to play baseball, and the thought of standing in front of someone like Randy Johnson and trying to hit a 100 mph fastball? Forget it. I’ll go back to whiffle ball. [Laughs] People are set out to do certain things, and there’s a really snarky attitude that says, “Those who can’t do, teach,” but I think teaching is something that’s brilliant. I’ve always said if I didn’t do music, I would teach. I wouldn’t teach guitar, either, because I’m self-taught and wouldn’t know what to do. I just think it’s so amazing to enlighten people and bring awareness to people. So many people now are caught up in this thing caring about what people think of them. I don’t care what people think of me, but I absolutely care about how I treat them. I care about people knowing that when they hear my songs or they come to see me play, that there’s no doubt that I had every intent of doing the best I could and putting on the best performance I possibly could. I’ve seen those musicians on stage who looked like they’d rather be anywhere else in the world but in front of the audience, and that bugs me.

Paste: You had some lineup changes in the band and some family health issues during the process of recording Dystopia. How much of those experiences do you see as having influenced what you did with this record?
Mustaine: At the very beginning of the process there was still the original band. We’d already started getting this one assembled before those guys departed, so the songwriting process had a couple of false starts kinda like a track race where the dude fires the gun and someone’s over the line. There were people in our organization that made it uncomfortable and undesirable for us to continue, whether it was management at that time because we had some management changes, and Chris and Shawn were unhappy but I’m glad they’re happy now. But the period when all that stuff went down like with Pam’s mother, it was like a really funky black cloud over us. I mean, I’m sure you know somebody or are probably even related to somebody who has Alzheimer’s because it’s so prevalent here in America, but it’s a brutal thing to watch. If it’s somebody who’s like a distant relative or something, you kinda have a disconnection to it and say, “Well, okay, it’s crazy Uncle John,” but when it’s somebody you’re seeing every single day, it becomes real, and it’s devastating. It’s like Winston Churchill when he used to talk about the black cloud, and it’s exactly what was over our house. And the strange thing, man, is that when she finally died, and we spread her ashes at sea, everything got back to normal. And then the whole process with the neck surgery coupled with all of that was a lot to go through. But it’s all behind me now, and I think all that stuff where I had all these emotions, and all that was going on was driving me crazy, that’s what wrote this record. I’d like to take credit for this, but I think it was just the predicament that we were all in that made it feisty and angry. I think that’s what made it important. What I do best is play thrash music. Having labels and management tell us we had to do a follow-up to “A tout le monde” or we had to do a follow-up to “Symphony” or saying we had to write another radio song—you know, if I could do that, I would, but I’m a thrash guitar player, and I got lucky with those songs. This is what I prefer.

Paste: It’s interesting you mentioning that pressure to repeat past successes. Is that something you see as being more prevalent with bands just starting out now as opposed to when your career first began?
Mustaine: There are a lot of new bands out there that unfortunately don’t get to make the same decisions that we and other bands did because the nature of the music business has totally changed. A lot of bands when they wanna “make it,” they go from the rehearsal room to the studio to the stage to getting signed and being a legit band in a really brief time, and they don’t have the opportunity to really develop or to learn what it’s really like on the road. In every professional business such as the sports world, for example, they have rookie camp where they tell you there’s gonna be gold diggers, and you’re gonna have some of your so-called friends come out of nowhere and ask for loans, and you need to talk like this and say that. Obviously I never had any media training. [Laughs] But some of these younger bands, I think it’s disgraceful the way the labels are prostituting them out, because good songs need to germinate. You don’t plant a field and harvest it the next day. You can cram for a test, but you can’t cram for a crop.

Paste: You’ve always had a common theme with your lyrics from the standpoint of your personal cynicism and dismissal of society and its future. How much has changed as far as what informs your lyrics now as opposed to being that guy in his early 20s?
Mustaine: I think probably as a kid who wrote my first lyric for “Mechanix” when I was very, very young, and then “Jump in the Fire” around the same time, those were the writings of a young male who was not quite 21 yet and had been severely religiously abused from my mom’s religion. She was a Jehovah’s Witness and, to me, I don’t believe in it. My opinion is that it’s a cult, and my family’s still in that religion, and it’s a bummer. You grow up learning certain things like you can’t do the pledge of allegiance, you can’t have a birthday party, or any of that, and that kind of stuff really affected the way my myopic of the world and the prism that I saw it through. It’s like with this whole political thing where everybody’s saying I’m a Republican. I’m not a Republican. I’ve been an Independent ever since I was able to vote. Now, there are certain states that we’ve lived in where the paperwork to register only had certain things you had to fill in on it in order to get registered, but I voted for Clinton, I voted for Bush, and when it comes down to watching the whole political process right now, they’re all the same. Of course with my lyrics I’m not trying to generalize those things necessarily, because once you start to water down stuff so that it’s a much broader brush, I think you lose the focus. It’s like a candlelight versus a laser beam, and I would rather that I was able to really stay focused on what I write about. That’s something that I think a lot of younger kids are starting to be aware of. Millennials are pissed right now because they’ve got no future. I’m hearing that there’s even a name for kids called the “Throwaway Generation.” What the hell is that? I was just thinking about a lyric Sting had where he says “The Russians love their children, too,” and I was thinking about how poignant it would be to do that and say something about who our current political or foreign adversaries are, because that’s such a brilliant lyric. If you really love your kids, you’re not gonna push the button because the balance of something like the nuclear armament is mutually assured destruction. At some point you just have to ask yourself, “How much of this is fiction and how much of it is reality?”

Paste: Is your own mortality something that’s started to influence what and how you create?
Mustaine: Not to be redundant with my source of quotes, but I think Winston Churchill is the one attributed to the quote that says something about when you’re young you’re more inclined to be liberal and when you’re older you’re more inclined to be conservative, and I think there’s a lot of that that makes sense. Life is like a candle, and when you get down to the very end of it, you want the fire to burn slower. I mean, you look at mortality and the people who are just a mere 20 years or even less older than me dropping like flies. Of course medication has advanced to help extend our lives, but it really makes you think about what is gonna be left behind for you. Think about it. Scott Weiland died, and he was in the press for like two days and then gone. All the great songs that he wrote and all the wonderful shows that those guys put on, and the same thing with Lemmy, although the heavy metal community did a great job of memorializing him, this giant, who I’ll never forget, but he’s out of the headlines. Bowie went a little bit slower than any of them, obviously, but then someone like Glenn Frey just came and went. He was just as quickly in the news as he was out of it, and nobody even really made mention at all of Natalie Cole dying. You think your life is this grand thing, but it’s just that dash between the year we’re born and the year we die. Everything you do, every word we say, and every deed we accomplish is summed up in that dash.

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