Jazz, Death, and Megadeth: A Conversation with Chris Poland

I tend to interview the people I interview for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's an interesting new band, sometimes it's because there's a specific album I want to delve into, and sometimes I want to discuss the music that changed my life or youth with the people who made that music. My conversation with Chris Poland, Megadeth's first lead guitar player, and one-time member of bands such as Damn the Machine, OHM, and even Circle Jerks (as a touring bass player) belongs to the latter.

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The formal excuse for our talk was the 30th anniversary of one of the most important albums in my own life as well as in the life of metal as a genre, 1986's Peace Sells…but Who's Buying?. As much as the talk usually is of Megadeth's golden era as belonging to the Menza-Friedman years, the band's first two albums, with Poland on guitar and Gar Samuelson on drums, remain singular dirty diamonds. Singular in Megadeth terms, but in many ways singular in the broader scope of metal as a whole. They were angry, angular, scary, dubiously produced, and unpredictably jazzy.  That jazziness, the coming out of balance in order to return to balance in the nick of time, is the indelible print of Poland and Samuelson's influence. Poland went even further and participated in the band's later history both in recording for the Rust in Peace demos, as well as playing lead guitar of Megadeth's later masterpiece, The System Has Failed in 2004.

For these reasons, more than any member not named Menza or Friedman, Poland and Samuelson retained a legendary status among Megadeth followers, for their quirky and cerebral style. If Friedman is endless imagination and feel, then Poland is pure mind. If Menza is infinite momentum, Samuelson is smoky insanity. So it was the most natural thing in the world to try and talk with Poland on his lingering influence, and just music in general.

The already thick plot, however, tragically thickened last year. In more recent times the drummer for Poland's fusion trio OHM was none other than Nick Menza himself, further complicating his already complicated relationship with his former band, turning him to the only man not named Dave to play with both Gar and Nick. That stint, unfortunately, was prematurely cut short by Menza's untimely death while on stage with OHM at the Baked Potato in May 2016.

So, from a conversation about Peace Sells the interview swerved into focusing on two of my favorites subjects: death and drummers. We talked about Gar's dominance and sheer confidence, and we talked about the always-moving energy and love that was Nick, including a short, and sadly illuminating discussion of his attempt to rejoin Megadeth's lineup just as they were gearing up to record their latest album, Dystopia.

On a personal level, if all this wasn't personal enough, that is, this interview marks a watershed of sorts in the life of this blog. Mainly because it touches almost every nerve I have in my life in music, and as a result of the resounding disappointment it triggered in me regarding heroes of mine I guess I should have been disappointed about long ago. Whatever the case may be, it's a conversation I was honored to conduct with one of the people I respect the most in a world of music and thinking and thinking about music. There aren't many people whose fingerprint are as inspiring and identifiable as Poland's geometric and wild phrasing and imagination.

It's been a while since I've posted such a long interview, and I have you will enjoy it as much as I did while working on it.

Ron Ben-Tovim: I thought I’d start at the beginning and ask whether you had a moment with a song or album that made you either fall in love with music or made you want to become a musician?

Chris Poland: I took piano when I was eight, nine years old. I never read the music, I just watched…my aunt taught me how to play and she thought I was reading music but I was just parroting whatever she played. So, when we had a recital she was turning pages and I wasn’t even looking at the music, and then they found out that I couldn’t read, that I was playing by ear. So, that was one of my first introductions into music, and I didn’t hate it and I didn’t love it, I just did it, you know?

But then I got a guitar, and my dad had these…

This was about the same age?

Yeah, about nine or ten. They bought me this little Hawaiian six-string, tiny little guitar. And I started listening to The Ventures, because my dad love that. But my mom was an opera singer, and, believe it or not, when I was young I used to listen to The Sound of Music just because I liked some of the songs on it. But what got me into guitar was my cousin, his name is Eddy Bores, and he had a Fender amp and a Fender guitar, and he had this little thing called a Boss Tone Fuzz that he used to use and he used to do all these Rolling Stones songs like “Painted Black.” So that intrigued me.

But it wasn’t until I heard Led Zeppelin, like the first Zeppelin record and the first Cream record, that I really got into guitar, in that that’s what I wanted to do. I used to put the records on and I would just take my little Boss Tone Fuzz and I could play at a low volume and it would sound like I had a Marshall stack at, you know, speaking volume. So, I would jam with those records, I did that for years, and then one day I realized that this was what I was going to do.

