Megadeth’s Rust In Peace is probably the gnarliest guitar album in the history of heavy metal. Released in 1990, the platinum plaque was the group’s definitive statement from the golden age of thrash metal. It’s a megablast that spanned from the mid-’80s to the early ’90s, when Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax—collectively known as The Big Four thrash titans—vied for the iron throne.

Megadeth main man Dave Mustaine helped invent and perfect thrash as an early member of Metallica and later as the lead guitarist and frontman of Megadeth. As the record turned 30, the metal master talked to Alternative Press about the new book, Rust In Peace: The Inside Story Of The Megadeth Masterpiece. In the compulsively readable oral history, Mustaine and the band blaze through the record’s rough road, from its inception to certified-classic status. The book was written with author Joel Selvin, with a foreword by Guns N’ RosesSlash and an additional intro by bassist David Ellefson.

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Top o’ the morning to you, Mr. Mustaine. I say “mister” because I’m also a taekwondo student. So I bow in your general direction, sir.

I’ve got two black belts, in karate and taekwondo. I just started for mine in Gracie [jiujitsu]. I started with an instructor here in Tennessee, where I live. It’s hard for me because I want to kick and punch. Every time we clinch, I want to punch.

Martial arts is about engagement and redirecting energy. Do you see a connection between martial arts and your art?

Perhaps, just with being rigid and how I run Megadeth. With the way you run a dojang or dojo, if you are always putting what’s best for the group ahead of the individual, you start to see where group unity comes first. And people at the school can thrive if the sensei is hurt or sick or out of town. Class doesn’t stop.

As you describe in the book, a lot of recording Rust In Peace took place without you there. One of the wonders of Megadeth is that the band have been able to persevere through so many personnel changes. Many groups fall apart when their “classic” lineup has one change. But through the ’80s and ’90s, you had rotating members, and you kept putting out classic albums.

Thank you. It was hard. You can always find guys who can play good. But [with] most guys who can play good, sometimes they’ve got an attitude that comes along with it that is a little bit less than desirous. We’ve had some really, really terrific guitarists that auditioned for us. But they were a little bit bossy. And if there are going to be two bosses in this band, one of us is going to be unnecessary, and it ain’t me. I talk about that in the book.

By reading the book and seeing all the twists and turns and complications, the other wonder of Rust In Peace is that it exists at all.

There were moments where we knew we were going to pull through. And then other times where we had no idea if we were going to make it. There were a lot of times [where] we would audition people… One time, Dave Ellefson told me he was working at a rehearsal studio, and somebody who was working there, they found his head cut off, in the dumpster. I thought, “This is getting a little scary, Dave. We’ve got to seal this and get out of town.”

One of the things that impressed me was the professional, disciplined, regimented approach that you took to the band and your life—even in going to rehab. From the outside, it looked like chaos. But you always had goals and a game plan. You didn’t get dragged into rehab kicking and screaming.

When I went in there, it wasn’t to hang out, get cleaned up and start hitting the bricks again. I think that’s what a lot of people do: In the [Alcoholics Anonymous] Big Book, it says how some people try to go in and get cleaned up so they can get twice as loaded using half as much. I thought, “I’m just fed up with this shit and I want to get on with my life. It was really cool and fun, and it worked, but it’s not working anymore.” And when you have a band that’s as much fun to be around and play with, it makes it a lot easier to stay with the rubber side on the road and the shiny side up.

The album opens with “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due,” which is two pieces but paired together as one track. Were they ever separate songs?

“Holy Wars” and “Punishment Due” were written as one long piece. When I did “Rust In Peace… Polaris,” that was written as two different songs. And we copied that mentality when we went into the next number. “OK, we’re going to do the ‘dot dot dot’ thing. We did it on [Megadeth’s 1986 breakthrough] Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? “We’ll do it here, but we’ll be real smart about how we break the song up.”

In fact, I was just talking to Kiko [Pedro Henrique “Kiko” Loureiro, current Megadeth guitarist]. I said, “You know what we haven’t done in a long time? A ‘dot dot dot’ song. There’s one song we have that’s really killer that I thought would be a good song to do that on.” It’s just got a working title. You wouldn’t know it later if I told you what it was.

 “…The Punishment Due” is about the Marvel Comics anti-hero The Punisher. Have you kept up with the character through the movies and the TV shows?

No. The movies sucked so bad [that] I just walked away from it. The comics are what I like. I should check the movies or TV show out, but it’s not going to live up to my imagination.

