When Dave Mustaine picks up the phone, he apologizes for running late. Megadeth's main architect had to run to the store because there was some sort of water leak at his house that he's trying to fix. "I'm not one of these pussy rock stars that won't get their hands dirty," he says.
I had been prepped for our conversation the day before by Mustaine's publicist, who asked that I avoid questions about politics — but it's not as if one of thrash metal's primary pioneers needs any coaxing.
"You've got all these politicians saying that they're your friends, and they're not," Mustaine explains while talking about the song "Dance in the Rain," the most politically charged track on Megadeth's latest album, Super Collider. "Republican, Democrat, whoever they are, they're all the same monsters, and they don't care about us. When they passed that bill exempting them off of Obamacare, that was the cherry on top of the cupcake for me. All I have to say is, 'I told you so.' "
The spiel is mild when considering the lightning-rod status Mustaine has achieved in recent years. Of course, the old feud with his former bandmates in Metallica used to get most of the attention, but that seems mostly squashed nowadays. Lately it's his loud opinions about same-sex marriage (he's against it) and Obama (where was he born?) that get noticed. Last year, during between-song onstage banter in Singapore, he accused the Obama administration of "staging" the Colorado movie theater and Wisconsin Sikh temple shootings in order to pass a ban on guns.
But Mustaine has been writing screeds like "Dance in the Rain" for nearly 30 years. Compare the lyrics to something like "Peace Sells" from 1986's Peace Sells ... But Who's Buying, and the precedent was set a long time ago. But the band has more openly embraced Christianity since then, which is something that can get you excommunicated in heavy metal.
"I don't think that my faith has anything to do with my lyrics," says Mustaine. "I try and keep religion out of it. Frankly, for me, I don't believe in religion. I have a personal relationship with God and with Christ, and that's it. I don't push that on anybody; it's private. I kind of leave it there. Dave [Ellefson]'s real open about it."
"His childhood was quite different from mine," Megadeth co-founder and bassist Ellefson says over the phone in reference to Mustaine. "I had a very stable childhood, growing up on the farm, going to church on Sunday. I do know that there's a proverb that says if you raise your children in the instruction of the Lord, if they stray, they will return."
Ellefson's autobiography My Life With Deth will be released in October. In it, he details his battles with addiction and writes about becoming a Lutheran pastor — he's currently on a leave of absence after a year of seminary. In his prologue, Ellefson recalls a tale from 1988: Megadeth is scheduled to play seven shows with Iron Maiden and has to cancel because of Ellefson's drug use. "I grew up as a fan of Maiden and really learned a lot about heavy metal bass playing — Steve Harris, a bass player being a songwriter, someone I really put up on a pedestal as a leader, as a bass player and for what I want to do as a metal bass player — and then we finally get to get on the stage and play with them, and it turns out that whole year, I'm a complete, stone-cold junkie."
"He was a big boy about it," Mustaine recalls. "He copped to it and went into treatment and has been sober over 20 years, I think."
Fast-forward to the present, and Megadeth is once again on an arena tour with Maiden, but they aren't the same up-and-comers. As one of the oft-cited Big Four, Megadeth — along with Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer — is as much a pillar of thrash metal as Iron Maiden is to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which preceded the Big Four.
"I remember when I was in Metallica, the second-to-the-last show that I did with those guys, Steve [Harris] came and checked us out," Mustaine says. "I was talking to him after the show and he goes, 'Yeah, I think you guys are going to be big.' And I was like, 'Yeah, I think so, too.' Little did I know."
As for how Megadeth's faith jibes with Iron Maiden's dark side, Ellefson doesn't see a conflict. "Having now read the Bible a few times, I was listening to 'The Number of the Beast,' and I said, 'You know, it's just the story out of the Book of Revelations.' "
But when it comes to Megadeth's influence on the current crop of throwback thrash bands, Ellefson and Mustaine have pretty different opinions.
"I think it's cool because young kids grew up on those records, and now they're doing their version of it," says Ellefson. "Some people have been influenced by Megadeth and have moved forward with a brand-new sound."
"Regardless of their age, if they're young or they're old or whatever, they've got talent," says Mustaine on the new crop of thrashers. "I've got to say that. But the originality is like flaxseed oil. To me, it's absolutely tasteless."
Part of Mustaine's lack of enthusiasm might be chalked up to his competitive streak. Mustaine once told Decibel Magazine that he was led to relapse after hearing guitarist Marty Friedman audition for Megadeth — Mustaine was worried he wasn't as good as Friedman. When we talk about him rehearsing for an appearance next year with the San Diego Symphony, I ask if it's difficult to adjust to that style. "If I wasn't a legendary guitar player, I'm sure, probably," he responds.
So how much of that competitive fire is still there?
"I'm not going to say I'm complacent, but put this into another metaphor. You're a gunslinger. Just because you're the best doesn't mean you have to keep your gun out on the table all the time. You get respect. When people want to challenge you, they'll let you know. It's like, if you're standing in front of a samurai, if he pulls his sword out even one inch, you're fucked. Excuse my French."