It’s interesting that you describe, even the moment with the piano, it’s not love at first sight, just the very fact that of acknowledging that you could do it. That it’s something you do.

Yeah, the piano wasn’t going to be my voice.

So it was an indication that it was something you could do?

That I love, I just didn’t realize it was going to be guitar a year later.

I mean, you’ve discussed this quite a bit in the past, I assume, but the whole idea that your true passion, when you reached music-listening age, that it wasn’t necessarily heavy music, it was more jazz and fusion…

No, not really. I mean, I really really liked Jethro Tull, I liked that Aqualung record, I liked all the Zeppelin records that had been released, and of course Cream, and Hendrix, and Mountain, those were my main things. Until Jeff Beck came out with Truth and the orange album [Jeff Beck Group, RBT] with Bob Tench singing, that was it. That was all I was listening to, that music. And then I started doing instrumental music, this was like when I was in eighth grade or freshman in high school, and then I head the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and I heart it on an album called The Guitars that Destroyed the World [released 1973, RBT]. There were all these songs and all these different bands, and the last song on side A was this song “The Dance of Maya” by Mahavishnu Orchestra. And when I first heard it I thought “Oh my god! This is the worst music I have ever heard!” But I kept going back and listening to it, because I couldn’t believe how bad it was.

[Laughs]

And then one day I just went “Holy shit!” and I got it.

Do you know now why?

I don’t know why. I was attracted to the fact that they all played well, but I couldn’t imagine why they would want to play that! So, then I got the  Birds of Fire record and then I just never looked back. I started listening to that, and Weather Report, any solo records by Jeff Beck or Stanley Clarke, just that whole great late-seventies fusion thing. My core is Led Zeppelin and Mountain and stuff like that, that sort of distortion and heaviness. So, for me, when I joined Megadeth, it was just Led Zeppelin, but fast. To me, that’s just how I described it to myself, “this is just distorted guitar, with faster and more complicated riffs.”

That kind of gets to my point, or to the point I think I have, that you and Megadeth have a relationship that I think runs deeper than most…and there’s a crowd of ex-Megadeth musicians, right? But you kind of stand out from that crowd. And there are many reasons for that. One of those being that you were involved in the first two albums, and those were very important albums for people who like Megadeth, and those albums had a very distinct sound that never really got replicated in the albums that followed, so there’s a sense that you, you and Gar, really had an effect on how Megadeth sounded at the time. And there’s the added tidbit that you were the only return ex-musician when you came back for The System Has Failed. But, going back to what was special about the first two albums, it’s very clear, I think, to anyone listening to all the albums that came out at that time, and it was a very busy time in metal, you had huge albums coming from Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax, Exodus, it was just a huge couple of years. But those Megadeth albums didn’t sound like the rest.

They don’t sound like the rest because Gar was a jazz drummer. Well, not a jazz drummer. Gar was influenced by the same fusion. What I was talking about, with my music, that’s exactly what happened to Gar at the same time, and Gat’s brother Stew. And the three of us went from playing Deep Purple songs and whatever we could muster to jam on to all of a sudden realizing that this is what we wanted to try and play like. We wanted to be like John Mclaughlin, we wanted to be like Brand X or whatever. Gar wanted to play like Billy Cobham and Tony Williams, and Lenny White.

Gar’s not a traditional jazz drummer. He’s not Jack DeJohnette, he’s not that, but he’s a rock drummer that got really influenced by rock-fusion players. And I’m the same way, I’m a blues rock guy that really liked fusion.

But, I mean, you’re describing your life up until that point, musically, that one wouldn’t necessarily describe as a metalhead’s life in music.

No, not at all. For me, bands like Jethro Tull, that was heavy for me. That was heavy music. And Led Zeppelin, I considered that heavy. Where Jeff Beck’s Truth and the Bob Tench record, and Rough and Ready, I considered that as being just blues rock, that had leanings toward maybe a little bit of jazz. But that’s what I came from.

And the thing was, when I heard what Dave wanted to do, to me, it was very similar to what we were doing in a fusion band we had called The New Yorkers, which was really complicated stuff, doing unison lines, odd times signatures, but loud guitars. So when me and Gar got into Megadeth it was like “Yeah, we can do this. We do this all day.”

