Last month, legendary thrash metal veterans Megadeth released a remixed and remastered version of their 1985 debut album Killing is My Business…and Business is Good: The Final Kill. The deluxe reissue, celebrating the band’s 35th anniversary, features previously unheard live performances, brand new artwork and a re-recorded cover of Lee Hazelwood’s “These Boots,” along with liner notes and other bonus material from their storied career.
After Dave Mustaine left Metallica in 1985, he met bassist David Ellefson in Los Angeles, and the pair formed what would become one of the most widely known metal bands of all time. Killing is My Business…and Business is Good! was recorded on an $8,000 budget. As a young band neglected by their label, their first full-length album was raw and under-produced, missing the mark from their intended vision.
Despite this, the album blew up the metal scene, cementing their place in history as founders of thrash metal. 35 years later, The Final Kill re-imagines the early days of Megadeth and honors their original plans for a debut album that would be heard by fans all over the world. Dave and David reflected in separate interviews with mxdwn on how metal music has evolved over the course of their career, what it was like to finally win a Grammy and what’s left in store for an iconic band that’s still making waves.
mxdwn: Originally you had a low budget to work with and a few things didn’t turn out the way you intended. What was it like getting to go back and work on one of your oldest projects?
Dave Mustaine: Well, our goal when we first did the album wasn’t to make some big record that was going to last forever and stand the test of time. We were just trying to make the record I wanted to make because I was pissed. I was upset. And I wanted to make a record that disputed the things those guys were saying about me. They said I wasn’t a good guitar player, that was so idiotic! It just infuriated me.
So when we got the deal, it wasn’t a great deal by any means. People at that time in metal bands weren’t getting good deals. We got what we got. When we got the artwork, it was a total let down. But that was pretty much the whole time period for us with the people at that label at the beginning. I think they were kind of surprised at how big Megadeth got. I don’t think they were prepared for our success and they just couldn’t hang with it. But you know, looking back, I wouldn’t change anything.
David Ellefson: You know, it’s cool. There was a remix in 2002 that came out and that was a vast improvement from the first one. Then, to go into it again now, all these years later, Mark Lewis, who remixed it, he’s a younger guy. He makes a lot of terrific young-sounding, modern metal records. So for him to come in as a fan, a Megadeth fan, and with all of his expertise, he just had a really cool perspective and a great ear for it. So, all of a sudden guitars sound better, sits better with the drums inside the mix.
It’s funny how mixing is such an art. I’ve come to realize that over the years. It’s very common to record an album with one team and send it off to another team for mixing, and part of that is to get a different perspective on the music. Mark is part of the fabric of great, young heavy metal, and he was really the perfect guy to bring everything to light all these years later.
Photo Credit: Marv Watson
mxdwn: What kind of changes were made on the reissue that bring it closer to your original vision?
DE: For sure, the cover. When we turned in the artwork we wanted, and look, that art may have been kind of primitive at the time, but again that was our vision, so at least take this and do what an art department does and develop it into what we wanted. Instead, the label just completely discounted it and did their own thing. They used that monkey skull and their version of the blood, they didn’t even use our logo, they used this gothic font. I mean there was nothing at all about our original vision in it.
Even that got improved on the 2002 version. But now, with this new artwork, it couldn’t be any better. It’s just perfect for what we wanted. There are some things you’re gonna be stuck with, you know. You can’t change the microphone, you can’t change the performance. Those things are what they are. But with modern technology, they’re able to really enhance tone and the visual aspect of it to try to get it as close to what the original vision was back in 1985 when the thing came out.
mxdwn: In the liner notes you reflect on how you’re “amazed to have survived” that time period. Can you talk a little bit about what you were going through around that time?
DM: It’s pretty well-documented. David and I were homeless and were trying to survive, we had a record label that told us to get day jobs and our day job was being recording artists for the label. When we started traveling around the nation supporting a record, the last thing you thought you would hear is someone from the label telling you to get a job. It was pretty ignorant, to say the least. But, you know, I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with people at record labels that weren’t intelligent. You can’t judge the whole industry based on the actions of a few people because I’ve met more great people in the music industry than I’ve met bad people. But I have definitely met some bad people.
mxdwn: What goes through your mind listening to that album over again after so much time?
