Chris Poland: The Interview

Before his shredding heroics would come to define the early hours of Bay Area thrash icons, Megadeth, Chris Poland’s origins found themselves nestled in amongst the rolling valleys of Upstate New York.

These days, Poland is oft-remembered for his seamless blending of fusion meets metal, but as a child wielding his first six-string, his origins were far simpler and all too common.

When I first started, I would just put on records and pretend like I was in the band,” Poland recalls. “I would listen to everything: Hendrix, Cream, Mountain, Led Zeppelin, whatever it was, I would try and learn it. My first band was called Pegasus; we played together for two or three years and won a Battle of the Bands; we were okay, I guess. I never got to hear it because no one ever recorded it. [Laughs]. There was a band called Welkin. They basically turned me on to really cool music, gear, and time signatures.”

As Poland came of age, his dreams extended beyond the confines of Upstate New York, and before long, the axe-wielding mad scientist set a course for the West Coast, landing on the Strip amongst a bustling scene.

“I landed in California on Halloween night, and the first thing they did was take me to the Sunset Strip, which was pretty crazy,” Poland continues. “It was El Nino, and where I was staying, you could see the San Bernardino Mountains, but whenever it was cloudy and rainy, I couldn’t see a thing. And when the rain finally stopped, I felt like I was on vacation because there were palm trees everywhere. [Laughs]. It was never cold. It was awesome.”

And though Poland has released a myriad of eclectic material over the years, he’s best remembered as the first six-string counterpart to Dave Mustaine in Megadeth. In Poland, Megadeth found a perfect foil to Mustaine’s more pentatonic leanings, with the Upstate native shredding his way to infamy across Megadeth’s first three records. But for Poland, his tenure in Megadeth proved all too short, with drugs and interpersonal issues leading to him being jettisoned from the band.

These days, Poland is still crafting his unique blend of jazz-inspired metal through his various projects ranging from traditional thrash metal to the instrumental leanings he explored after leaving Megadeth. In guitar circles, Poland is revered, but what does the man himself have to say about his skills on the fretboard?

“I know enough to get around the guitar,” says Poland. “I don’t know theory or anything. My saving grace is a cell phone because if I write a song, I record it on the phone; that way, I’ll remember what the notes and chords were, especially the rhythm. If you forget the rhythm, you’re in trouble.”

Taking a moment to reflect, Chris Poland recently checked in for a look back on his early days with the guitar, his first bands, joining Megadeth, and where things stand with Dave Mustaine.

What first got you hooked on the guitar?

I came from a small town, and my cousin Eddie Boris was in a band doing Stones covers; he had a Fender amp and a [Fender] Mustang guitar, which I thought was really cool. He had a Boss Tone fuzz box, which made me want to play guitar. When I was a little kid, my parents bought me a plastic guitar, then the next year, they bought me a cheap acoustic guitar, and then the next year, they bought me a Supro electric guitar, which was my guitar for a long time.

The Upstate New York hard rock scene is retrospectively revered. What are your memories?

I’m from just outside of Buffalo, a city called Dunkirk. The cool thing about Dunkirk is right next door, there is a SUNY Fredonia State University of New York. It’s a music college, so we had a lot of great music going on. On weekends, we’d go to downtown Fredonia, and there’d be one club playing hard bebop jazz and then another place that would have Talas with Billy Sheehan playing bass. And then we’d leave there, and the next bar would have a cover band doing the first Robin Trower record, but it sounded just like the real record. All these bands would be coming out of Buffalo, and they would do small tours. A lot of really good music came out of Buffalo.

You joined The New Yorkers with Gar Samuelson while you were still with Welkin, right? What was that transition like?

When I was playing in Welkin, their guitar player, Dick Maxfield, joined the Army, or he became a priest or a pastor, who knows? Anyway, I had joined Welkin, and I was living up around the Albany area in Upstate New York. Gar and his brother, Stu [Samuelson], called me and said, “Hey, we’re moving to California.” I said, “All right, I’m going to be out soon.” I told the guys in Welkin I had to leave because Gar, Stu, and I had been talking about going to California and starting a band. So, we did that, and once we got out to California, we found Robbie Pagliari, which was the core of The New Yorkers. From there, we got different horn sections, and we had a really big following, and then we just broke up for whatever reason.

How did that lead to you joining Megadeth?

