The Megadeth architect discusses how Megadeth has thrived amid turbulence, the thrill of securing a number 1 album, and the tragedy it would be if he and James Hetfield never wrote another song together again.
Difficult times suit Megadeth; but dire times are even better.
The world is awash with financial turmoil, war and climatic upheaval. But with their sixteenth studio album, The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead!, Megadeth is riding high. Peace sells, but record numbers of people are buying (or at least streaming) their latest release.
‘Megadeth as a band has always been most successful when the world is at its craziest,’ Dave Mustaine tells me in the days following the album’s release. ‘You know, when stuff is bad, it’s good. I think it’s kind of weird. It’s like the stock market. Stocks go up, bonds go down, and so on and so forth. I look at our timing right now and this is gotta be the greatest period in my life. Because we’re No.1 on Spotify. We’re No.1 on iTunes. We’re No.1 at Amazon, in the UK and in the USA. And this has never happened for me. I’m so excited that I’ve got my Number One finally. And now it’s just building on that, seeing how much farther we can take this.’
Killing it is Megadeth’s business, and business is good. It’s been six years since Megadeth’s last album, Dystopia. The consensus is that The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead! has been worth the wait. Though Mustaine reminds me that if everyone’s happy, you’re doing something wrong.
Fiery, energetic and full of Mustaine’s sardonic lyrical acuity, the new album feels more expansive than Dystopia. The title track and single “Night Stalkers” both have strings, acoustic breaks and distinct musical movements.
It feels like a more ‘progressive’ Megadeth sound. But that downplays the diversity already in their music. Mustaine is happy to be a guitarist with nothing to prove and, in a business sense, no debts owed. He mentions his career-pausing arm injury in 2002 and how at the time he paid all of his outstanding obligations out of his own pocket.
‘I’ve done a lot of things with the guitar,’ he says. ‘So there’s not really much that I think Megadeth songs require that we haven’t done. There wasn’t really anything “new”. But as far as the playing, I think we took a fresh attitude of not worrying about making anybody happy but ourselves. Because we’ve been conditioned to think about the charts, about radio and about the label, and stuff like that. And very rarely do you get a place in your career where you’re near the end of your contracts and you’re in good standing with everybody.’
That’s not to say the production of the record wasn’t tumultuous. The bass parts were recorded by Steve Di Giorgio. Erstwhile member James LoMenzo has returned to the band full-time on bass. Mustaine refers to LoMenzo as ‘a rock’. COVID shutdowns frustrated proceedings, with port blockades hampering the band when they needed components in the studio. That frustration was poured into the songs. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking the record is about the pandemic.
The title track documents the origins of the 14th-century Black Death after its arrival aboard ships in Sicily. It’s tempting to see the song as a response to the 21st-century plague we have been living through. Mustaine demurs: ‘It has no bearing on today.’
However, Megadeth albums are rarely what they first seem. The band trades in metaphor and allegory as much as it goes straight for the jugular. Listening to Megadeth is often like sparring with a seasoned pro. You’re often looking in the wrong direction when the punch lands.
“Dogs of Chernobyl” is another of the album’s grander compositions. In contrast to the title track, Mustaine urges that it not be taken at face value. In its lyrics, the sudden evacuation of Pripyat (the city nearest to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster) in Spring 1986, is a metaphor for being left by a lover without notice.
It’s a crunchy mid-tempo song. The verse rhythm guitars chug and shift like overworked machinery. The elegant acoustic intro and first solo are the profits of working with lead guitarist Kiko Loureiro. Mustaine calls Loureiro ‘a treasure trove of information when it comes down to guitar playing.’
At the midway point, “Dogs of Chernobyl” is overwhelmed, like the nuclear reactor itself, by a thrashing meltdown. Now racing away, the guitar solos cut deep, and Mustaine delivers an excruciating description of the body’s contamination from radiation fallout.
‘By the time it got to the middle part of the song where it turns on the afterburners, that’s where I wanted to share with the listener what radioactivity and radiation poisoning really is supposed to be like,’ says Mustaine. ‘So I talked to my radiologist, who helped save my life, and I asked him, “What are some of the phrases and terminology of radiation poisoning?” He helped me. So you’ll notice on the record, it says lyrics by Dave and someone named Anthony Cmelak. That’s my doctor, who has given us this great, delicious lyric for the second part of the song there.’
When he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2019, Mustaine treated it with the same aggression he does his music. It was detected by a dentist who casually/callously informed him he had ‘the Big C’. Mustaine is now free of cancer following an extensive bout of radio and chemo therapies. There’s something typically mischievous in him co-opting his radiologist to illustrate the destructive effects of radiation poisoning.
I ask him whether Megadeth’s sense of humour gets overlooked.
‘I think it’s possible that it gets overlooked,’ Mustaine says. ‘I never really know who’s laughing. I don’t think anybody really knows unless you’re in front of them.’
The second half of another album highlight, “Mission to Mars”, stages a panicked exchange between an astronaut and his mission control. The astronaut lands on Mars and realises humans already inhabited the planet, before they escaped to live on Earth. The story was partly inspired by the creation of the United States Space Force and Elon Musk’s intention to colonise Mars with SpaceX. Mustaine’s delivery contains more than a little of his signature sarcasm.