DE: The main thing is, every time I hear it, it takes me back to that exact Studio Indigo ranch in Malibu, which was the old Moody Blues studio where we recorded it. And we recorded there and then moved down to Crystal Sound Labs in Hollywood, and we recorded all together. So I hear moments that were really ripping, I hear a lot of things we just cringe over [laughs] you know, because we were still a young band. I don’t even think Chris Poland had even played a show with us yet. So it was very raw and also a little inexperienced. That was my first record I’d ever made, I think it was Dave’s first full-length album. It’s a whole other level when you demo some songs and then you go to actually recording it, because that’s what the rest of the world is going to hear forever.
Photo Credit: Mauricio Alvarado
mxdwn: On the new album you went back to re-record “These Boots” with its original lyrics, after Lee Hazelwood criticized the cover when it was released. What made you decide to go back and undo the changes you made?
DM: Well, Lee Hazelwood had done that song a long time ago. I was at a lake and I was with my parents, and we were listening to the radio when that song came on by Nancy Sinatra. I thought it was the greatest thing ever as a kid. I think about myself as a kid listening to this song and being so impressed by it. When the opportunity came to do the song, we did it, and I changed the lyrics to make it a little more metal. Ten years later the publishing company goes, “We want you to take the song off the record because you made it vile and offensive.”
And I thought, “You know what’s vile and offensive? That they cashed the check on it for ten years. If you wanna get up on your moral hilltop, then send me the money back and I’ll take the song off.” Now, they never sent the money back but we did take the song off out of respect for Lee Hazelwood. The sad thing too is that we did another cover from a guy named Willie Dickson, a song called “I Ain’t Superstitious,” and he loved it! I don’t know if he was as big as Lee Hazelwood was. But it is kind of a bummer, you know, when you do cover songs from people you really like and one has an amazing reaction and one is a jerk.
DE: It’s funny, there was a version we did around the time of the Peace Sells… tour. It was for a movie that Penelope Spheeris was directing called Dudes, which featured John Cryer and Flea. We went back and re-recorded and the band sounded great. Probably the biggest gripe on the reissue back in 2002 was the edit, the bleeping out of the words. I think what you hear now on The Final Kill is that it all works together as an album now.
“These Boots” is a very tongue-in-cheek wild thing—that was who we were back then. It was a punk rock, heavy metal motif. In a lot of ways, that song really tells the whole story of the origins of Megadeth because that’s a song that Dave had pre-Metallica, so it’s survived Metallica and now it survived Megadeth. And because Metallica took parts of that song and came up with their version on their debut album, it’s ironic that its original composition ended up on our debut album. So it really is kind of the downbeat of all things Megadeth.
Photo Credit: Marv Watson
mxdwn: In Dave’s memoir, he describes forming Megadeth as a way to one-up Metallica after leaving the band. Do you feel like he accomplished that?
DE: You know, I always saw it as something different, but that’s me because I have no history to Metallica. I have only a friendship with them, quite honestly. For me, we were always a very different sounding band than them, even from the beginning, even the songs I heard Dave composing as we first started playing together. “Looking on the Cross,” the song that became “Devil’s Island” and the song that became “Set the World on Fire,” those were really the first three songs Dave was working on. To me, they were very different from Metallica.
Those first six months to a year, the initial compositions of Megadeth that came together, which largely made up the Killing and Peace Sells… albums were written almost in their entirety around the same time period, and I felt like Dave’s guitar playing was going to another level. He and I were forming a new sound and style together. As I heard the things Cliff was doing in Metallica, I didn’t feel like my bass playing followed that path at all. He studied classical, I had studied jazz, so I kinda had a different approach to the bass, but I think our fans loved both of us. [laughs] It was this era where bass playing in heavy metal was very aggressive and out-front. That was a big part of our early compositions, and that has stayed true for the entire course of our catalog.
mxdwn: Back in the day, you two met by chance as neighbors, and you’ve been making music together ever since. Can you talk about how your relationship has been over the years?