But that’s interesting, because the perception is, at least my perception was, that because now we’re looking back at more 30 years of Megadeth, and we have all these moments with Dave working with all these musicians, so there’s added significance to the outside influence. When it was you and Gar it was that, and when it was Marty and Nick it was something else. But the perception was, and I think that’s kind of how the story has been told, is that the reason that Killing is My Business and Peace Sells sound so quirky is because Chris Poland and Gar Samuelson forced their jazz influences on Dave Mustaine. And you’re saying that’s not the case.

No, that’s not the case at all. But, on the first record we basically just did what we could do and added our parts, and Gar wasn’t told what to play, so Gar’s influence was all over both those records.

Because he did whatever he wanted to do?

Yeah, just ״do what you want, just play it and play it right,״ you know? And I never heard Dave say once “Hey, don’t do that.” But on the second record, that’s when people’s opinions started to count and if it wasn’t for Gar…. Gar’s opinion on “Peace Sells” was “This is a freakin’ eight-minute song, Dave, and it’s the single. Let’s not drag this out and make it short.” So, Gar insisted that Dave change the arrangement, and he did.

But that sounds like a minor miracle, right? People don’t think of Dave as a guy who listens to other people’s opinions that much.

Well, no. But out of all the people in the band I think the only person Dave even respected was Gar. I have no idea why. I just know that Gar could say anything to Dave, and Dave would just smile at him and just go “Oh, fuck you.” And Gar would say terrible things to Dave.

Like what?

We’re in a winnebago and we’re going east to tour the East Coast. It’s the U.S. drag, we’re bored. Gar’s looking at a Rip magazine and in the centerfold it’s Metallica. And Gar had a cigarette, in every waking moment of his life Gar had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. So, there’s smoke everywhere, Dave’s sitting next to him. He looks at Dave, opens up the centerfold and says “You know what, Dave? If you weren’t such an asshole you’d be in this band.”

[Laughs]

And that’s the kind of shit Gar could say to Dave, but no one else could say that to Dave.

And how did Dave react? Did he laugh?

No, he was like “Oh, fuck off.” If I had said it it would be, you know, all knees and elbows.

So it’s the added component of Gar being the unique musician that he was and the personality that he was in the band. I don’t think there’s a lot of people in the history of the band that would have been able to pull that off.

No, no way. But I think you’re right. It’s weird that the core, which is Dave and Dave, whoever they bring in is almost what the band turns into.

Yeah. I’m kind of fascinated by that, because it means two things: that no matter what people say about Dave and his ways, he actually does kind of listen some of the time, because these influences do filter through, and the second thing which is that there’s a constant that’s called Dave and I’m fascinated by that constant, since I have no idea what it means.

Well, I don’t think that the writing changes, Dave always writes everything. It’s just that his ideas change around his band. He literally has the songs written, but once he gets a bunch of guys in a room again, the new band forms new ideas in Dave’s head, which is fucking how it should be, anyway. You use what you got. You use your strengths, not your weaknesses.

I agree, and yet it goes against the idea of Dave Mustaine the tyrannical, all-controlling guy.

Right.

Actually I remembering reading somewhere that you were very happy with Peace Sells but you have some issues with the production.

Yeah. I mean, I just really enjoyed Master of Puppets, just the sound of it. And I think what it was that those guys were a couple of years ahead of us as far as dialing-in their tones and getting stuff to tape, and I think it might have been that the people they had producing that might have known a little more than the people we had producing us. And most of their tone is in Hetfield’s hands, it’s not really in Kirk Hammett’s hands. But, just the drum sound, the bass sound, Hetfield’s guitar sound.

Yeah, there’s a specific ambience to the whole thing.

Yeah, exactly. And I that’s what I wish we could have achieved on Peace Sells. Because if our record sounded a little bit like…. I don’t want it to sound just like that, but just a little bit more…. And it was totally on us. We weren't getting guitar tones that Dave is getting today. I’m not saying we should have, but we could have gotten better tones.

Yeah, but that’s an interesting point about metal as a genre, that there’s added value when you do stuff well, and there’s also sometimes added value when you do things not so well. There’s aesthetic value to fucking up. That you can hear the open strings when you hit a chord, or that your amp isn’t that great.

