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A Quietus Interview

Talking To The Shred Devil: An Interview With Dave Mustaine
John Doran , December 13th, 2010 12:33

God helps those who help themselves, as Megadeth mainman Dave Mustaine is finding out. Written by John Doran and originally published in The Stool Pigeon

Dave Mustaine is a ray of sunshine. Perhaps it's because Jesus wants him for a sunbeam.

As soon as he picks up the phone, his infectious enthusiasm hits you, even though he's grumbling amiably about jazz: "I need to have a melody and a beat for me to relate to a song. Imagine if you were watching Led Zeppelin doing 'Stairway To Heaven', it was coming up to the solo and Jimmy Page went..." He starts honking and skrakking like John Coltrane and Derek Bailey in chain mail falling down a flight of iron steps. "The fans would be outraged!"

God damn it! He's right. Don't jazz up 'Stairway', you maniacs! And here we were expecting heavy metal's least-happy son to crawl straight down the telephone wire, come bulging out of the receiver and attack us like Freddy Krueger. But something must have happened to this guitar hero in the six years since his dour and depressing appearance in the Metallica documentary Some Kind Of Monster because he seems, well... happy.

Mustaine, a flame-haired, 49-year-old Californian, the sole driving force behind Megadeth, one of the most revered thrash metal bands ever, is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity thanks to the recent 'Big Four' gigs and a reconciliation with founding member Dave Ellefson for the 20th anniversary Rust In Peace tour. He is also a key early member of Metallica — the most successful heavy metal group of all time. He co-wrote half of their first album before he was kicked out for drink and drug problems in 1983, just before they became famous.

He has lived his whole adult life in a strange bubble of ultra-permission. Alcoholism, fame and heroin addiction meant he got most of the way to his current age without being encumbered with the need to grow up. Until recently he existed solely in the universe of heavy metal where there is nothing weird about wealthy middle-aged men publicly threatening to kick each other's asses for the entertainment of teenagers. And until recently, in this universe, he was the dark knight of the untrammelled male ego and the fully wakened and destabilised male id. He was, in short, metal's king of beef.

Most rock musicians on Wikipedia get a separate page for their discographies. Mustaine is no exception. His 12 studio and five live albums as Megadeth's mainstay have sold 25 million copies alone. But he has another separate page: 'Dave Mustaine's Feuds And Rivalries'. The most notable thing about this curious resource is not that it exists, but how woefully inadequate it is at detailing Mustaine's venomous and bountiful anger at other musicians. It covers his numerous, decade-straddling fights with various members of Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth and, of course, Rotting Christ, but trails off pusillanimously after barely scratching the surface of his ire. Nowhere does it mention, for example, Jon Nödtveidt, from Dissection. Back in the day, you see, Dave was an avenging ginger angel of metal retribution, literally traversing the globe, ready to kick the ass of any chump fool enough to cross him.

Dave tries to close down the discussion with a brusque: "I went all the way to France to fight him, but he didn't show up." When pressed, he says: "I'm a Christian and a headliner who has been playing for 30 years. That gives me the right to pick who I want to play with. So if it's my concert and there's someone on the bill who I don't want to play with, then I should be able to say, 'I don't want 'em on there.' If it's a festival, well, that's kind of different. But I told my agent, 'Don't book me with any satanic bands.'"

The reason Dave didn't want to appear on the same bill as Dissection was his religious conversion in 2003, something that helped him finally kick his crippling habits. Just a few months later his agent, who either didn't receive or didn't understand the memo, booked him on the same festival bill as the notorious Swedish satanic thrash band. Nödtveidt, the frontman of the group, was a member of the Misanthropic Luciferian Order who believed in extreme militant nihilism. In 2003, they had just come out of a six-year hiatus while Nödtveidt served a prison sentence for helping murder a gay man.

Dave continues the story with a Christian joke: "There's darkness in all of us, dude. I'm a sinner and for me to think that I'm not going to play with any sinners, then I might as well quit right now because I play with three of them beside myself."

