Dave Mustaine Explains the "Three A's" of Megadeth's Membership Requirements

The metal legend on how throat cancer affected his vocals, keeping pace with Ozzy, and why every song on his band's new album "demanded to be played faster"
Dave Mustaine Explains the 'Three A's' of Megadeth's Membership Requirements
Photo courtesy of Universal Music Canada
If you want to be in Megadeth, you've got to fit the requirements for Dave Mustaine's three A's: ability, attitude and appearance. As the vocalist, guitarist and band leader of Megadeth since its inception in 1983, Mustaine has been running the show long enough to know exactly what to look for in prospective bandmates, and he's had his share of them over the years.

Ability and attitude are fairly self-explanatory; a lot of Megadeth tunes aren't exactly easy to play, and nobody wants to be stuck in a bus for hours a day with someone impossible to get along with. But what about appearance?

"If they're not taking care of themselves, they're not going to be able to withstand the rigours of the ferocious touring that we do," Mustaine explains to Exclaim! "So, it doesn't mean that they have to necessarily look a certain way, but one thing is for sure: looking at someone, you'll be able to tell how they live their lifestyle if they're someone who burns the candle at both ends, or if it's someone who takes really good care of themselves so that they can do some of these crazy trips we do."

Mustaine's points come up in relation to a question about how things have been going out on the road with a sort-of-new bassist. James LoMenzo, who played bass for Megadeth from 2006–2010, stepped back in last year as a touring replacement for former bassist David Ellefson, and was eventually announced as the group's permanent bassist earlier this year. (Ellefson was fired from Megadeth after sexual messages involving him were leaked online along with accusations of grooming.) While LoMenzo has handled live bass duties since Ellefson's dismissal, the bass parts on Megadeth's new album, The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead! (out this Friday, September 2, through Universal), were re-recorded at the 11th hour by Testament bassist Steve Di Giorgio.

Mustaine and company had been teasing the new record, which is the follow-up to Megadeth's 2016 effort Dystopia, for some time before dropping its first single, album closer "We'll Be Back," in June; subsequent singles "Night Stalkers" and "Soldier On!" have followed since.

"The response to the song has been overwhelmingly positive," Mustaine says of "We'll Be Back." "We're keeping up with Ozzy — his track was out a couple of days before us, I think, or behind us, give or take a couple of days, and he was just a little bit ahead of us in views. So Megadeth keeping up with Ozzy, that's pretty good stuff."

The Sick, the Dying… and the Dead! is practically a thrash metal guidebook, boasting in abundance all the signature hallmarks of the style Megadeth helped innovate. While there are certain songs and passages with slower, darker and boomier feels, the majority of the record is driven by speed, aggression and razor-sharp precision. It can take a little time and a lot of practice for the band to get the songs up to speed, but it often isn't until they get together to play a new tune that it becomes clear exactly how it should sound, Mustaine explains.

"Some riffs are so simple that, if you don't play them a little faster, they'll put you to sleep, and other riffs are so complicated, if you play them too fast, it just goes by in a blur and no one can appreciate it," he says. "So, you've got to really know for each riff where the sweet spot is, and I found this record had a lot of quicker tempos. The way that the songs were written: they started at a tempo, and once we started playing with everybody in the same room, they just demanded to be played faster."

Mustaine admits he hasn't taken the time to sit down and listen to the record in full in a while, but that's mostly due to the band's heavy touring schedule and not because he doesn't enjoy hearing the fruits of his labour.

"That was pretty much everything I was doing and everything I was thinking — constantly working on songs to add to the set, getting James [LoMenzo] brushed up on everything, so that kind of kept me busy," he says. "I didn't really get a chance to listen to it a lot, but it's always fun when we talk about adding a new song to the set, because [on] the tour that's coming up with Five Finger Death Punch, we are going to be adding two songs to the set, and that's exciting for me."

The road to completing the new record had bumps, even beyond the pandemic derailing the music industry for nearly two years. In May of 2019, Mustaine was diagnosed with throat cancer, and though he was declared cancer-free that October, the experience still changed to his work approach. Now, when deciding on setlists, Mustaine not only has to balance new material with decades of classics and fan-favourites, but he also must consider what notes his voice will be able to handle by certain points in the show.

"I did have some loss of my voice from the fusion, when they fused my neck back together, that had adverse effects on my throat," he says. "But I think that all of the work that I did after that, the facial stuff and just taking good care of myself, has kept me able to sing. There are a couple of notes I can't hit anymore, but I'd rather have a couple instead of a whole bunch."

Other than the new record and new bassist, fans might know of one other recent major development in Megadeth's long career: Mustaine has hung up his Dean guitars and is now working with Gibson, a classic guitar brand aiming to rejuvenate its legacy under new leadership. Mustaine is tight-lipped about what the future holds for his collaborations with the guitar giant, but says he wishes he could tell us, not trying to hide his excitement. After being gifted a couple guitars from a Gibson executive at a first meeting, Mustaine's mind was totally made up, but he'd already had his sights set on a Gibson endorsement beforehand.

"A lot of people thought I was going back to Jackson after leaving Dean," he says. "And if Gibson wasn't an option, I probably would have gone to Jackson if that was an option. But I can tell you, I wasn't really thinking very far past Gibson, because to me, if I could go there and have my signature model, I would be happy."

Mustaine's first model with Gibson, the Dave Mustaine Flying V EXP, was originally made available last December, in limited quantities from select dealers. According to Mustaine, it is Gibson's first-ever 24-fret Flying V.

It seems there's hardly a dull moment for Mustaine with Megadeth, and as he's counting down the days to his new record's release, he's also embarking on a late-summer tour of the US with Five Finger Death Punch. Earlier this year, Megadeth finally made it back up to Canada on the Metal Tour of the Year, which they co-headlined with Lamb of God and which featured support from Trivium and In Flames. The tour, originally slated to happen in 2020, made stops in Toronto, Quebec City and Laval, QC.

"I love playing in Canada," says Mustaine.