Behind the Curtain: Backstage with Dave Mustaine at the Hollywood Palladium

Steve RosenCategories:Behind the Curtain

Rock Cellar Magazine

Backstage at the Hollywood Palladium, carefully choreographed chaos is taking place. Huge roadies the size of grizzly bears—only with tattoos and walkie talkies—wheel in massive cases housing guitars, drums, cables and all the other parts and pieces necessary to stage a big-time rock show. Techs barely sidle by one other as they move down narrow hallways and maneuver ramps. Lanyards drip from tattooed necks and tool belts clank and rattle with dangling flashlights, screwdrivers and hammers.

Onstage, various colors of day-glo duct tape cover exposed cables so that when Megadeth finally takes the stage in about three or four hours’ time, no one trips or falls once the lights go down. Red tape means caution and green tape with arrows means, “Go this way.”

Outside, there is even more madness going on. It is Academy Awards night and every street for miles is cordoned off. Police and security patrol every corner. Limo after limo pulls up to the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard up the block as movie stars in tuxedos and ball gowns are disgorged from the massive, black cars. They walk the red carpet in the lightning glare of paparazzi flash. There is movement everywhere but one person not moving at all is Dave Mustaine.

I am here at the Hollywood Palladium to interview the leader of Megadeth, the iconic guitarist and singer who was kicked out of Metallica for doing too many drugs, taking too many drinks, and picking fights with everyone he encountered. Being kicked out of a band that would go on to become one of the biggest rock groups in the world had to have been a hard pill for Mustaine to swallow. Kind of a downer to put on your résumé, right?

Mustaine was booted out of the band—there’s an old adage my mom always used to repeat that went something like, “If it doesn’t kill you, it can only make you stronger”—but instead of sitting around and licking his wounds, he put together Megadeth and now all these years later the band is still rocking as strong as ever.

But today, Mustaine is not feeling well and wants to cancel the interview. His handlers tell me he might do it and then reverse themselves and tell me he might not do it. It would be nice to know what his decision is going to be but for the time being there is nothing to do but wait and watch the rock and roll circus backstage.

I hang out in Megadeth’s practice room. They have a small cubicle up a flight of stairs fitted out with mini-Marshall stacks for Mustaine and newest guitarist Kiko Loureiro—the Brazilian who joined the band in April 2015 and just appeared on the recently-released Dystopia album—a small bass rig for Dave Ellefson and a kit of electronic pads for Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler [he also appears on the Dystopia album and has been a temporary fill-in on drums for this current tour].

I sit on a couch in the corner and wait for the word to come down from management whether Dave will do the interview today.

At one point, he pokes his head in the door, sees me sitting there and shoots me a dirty look suggesting, “Who are you and what the f—k are you doing in my practice room?” I do my best to ignore the evil glare and not fall apart but it is a bad omen.

Eventually, Dave’s road manager tells me he will do the interview and I breathe a collective sigh of relief. The guitarist enters the practice room a few minutes later and before I can even introduce myself, he blurts out, “I’ve been spitting up blood, dude.”

My first inclination is to think that this is part of the show—maybe Megadeth is trying to incorporate KISS-like visuals in the set?—and then instantly realize he is serious.

“Spitting up blood? Is that from singing?” Dave looks at me for a long second like I’m some kind of profoundly stupid lump of flesh sitting in front of him and says, “No. It’s from gargling with razor blades.” A nasty laugh follows the comment and at this point, I don’t know what the hell to believe.

Hesitant to say anything, I remain mute. Mustaine is in a terrible mood and the last thing I want to do is piss him off any further. He finally admits, “Yes, it’s from singing.” Apparently he has torn or ruptured something in his throat and has been literally coughing up blood.

The fact Mustaine is regurgitating blood because of the brutal and uncompromising way he sings is no real surprise. The thrash metal musician has knocked down anything—and anyone—who ever stood in the way of his success since before joining Metallica. Even after joining Metallica, he continued to pursue his evil ways, which resulted in being kicked out of the band. When we finally begin our conversation, I ask him about that ill-fated day over 30 years ago.

“I was a very dysfunctional person and a drunk and a loser and I liked to fight a lot,” Mustaine tells me. We are sitting backstage at the Hollywood Palladium just hours before he will take the stage with Megadeth to perform a headlining set in front of 2,000 fans. “James [Hetfield] one time kicked a puppy that I had and I freaked out. I just said, ‘Man, I’m gonna kick your ass!’  Ron McGovney [Metallica’s original bassist] said, ‘You kick his ass, you’re gonna have to hit me first.’ I said, ‘You shut up and sit the f—k down.’ Then James goes, ‘You hit him, you’re gonna have to hit me first.’ And I went, ‘Okay, you win, James.’ He had a mouthful of bloody, baby Chiclets and he was sitting there crying and telling me to get my shit out.”

That same take-no-prisoners attitude ultimately led him to forming Megadeth in 1984 and never looking back. There were bodies littering the roadside on that triumphant march to celebrity and he almost became one of his own casualties. But he did survive and is now widely recognized as one of the most important guitar players in the thrash metal genre.

