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Cover Story: Megadeth

| July 1, 2017 | 0 Comments

Not too long ago, Dave Mustaine brought his pile driving thrash-metal outfit Megadeth on tour – backing its recent Grammy-winning return to form, Dystopia — to Jakarta, the bustling capital of Indonesia on the island of Java that boasts a population of over ten million people. And he has a heartwarming when-in-Rome philosophy that guides him whenever he finds himself traveling abroad – a little kindness in foreign countries can go a long, long way, since American stars often have the reputation of being snooty, standoffish, almost untouchable. “And whenever anybody says, ‘Say the one thing that people wouldn’t believe the most about you,’ I usually say that it’s just that I’m approachable, that I want to talk to people, that I’m not untouchable. Which is,” he sighs resignedly, “kind of a bummer sometimes.”

In Jakarta, for instance, Mustaine – a trim, workout-buff 55 – was lunching in a local restaurant, doing his best to savor the flavors a truly exotic meal. But he looked up to find that over two dozen fans had tracked him to the place, and were seated sporadically at surrounding tables like ominous crows in Alfred Hitchcock’s frightfest The Birds, waiting. Waiting for him to finish. “And they’re all sitting around, staring at you and watching you eat, until they can take a picture with you and have you sign stuff,” he recalls. “And they’re only waiting because they’ve walked up to you while you’re eating, and your bodyguards have had to say, ‘Please. Please wait until he’s done.’ So now they’re all watching every bite you take, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh boy – it’s kind of hard to be cool while I’m eating.’”

Back at his hotel, the singer ran into more snafus. Acolytes really love their Megadeth in Jakarta, and they’d not only followed him back to his hotel, but roughly a hundred or so were waiting by the facility’s pool to head him off before he left the building again. “So I was going down to the gym – because I don’t want to be some fat slob – and I had to sneak past all these people who were waiting, and who weren’t even staying in the hotel at all,” he says. But the gym, unfortunately, wasn’t very private – it had giant plate-glass windows that everyone could stare through, longingly, as he did his best to ignore them and stay focused on riding the stationary bike. He almost lost his cool. “People were taking pictures of me on the bike through the windows, and I was like, ‘Fuck me! Now I know what Princess Di felt like!’ She would go to the gym and people were taking pictures of her there. And nowadays, everybody has a camera on their cellphone, so everybody’s a photographer. And they all expect to take your picture.”

Far from being jaded, however, Mustaine is remarkably savvy, insightful, even prescient about the cutthroat entertainment industry, the feral beast he’s been trying to tame – with varying degrees of success – since his formative days with the SoCal combo Panic, then a fledgling Metallica, which he joined as lead guitarist in 1981. And – not that he likes to brag, he chuckles – but that supergroup’s followers might not know that its frontman James Hetfield didn’t play an instrument in the beginning – he only sang. “So I was Metallica’s only guitar player, and there would be no thrash metal, I believe, if I hadn’t pushed my guitar playing to the extremes that I did,” he posits.

“And if we hadn’t reached out for that brass ring, I think things would be totally different now, and we would be even farther behind as a civilization.” And he could easily be right on that count. Even though he was bounced from Metallica in 1983 for his hard partying – inspiring him to play even faster when he formed Megadeth for its jackhammering 1985 debut Killing is My Business…and Business is Good! — where would speed-metal be today sans the laying of such crucial experimental groundwork?

Ever since then, Mustaine has known what his detractors think and say about him. And he doesn’t care. Brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness, he converted to Christianity later in life (after surviving a debilitating 2003 arm injury that nearly ended his career), and wasn’t afraid to thank God in his Grammy acceptance speech earlier this year (he thinks more artists should be as up-front about their faith – what could it hurt, really?). Over the years, his politics have often leaned far-right, and he even penned an entire album, Endgame, about outspoken conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his film of the same name. He has also: Repeatedly criticized president Barack Obama; thrown his support behind ill-fated Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum; said that he personally opposed the legalization of gay marriage because it conflicted with his religious beliefs; and suggested – as far back as 1988 – that the solution to immigration was to “build a great wall along the Mexican border and not let anyone in.”

And yet….Mustaine, in many ways, is not that same guy anymore. He’s shrewder – or cagier – about his politics, and won’t openly endorse the current scandal-wracked presidency of Donald Trump. Instead, he urges Americans to be pro-active – not reactive – while they maintain a semblance of respect for the office itself. “And I have a very simple credo,” he elaborates. “The things that you like, you live with. And the things that you don’t like, you vote against. And when it comes down to foreign policy,” he adds, in a spinoff from the Megadeth-in-Jakarta story, “if you haven’t left our beautiful, wonderful nation, and you haven’t seen how people live in some of the other countries, then you really don’t have the information to base an educated decision or comment on.

I’ve seen so many different places where one dollar can make so much of a difference in someone’s life.” It’s why he and his wife Pamela run two philanthropic soup kitchens – one in Tijuana, one in Haiti – that provide daily sustenance to the impoverished. “The one in Haiti feeds nearly 8,000 meals a day to the homeless, orphans, and widows, because Haiti is such a mess now,” he says. “And we’ve also donated money in Africa, where we’ve provided water wells for villages, as well as school supplies, bicycles, even several goats.” He’s not saying he’s an authority on such international matters, he adds. But at least he’s putting his money where his mouth is.