I hear that all the time, man. People tell me “You’re wrong, the songs, the record couldn’t sound any better.” And I understand that. But I’m that way about everything. I make a record, then two years later I go “Man, I’m so much better than I was then.” Today I’m a better guitar player than I had ever been in my life. I just hope that two years from now I could say that. Because all I do is change tone, all the time.

But I would guess that’s very difficult for fans, since they latch on to what they like. They don’t necessarily want you to evolve or change.

Sure they do! Listen to Dave’s tones today and the production today. That shit is way different than on Peace Sells. And look at Metallica, from the two first records to… I consider Master of Puppets, production-wise, as my favorite, but the Black Album and Master of Puppets don’t sound alike, and especially And Justice for All doesn’t sound like any of them. And they just went with what they felt like going with, and that’s cool, because they went with what they felt like at the time, and that’s what it’s about.

I mean, Hetfield said it himself, he said that the minute you’re satisfied with your guitar sound, you’re done.

I didn’t mean to say you were wrong to judge your production, it’s just that these things have a tendency of coming around.

I know exactly what you’re saying, I know what you mean.

Yeah. It has these other values, like, I believe, and that’s the reason I think you and Dave were such a great combination, and perhaps similarly to why he and Marty were great together, because your sound was a much rounder, almost cerebral, and Dave just sounds like he’s hitting his guitar against the wall.

Yeah, and that’s what’s always good about two-guitar bands. A lot of the time when you have two guitars you don’t want them to sound close to the same, because that’s just more of the same.

Chris Poland in PHM. Photo: Mike Sherry

I assumed it wasn’t planned, because you just arrived in the band…

Oh no, no plan. No planning involved. The only plan was that Dave wanted to be bigger than Metallica. You know what, I didn’t mean that. Dave just wanted Megadeth to be the biggest band in the world. And you know what? At the time, I wish I had felt the same way, but I just didn’t. I wasn't getting out of it as much as…. I mean, I enjoyed it, I enjoyed playing it. But the only ideas I brought to records were harmonies, and at least I got to do my solos. But, I just felt kind of stifled in that band.

Because you couldn’t have any input?

I didn’t have any input, but you know what? My input wasn’t made for that band. I don’t write like that. Return to Metropolis [Poland’s post-Megadeth solo album] was just like a catharsis for me of what I had done in Megadeth and where I wanted to go. So that’s kind of why it has that sound. And I wanted Randy Burns [who produced Peace Sells as well as albums such as Possessed’s Seven Churches and Death’s Scream Bloody Gore, RBT] there because I wanted it to be some kind of stepping stone from Peace Sells into wherever I was going. And, again, I don’t even like that production. I just didn’t know what I was doing. I know a lot more now. I know a lot more now about what you said, mistakes are sometimes the crust of the biscuit. That sometimes mistakes are more important than anything. So, I’m not erasing stuff or go “Oh, I’ll do that again.” If you listen to Led Zeppelin there’s all kinds of clunkers everywhere, but that’s what makes it.

I think I’ve spend most of my youth and adult life constructing these rational schemes regarding why I like certain bands over others. And as much as that’s a juvenile activity, because it really just amounts to “Uhh, you guys suck, we rule!” I think there’s something of value there. Because what you’re doing, really, is trying to figure out what you like and why you like it. And I think that, as a person, I am attracted to what I identify as signs of humanity.

I hear you, I hear you.

Meaning that there’s a soul there. Now, it can come from the melody, from the drums, and one other way in which soul is transmitted to the listener is through fucking up.

I know what you’re saying. I’m trying to keep that idea in live situations now, because we’re a three-piece band and if anything goes wrong it’s totally obvious. So I’m just trying to let it go, and just have fun and not worry about whether someone is going to drop the ball, because it’s only a second or half a second at a time, and nobody’s judging nobody except yourself, you’re judging yourself.

But that’s why when I look at Peace Sells and then I look at all the other albums that came out at the time, and there were huge albums coming out that year, then Peace Sells comes up on top, because, to me, it sounds like an album played by human beings. It’s not a very popular opinion, just because Master of Puppets is such a great album, and everyone loves it, but I have this mistrust….

Of the perfection. Yeah, I know what you’re saying.

Because Peace Sells is this angry, broken thing.

It’s more organic, is what you’re saying.

I think. I may be wrong.