DM: It’s pretty good—we’ve had our ups and downs like anyone else. He’s a solid bass player, he’s been an ambassador to the band. People like him, and it’s a good thing when you have somebody that people like.
DE: Yeah! I had just moved to LA to get into a band or form a band exactly like what happened. So I moved in and ended up in an apartment right underneath Dave. So the good Lord had some kind of divine plan in mind [laughs] because why would I drive all the way from Jackson, Minnesota—halfway across the country—to Hollywood blindly and end up meeting Dave who was also looking to start something new? I mean the two of us couldn’t have had a better heavy metal collision than what happened.
Photo Credit: Marv Watson
mxdwn: Dave, you recently joined The Recording Academy for the Grammys, is that right?
DM: Yes I did, I became a member of the chapter in Nashville to get some work done and try and help. One of the things that encouraged me was to try and see if we can get another category added to the awards. I don’t know if that’ll happen. But something that happened too that was exciting right off the bat was that they got a select group of us, an advocacy group to go to Capitol Hill and fight for fair pay for the musicians. It’s pretty well-known that the big streaming businesses and labels are all fighting and trying to figure out how the artists are gonna get paid. And I don’t think they’re fighting quite as hard as the artists are, if you get my drift [laughs].
mxdwn: Over the course of the band’s career, do you feel like the metal scene has changed at all?
DM: Yeah, it has, but I think a lot of that is because the music business has changed. When I first started, the music business was one thing. It was all of us. Now you’ve got people who are business people who don’t have a musical bone in their body, and just because they’ve got a degree they think they know how to make records or pick singles and any of that stuff, and they don’t! Sometimes they do, but for the most part, they don’t. That’s one of the bad things that’s happened, an infiltration of people like that. Now there’s two worlds: music and business.
The technology changed a lot too. Probably the most important thing of all is that with the technology and people being able to make records at home, there’s a lot of people that aren’t musicians making music. I look at it like this: there’s people that know how to make music, there’s musicians, there’s people that are stars, there’s people that are superstars, right? A guy that knows how to make music can go sit on a piano and play “Chopsticks.” A musician can play. A star is somebody that can play the piano and you’ll go, “wow, that guy’s really good.” A superstar is somebody who you’ve got that guy’s record in your house somewhere already.
Like I told my band guys, when we work on ourselves, when we get new guys, we do this thing called “Rock School 101,” just to do some media training, just like in the NBA or Major League Baseball—to let the rookies know what’s going on. Because as soon as you get the contract, you get people coming out of the woodwork asking for money, asking for favors. We didn’t want any of our new guys to have any of those situations, so we would tell them certain things about what to expect, what to say, how to look, how to think, how to act, how to dress. And then we’d say, “okay so find your own style, do what makes you feel good, and then if something’s not cool we’ll say so. But enjoy yourself, learn how to shred these songs.”
So now, what I told these guys, for example, Led Zeppelin—Led Zeppelin had four superstars. If you think of a band like, say, AC/DC, [they] had maybe, people would argue, two superstars: Angus and the frontman, right? So at times, especially when you have a high school band, maybe all four of you are just musicians, but one guy’s got the spark and he’s got what it takes. And maybe he becomes a star. And that’s why most bands don’t make it, because they’ve only got one guy that’s a star and the rest are just musicians. I think we’ve been really lucky because David’s got moments of greatness where he goes from being a star to a superstar, most notably is the riff I wrote for “Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?” When I showed that to him, he embraced it and people fell in love with his playing and the rest is history.
DE: It has—no, for sure. And it should! About every 10 years it really needs to recycle and do something new, otherwise, it just doesn’t grow. We started in the middle of the hair band era, you know. And then funk metal came in, we saw all kinds of things, the Seattle movement came in, then the thrash thing came back around with Lamb of God. Once we got into 2010 that’s when the Big Four happened with Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, so all of a sudden we were like the founding fathers of the genre and became these heroes of the genre, and people couldn’t wait to see all of us together. It was like the inventors’ convention [laughs]. So yeah, we watch it change, and there’s another wave of stuff coming through. It’s all part of the scene, all the different levels.
Photo Credit: Mauricio Alvarado
mxdwn: You mentioned the band is currently working on new material. How has your songwriting process changed over the years?