The rocker – who recently relocated his entire family from California to Nashville, where his 19-year-old daughter Electra is beginning to pursue a promising career in country music, without throwing dad’s name around – grew up loving the fables of Aesop, and the morals lurking just beneath their common-sense, fox-and-the-grapes/grasshopper-and-the-ants surface. “All of that stuff was just remarkable in its teachings,” he remembers, lucidly. “I love parables, because the simpler the lesson is, the easier it is to teach people. It’s so much easier to learn stuff when you can see it in your mind, you can draw up a visualization of it.” Which brings him back to the subject of religion versus spirituality. “Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell,” he reckons. “And spirituality is for people like me who have actually been there. So I look at the dudes who go to church and say all the right things, but during the week go back to living their double lives. They don’t know what it’s like to have had that spiritual bankruptcy, where you’re living on the street or something like that. And making yourself better doesn’t have anything to do with, ‘You need to have this brand of soft drink!’ Or, ‘You need to wear that brand of sneaker!’ It’s about nature itself.”

Mustaine can talk philosophy – intelligently and articulately – until the proverbial cows come home. And the attitude he’s adopted these days is more live and let live – there’s nothing much that really pushes his buttons anymore. For example, he says, he has a good friend who works at a guitar company – he won’t name the fellow – who is currently pursuing a completely different path than his own. “He’s a Buddhist, and the only way you would know – if you’re looking for signs – is him having a shaved head, and beads on his wrist perhaps, or maybe his demeanor and how he’s always so peaceful,” he says. “Does that bug me? Hell no! And having been brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness, you want to talk about weirdness? You could tell me that you were a Frisbitarian, and that you believed you were a Frisbee, and when you died you were thrown up onto a roof, and I would say that that sounds far more believable than what I was brought up with.”

Despite the popularity of Atheism-trumpeting theorists like Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and even Real Time HBO host Bill Maher (who’s usually on perfect political point with most of his beliefs), science and faith can peacefully coexist, Mustaine insists. They’re not that disparate, or diametrically opposed. “Plus, music fans don’t want to be lectured to about religion – that’s the last thing that a music fan wants to hear,” he says. “So I try not to bring that stuff up. I’ll sing about stuff like the things that I believe in, things that are credos, like the lyrics in some of the songs on (Megadeth’s 1986 sophomore set) Peace Sells…but Who’s Buying?, which were a lot like Aesop, where there would be a moral and you would learn something from it.”

The vocalist swears he’s no Nostradamus, but it’s certainly a Skynet, Terminator bleak future he documents on Dystopia, starting with its machine-gun opening salvo, “The Threat is Real,” which melds a Middle eastern melody with scathing lyrics that dig into the motivations for ISIS-violent terrorism (“Your terminal lack of vision/ Blinded eyes see no light/ A chronic lack of perspective/ Their cancer now eats us alive”). The thunderous title track follows, with Mustaine snarling a warning of ”What you don’t know,” the legend goes, “can’t hurt you”/ If you only want to live and die in fear/ Dictatorship ends starting with tyrannicide/ You must destroy the cancer at its root.” And so the record gallops, from the Trojan-horse-referencing “Death From Within” (“Revenge of patient men is sweet and best served cold”) to “Post American World” (“If you don’t like where we’re going/ Then you won’t like what’s coming next”), “Lying in State” (“What we are witnessing is the decline of Western civilization/ Crushing our potential and piling it on, how will history portray us?”), “The Emperor” (“You look so perfect but everybody knows/ They’re petrified to say the emperor has no clothes”), to the closing cut, a rousing rendition of the jagged old Fear chestnut, “Foreign Policy.” Mustaine never dreamed that – after 12 near-miss nominations in his career – that the disc’s title track would actually win him a coveted 2017 Grammy for Best Metal Performance.

What is the bottom-line message behind Dystopia? What does Megadeth see coming down the pike that its peers don’t? The Brent Elliot cover painting depicts a skeletal armed cyborg contemplating the smoking, post-apocalyptic ruins of New York City on the horizon, a katana blade in one hand, the Statue of Liberty’s severed head in the other (the concept was Mustaine’s). “What I see is that it’s still very much the same – we are still responsible for what is going to happen to us,” he says, cryptically. “So what I think is going on with Dystopia – and my outlook on the world is – if you don’t like the way things are going, then you need to do something about it. That’s why I try to always be there for my fans, even though it’s uncomfortable, being available on social media sometimes.

It’s hard, because you’ll be having a great conversation with somebody, and then somebody else will toss something into a thread that’s just hurtful or not true.” One of his recent thoughtful threads was disrupted by a (talk about Skynet) bot, he adds, which he had to painstakingly delete. Which in itself caused an online discussion. “A lot of people were saying, ‘Oh, that was a real person!,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, my God! You can’t possibly believe that that was a real human! That same face has been on 30 different profiles!’”

Read our full interview with Megadeth by picking up our print edition at your favorite local retailer our reading our mobile edition HERE

Appearing 7/14 at Chicago Open Air Festival, Toyota Park, Bridgeview, IL.

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