Can we agree “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” is the best guitar solo ever?

 Thank you. I don’t know.

How do you see the album? Do you think it’s your masterpiece?

It’s a really significant record for a lot of people. All the people who grew up in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and even the kids whose parents were cool enough to let their kids listen to this kind of music. They got to listen to it second-hand. There weren’t many bands good enough to make the purge. All the wankers are tossed to the side, and all the ones that are the bona fide musicians, they’re the ones that are here now who are going to come out of this pandemic/planned-demic/Stand-demic, whatever you want to call it. 

This is going to be scorched earth. It’s going to be like a delousing: All the people doing the music, who are only doing music because they can take a file and make a song, they really cluttered the roads of touring. And now a lot of people are sitting at home. And they’re really having to face the fact that living off music is hard. So if you buy into that crap [when] people told us “Have two months’ savings for a rainy day!”—they’re really uptight right now.

You said “planned-demic.” Are you of the opinion that COVID-19 is an artificially induced or managed situation?

No. I said three different things, whatever you want to call it. For me, I’m taking care of myself, staying healthy and protecting myself from going into bad places or anything that’s going to be risky for me until I get a little more information on it.

Back to the album, “Hangar 18” is a song that was ahead of its time about UFOs and “computer banks to rule the world.” Were you reading about that subject matter when you wrote it?

I was at an airport, and there was a small private craft. And the tail fin numbers, I thought, said “N2 R HQ,” like “into our headquarters.” And I thought, “Cool, this reminds me of the [1960s TV show] Thunderbirds,” the international rescue squad with these great aircrafts. That’s totally unrelated to “Hangar 18,” but I saw this tail fin number, and I thought, “I’m going to write about us having this place up in space.” And the part where it says alien, there’s one sentence in there. That was the only thing that the A&R guy from the label contributed. It was more about airplanes than UFOs. But when Nick [Menza, the late drummer] got in the band, he wanted to convince everybody that aliens were real.

Part of the tour for the album was the legendary Clash Of The Titans tour with Slayer, Anthrax, Suicidal Tendencies and Alice In Chains. It seemed like that tour was a locker room where all the bands were on the same team, but you were going so hard, and were so amped up, you wound up fighting each other. You had words with [Slayer frontman] Tom Araya. You had words with Mike [Muir] from Suicidal Tendencies.

That’s maybe how it appears on the outside. But we were in the same league—we were not on the same team. But I think a lot of people have overlooked this: Whether we didn’t like each other or not, we had tremendous respect for everybody. We do like each other. There were just a lot of people talking shit.

It got to be so monotonous. Every time you get to an interview, there were these little guys from overseas who would say, “Kerry King wants to fight Nick Menza!” The last straw for me was: Mike Muir had said something. And I went up to him, and we talked and buried the hatchet. There was no hatchet. We were supposed to do a photo shoot. And for whatever reason, he didn’t show up. And we didn’t get the cover of Rolling Stone. Anybody would be upset. Me and Mike are really good friends now.

Slayer retired recently. Does outlasting another Big Four band feel like a victory for Megadeth?

I haven’t given it much thought.

Do you feel “The Big Four” was a good term? Did you feel like there was anybody else in your league artistically, if not commercially?

Yeah. We all had our strengths and weaknesses. As far as the commerciality was concerned, I don’t think Anthrax or Slayer had as much luck as Metallica or Megadeth did because we had more melody.

You mentioned luck. Do you look at Dark Angel or other smaller bands and think, “They did it as well as we did. They just weren’t as popular.”

I’ve never heard Dark Angel. Now that I’ve got my radio show [The Dave Mustaine Show on streaming network Gimme Radio], I’ve got hundreds of CDs on my desk that I have to go through. Right now, I’m in the course of signing 8,000 autographs on the new Rust In Peace book.

When you first picked up a guitar, what did you want?

Just to have a friend, I guess.

Looking back, what makes you feel like 13-year-old Dave would have been happy about what you accomplished?

13-year-old Dave was a little shit. But certain things I’m really flattered with. When I got back the advance copy of the book and some of my heroes were on the cover, it was super-exciting to see that stuff: Ozzy, Alice [Cooper], Kerry from Slayer, [Metal Blade Records founder] Brian Slagel. I’m really blown away with the presales on the book right now. I know me signing all these autographs, I didn’t do that last time. There are a lot of interesting things happening in the land of Megadeth. Every day, it’s like summer camp, and I love it.