Mustaine began honing those chops in an early band called Panic. Playing a B.C. Rich Bich 10-string at the time [four of the strings had been removed], Mustaine was already burning down solos and writing original songs including classics such as “Jump In the Fire” and “Mechanics.” In other words, even at this early stage in his career, Dave was calling the shots.

“I was an arrogant asshole and playing everything,” the future guitar legend says. “But I devoted much more of my time to playing rhythm. I still feel to this day that a good band can be measured by its rhythm. You’ve got all-guitar hero bands and the solos are excellent but try and hum one of those songs outside of maybe a quick flash lick. There’s nothing very memorable about it unless you’re extremely loaded or you’re out of your mind on speed or coke or something. In a band like Megadeth where rhythm is one of the main ingredients, the solos become so much more important because it’s not just self-indulgent pig guitar playing all through the whole song.”

Still rocking the B.C. Rich when he joined Metallica in 1981, Mustaine brought all of his rhythmic chops to the fore in creating the dual-guitar assault with James Hetfield. Dave was a borderline sociopath at the time and is the first person to admit it but during his short stint with the future megastars, he left his guitar mark. “The weirdest thing about it is when I was in the band, James didn’t do any talking in-between songs,” he recalls. “If you put the two of us together side-by-side, split a TV monitor in half, and had us both hopping around onstage, there’s a lot of similarities. The way he acts and moves with his guitar and stuff like that. I think James is one of the best rhythm guitar players in the world. As far as rhythm guitar players are concerned, there’s James, there’s me, there’s Malcolm Young and there’s Rudolph Schenker.  There’s no one else that touches the four of us. We’re the fantastic four.”

Indeed, that quartet and what they brought to the rhythm guitar has been critical in the development of hard rock and metal. Mustaine elevated his guitar playing to the next level when he formed Megadeth in 1984. Since that time, the band has released 15 albums including the most recent, Dystopia, which finds the guitarist marrying his brutal riffs to a not-so-rose-colored-glasses look at the world around him. Loureiro, the new guitar player, brings an Eastern edge to the music and even classical elements including finger-picked nylon guitars.

Mustaine has nothing but the utmost praise for the newest member and his insane talents as a soloist but it is still all about the song. “Solos come last,” he explains. “I always make the other guitar players I’ve played with over the years read the lyrics so they know what I’m saying. Because I’ve got to tell you something as a guitar player—when you’re aware of what the words of a song are and you understand better, it changes the solo.”

Dave has weathered multiple band lineups and withering criticism from both fans and fellow musicians. He has never been one to internalize his thoughts or feelings and on any given day, you can find the Megadeth musician featured in some headline on some heavy metal news site stirring up new controversy. But none of that has prevented Mustaine from sticking to his guns and constructing a career very few other metal guitar players have ever experienced.

Another thing that has never changed is his dedication to Dean guitars. He began playing them in 2006 and announced his first Signature model at the 2007 Winter NAMM Show in Anaheim, CA. Since that inauguration, he has been involved in over 30 Signature instruments mainly modeled around the Zero [Explorer-influenced shape] and the VMNT [V-shaped guitar].

Recently, Dean released the USA Dave Mustaine VMNT Holy Grail, a limited edition run of 33 instruments [commemorating 33 years of Megadeth history]. Covered in hand-applied 24-karat gold leaf filigree over a blood red finish, each guitar is unique in design. The guitar was inspired by Mustaine’s trip to Jerusalem.

We talk for about 40 minutes. Dave is animated but still removed from the conversation. I feel like he’s just going through the motions and really doesn’t want to be here. Nice enough but not truly engaged, and that’s OK. He is not feeling well and agreeing to the interview at all reveals a lot about him.  One of his Dean guitars is standing in a rack and at a point, I ask him if he might play a few riffs. I hand the instrument to him and he shows a couple of his rhythm tricks. He is an exceptionally good guitar player but only plays for a few minutes before stopping.

I ask him some more questions and every time I stop talking, there is silence. Dave is not answering. I think he’s playing a game or something but I can’t figure out what the rules are. It is incredibly uncomfortable. I look at him to see if there’s something in his face that might suggest an answer but he just stares back at me and says nothing. After this has happened two or three times, he finally says, “Was that a question?” I now understand his confusion. Instead of just asking him a straight question, I will sometimes phrase it more like a statement or an observation and then wait for his response. He thinks I haven’t finished what I’m going to ask and is just waiting for me to pose the question. I stop doing that and make sure everything I say to him ends in a question mark.

Then in the flash of an eye, he gets up from the couch, says he has to go and leaves. He just walks out of the practice room door. He left so abruptly that my tape player is still running, so I shut it off.

At that moment, new guitar player Kiko Loureiro walks into the room. He has an acoustic guitar with him and wants to warm up. He plays these stunning classical pieces with an array of complex chords and lead lines. I am mesmerized by his playing and simply sit in silent awe. I am sure at some point that he is going to kick me out of the room but he never does. I continue listening and at one point Kiko looks up and sees me looking at him. He smiles.

I don’t say a word but Kiko understands what his look has meant to me. I gather up my Sony Pro Walkman and rise to leave. Kiko watches me and I turn around one last time with a look that says, “Thank you.” I don’t feel so bad anymore about the interview and I almost even smile. Almost.

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