“Meg-a-deth! Meg-a-deth!” Outside the Guitar Center on Sunset Boulevard, the line of people, mostly young Latinos in black T-shirts, burgeoned since before noon. They came to hear a 7pm talk by songwriter-guitarist-singer Dave Mustaine, founder of the thrash flagship Megadeth. They came to have him sign their CDs and guitars and glossies and nipples. They came to suck up his aura.
Mustaine embodies all the pluses and minuses of a self-made man. He’s talented (knows he’s good) and contemptuous (good is what he says it is). He’s confident (he’s the man) and arrogant (you’re not the man). He’s compassionate (been there) and brutal (gotta be tough). He’s generous (drove from San Diego) and needy (now kiss his ass). He’s had to assemble many different lineups of his band. And you can see why.
I like him. And I like his music. For a quarter-century, Mustaine has found many ways to rock. Old Megadeth albums such as “Peace Sells . . . But Who’s Buying?” (1986) and “Countdown to Extinction” (1992) stand as landmark combinations of landslide rhythm, melodic invention and junkie wrath. But don’t neglect more recent winners such as “The System Has Failed” (2004) and a couple of DVDs, which look and sound tops.
Several journalists lined up to score a few minutes one-on-one with Mustaine before this installment of the Guitar Center Sessions series, and I was one of them. I’ll talk about the rest of the event at the end.
Dave Mustaine interview
GREG BURK: Your new Dean signature guitar is heavier than the original flying-Vs you used to play. I guess the weight wasn’t what was bothering your arm. [He retired for a year or two in 2002 following an injury.]
DAVE MUSTAINE: “No, that’s definitely one of the things that’s bothering my arm. But the way that that injury was sustained was differently than having the weight of the guitar. I have stenosis in my back. Stenosis is where the vertebra has an opening on the side, and the nerve comes out. The vertebra is closing in on the nerve. So that’s what’s going on with my neck and the weight of the guitar. With my arm, that was called Saturday Night Palsy, and I’d had my arm over the back of a chair, and I’d fallen asleep, and it had cut off the circulation to the nerve on the inside of my arm there, and the muscles inside of my brain stopped talking to the brain. It’s two different injuries.
Your first formation of Megadeth was with a couple of jazz guys [drummer Gar Samuelsson, who died in 1999, and guitarist Chris Poland]. Was that intentional? Do you listen to jazz?
“I like jazz a lot. I think there’s a lot of explorative chords in there, and sounds that the guitar players make that are really beautiful; I think they really push the limits of guitar. Did I get them because they were jazz players? Not really. I got Gar Samuelsson because he came to rehearsal and he fell asleep -- he nodded on heroin -- and his cigarette burned clean through his fingers. And I went, ‘Fuuuck, that’s metal!’ I thought, ‘This guy’s gonna be into cattle prods and stuff!’ So we hired him. We listened to him play, and one of his influences was the Mahavishnu Orchestra -- they really liked that stuff, Poland and Samuelsson. Gar had a brother named Stew too, who was really good, played guitar. Chris, too -- we had talked to him about playing, and he had heard that I was one of the top guitar players in the world, and he wanted to play with this band. I was, ‘You wanna play with me?’ Because I was still a kid at the time, remember, this was back in the early ‘80s. And he was like, ‘Yeah, man, you’re like the number 31 guitar player in the world, aren’t you?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, well, that’s what the chart says, but that was one magazine, it doesn’t mean anything.’ Well, he’d never been in a magazine. So. Jazz -- love it. Wasn’t the inspiration behind Megadeth, although Megadeth is very jazz-influenced.”
Your own playing strikes me as intuitive, like you’re hearing a lot of weird shit in your head, not really thinking about theory or whatever.
“I’m self-taught, so the theory would be my own interpretation of whatever the theory is anyway. It would be kinda like White Out on the monitor, you know what I mean? You play by your own rules, basically.”
You have a new guitar player, Chris Broderick.
“I have a vision, and if the windshield gets foggy, you’ve either gotta clean it or you need a new windshield. As long as we’re all four headin’ in the same direction, we’re gonna be making some kind of progress. If we start going in different directions, we’re not gonna end up in the same place, all four of us.”
Do you think you learn something from each new guitar player that you work with?
“I’ve definitely learned a lot. Learned a lot of bad stuff from some, learned a lot of good stuff from some.”
What’s something bad that you learned? “I learned about heroin from Chris Poland.”
I meant from a guitar-playing point of view, but . . .
