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Crush ‘Em 

Demons, dragons and Megadeth

Wednesday, May 16 2001
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Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

A fond mist clouds the eyes of Megadeth guitarist-singer Dave Mustaine and bassist David Ellefson when they talk about revisiting L.A. See, they met right here in Hollywood 18 years ago.

Ellefson: “It brings back some very haunting memories. Today, Dave and Al [second guitarist Pitrelli] and myself were hanging out and driving.”

Mustaine: “If you were riding around with him and me, it’d drive you insane.” He talks fast, running words together. “‘We scored there, this is where we used to do the dope, that’s where we ran out of dope, someone got arrested there.’”

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Ellefson: “There isn’t a neighborhood in this town that you can go through without there being some sort of Megadeth tale.”

Pitrelli: “We drive by one place, ‘Oh, there’s where we saw our drummer crawling out from underneath the house with the box of cereal.’” Long story, some other time.

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Mustaine: “‘In that Taco Bell right there, Dave’s Fiero was towed away because we were sniffing heroin off the dashboard.’”

Pitrelli: “One time when I first joined the band, Dave was trying to teach me one of the songs in the set. I’m a fairly well-educated musician. I’ve conducted orchestras, and I know all that music jargon — accelerandos, fortissimos, pianissimos. And Dave’s lookin’ at me, goin’, ‘Dude, I was on so much heroin when I recorded this song, that’s why it’s so slow.’ And I’d never really seen that notated on the staff . . .”

Mustaine: “Heroinissimo . . .”

You will have gathered that drugs used to be central to the Megadeth world-view. Not anymore; cleanliness has ruled for quite a while, and much has changed. Having begun as one of the original speed-metal groups when Mustaine split from Metallica in 1983, they crossed over to the mainstream in 1997 with four Top 5 hits off the album Cryptic Writings. They took pop experimentation to the wall with Risk in 1999. Then they wanted to start over. They jettisoned their longtime label, Capitol, signed with Sanctuary, and have just released The World Needs a Hero, featuring Mustaine, Ellefson, Pitrelli (who’s been in the band a year) and drummer Jimmy DeGrasso (three years). Hey, they even have their own Behind the Music on VH1.

The new CD sounds lean and hungry, walking an intelligent line between the undifferentiated landslide of many neometal groups and the lush-around-the-edges production sound that scored the band a wider audience. Megadeth 2001 emphasizes Mustaine’s musical but hell-bent solos and a rock-bellied rhythmic punch that uses the double kick drum as an effect rather than a staple.

DeGrasso: “Now we do the double kick a little differently. We do broken phrases, not so much digga-digga-digga-digga. It’s more groove-oriented, as opposed to this imbecilic . . .” He catches himself, smiles. “Although we do do that, and still enjoy it.”

I praise the songwriting on songs like “Disconnect,” “Burning Bridges,” “Dread and the Fugitive Mind” and the ballad “Promises,” saying the nasty mutual kiss-off “1000 Times Goodbye” is my favorite.

Pitrelli: “Mine, too. Musically, lyrically — and the voice-over.” (There’s a narrative section where a woman plays the part of the girlfriend who’s doing the dumping.) “She was way too good at that reading.”

Mustaine: “That portion of the song is so vital. Because you’ve had that phone call, too, haven’t you?”

Pitrelli: “There seems to be a handbook handed out when women hit puberty: This is the way to rip a guy’s heart out and squash it on the floor, like puttin’ out a cigarette. ‘I love you like a brother . . .’”

Mustaine: “‘If it doesn’t work out, I’ll call you back . . .’”

Pitrelli: “Yeah, right.”

Mustaine: “‘Remember when I told you I went out of town on business? Well, that’s when I met with him . . .’”

Writing songs is great for old emotional wounds. But how’s Mustaine doing physically? “I have a lot of shooting pain going down the arm. It gets numb. I think it’s because I have this compression from wearing a guitar so much.”

Ever thought of playing a lighter guitar? “Actually, no. It’s kind of like a guy who’s gonna be framing houses doesn’t want to use a hammer that’s for putting brads in upholstery. He wants the biggest fucker he can get.”

Pitrelli: “Excellent analogy!”

I ask what vocal regimen Mustaine uses to maintain the correct level of rasp. He demonstrates by hawking twice. “And then I spit. That’s it. But in the studio, for my voice I used to use umiboshi paste, which is pickled umi plums from Japan. And they taste like fuckin’ shit, trust me.”

Mustaine says he’s had only a few vocal lessons, including a couple from the guy who hipped him to the plums. But he couldn’t figure out that teacher’s methodology.

“He tells me to unbutton my pants, and I go, ‘W-w-whyyy?’ And he goes, ‘I want to see your diaphragm.’ And I say, ‘My diaphragm is up here. The diaphragm down there is on a chick, man.’”

Recording in Nashville one time, Mustaine couldn’t get any plum paste, so he was told to do what Amy Grant does: eat Lay’s potato chips. “You know, I’ve got an addictive personality. I saw myself comin’ home after the record — ‘God, you sound great, Dave. Too bad you put on 400 pounds.’ As soon as I started eatin’ ’em, I couldn’t stop.”

Well, he stopped soon enough; he stayed thin. Seems like you can stop a lot of things if you want to. Maybe you can even stop changing personnel. These particular four say they actually like each other. They sound tough on record, but they seem like nice guys.

Pitrelli: “We’re friendly guys.”

Ellefson: “To a point.”

Mustaine: “There’s a very dark side to everyone, and I appreciate it in me. It’s a good friend, and has been for a long time, because it was my survival technique. I mean, 1976, a 15-year-old boy living on his own” — dealing drugs in Orange County after leaving home — “you need to have a dark side.”

I ask Ellefson which side of Mustaine dominates. “He can be a nice guy. I’ve gotten to know his dark side pretty well.”

I say there must be those who consider Mustaine an asshole — all the musicians he’s fired, for instance. But Mustaine runs through his reasons for the dismissals, and (from his side anyway) they don’t seem irrational. Some had problems with disappearing gear. One showed a trifle too much imagination when it came to Mustaine’s squeeze. One invented a medical emergency so he’d have an excuse to leave. Another just quit. Well, it’s a tough job.

Mustaine delays the photo shoot for 15 minutes while he repairs to his hotel room. What’s he doing? Snorting blow? Not these days. Calling his family, he says on returning. Wife and two kids. “I just try to stay in touch. One of the reasons my son’s doing so good in school right now is because I’m really involved. And it’s hard. Especially with my life. His mom’s the judge, and I’m the sheriff. She sets the law, and I enforce it. And she digs that, because she’s totally got support. But my son thinks he can be like me, and get shit like that.” He snaps his fingers. “But it won’t work. One time he punched his mom in the back, and I said, ‘Don’t ever . . . do that to my wife.’ And that’s paraphrasing.”

Mustaine has observed that the strap of my tape-recorder case is scrunching my lapel. He carefully straightens out the mess, no comment.

Now, would an asshole do that?

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