How Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine Reinvented Himself After Being Booted from Metallica
30 years and 15 albums later, Mustaine explains the secret to longevity in the music industry
Who knows why some bands endure like this? When you think of the supreme vitality required, and the ever-renewing inventiveness, and the hard-won fan loyalty, you have to wonder how any of them even manage it. This is especially true of metal bands, who must remain hard and fast and youthful well beyond their actual youth. You can fake the hair, and you can fake the attitude, but you can never fake the sound. The sound must emerge from a place of total authenticity and vigor.
And yet, in just the past few months, we’ve seen two metal bands of longstanding dominance reassert their credentials. Just this past September, Iron Maiden released The Books of Souls, their 16th studio album and one of the most soulful and virtuosic of their career. And last month, Megadeth released Dystopia, their 15th studio album and one of the most soulful and virtuosic of their own career — not to mention the only one to ever chart at Billboard’s number-one spot.
We can never know why some bands endure like this. We can only pick up the clues and speculate. In the case of Megadeth, the clues are particularly plentiful, and the speculation particularly fruitful and enjoyable.
The first thing to consider is that Megadeth is a band founded in the spirit of vengeance by its mastermind Dave Mustaine. As lead singer, songwriter, lyricist, and rhythm guitarist, the strength of Dave’s thirst for revenge propelled them a very long way.
It all started “[o]ne morning in April 1983,” when Mustaine, as he relates in his memoir Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir (2010), “rolled out of bed, bleary eyed, hungover, and smelling like bad cottage cheese, and saw a U-Haul was in the driveway.” He was playing New York with Metallica at the time. Their demo EP, No Life ’til Leather (1982), was one of the hottest things in metal, and they had come all the way from California to show the East Coast what Metallica was all about.
But now, without much ceremony, warning, or even explanation, Mustaine was being kicked out of the band. “[T]hey were standing above me, all four of [the other band members], grim resignation etched on their faces. My bags were behind them, packed and ready to go.” They handed him a bus ticket back to California; he was leaving in an hour. “Everything I had worked for,” he writes, “everything we had accomplished — together — was crashing down in front of me, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I felt like I was back in grade school, when I had no control and every day was a vertiginous nightmare.”
As for putting up any real resistance — that “seemed pointless. Anyway, I wasn’t willing to surrender whatever dignity remained with me by groveling for my job. If they felt that strongly about it — and obviously they did — there was no sense in trying to change their point of view.”
The scene Mustaine paints next is particularly grim and dispiriting:
I was dead fucking broke. Not a dollar to my name. I was looking at a four-day bus trip from New York to California with no food, no water, nothing. I had only a bag of dirty laundry and my guitar. Why they couldn’t have given me a few bucks — survival money — for the trip, I don’t know. Maybe it hadn’t occurred to them. Regardless, I spent the next four days in a hobo’s hell, panhandling for change, accepting whatever handouts my seatmates offered — a doughnut here, a bag of chips there. More than one person took pity on me.
The other members of Metallica — primarily lead singer James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, the only two from that lineup still with the band today — had their reasons for dropping Mustaine, and Mustaine has expressed “regret over the way I…behaved in the months prior to my firing” — namely, his unceasing combativeness and intoxication, extreme even by the standards of a band that had already rightfully earned for itself the nickname of Alcoholica. But that doesn’t change one simple fact about Mustaine’s firing, which is the unjust abruptness of it.
“I know,” Mustaine writes, “that some people will point to the irony of my firing so many [Megadeth] band members after I was unceremoniously dumped by Metallica, but there is a difference. I have never fired anyone without warning. I’m a firm believer in second chances. Some people even deserve a third or fourth chance.”
By the time I got back to California, I was basically shattered. I’d lost my best friends, my band, my livelihood. Practically speaking, I’d lost my identity, which had become thoroughly indistinguishable from that of Metallica. I was the face of the band, and now I had no band. I had nothing.
— Dave Mustaine, ‘Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir’
The freshness and vitality in Dystopia’s sound — like that of all Megadeth’s best work over the years — derives not just from the sheer force and velocity of the band’s playing, or the anguish and anger in Mustaine’s vocals, but from the melodies Megadeth is careful to incorporate into their songs. This is one way a band stays vital into their twilight — with songs patiently and expertly built to never wear out.
