The Big Four. To lawyers, bankers, and Wall Street types, they’re major accounting firms. But to head-bangers, metalheads, and acolytes of shred guitar, the Big Four—Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer—are the four bands that define the blistering hard rock/punk hybrid known as Thrash Metal. Inspired by proto-thrashers such as Motörhead, the genre began germinating in underground clubs and radio stations on opposite coasts in the early ’80s before blossoming into a full-fledged phenomenon before the decade’s end. By the mid ’90s, this fearsome foursome had combined to sell over 100 million records worldwide. Now when the Big Four play together on one bill for the occasional massive summer festival, they fill football and soccer stadiums around the globe.
While Metallica wins the award for “most popular” of the bunch, Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine can surely lay claim to being the MVP, having been a founding member of two Big Four bands: Metallica and Megadeth (Mustaine is listed as a cowriter on about a half-dozen classic Metallica songs). Although it seemed catastrophic to many at the time, Mustaine’s leaving Metallica was probably prescient; a tribe can only have one chief, and Mustaine needed to preside over his own metal nation. Under the Megadeth banner, he released a series of legendary thrash albums including Peace Sells... but Who’s Buying?, Rust in Peace, and Countdown to Extinction, and save for a two-year hiatus following Mustaine’s arm injury in 2002, the band has been a mainstay of the metal scene.
What’s been less stable is the band’s lineup—a revolving door of bassists, drummers, and first-rate co-lead guitarists including Chris Poland, Marty Friedman, Al Pitrelli, and Glen Drover that Mustaine has brought in, then parted ways with for various reasons. In the rock realm, this high turnover rate can carry negative connotations to fans. An alternate view however, might equate Mustaine to a hard-rocking Miles Davis, the restless visionary jazz band leader who had a knack for discovering new talent, incorporating them into his current artistic vision, then setting them free when they were ready to pursue their own muse.
To whit, when guitarist Chris Broderick and drummer Shawn Drover abruptly left the fold in 2014 to form their own project, it was anything but a crushing deth blow. Instead, it just became the latest opportunity for Mustaine to re-tool, re-envision, and revitalize Megadeth. The resulting lineup finds Mustaine and longtime bassist David Ellefson paired with Lamb of God drummer Chris Adler and Brazilian prog/fusion über-shredder Kiko Loureiro. The band’s latest Mustaine-produced magnum opus, Dystopia [Tradecraft/Universal], is the first studio album from this quartet, but Megadeth’s 15th as a musical force in general. It boasts the topical lyrics, rhythmically intricate chromatic riffs, quantum-leap tempo changes, and relentless streamlined power that Megadeth has always been known for, and will be released in a format that includes a virtual reality headset and online access to a five-song, VR mini-concert directed by Blair Underwood. The band will also be invading concert halls across the U.S. this spring before heading to the U.K. for a run of summer festival dates.
What’s it like incorporating a new guitarist into the band?
Mustaine: I’ve always been blessed to play with great musicians and I believe it’s just sound logic to surround yourself with players who are better than you. When adding new members, I always seek to find a player that’s a resounding endorsement of the caliber of musicianship Megadeth is known for. Kiko and I had actually met briefly a few years ago on a cover photo shoot for Burrn! magazine in Japan, but silly me, I didn’t really check out his playing at the time. When Chris Broderick left, we looked at a whole bunch of people, but nobody was quite right. I happened to see Kiko in a video, remembered him, and was blown away. The first time he came to my house, he takes out a nylon-string guitar to start warming up and he sounds like Segovia on steroids. I’m listing to him, mesmerized, and I’m thinking, “This is the guy.” He had the right sound, the right attitude, was coming from the same place as us musically, and he just had the right “vibe,” so to speak. I don’t mean to be shallow or judge anyone on their looks, but I never want to work with anyone whose image is louder than their playing.
Ultimately, though, it has to be the right fit personality-wise, because bands are like relationships. Once something goes wrong you can never really recover from it no matter how hard you try. There’s a real human element there and the chemistry can either be a recipe for success or disaster. I have to say that Kiko has me so excited about playing again. I’m good at what I do, but he’s so much better than me on so many different fronts and it’s really inspiring.
And from your standpoint, Kiko?
Loureiro: Dave called me and invited me to his home in Nashville. I thought I’d be auditioning alongside other guitarists, but we just wound up hanging and talking. I figured he’d heard my solo albums and my work with my other band Angra and wanted to make sure I was the right fit. I guess I was, because a few weeks later, I was at the studio recording tracks.
Was most of the material for Dystopia already written when you came in?
Loureiro: Dave had already been recording tracks with Chris Adler, but some of the arrangements definitely changed when we started playing them together. Dave had left some spots open where he thought he might want me to do a solo but it wasn’t totally planned out. We would talk about what felt right for the song and who would do what.
What was it like to jump in so suddenly?
Loureiro: I think one of the biggest challenges for me was improvising over riffs as opposed to chord progressions. On my solo albums, I usually would improvise over a chord progression, where you could play a repeated phrase and the chord changes would create the tension. When you’re shredding over a one-chord vamp or riff, you have to find new ways to build emotion, tension, and release in your melodic lines. One strategy for me was to use small four-note melodic phrases and play variations on them using different phrasing, much like a jazz musician would. It was also interesting and educational for me to go back and learn some of the solos that Chris Poland and Marty Friedman played and see what their approach to solving this problem was.