No. It took me a long time to decide that that’s a really historic record. It took me a long time to listen to it and take it like I had nothing to do with it. That’s when I started loving that record when I pretended like I had nothing to do with it.

When was that?

Oh god, like ten years ago.

Oh wow. So, after a while.

Yeah. And the way I came to that conclusion was like how I come to all my conclusions, I had to be unattached to anything to have a really good perspective on it.

Did that conclusion have anything to do with deciding to participate in The System Has Failed?

Oh no. I was totally intrigued to make that record, because Vinnie Colaiuta is playing drums on it, and Dave was sober at the time, and it was yeah, let’s see what happens. It was fun making that record.

Yeah? It wasn’t like going back to meet your ex-wife?

No, no. Not at all. It was just like the fun we had making Peace Sells. Killing is My Business wasn’t all that fun, because it was a big rush job. Not that I’m saying 26,000 dollars is a lot of money to make a record, but that’s what we made Peace Sells for, and I think we made it in less than a month. But we were working 18-hour days doing speed and heroine.

That helps.

I’m not sure how much it helped. When you have a habit when you’re doing heroine you’re basically not getting that high, you’re just not being sick. So it wasn’t like we were all powering all day long, we were basically just not in the bathroom 24 hours a day throwing up, you know?

And so you had the same kind of fun doing The System Has Failed as Peace Sells?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. It was the same Dave. It was just the same way we did everything.

Because that album stands out in what you could call Megadeth’s later catalogue as being that organic album.

Well I think the drumming…. Well, the production is different than Peace Sells, but Vinnie Colaiuta has a lot of the sensibilities…. Or, let’s say Gar had some of the sensibilities that Vinnie has. A certain similarity in things like where they would put a fill, how they would do that, because they come from the same background of who they listen to.

That’s interesting because a while back I interviewed Chris Reifert from Autopsy, and the reason I wanted to interview him was, and this is going to sound completely weird, that this is going to be my only chance to interview Gar. Because his sound and feel, to me, is very reminiscent of Gar’s. Like I remember I read somewhere how Gar went away from the “1,” those kinds of things. And he told me that he was first a jazz drummer, or that the person who taught him was a jazz drummer. Those connections are fascinating to me. Whatever it is.

Right. Let me just correct something. When I said that Gar would float away from the “1,” what I meant was that when Gar would do a fill he would cross the one with his fill. And, he would come in in time, as far as the eighth note, but he would come in late on the “1” after a fill, a lot. But that’s just part of that quirky Gar thing.

Yeah, but it creates this momentum.

Exactly, it makes the listener catch his breath.

Right. Going back to Chris Reifert, he talked about it like walking on a tightrope. You look like you’re going to fall, you look like you’re going to be late, but you’re always on time.

Exactly. That’s what’s fun about challenging music. It’s like a train that’s going to come off the tracks, and when you don’t and you make it through the whole song, that’s pretty cool. It’s rewarding.

Do you follow what Megadeth has been doing at all? I assume you heard the couple of records that came out after you left.

Um, I heard them, I didn’t buy them. I didn’t even start listening to Megadeth again until I started playing with Nick [Menza, RBT]. And then Nick played me their previous record [Dystopia]. And, we were playing a couple of Megadeth songs, just for fun. But, currently I’m not a huge Megadeth fan. I enjoyed some of the songs on that record. Not all of them, but, you know, but there are like five songs that I like on that record.

Actually there’s one song on there that I really liked. It’s a ballad…

Yeah, that’s an amazing song [“Poisonous Shadows”]

That’s really…. I was really surprised, because the chord structures there are really strong. That’s a really well-written song.

I agree. And it’s a strange thing, because they came here for a show and I was at the press conference with Dave and specifically asked him about that song.

You know what that song reminded me. It’s on one of the early post-Chris-Poland records…

[Laughs]

Actually on the next record, that song “Hook in Mouth.״

“Hook in Mouth” is a great song.

“Hook in Mouth” is a really great song, and I don’t know why that didn’t become a huge hit. It had everything going for it. You know what it was, it was that those guys were fucked up. Music wasn’t the main goal then.

It think it was on the wrong album. Not that that’s a bad album, but it was sort of a dark ages of Megadeth, in a way. Post you guys, before Marty and Nick.

Yeah. That’s a great song.

Yeah. That intro with just the drumming…

Which is totally so cool. And when they spell the chorus out? That's fucking genius.