Crucial to Mustaine’s musical development was the influence of his sisters. “There were different generations,” he tells me in an interview by phone.
“There’s 18 years between my oldest sister and me. So their husbands would listen to really cool shit from the ‘50s and ‘60s. And I have a sister who’s three years older than me, so I was exposed to the stuff she liked: a lot of Motown, a lot of stuff like Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Frankie Valli, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, all kinds of really cool stuff, Herman’s Hermits, and really weird, weird bands from the ‘60s, the Rascals, the Hollies. And all that stuff that was in the ‘70s and shit, too,” he adds.
He took this foundation and built on it as he matured. “When the British Invasion happened,” he says, “with Led Zeppelin and the Who, that really rocked my world, and it wasn’t long before I discovered AC/DC, Kiss, other bands that really started to craft my musical songwriting. My guitar playing took a complete turn once the new wave of British heavy metal came out, because it was all about the riff. And because I had had that weaning…with playing guitar with my sister, who’s a piano player — we would play the Beatles, Cat Stevens, Elton John — [I learned] a lot about pop structures. But I loved the metal energy. So I think it’s the prism I see things through.”
Credit also has to be given to the other musicians in the band, beginning with Dave Ellefson, the first lasting member of Megadeth whom Mustaine recruited, and who has been a part of the band — with one acrimoniously litigious interruption — all the way through Dystopia.
When Mustaine returned to California and set about “building the perfect beast,” he “was out for blood. I wanted to kick Metallica’s ass, and I couldn’t do that with amateurs. The mission was too important for dilettantes.” He first met Ellefson one morning when he went to the apartment downstairs to complain about the noise from Ellefson’s “Runnin’ with the Devil” bassline. (Mustaine was trying to sleep one off.) This was just days after Ellefson had moved from the family farm in rural Minnesota to make it in music. Although this sounds a little too biopic-convenient for reality, Ellefson plays a note-for-note cover of this account in his own autobiography, so one can feel safe in taking them at their word.
When Metallica had handed Mustaine his bus ticket out of New York, he told them, “Okay. But don’t take any of my stuff,” by which he meant the several Metallica songs he helped write that — along with those on Slayer’s Reign in Blood (1986) and some of Megadeth’s own early work — essentially codified thrash metal for the decades to come. Of course, Metallica did take his stuff, with Kirk Hammett by then playing all of Mustaine’s old solos. Mustaine suspects in his memoir that “they just figured I’d never amount to anything and thus would not present any sort of a challenge to them.” Then he adds: “But they were way the fuck wrong.”
In a moment that seems even more biopic-convenient than that of Mustaine’s and Ellefson’s first meeting — but that Mustaine assures me is the precise truth — he was on the very bus that took him away from Metallica and toward the future when he found a pamphlet containing the words of Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA). “When you’re watching mile-post after mile-post click by,” he says, “you’ll read just about anything. Hell, I would have read one of those Jehovah’s Witnesses things at the time.” In the pamphlet, Cranston warned of the dangers of nuclear proliferation: “The arsenal of megadeath can’t be rid no matter what the peace treaties come to.” Mustaine took that idea and wrote a song off it called “Megadeth,” dropping the second a. He later changed the name of the song to “Set the World on Fire,” and kept the name of Megadeth for the band.
The band’s first album, Killing is My Business…and Business is Good! (1985), is by far their least-polished. The low budget provided by Combat Records meant a terribly muddied sound quality, while proper emphasis was not yet placed by the band on melody and song structure. Meanwhile, even Ellefson “wish[es] some of the tempos had been a bit less extreme.” This is one place where Mustaine’s quest for vengeance against Metallica got the better of him, and ended up hindering the band rather than propelling it forward. “We’d originally rehearsed the songs significantly slower,” Ellefson writes in My Life with Deth: Discovering Meaning in a Life of Rock & Roll (2013):
“Megadeth’s music had suddenly gotten much faster back in the fall of 1983 when Dave received a letter from a fan….Metallica had just released their debut album, Kill ’Em All, and this fan had written, ‘Dave, I hope your songs are faster than Metallica’s.’ The next day we sped up all the songs by about forty beats per minute. Extreme speed was deemed the cool factor in thrash metal back in those days, and that one fan letter changed Megadeth’s sound overnight.”