DE: It goes through different styles. We’ve done a lot of different methods over the years. Where it is on this one, because we all live in different cities, we put everything up into a Dropbox which is the easiest way for us to share. We have it in a central location. Everything’s up in the cloud and any of us can work on it and put it back, add drums or bass to it; it’s a way to get the process moving. And we don’t write in the cloud, you know, we write down here on the ground [laughs] in a room together, so that’s the next phase that will happen this fall. But it’s nice to have all these ideas, at least, in a central location that we can hear and review—a think-tank where all the music and compositions are initiated.
mxdwn: Has the current political climate influenced your writing at all?
DE: For me, yeah. Lyrically I’ve definitely been paying attention. We’re not really to the lyric phase of the compositions of the new album yet, but I know for me it certainly has.
Photo Credit: Mauricio Alvarado
mxdwn: You have a lot of festivals on your tour right now. What is important to you guys as far as live shows go?
DM: Uh, remembering the words. There’s a lot of songs, and you get to singing them and sometimes when you make eye contact with the fans, sometimes they may look startled. If I’m looking at them and all of a sudden they freeze, something inside me wants to laugh and that’s when I usually go, “Oh shit, you just forgot where you were” [laughs] and then I do my best Elvis impression—fudge the words a bit until I get back to the words I know. I think another good thing too is to not take ourselves too seriously. As soon as you start thinking you’re the best there is, someone else is going to come along and show you that you’re not.
DE: For me, Megadeth started as a live band. We were the kind of band that went over some parts in the apartment and then immediately took it to the rehearsal room, and that was where you could really feel the power of Megadeth, right from the very beginning. When you’re playing in a room, there’s a thing that happens, and lots of times it’s why people in a rehearsal studio start stopping by your room and go, “Damn, what are you guys doing in there? That sounds awesome!” [laughs] And that’s kind of a cool thing, that’s how you know you’re onto something.
Then the first shows we played up in San Francisco, that’s how we debuted the band. These sold-out 500 seat clubs that were packed and everybody loved it. It was just so cool, as much as the music was really heavy, there was a real charisma about it that you could sense. People really liked it, they looked at Dave as a real leader. We were coming up with a new sound beyond what anyone was doing at the time, not mainstreaming our sound like Metallica. Which was good for them, because they knocked down a lot of doors! They carved a wide path for all of us to follow in. But for Megadeth, our music was more thrashy, more brash and aggressive, and we carved out our own niche with the Peace Sells… album, and we really became our own band.
Photo Credit: Marv Watson
mxdwn: The band recently won its first Grammy. What do you see for the future of Megadeth and your personal career? Do you have any goals you still hope to accomplish?
DM: For the band, I see about four more weeks of touring. We’ve got a busy year, and then we’ve got a couple of little one-off things at the end of the year, and then next year’s gonna be massive. We’ve got a new record that we’re recording, a new festival we’re gonna be debuting to the world. I can’t tell you what it is yet but it’s really massive.
DE: For so many years we didn’t get a Grammy, and we just started to kind of discount it and go, “Well, I guess we’ll never get one.” And then when you finally get one you think, “Man…this is pretty damn cool!” [laughs] Even at the Grammys, it was a big story because of how many times we’ve been nominated. At its base, The Recording Academy really is about music and it’s cool that they really honor it. It’s nice to be part of the family. The Grammys are the gold-standard of our business and look, we’ve never written songs to win Grammys, so winning it with something like Dystopia, we won because of who we are. We didn’t have to change to win it and that’s the beauty of that story. The lesson I take from that is to always be who you are—and it might be the longer, slower road, but you always win in the end.
As far as the future goes, we’ve got some great plans for next year. We intentionally didn’t tour the U.S. this whole year—I think it’s important to be missed a little bit. Next year we’ve got plans for some really cool stuff, and I think that’s part of it, you know? There are so many new opportunities, it’s like when people started having cruises and things, all of a sudden it’s cool to play casinos now [laughs]. There are some plans we have rolling out next year that are totally unique to Megadeth. That’s about all I can say about it, but I think continuing to innovate and push the envelope for ourselves creates a whole new experience for fans.