It’s like an anthem.

It is, it’s like a total anthem.

The whole interaction between you and Megadeth becomes even more convoluted as a result of your relationship with Nick late in his life.You’re not just the guy who played on the huge first two albums, and the only guy to come back, but you also got to play with both Gar and Nick. How did that Nick thing happen? I mean it had such a horrible ending to it, but how did it happen?

Well, his manager kept calling me and saying “You’ve got to get together with Nick, man, you’ve got to get together with Nick.” And he kept saying “Oh, you’ll make millions of dollars, you’ve got to get together with Nick.” And I said “You know what? Fuck it. Why not.” So, I went over to Nick’s house, and he had James LaMenzo over [former Megadeth bass player]. And we jammed with James, and I didn’t want to say anything, but, James is a great bass player, but he’s not my kind of bass player. So we kept playing, and James basically talked to some management people to see if there was any money in this band, and they said “no, you’re not going to make money in that band.” So after that Nick and I looked at each other and said “Wow. So he’s just going to say that to us right now?” So we kind of said “Well, we’re going to have to find a different bass player.”

So, my drummer passed away, David Eagle, and that was tragic. But we wanted to do the band, and so I asked Nick and he said “Yeah, man. I’ll do it!” And so he learned all our songs, and after we played them, we said “Fuck this other thing, this heavy thing, let’s do this!” And I was so happy. He showed us what we needed in this band that’s been playing for, God, who knows how long. When he came in he brought life, and just muscle into the band. Every time we played we had so much momentum – every time we played we sold out, we were supposed to go out to Europe to play this big festival in Poland. It was in the cards.

But, we didn’t know what Nick knew. He didn’t tell anybody. He kept coming into rehearsal, about a month or so before he passed away, for a week he’d come into rehearsal and bitch about how doctors don’t know anything. He saw a doctor, and the doctor told him what he didn’t want to hear.

So, the night when we played the Baked Potato, he was fine. As a matter of fact, he started the set off, it was like a different drummer had arrived. I had never heard him play so hard and so intense. It was like someone had unleashed this other drummer. By the third song, sweat is pouring down my face to try and keep up with Nick. So, he looks at me and says “Dude, are you OK?” and I said “Yeah, I’m OK! What the fuck crawled up your ass?” And so he laughed, and he looked at Pag [Robertino Pagliari, OHM’s bass player, RBT], and they’re both laughing at me. And I’m totally losing it, I’m trying to drink water and all that. And so Pag looks at Nick, he turns around to the mic to talk to the audience, Nick adjusts his hi-hat, puts his hands on his legs with his sticks, and slowly leans over into the monitor. And there he is, just leaning into the monitor. And I thought he was just fucking with me, because he could see I was all up there to try and keep up with him, and I looked over and I say “You fucking asshole!” because I thought he was joking. And I see his eyes are wide open. And so I yelled out “Call an ambulance!” And the rest is history. That was it.

That sounds horrible.

Well, you know what? It was horrible. But it wasn’t until a month and a half, two months later that I realized that it was meant to be, and that he knew what was going to happen.

That it’s literally what he wanted.

It’s funny you say that, because he had kept going north to see his sons. And we were angry, like “Wow, isn’t he not into the band?” He made like three trips up there and he was gone, and we couldn’t rehearse. And while he was up there he was speaking with his ex-wife and her husband, and he went “You know what, if I go”… someone death came up, and Nick’s wife’s husband goes “When I go, I wanna go having sex,” and Nick got all pissed off and said “Dude, you do not want to traumatize my wife like that, don’t even think like that.” And then Nick looks at him and says: “When I go, I’m gonna go on my drums.”

A week before the Baked Potato show in which he passed, he was talking to these HBO people who were doing a documentary on us, at his house, making him breakfast. And their filming him and he keeps talking about all these questions he has for god, that he’s going to ask god as soon as he meets him. So, then, when we did the Soultone benefit, or a place where we could all grieve, one of his friends said that he went to the doctor and that the doctor told Nick “Yeah, you can’t exert yourself anymore.” And so Nick was like, “You know what? I can’t do that.” Nick never told me this, but I know Nick. He’s a type-A personality, he’s a type-AAA personality, every minute of the day he’s either making a drum, or making a home, or making a guitar, or recording music, or writing music, or working on his house, or riding his bike for miles up in the mountains and some shit.