The humorous, radio play-like dialogue is laid over a thunderous instrumental section which showcases drummer Dick Verbeuren’s skull-rattling, extreme metal tendencies. Mustaine compares him favourably with ex-drummer Gar Samuelson.
‘It’s just having fun and playing with telling stories, a bit like “Captive Honour” [from 1992 classic Countdown to Extinction],’ says Mustaine of this more explorative songwriting.
“Captive Honour” saw Mustaine as a prisoner being sent down by then-drummer Nick Menza playing a judge. The song illustrated Megadeth’s knack for depicting inner turmoil and wider societal malfunction (the inhumanity of the penal system). ‘Battles without, for battles within’, Mustaine sang.
“Junkie” from the new album is about someone addicted to both themselves and their obsessions. At one time Mustaine was all too familiar with the unending search for the next drink or the next buzz. Bizarrely, the song was inspired by a documentary about taboo tendencies where a young woman had become addicted to eating sticks of deodorant.
Mustaine has never been afraid of being honest about his addictions, or anything else. He says ‘it’s not always been comfortable’ but clearly takes pride that people ‘can count on me for what I say – I’m not gonna mince my words.’
Megadeth closed the disastrous Woodstock 99 festival, the subject of recent Netflix and HBO documentaries. With their final song in the set, “Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying?’, Megadeth sneered at the broken promises of the idealistic sixties, as attendees torched the festival grounds. Written in 1986, the lyrics portrayed someone who defied the very terms with which they were criticised: ‘What do you mean I “ain’t kind?”/I’m just not your kind’.
That defiance has defined Mustaine’s role in heavy music and popular culture more widely. It has been his conviction to ‘dance in the rain, instead of wait for the sun’ as he wrote on 2013’s Super Collider album. His disdain for governments and being held captive to fate has seen him scrutinised all his career. He also has a knack for prescience. It was hard to watch the calamitous military evacuation from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 and not think that the “Post American World” warned of on Dystopia was materialising in front of our eyes.
One of the bonus tracks for The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead! is a cover of “Police Truck” by the Dead Kennedys. Megadeth’s version is so sharp it could have been written yesterday. Its subject matter also seems more relevant than ever, with stories of almost nonchalant police brutality a near-daily occurrence.
‘I think, pointing fingers, you usually end up having a couple pointing back to you,’ Mustaine counters. ‘I think that with anything, there are good and bad people, you know? Let’s say you go to a law enforcement place and you somehow give a real evaluation of everybody, like with Sodium Pentathol [aka ‘Truth serum’]. And you find out the truth about these men and women. I think you’d be really surprised about the motives of most of them. They really are people who want to do good and make their neighbourhoods and their city streets safe. But you’re always gonna find bad people, just like in professional sports. There are guys in professional sports whose job it is to injure other people so that they can’t compete anymore.’
Suddenly, mid-flow, Mustaine seems to be talking about himself.
‘There are people who are in all walks of life where they play hard and fast and end up becoming a pariah in the public’s eye,’ he continues. ‘You know, I’m going on forty years of being successful in this music business. Think if I didn’t have Metallica always trying to discredit me, always trying to pick a fight with me for whatever reason… I’m just as guilty as they are of making it happen… But just think what my life could have been like, if I didn’t have Metallica and me with this crazy feud all the time. God, I could have been loads of different types of musicians. Who knows how many records I would have written or not. You know, one thing is for sure. I do think that if James [Hetfield] retires and he and I don’t write at least one more song together that it would be really sad.’
Megadeth would not exist had Mustaine not left Metallica when he was twenty-one. The anger at his dismissal burned strongly within him for many, many years. When he raises his former band now, the tone has changed. There’s regret about the circumstances, but also acceptance of his role in prolonging the tensions, and clearly hope to work together – in some capacity – in the future.
In many ways, the wider contextual circumstances of Megadeth’s creation are similar to today. Mustaine first saw the term ‘Megadeath’ (a term for measuring deaths from nuclear attack in millions) written in a pamphlet by Senator Alan Cranston when he was on the bus back to California in 1983. In the early eighties, President Reagan said that the world was a ‘button push away from oblivion’. After decades of thawed relations between the superpowers, the world is teetering on the brink once more.
Though the problems facing the world feel similar, Megadeth and Mustaine are transformed. And he knows it.
‘I do know that a lot of people have been a little unkind about the things that they’ve said about me over the years, let’s just put it that way,’ says Mustaine. ‘I’m not that sensitive anymore that I let that stuff really, really hurt me. I mean, the bottom line is, if I didn’t care about somebody, they would not have the power to hurt me. And the people that say some of this stuff, I don’t know ’em. So, it’s not that I don’t care about them, it’s just that I have no reason to get hurt by something they say, because they’re not part of my life […] I’ve been patient and I’ve tried to always be positive. You know, I figured at some point, the truth would come out and people would really get a chance to know me and they wouldn’t get to know “Angry Dave” that’s always on the defensive. They would get to know Dave the happy guy. And, man, we’ve started getting all these Number Ones. It’s a happy day … it’s fantastic in the land of Megadeth right now.’
There’s not a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
The Sick, The Dying… And The Dead! is now available on all physical formats including CD, vinyl, and cassette, in addition to the digital release via UMe.
Get the album – HERE