He claims that his manager got Dissection kicked off the bill, but he wanted them back: "I told him, 'It's hard enough getting gigs as it is now [because of his conversion to Christianity], I'll step down.'"

By this point, however, the damage was done and the customary war of words erupted in the pages of the metal press, with the heavily tattooed devil worshipper bad mouthing the newly saved God botherer. So they took the only course of action that seemed reasonable and organised a fight... in France. Dave, with the righteous might of the Lord on his side, made the journey: "Rumour had it that he'd murdered two people. But, you know, if I'm supposed to die because some guy who is in a satanic band doesn't like me, then I guess I'm supposed to die."

When he got there it was a no-show, which was perhaps the only sensible decision the Swede made in a short life packed full of very bad decisions. In a way, that's a shame, because it would have been like the thrash metal version of Grace Jones versus Timothy Dalton up the Eiffel Tower. Instead, the net effect was thus: Misanthropic Lucifer, 0 — God, 1, even if it was a win by default.

There was to be no rematch. Three years later the satanist was found dead in his apartment inside a circle of lit candles, clutching the Misanthropic Luciferian Order's bible in one hand and a discharged revolver in the other.

Had he turned up there's a chance Dave may have kicked some sense into him, because it doesn't seem likely that Mustaine would have lost. He quickly sketches his legal fighting history: "I have a first degree in Ukidokan karate. My sensei — Benny 'The Jet' Urquidez — has the style of karate, kung-fu, aikido, judo, ju-jitsu, taekwondo, Greco-Roman wrestling, Muay Thai boxing and American boxing. So it's all those things rolled into one. It's a nine-style discipline. My second black belt is in Songham taekwondo and I was an assistant instructor in that style, and then I taught it privately for a while."

It seems that Mustaine excels at pretty much everything he does, driven perhaps by fear of rejection and failure as well as overwhelming competitiveness, most of which stems back to him being kicked out of Metallica. And it is this that has made him as hard as particularly brutal nails, as well as a quicksilver guitarist. But if there's a connection between his fist work and fret work, he's not up for over-analysing it. He drawls laconically: "What are the similarities between playing guitar and fighting? Well, I think the goal is to be great at both but not to have to do either..."

So not only would he certainly have kicked Nödtveidt's ass, afterwards, when the horned one's foot soldier was lying on the floor with a big bloody bubble of snot expanding from the end of his nose, Dave would have picked up his guitar of choice — a BC Rich Bich Perfect 10 — and fired off a lightning speed solo with palm muting and pinch harmonics that would put his peers to shame. Let's put it this way: it didn't come as a universal surprise last year when he was named as the world's best guitarist in occasional Stool Pigeon writer Joel McIver's book, The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists.

But there was a time when he was only happy on stage shredding. He confirms that Japanese fans used to call him 'The Red Devil' because of his flying, flowing copper locks. If you wanted to see him smiling you'd have to take his photograph on stage. Caught mid-headbang, his crimson tresses flying up in front of a white arc of light, you might have snapped him during that split second where he resembled a grinning Japanese flag. The rest of his life was simply a grind of bitterness, recrimination, intoxication and anger.

Now Dave Mustaine is a ray of sunshine... in comparative terms at least. He laughs off the idea that his former lack of happiness may have been necessary to his talent: "No, no, no, no. No, no, no, no! Listen dude, the last break we just had, we went home for three weeks and it was the most enjoyable three weeks I ever had. Because the career is going so fast and furious at the moment and everything is going so well. We're playing good, we've got a great band, we've got a great crew, our shows are really good... what have I got to complain about? And I was thinking, 'Wow. This is the greatest period of my life.' I was sitting there holding my wife with my kids lying on me, we were watching TV on the couch and I was thinking, 'I wouldn't change a thing. I would go and do the same 30 years of work to have this same exact freedom that I have right now.'"

Because the Devil may still have all the best tunes, but God... well, he has the best solos. That dude shreds.

The latest issue of The Stool Pigeon, featuring Lemmy, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Hercules and Love Affair, is out now.