What gear did you use to record Dystopia?
Mustaine: I mainly played my Dave Mustaine Zero and VMNT Signature guitars, which are made by Dean. For amps, I used Marshall JVM 410-H and a hot-rodded, white Randy Rhoads Marshall head for leads. I do almost half the solos on the record. All of my signature Marshall cabinets are fitted with Celestion Greenback speakers.
Loureiro: I used my Ibanez signature model, the KIKO100, as well as a few older RG models.
What gear are you touring with?
Mustaine: Out on the road, we’re both using Fractal Axe FX II units for amp modeling. The Fractal has made it possible to have all these different amp sounds without having to lug tons of gear around. Nowadays the giant video screen has replaced the wall of amps as the stage backdrop anyway.
One aspect I love about the production on your records is that they sound heavy but never cluttered.
Mustaine: Oddly enough, I’d have to credit my three big sisters who used to listen to Motown all the time for that. Motown recordings are very clear cut from a frequency standpoint—where one instrument stops and the next instrument starts. This is what was in my head from the time I was little, and it was definitely a huge influence on me that I assimilated intuitively. I’m not really a tech guy. When I produced this record, I basically relied on my ears and instincts and not some algorithmic chart.
I interviewed Al Pitrelli a while back, and he credited you with influencing him to play very precise, articulate, and effective rhythm guitar parts.
Mustaine: That was nice of him to say. I always liked Al and think he’s a great player. I think the key for me is having a very conditioned right hand and forearm. Also, I hold my Dunlop Tortex .73mm picks and pluck perpendicular to the strings with a sawing motion. This makes it easier for the string to release after you’ve plucked it. Generally I “choke up” and only expose a very small area of the pick surface to the string. I also make very short movements with my thumb and index finger, but sometimes I’ll loosen up a bit when I’m just pedaling on a chord.
Kiko, you have one of the most diverse palettes of note-articulation I’ve ever heard in a guitarist. What’s your secret?
Loureiro: I’m left-handed but I play righty, so my dominant hand is on the fretboard. As a result, when I first started playing, I would rely on a lot of legato techniques. Then I decided I would discipline myself to study alternate picking, sweep picking, string skipping, finger tapping, and eightfinger tapping as well. I wanted to learn every technique I could. My practice was very organized and methodical, and I kept track of the exercises, metronome bpm numbers, and dates. After mastering each technique, I would then practice them in combinations as well, starting with twonote- per-string exercises, then three notes, then four notes, and so on. As a result, all these things became equally incorporated in my vocabulary as a player, to the point where I can mix them up without really thinking about it.
Dave, last year you played a program of Vivaldi compositions live with the San Diego Symphony. What was that like?
Mustaine: It was remarkably challenging to play the Vivaldi stuff, and it left an indelible imprint on my musical psyche, for sure. My little solo piece on “Bullet to the Brain” is very much in that baroque, melodic vein, and the chord structure of “Poisonous Shadows” is inspired by the harmonic progressions of parts of The Four Seasons. The piano part that Kiko played at the end totally reminds me of Chopin, too.
You had surgery on your back several years ago, Dave. How has it affected your playing?
Mustaine: My neck had been broken and there was a bone fragment in my spinal cord. I had the surgery on my wife’s birthday and, God bless her, she was there with me through the whole eight-hour procedure. The next day I was in a golf cart rolling up to the stage with a neck brace on to play a Big Four show in New York. I taped these signs all over the stage that said “Don’t Head Bang” [laughs]. There’s still some pain and numbness in my fingertips from time to time, but when I hit the stage I don’t feel it. As soon as the house lights go off, I’m like Popeye eating the proverbial Spinach. I just become energized and I go into a completely different zone.
What are some of your favorite songs to play from the Megadeth oeuvre? What still takes you to that zone?
Mustaine: I’ve always liked stuff with complex rhythms, like “This Was My Life,” and “Looking Down the Cross” for example. I’ve also always enjoyed playing “Mary Jane.” It’s a weird melodic sequence because of the sliding chord in there. It’s the stuff that I look back on and say, “What was I thinking when I wrote that?” that still feels fresh and new to me.
Loureiro: Everything’s all so new to me that I’m pretty psyched about the entire 17-song set. We start with “Hangar 18” and build from there with a setlist that spans the entire catalog. As someone who’s always been a fan of this music, it has been mind-blowing to study it in depth and see how Dave has evolved and matured as a composer.
Dave, Kiko had a well-established solo career before joining Megadeth, whereas the band has really always been your vehicle. Have you ever thought of doing a solo album that explores different musical styles that you’d be reluctant to incorporate into Megadeth?
Mustaine: I could see that happening somewhere down the road, but right now I’m really happy where I am. Since our first record, we’ve always covered “non-metal” songs, like the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” On Dystopia we do a version of the old Fear track “Foreign Policy.” I also think it would be cool to do a video game soundtrack with this lineup. To be totally honest with you though, I have a desire to act. I think anyone who’s ever seen a Clint Eastwood movie wants to be him! I once read that Gene Simmons said a musician becoming an actor is like a cucumber becoming a pickle, though. You can never really go back.