Fortunately this did not remain their modus operandi for long. By the time of their third album, So Far, So Good…So What! (1987) — the one that made them into stars — Megadeth was a sleek, sophisticated outfit, highly evolved and deliciously complex. Ellefson writes that many of the musicians who’ve auditioned with Megadeth during its many personnel changes have “assumed that they would get the gig without knowing that many of the nuances in Megadeth’s music are found in the picking hand, not just the fingerboard hand. A lot of guys learned the notes for the fretting hand, but never understood the rest until they got in the room with us. Other musicians, however, understood the advanced techniques behind our music.”
Mustaine has always been Megadeth’s lead singer, although this was not the intention at first. After failing to find a suitable candidate, he decided he was going to have to try it himself. Mustaine claims in his memoir that it was Ellefson who suggested this, while Ellefson maintains only that “I remember being very encouraging to him about this.” Ellefson also remembers “the first time he did it: he was all red-faced afterward because he didn’t know how to breathe properly and sing, but it was obviously going to work.”
“It took time to learn proper technique,” Mustaine acknowledges. “I didn’t know how to breathe efficiently or how to pace myself so that I wouldn’t wreck my vocal cords. Consequently, I developed a unique singing voice. Not everyone is a fan, of course. But there’s no questioning the originality. When you hear a Megadeth song, you know it.”
He’s right. When you hear the voice — its screeches and snarls and growls, its anger and anguish and longing — you feel almost as if you’re eavesdropping on someone’s most private, tormented moments — as if you’re listening to something you shouldn’t be. Nobody else could have given this to Megadeth. It had to come from Mustaine, and since he was already the figurative voice of the band, it gave their music even more conviction and identity when he became the literal voice as well. Best of all for Megadeth in the long run is the way this voice is not reliant on youth to achieve its effects — the way its effects, in fact, are actually enhanced with age and even injury, as more character and vulnerability, not to mention a more practiced technique, begin to find their way into Mustaine’s vocals.
Mustaine himself, incidentally, has no use for this theory, telling me when I present it to him, “I think I’m just wearin’ you down, bro,” and then laughing. For the first time ever, Mustaine took vocal lessons in preparation for Dystopia. This was in part because of throat surgery he’d undergone in 2012, and in part because his daughter — who recently released a terrific rendition of Megadeth’s “I Thought I Knew It All”— told him he needed to better protect his voice. “I think I went, ‘You little shit!’” he recalls. “But she was right. And I think that just learning how to take care of yourself a little better is good. And I certainly agree that I’ve got a different-sounding voice. I think that’s the cool thing about bands that came from that era, was we really let our true natural voices come out.”
They have two new members for Dystopia, guys who’ve never played with Megadeth before. One of these — Chris Adler, the drummer from Lamb of God — is a lifelong fan of the band, and, as Ellefson recently told Bass Player, “he brought a huge energy to this band and these sessions that only a seasoned drummer with a fan appreciation of the band could.” Adler has recently cited Megadeth as “the reason I play this music” and “still to this day my favorite band of all time.”
As for Kiko Loureiro, co-lead guitarist with Mustaine and a former member of Angra, Ellefson said that “he is very aware of the history of Megadeth and of our guitar players, and he’s one of the most astute musicians I’ve ever worked with.” Mustaine has gone even further, claiming that he’s actually “intimidated” by Loureiro’s guitar-playing skills. “I just got an e-mail from Kiko the other day,” he tells me, “where he had deciphered all the guitar parts at the end of ‘Dystopia,’ to show me what the parts were because he feels we should do that part at the end, and just do [something else] at the end of ‘She-Wolf.’ And let me tell you something: in 30 years, I have never had one guitar player show me something like that. Not one of them….Kiko just proved to me that he gets the crown. When he sent over completely mapped-out guitar parts for both of us, showing us where it is and that kind of stuff, it was: ‘You win, hands down. You’re my favorite.’”
It’s not just new band members that Megadeth constantly experiments with; they’ve also been at the vanguard of two tangential technologies, as probably the very first band to have its own website, in 1994, and now probably the first to provide virtual-reality glasses and an app for downloading specially recorded VR videos.
Mustaine and Ellefson have each been in rehab more times than even they can probably count—primarily for heroin and alcohol—and are now both sober Christians. But sobriety and Christianity seem, if anything, to have somehow only made their edge sharper.