I was devastated, and hurt, and just didn’t know what to do until I put it all together and I realized that, if it had to happen, everything happened the way it had to happen for him. Because, he couldn’t sit on a couch. He couldn’t lay in bed. And thank god they didn’t revive him, because if he had to live his life in a wheelchair, that would have been hell.

I swear to god, I loved that guy, man. Luckily I didn’t get to meet him when I did the solos for Rust in Peace. I only met him for a second. I shook his hand, I said “hi” and he said “hey.” If I had gone out and had lunch with Nick I would have still been in Megadeth.

You’re talking about when you did the demo solos for the Rust in Peace sessions before Marty came in?

Yeah. If me and Nick would had run out with somebody and had some lunch and hung out for a couple of hours, I would have been in that band.

Just for the force of his personality?

Yeah. There was something when I met Nick, I was like “Wow, where the fuck have you been?” My wife, when I would come home, she would look at me and go “Dude, are you having a bromance?” Because I would just be over there all the time.

To what extent is that personality what you hear when he plays the drums? Because what you hear when he plays the drums is just…. Forward movement. Always pushing forward.

That’s it, man. That’s him. Thing is, he was the nicest person. He made me want to be a better man. He would stop me mid sentence if I even started to talk shit about Dave. He would get upset and say “Listen man, you can’t give that shit power. You can’t go there, don’t live there. And it’s not like I was, but it’s just that he would tell me these stories and I would get upset. Like he wasn’t getting paid, and he has these kids who need the money, and his wife’s husband is saying “Jeez man, we could use some money.” And Nick’s trying to get money that’s owed him and he can’t get it. And granted he went ahead and called him out, and said: “Hey look, I need to feed my kids, Dave!” But that wasn’t in some evil way. He didn’t have any animosity toward Dave. He was like “You know what? Dave Mustaine made me a millionaire. Dave Mustaine let me see the whole world. I was a rock star. What more can I ask for?”

Yeah, it was kind of surprised to hear that he made you listen to their recent album. I was wondering why would Nick play Chris the new Megadeth album? What would he even care? I assumed he’d be either angry or indifferent.

No, not at all man. The thing was that I found out later that when he went down to play with those guys. And I told him “If you’re going to drum for Megadeth, go for it. Don’t feel like I’m going to be hurt.” So, he was going down there with bells on. Evidently, he was playing so loud they had to bring more amps in. But when he got back to play with them again, and he told him that he had an upset stomach, that he couldn’t play, I think that was the beginning of his heart telling him “You know what, dude? You can’t do this.” This is just my theory. But you know what? I makes total sense, because Junior [David Ellefson] called Nick’s manager and said “Is he on drugs or something?” And his manager laughs and says “No fucking way, dude!” And so what I think happened is that Nick was there, giving them 100%, which he had never given us, until that night. All those other rehearsals, all those other gigs, Nick was never really playing as much as he could. Until that night.

I’m sure. I’m sure it was a big moment for him.

And then all of a sudden he said “I can’t play anymore, I’m feeling sick.” What else are you going to say? You’re not going to say “I think I’m going to have a heart attack.

And he and Pag hit it off immediately. He was a muscle drummer and Pag is a muscle bass player. We’ve always had these sophisticated drummers, but they never really hit the drum that hard. And he was like a locomotive, he brought out the best in us. And, sadly, that’s what we’re looking for in a drummer now.

Yeah, that sounds like a tall order. I’ve been listening to music all my life, and I’ve never heard someone like him, or Gar. Although they’re very different from each other, I guess, since Nick, I mean, he was smart and made great decisions, but he was just, I guess you could say muscle, just propelling everything forward.

Well, it didn’t hurt that his dad [jazz musician Don Menza, RBT] was his first teacher. His life growing up, it was a jazz life. He worked at the biggest jazz store in town, building up-right basses, when he was a kid. He would linseed-oil the body, for a month, two months a-time.

This is the jazz connection, again.

Yeah, he met all these jazz musicians, Buddy Rich, he was Rich’s roadie in L.A. for years. Nick was a one-of-a-kind drummer. I’m just so so glad I got to meet him and play with him. I learned a lot about music, but I also learned a lot about how to just be a good person. He’d give you the shirt off his back. I’ve seen him do it again and again.

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