“You said bad, come on! Bad is bad! As far as, like, a bad guitar thing, fundamentally? I don’t know that somebody would have had access to teach me something that was fundamentally flawed, because I wouldn’t have been able to have assembled it in my mind, there’s no way. Because I kind of have a bullshitometer, that if I hear something that doesn’t sound right, it doesn’t go in, it doesn’t work!”
Are you finding any limitations in heavy metal?
“My age. I’m totally serious. Because we just got done playing in Quito in Ecuador, and it’s 8,500 feet above sea level, and it’s hard singing that high above the ground! You think Denver’s hard, it’s like -- ‘Pussies! Go to Quito!’”
Do think you’ve learned anything from watching professional wrestling?
“I learned a lot about how you can polish a turd. I learned a lot about how if you believe in yourself, you can make anything happen. As far as like, learning suplexes and how to pat some guy on the butt in a thong or something like that, y’know, I tend to look more at the administrative side of it. Yeah, we’ve got some friends that are wrestlers. Bill Goldberg’s one of my friends. He lives in the city right next to us. His wife does a television show with my daughter on Animal Planet. And Chris Jericho, he’s a huge metal fan, and he’s got his own metal band too. So we cross over some of the boundaries into different professions. That’s the neat thing, when you see somebody that you don’t think would know who you are. I remember going to the Home Run Derby one year to play the National Anthem, and Shawn Green [the noted Yom Kippur-observant slugger], who was in the home-run race at the time, goes, “Yeah, man, I’m a huge Megadeth fan!” Then I found out that guy Todd McFarlane [the comix artist and “Spawn” creator] was a Megadeth fan. I was like, ‘No shit?!’ ‘Cause one of his books has Megadeth in it, back from the ‘80s. He knew who we were back before we knew who we were!”
Before the interviews, Mustaine spent a half-hour alone on the stage getting a sound he liked out of a Marshall amp and one of his Dean flying-Vs. (A performance demonstration is part of the Sessions schtick.) Mustaine’s famous strawberry-blond hair hung unfussed; gray flecked his close-cropped beard. He looked a tired 46, squinting through intense mud-colored eyes like a farmer on tornado watch. He’s not tall; still skinny except for a slight middle-aged gut.
Forty-five minutes before the presentation, the unpent mob streamed from outside into a small auditorium. Though many had stood in the sun all day, they didn’t seem spent, oh no. As Megadeth hits pounded from the P.A., they chanted along vigorously with every word, especially enjoying the spoken sections of “Peace Sells,” such as “What do you mean, I couldn’t be president of the United States of America?”
Maybe you could have predicted the fans’ slant. A lot were barrio boys, raised on rap and responsive to Megadeth’s fight-the-power stance. Many weren’t born 22 years ago, when “Peace Sells” came out. And the idea of a brown president no longer seemed remote.
“We want Dave! We want Dave!” And you would not believe the cheer that went up when Mustaine stepped onstage and perched upon one of two brocade thrones. (The other was occupied by his interviewer, broadcaster Full Metal Jackie.) It took 10 minutes of intermittent barks from Mustaine to settle everybody down, and there were regular outbreaks thereafter -- one 11-year-old kept yelling stuff like “You are my inspiration!”
Ever the showman, the sagging Mustaine quickly inflated. Ignoring the banality of the questions as always, he scolded and shredded his way through an hour and a half of history, advice and technique. Here’s some of his wisdom.
* “There’s a video going around of me choking somebody, and I don’t like to choke people.”
* “Be careful what you say in interviews.”
* “When I heard they fired that guy from Bon Jovi, I thought, ‘Why didn’t you fire ‘em all?’”
* “I don’t like band changes. It’s really uncomfortable, and you have to remember somebody else’s name.”
* “I have a nice ass.”
* “I lived in a car.”
* “The band makes it rock; the crew makes it roll.”
* “Amplifiers are as different as women . . . their tubes warm up at different rates.”
* Mustaine: “I’m not as young as I was, and I’m not full of cocaine.” Loudmouth: “I know what you mean.” Mustaine: “I know what you mean too, because you won’t shut up.”
* His son’s name is Justice.
* A lot of his influences are acronyms: AC/DC, UFO, NWOBHM.
* His solo in “Holy Wars . . . The Punishment Due” was the only one he ever did in one take.
* When Mustaine couldn’t remember what kind of processor he was using these days, a guy in the audience called out the exact manufacturer and model number.
Mustaine’s guitar demonstrations weren’t terribly enlightening. He congratulated himself a lot, when Jackie wasn’t congratulating him. He came off as a dick as often as he came off like an artist. But he put on the best free show I’ve seen in a long time. That’s why he’s a star. Thanks.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF GUITAR CENTER.