The New Yorkers called it quits because we got bummed due to bands like The Knack exploded in California. You could hardly get a gig anymore doing instrumental music, so we just stopped. Then Gar met Dave Mustaine through a guy named Jay Jones. I went and saw Megadeth, and they were doing a gig with a three-piece band, and I went and saw Megadeth, and I could tell they needed another guitar player. So I said, “Man, I’m going to try and get that position.”

Were you invited, or was there an audition?

Gar and those guys were rehearsing at a place called Mars Studios, so I just took my gear down, and Gar told me to rent a room and just play guitar really loud. So, I did. And then I heard a knock on the door, and that’s how I got into the band. It was a pretty easy transition from fusion to metal; we were already doing really heavy, heavy fusion. It was really loud, and it was almost like speed metal, so the transition was pretty easy; well, maybe not easy, but it was doable.

When you first joined Megadeth, was it hard to keep up with how fast they played?

No, that was okay. I mean, The New Yorkers were playing at least that fast. But if you wanna hear some fast shit, listen to “As the Palaces Burn,” from Lam of God’s record As the Palaces Burn. We listened to it, and I swear to God, man, it sounded like Megadeth on 78rpm. He looked at me and said, “Man, you better put on your big boots!.” I did, and it was insane how fast that shit was! Alex Skolnick and I did a solo on one song, which was really cool, too.

Paint a picture of the thrash metal scene when you recorded Megadeth’s first few records.

About three weeks after joining Megadeth, we recorded Killing Is My Business… and Business is Good! And then by the time Peace Sells… but Who’s Buying? came out, we had already been playing the songs for Peace Sells for several years. I think that really helped, and I feel that we were much more of a band when we made that record.

As far as the rest of the scene, I didn’t pay much attention to that. If anybody asked me if Dave was a warlock or a witch, I would just say, “It’s just theater, man.” Truth be known, Dave was a witch, but that had nothing to do with the music itself. The music was more theater, even though there was a song about conjuring demons.

What can you tell me about your post-Megadeth projects Damn the Machine and Mumbo’s Brain?

Damn the Machine was right after my solo album Return to Metalopolis. I did Return to Metalopolis first because I felt I needed an instrumental record after leaving Megadeth to sign with Enigma Records. For Damn the Machine, David Randi auditioned for bass and got the part, and then we started auditioning guitar players, and that’s when we met Dave Clemmons.

So, when Enigma went bankrupt, we decided to call Dave Clemmons and start Damn the Machine. We then ended up on A&M Records, but Damn the Machine fell apart because we basically kept four of their bands and dropped everybody else; that’s when we decided to start Mumbo’s Brain. We got my brother Mark and found John Skipp for vocals, who was friends with Carol McArthur. The last member was Leah Randi, who was Carol’s girlfriend, and that’s how the band Mumbo’s Brain came to be.

There’s minimal information on Mumbo’s Brain. Where can people learn more if they’re curious?

If you’re looking for it, there’s a CD called Chris Poland’s Rare Trax. There’s a lot of really good stuff on there, man. I think you’d like it. There’s another band after Mumbo’s Brain that I started with Dave Randi and Carol McArthur with a drummer named Koko Bermejo on drums, and that was called Nothing If Not, which has four or five songs on Rare Trax. Most of Mumbo’s Brain record is on there, too.

In 2004 you rejoined Megadeth for The System Has Failed. What was the experience like?

That was a lot of fun. It was great to see Dave again. Vinnie Colaiuta played drums on it, and everything went great. He was remixing the catalog, and I had no idea. All that nonsense that happened after that record came out was it was really unfortunate. I’m not even sure that Dave ever even knew about it because I didn’t have any number that worked for him. The only person I could talk to was his management, and they just gave me nothing but grief the whole time. So finally, I just got my attorney and said to go after him. When the remix of the catalog came out, I was bummed out that everything was on there and everybody else – but me – was getting royalties. They basically said I was a nuisance, threw me a little bit of money at me, and that was that.

Where do things between yourself and Dave Mustaine stand today?

The things that Dave Mustaine and I have been through, I mean, come on. I’ll be there in two seconds if Dave called me tomorrow and asked me to do something. I don’t hold grudges like that, and the reason I don’t is that Nick Menza told me to stop with all that bullshit, and I’ve learned from him.

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