Longtime Megadeth leader Dave Mustaine has never been afraid to speak his mind on record or in interviews. On the group’s twelfth studio album overall, Endgame (due September 15th), the singer-guitarist continues to tackle subjects not often associated with the party-hearty world of metal, including the recent recession (“Nothing Left to Lose”), the greed of the financial world’s leaders (“Bite the Hand That Feeds”) and a controversial bill signed by George W. Bush (the title track). The man who also helped Metallica get going early on (he co-penned quite a few of their early classics) recently spoke to Rolling Stone about one of metal’s most instantly recognizable basslines, and merging snare drums with AK-47s.
Endgame is certainly one of Megadeth’s most riff-heavy releases.
Making this record, there was a lot of different facets. When I was writing this, I had a lot of material that I had saved over the years, and a lot of stuff that had been really fast, riffy, and exciting, but just not as melodic as where we were during the ’90s. I was assembling the songs and thinking about the possibilities of Shawn [Drover, drums]. When we got in here to start doing a record, I was thinking, “God, these guys have so much potential, what are we going to do?” And I started to really push the envelope, and write songs that were really super aggressive, and had a lot of guitar playing. It was almost self-indulgent with the guitar soloing. I realized, “Dave, you’re not a guitar player for making songs for the radio. You had a couple of songs that you were successful with the radio, but that ain’t your style, come on.”
You also incorporated in some interesting sound effects throughout the record.
I learned a very valuable lesson about music and how to take everything I learned from [1997’s] Cryptic Writings and [1999’s] Risk, and working with Jeff Balding and Dan Huff, and how to put stuff in the background — little “ear candy” that makes things sound better. Like the song “1,320,” we were struggling trying to find the sample for the drag racing, because I told Andy [Sneap, who co-produced Endgame with Mustaine], “Nitro Funny Cars.” So he got a Top Fuel Funny Car [makes sound of a weak car], and I went, “That ain’t a Nitro Funny Car, bro! When you hear a Nitro Funny Car, the world stops around you.” When we got that sample, it made all the difference in the world. I said, “See! This is what I’m telling you about!” And in the background, I said, “When [Shawn] is doing that kind of punk rock/Sex Pistols drum beat in the verses of the song, man, we need a clap track in the back.” And he’s like, “They’ve got those little pieces of wood that are all stuck together, you shake it together, and it sounds like people clapping.” I said, “I don’t want that. I want three people clapping, then double it. Make sure it’s underneath the snare, so it gives is that little bit of sex appeal.”
We’re doing stuff like that with “How the Story Ends,” which is a song about The Art of War by Sun Tzu, and talks about if you were in battle back in ancient times, when you went to war and could not hear the commands from your commanding officer, what they would do is use flags. So you see the flag, and, “Uh oh, we’ve got to retreat. Can’t hear him, but I see the retreat flag.” Y’know, that is if you’re looking backward and you don’t get your fucking head cut off. And the other thing is if you can’t see it, if the whole battlefield is full of smoke, they used drums. I went, “Wow, this is a great song. I should write about the drums and the flags. Naaah, that’s a stupid title.” So I thought about Lord of the Rings, and how the story ends — when Aragorn is talking to his guys, he goes, “We may die tomorrow, but not today. This day we fight.” I thought, “That’s a very moving battle speech.” And in that song, at the end of the interlude in the middle, there’s a flamenco/classical guitar part, and at the end of Chris’ solo, he goes [sings the melody], I said, “Now we need to have some clinking sounds. I saw this Coke commercial where they threw ice cubes into a glass.” Andy said, “I’m not fucking putting ice cubes in a glass!” So we used a teeny little triangle bell and some other cool stuff in the background, and it works!
A song called “44 Minutes” was about a bank robbery [the infamous North Hollywood shootout of 1997]. That bank robbery I wrote a song about, and underneath that snare, we’re using a sample of an AK-47. It’s a gun salute, where they do fire squad. These are things that you hear with records, and you go, “Wow, this is great. I never would have heard this before.”
Sounds like definite “headphone music.”
One of my first records that I heard was Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. That was my very first “headphone record” that I ever listened to. I went home, put on the record, stared at the cover, and listened to that stereophonic [mix] … it was a masterpiece for me at the time. I had never heard that use of stereo panning like that before.
To set the record straight, did you or original Megadeth bassist Dave Ellefson write the bass line to “Peace Sells”?
What do you remember about the writing of that song?
I was homeless at the time, and I was living in a rehearsal place in Vernon, California. I was seeing a girl, Diana — there were a lot of songs I wrote about her. I actually wrote the lyrics to that song on the wall, in that building. I didn’t have any paper in the studio, but I had a Sharpie, so I just wrote on the wall. Whoever inherited our rehearsal room after I moved out, saw the original lyrics to “Peace Sells” on the wall. They probably painted right over it and didn’t even know it.
Did you receive royalties every time MTV played the “Peace Sells” bassline for years afterward (as part of MTV News)?
Never. They didn’t give me a penny. They cut it off right before they’d have to pay me, which was very clever. I don’t think anybody with a conscience at MTV did that — it was probably somebody in their legal department.
Among long-time fans, Risk remains Megadeth’s most controversial release.
Risk was a step that I took — I felt that it was important to me as an artist to stretch my wings. It would have been a great solo record, but I think as a Megadeth record, people were a bit confused and there was a backlash to it. But I still stand by the music. The thing was when I wanted to return to my roots, a lot of people were saying, “No, you can’t do that, you made Risk.” And I said, “Watch me.” So I asked Marty Friedman — who was the guitar player at the time — “We need to go back to our roots and make a metal record.” He quit. That’s why he is pictured recently wearing a kimono with an umbrella on his Website. For me, I look at that, and I’m like, “That’s the guitar player from Megadeth?” I mean, I love Marty’s playing and he was a nice fellow when we played together. We parted ways for a reason, and hopefully if we ever see each other or work together in the future it will be fun again. I don’t know if that’s ever in the cards to do something like that, but Marty’s a very talented guy.
As far as you know, is it true that on the last Metallica tour Cliff Burton was on before he died, the band was planning on firing Lars Ulrich at the tour’s end?
That’s what Scott [Ian, Anthrax guitarist] told me. He said that when Metallica got home, that James, Cliff and Kirk were going to fire Lars.
You’ve always been involved in politics — what do you think of the job Obama has done thus far?
I think Bill Maher said it best: “Go do your job.” When you’ve got somebody who’s a flaming liberal like Bill Maher calling you out, something’s wrong. Especially since he’s such a staunch Democrat.
How highly do you recommend the “Megadeth meatloaf” at Alice Cooper’s Cooperstown Restaurant?
Don’t eat it! There’s a reason why there’s no dogs in the alley there. I’m just kidding about the restaurant — I own part of it.