Dave Mustaine Reflects on Megadeth's Debut: 'No One Could Figure Out What We Were Doing'

Dave McRobb
Megadeth's current lineup: Kiko Loureiro, Dave Mustaine, David Ellefson and Dirk Verbeuren.

Exclusive: Hear the remastered version of "The Skull Beneath the Skin" from the band's reissued album

The story’s been told countless times: Megadeth founder-bandleader Dave Mustaine was literally sent packing when his brief but hugely pivotal tenure as lead guitarist for Metallica came to an abrupt end. According to Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian’s account in his 2014 autobiography I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, Mustaine had passed out in his clothes the night before, so his then-bandmates seized the opportunity and stuck him on a cross-country Greyhound bus from New York to Los Angeles while he was still only semiconscious. The date was April 11, 1983, and Mustaine hasn’t stopped talking about his former band since.

Not long after getting back to L.A., Mustaine -- whom Ian refers to as “arguably the godfather of thrash” -- founded Megadeth and threw himself into his own career with a literal vengeance. His answer to Metallica’s seminal 1983 debut, Kill ’Em All, was Megadeth’s Killing Is My Business... and Business Is Good!, which will be reissued (for a second time) as a deluxe package on June 8 via Century Media.

Although recorded with even more raw production values than Kill ’Em All (Mustaine and company infamously spent half the recording advance on intoxicants), the album showcases the prog and jazz leanings that set Megadeth apart from its peers. Instant thrash classics like “Rattlehead,” “The Skull Beneath the Skin” and the title track feature all the elements that defined the band’s sound even at that early stage: dueling lead guitars; sleek, highly precise staccato grooves at breakneck tempos; macabre subject matter. On “The Skull Beneath the Skin,” for example, Mustaine paints a picture of a gory, occult lobotomy procedure that would stir the imaginations of metalheads long after he renounced black magic for Christianity.

During a phone call from his home in Nashville, Mustaine looked back on getting Megadeth off the ground and where the band is today. “Everything’s great,” he says. “We all get along, have our lifestyles and our families coexist. Megadeth’s just one big, happy family, finally. And I love it.”

When thrash first started, you and the other bands were operating at the fringes of the music-industry infrastructure. How much has that experience helped you adapt to today’s challenges?

When I found out last year that the Megadeth record was responsible for [a significant] fragment of our label’s worldwide sales -- so much so that I stopped for a second and said, “Are you kidding me? We’re responsible globally for that much of the entire label’s revenue?” -- I thought, “Wow, that’s great. Metal really is alive.” But it’s different for our scene the way the revenue streams have changed. It just leaves you scratching your head, and you’re just thinking, “How on earth does this work? How is there even a pay structure like this? Where does the money come from? Who’s collecting it? Who are these people?” (Laughs.) I don’t get it at all.

So what is it that has enabled Megadeth to stay viable?

There are a lot of people who do this for different reasons. Some people want the money; others want fame. [Megadeth bassist and co-founder] David Ellefson could have gone back home to Minnesota at any time. He obviously had a different calling as to why he did this, and that’s led to a very interesting friendship and relationship. For me, the reason that I wanted to keep soldiering on was revenge. I wanted to prove to everybody that I could do what I could do. When I lost my job, having my former employers say that I wasn’t doing good, that really pissed me off, ’cuz it wasn’t true. I’m a good guitar player. (Laughs.)

Speaking of that: In 2017, Metallica was set to reissue the 1982 No Life ’Til Leather demo that features you, but you got into a dispute over songwriting credits. Those recordings show pretty clearly that Metallica frontman James Hetfield’s guitar playing wasn’t as developed as yours by that point. The demo’s widely circulated online, but wouldn’t a lavish rerelease under the Metallica banner vindicate you and show your contribution once and for all? What are the chances that this deluxe package ever sees the light of day?

I don’t think that’s going to happen. We talked about it a little bit, and there are certain things about the way [Metallica drummer] Lars [Ulrich] wants things to go down, and it’s just not going to happen. They want to say things happened one way, and it didn’t happen that way. I can’t go along with that. I can’t fabricate stuff.

In that same vein, a newly expanded version of Killing Is My Business..., subtitled The Final Kill, is out in June. It was already remixed and remastered once in 2002. Why is this the definitive edition?

Well, our next special milestone is the 40th anniversary of the band, and Killing Is My Business... turns 35 soon. We figured we’re not going to get a lot more opportunities to do these giant packages again. When we went back into the studio, we noticed that there was some stuff that was weird. There was a track where the kick drum was turned off. I was like, “What? Get the fuck outta here.” There were some other things here and there, and there were also some alternate performances. When we say, “The final kill,” we just wanted it to be like, “OK, we’re not going to come back in 10 years with another Killing Is My Business... and Business Is Good! record. This is it. And check this out; it’s got some really neat stuff in it.”

The original is very raw…

Sure.

…and that’s what people who originally heard it got attached to. How much concern was there about making the new mix too pristine?

There’s always that fear there of fucking with something and ruining a classic sound. When you crack one of those boxes open, it’s very dangerous. It was done on tape, and you have to be particularly careful because you have to bake those things. So you run the risk of wrecking the music when you do it. You’re always going to have the metal purists that are going to say (adopts a mocking, snobbish tone), “It’s not as good as the last thing.” They do that just because. (Laughs.) You could take the same record and never touch it and put it back out, and people would say, “This sounds totally different! It’s the same! It’s worse!” We could say, “You know what? It’s the same.” And they would go, “Nuh-uh!”

Listen to the remastered version of "The Skull Beneath the Skin" from the reissue below:

Listening back now, what stands out to you about the Megadeth lineup that made that album?

Chris Poland is a very unique and talented individual. He’ll always be one of the most exotic guitar players I’ve ever played with. And Gar Samuelson being a jazz drummer gave our playing a super, super cool element that none of the other metal bands had. It was great to be able to hold that over everybody else’s head because no one else could figure out what we were doing. We had energy, starts and stops, and so many gear shifts -- and that’s all attributed to the jazz element, which gave the music all these crazy dynamics that you would never get in a normal rock band’s drum track. It just wouldn’t sound the same.

For this edition, you recut the vocal for your cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” Lee Hazlewood’s iconic song for Nancy Sinatra.

We originally put the song out with a combination of my lyrics and Lee’s lyrics, and his camp cashed a check for 10 years. Then, all of a sudden, they said, “You need to take the song off the record because you’ve made this vile and offensive version.” And I said, “You know what’s vile and offensive? That you guys cashed the check for 10 years before you said anything.”

They wanted to have the song come off the record, but rather than do that, we just went in and beeped out all of my words and left his words in there. Now we’ve got this third version that has the original lyrics that Nancy sang. As much as we wanted to send a message to Lee Hazlewood’s camp, we didn’t want to send that kind of [misogynistic] message to our fans. So when we had the opportunity to go back and fix it, I figured, “Yeah, let’s go in and do that.”