“Anger and ambition had fuelled my art…,” Mustaine acknowledges in his memoir. “[W]hat would happen [to his music] if I became a man of peace? Of serenity? I had spent most of my adult life provoking and prodding. Could I live without confrontation, without agitation? I had no idea, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to find out.”
Those words were published in 2010. When I ask him for an update on how serenity has affected his music, and if the anger and ambition are still there, he tells me, “Well, I think it’s still kind of there. If you’re an artist and you used to paint everything in angry tones like reds and stuff like that, you kind of move into a more peaceful area where it’s blues and stuff like that. You’ve still got the reds there — you’re just not using them right now.”
To people who insist he should finally be content with his accomplishments, he explains in his memoir, “You had to be there to understand what it was like [to be kicked out of Metallica], to feel like you’re changing the world. And then to have it pulled out from under you and to see and hear reminders of what might have been every single day, for the rest of your life. And you know — you just fucking know — whatever you accomplish, somehow it will never be quite good enough.”
Unless you’ve been in that situation — and very few of us have — it’s hard to be too severe in assessing Mustaine’s lingering bitterness. By the time of his memoir, Mustaine had come to “understand that [Metallica] has a purpose in my life, and that purpose is to challenge my humility, to keep me humble and hungry.”
But again, those words are from 2010. Mustaine is much more sanguine about Metallica now, and has been ever since they played some of their old songs together at Metallica’s 30th Anniversary Celebration, in December 2011.
“Honestly, they don’t drive me [anymore],” Mustaine says. “You know what, we’re friends. When we did the 30th-anniversary thing after people had heard about this Dave Mustaine character for so many years, and people had made their opinions and never even met me, and made decisions on my playing ability and never even seen me play, when we went to San Francisco for the 30th anniversary and let it rip, it was like, ‘Now you see what it was all about. This was the fun we all had.’ Because I know, in my heart of hearts, that when the fans were all chanting my name, and after we ended those songs, that there was an electricity between Hetfield, and Ulrich, and me, and that audience. There was a connection. That was where we started.”
And this is where he’s ended up, at least for now. Although it’s hard to find many people who still doubt Mustaine and Megadeth, Mustaine hears them, every single one of them, and it’s obvious they still preoccupy his psyche and help inspire his band’s achievements — whether he sees it that way or not. Ask him what keeps the band going with such vigor 30 years later, and he’ll tell you, “Well, I don’t rightly know. I think if you add into the fact the…forces of people that don’t like me out there trying to shut us down and stuff like that, that exponentially makes it even harder. But I think, you know, you just have that relationship with your fans, and be honest with them. Because people that are gonna judge you are gonna judge you no matter what, you know what I’m sayin’? And the people that aren’t gonna judge you — they’re behind you. It’s the ones that are on the fence that you need to win over, or avoid.”
If Mustaine doesn’t exactly see this as a positive, that’s probably because he’s the one experiencing it. If it felt like a positive to him, then it wouldn’t be motivating him the way it has. But there’s no question, in listening to him talk, that these critics are very much on his mind, and one can only conclude, based on Megadeth’s recent output, that they’ve been helping a lot more than hurting the band. (One very clear exception to this are the semi-coherent charges of xenophobia that have been leveled at the band, charges that very understandably upset Mustaine, and probably do nothing to contribute to the band’s sense of artistic freedom.)
And there are positive forces at work, too. As Mustaine puts it, “There comes a point where you have to decide: are you a musician or some kind of paranoid artist — an introverted dude who just locks himself up inside of his house? I don’t like that.”
Maybe Mustaine and his band’s current excellence really is a product of positive forces at work, of painting in blues rather than reds, of fatherhood and marriage and sobriety and Christianity and all those other things that aren’t supposed to be helpful to art but very often are.
“Prior to me discovering that I had a bone shard in my spinal chord from chiropractic injury that led to me having spinal surgery,” he says, talking about an old cumulative-headbanging injury gone very wrong, “I thought my days were numbered. It was uncomfortable to play, I was in constant, chronic pain. And a lot of those times there was pain medication involved, which makes you kind of unpredictable and unhappy a lot of the time. After the surgery, it was totally different. I felt like I’d been invigorated because they were taking the thorn out of the lion’s paw.”
Lary Wallace is an eccentric-at-large whose work has appeared in Aeon, Vice, the Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere.
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