Jeremy Saffer
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Thrash kings Megadeth are enjoying a creative and commercial upswing the likes of which haven’t been seen since the glory days of Rust in Peace (1990) and Countdown to Extinction (1992).

That’s because the band’s 15th studio album—last year’s Dystopia—is a hyperkinetic return-to-form that rides high on unapologetic, old-school guitar wizardry, rapid-fire rhythms, and pointed lyrics about corruption, conspiracy, and chaos in a “Post American World.” And after receiving a dozen Grammy nominations over the last thirty years, Megadeth have finally won one, taking top prize for Best Metal Performance.   

Nobody’s more pleased with the payoff than Dave Mustaine, who started the head-banging group in 1983 after leaving the then-nascent Metallica. The band built a devoted fan base on the strength (and speed) of albums like Killing Is My Business…and Business is Good! (1985), Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? (1986), and So Far, So Good…So What?! (1988). 

But Megadeth made its biggest waves yet with the multi-platinum discs Rust and Countdown—the former arriving almost a year before Metallica issued their eponymous breakthrough “black album.” Featuring the classic lineup of Mustaine (guitar), Marty Friedman (guitar), Dave Ellefson (bass), and Nick Menza (drums), Megadeth assuredly ascended to the top of the ‘90s thrash heap on the merits of slick singles like “Holy Wars,” “Sweating Bullets,” “Skin O’ My Teeth,” and “Symphony of Destruction.”

Over the next fifteen years Megadeth experienced growing pains, with key members shuffling in and out even as Mustaine endured a personal metamorphosis. The quartet rebounded in the new millennium with whiplash-inducing efforts United Abominations, Endgame, and Th1rte3n—and performed at several historic “Big 4” stadium shows with friendly rivals Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax.

Dystopia marks a new chapter for Mustaine and Ellefson, who recorded the album in Nashville with guitarist Kiko Loureiro (ex-Angra) and fill-in drummer Chris Adler (Lamb of God). We spoke with Mustaine last week about the next phase in Megadeth’s evolution, fiction and fables, and the band’s summer tour with Meshuggah, Tesseract, and Lillake (they play Jacobs Pavilion in Cleveland on July 3).    

AXS: Hi, Dave!  So you’re based out of Nashville now?  Getting ready for the tour?    

DAVE MUSTAINE: I am, I am, I am! It’s definitely a music city, that’s for sure! We’re just resting before the next leg for a couple weeks. We usually tour for about a month, then take a couple weeks off, and then go back out again. We found that that’s the best number to keep relationships and keep kids happy. You’re gone a few weeks, home a few weeks. The dogs remember who you are when you come home at night, and you’re not getting bit someplace on the lower extremities!

AXS: Can you talk a bit about working with drummer Chris Adler on Dystopia?

DM: Chris and I got in the studio and had a lot of fun right away. He made it clear that he didn’t want anything other than to come in and be a gunslinger, a work-for-hire kind of a dude. He’d be in there, and when it was time to start, we’d work until it was time to finish. And if there was anything he wasn’t sure about—some part he didn’t like—he had this clever thing he would say, “Well that isn’t really my Megadeth.” I thought that was a cool, polite way of saying, “Let’s try something else.” Over the years there has been a lot of stuff with Megadeth where we’ve had musical differences. We’ve grown in the right direction, and we’ve grown in the wrong direction. So to have somebody who’s been a fan since the beginning come sit in with us and be able to say something like that was refreshing.

AXS: How about your new guitarist, Kiko? What does he bring to the guitar picture?

DM: When Kiko started with us, I basically had an interview with him that was mostly about his personality. I’d already seen a YouTube clip of him playing with our last guitar player, Chris Broderick. I saw what Kiko was doing and thought, “Wow, he’s really remarkable.” So I had him come out, and we had a wonderful time hanging out. At one point, we’re sitting in my house, and the phone rings. I pick up the phone, so Kiko grabs his acoustic guitar and starts playing something in the background. My jaw dropped, because he was playing what became the song “Conquer or Die” on the new record. I’d always wanted to do something that was our version of “Eruption” or “Spanish Fly” [by Van Halen], an acoustic kind of thing. I think we delivered on that. Going into the studio with these new guys with David Ellefson…it was like, “C’mon, let’s rock!” There was this new sense of fun and excitement.   

AXS: How do you decide which guitarist plays which solos?

DM: It’s pretty simple. It’s based on the rhythm. I’m a better rhythm player than a soloist. I consider myself an accomplished soloist, but if the rhythm gets too complicated I can’t follow it very well. The other guys can. So I’ll take the more complicated rhythm to play and let them solo over it. But when the rhythm is simpler I’ll have them do it and I’ll solo over it. That’s usually the most obvious way we pick who does what. There’ll be times when it just doesn’t work out that way. One of the main reasons Marty Friedman left Megadeth was because of the solo in “Breadline.” That was a song where Marty wanted to do the solo so badly. And he did, but when we got the song back our management said “We don’t like the solo.” Marty was already gone, so I agreed to re-do it. But I told them they’d have to tell Marty they didn’t like his solo and wanted it re-done, because I knew it was gonna cause problems! So then we’re sitting in the control room and the song comes on. Everyone’s there, we’re all excited. I’m fat, dumb, and happy because I think they told Marty it would be my solo, not his. So the song comes up and there’s my solo. Dave Ellefson and I look over at Marty, and he’s got tears coming down his face. I was like, “Oh my God!  You didn’t tell him!” I felt terrible. Those are the little things that just f--k everything up. People don’t see that part of it. They think it’s my fault. I mean sure, I had a part in it, yeah. But who forgot to tell him? 

AXS: Do you have any favorite dystopian movies or books, like 1984 or Brave New World

DM: I read one called Harvest Home. It was required reading in high school, which was weird because it talked about a satanic orgy at the end of it! How many high schools make you read a story where the ending is an orgy…of any kind? It’s like, “Don’t worry, this is a good orgy. It isn’t a bad one!” But I’ve read a lot of ‘em that encourage you to be a better person. Then again, there’s stuff that’s really salacious, like The Prince, or Dante’s Inferno. Those might not make you a better person, but they’re certainly entertaining! I guess it just comes down to what you like to read.

AXS: What are you most looking forward to on tour with Meshuggah?

DM: Well, Meshuggah and Tessaract and Lillake are really popular modern bands that fans love a lot. I’m excited because we like playing with bands that are as possessive of their music as we are of ours. When we first started, we were doing something nobody else really did. We were super-excited about pushing the envelope and making people step back and go, “What!” So we like seeing new bands doing something equally challenging, musically or provocatively, with their lyrics. Just so long as it’s not stupid shit that’s controversial just for the sake of being controversial. Anybody can be a foul-mouthed singer spouting off about what’s wrong with the world. I was telling someone in an interview yesterday that one of my favorite writers other than Edgar Allen Poe is Aesop. Aesop always had a moral. There was always something there. You weren’t left hanging. You walk away going, “Oh, okay.  The Scorpion and the Frog. It’s my nature, I get it. The Ant and the Grasshopper.” I like these life lessons. I like seeing the world in pictures. When I learn, I remember so much better when I can see it. When you put it to me in a word-picture, it’s like, “Sh-t! I totally get it! I had that experience, too!”

Check out Megadeth's website for complete tour details