Guts, Glory and Guitars: Q&A with Metalocalypse Creator Brendon Small
Before the Metalocalypse, show co-creator, writer and guitar maestro Brendon Small only played in the woodshed. Oh, how the world has changed.
A third season for a show like Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse—what with its copious blood n’ guts—says TV standards and practices have come a long way. So, too, have animators’ efforts to accurately depict guitar playing. At least in the eyes of guitar geeks, who (though cartoons aren’t real) lament the vapid pantomiming of animated players. Unlike those open-handed strummers, Dethklok’s Toki Wartooth and Skwisgaar Skwigelf can actually play. In fact, says show co-creator and writer Brendon Small, the characters’ guitar mastery earned them quite an honor.
“We just put out the Dethklok tablature book and it’s…the fourth-highest seller of Alfred Publishing’s history,” says Small. “That’s one behind The Best of Led Zeppelin and one above The Best of Van Halen. So we’re hitting the guitar audience with this show in a way that I never hoped, or dreamed, back when I was a 14 year old fat kid learning guitar. ”
In reality, as Guitar World readers know, the guy behind Toki and Skwisgaar’s sweep arpeggios and trem picking is Metalocalypse co-creator and writer Brendon Small. A guitarist since his tweens, Small confined himself to the woodshed until his final year at the Berklee College of Music, when he decided that comedy was his strongest muse. Although he’d accompany himself on stand-up gigs, Small didn’t play guitar onstage with a band until he formed a live version of Dethklok in 2007 to support The Dethalbum (Williams Street Records).
Small says those initial shows were “a trial by fire” because “I was a recording player more than a live player.” Not having logged the countless club gigs that usually come before sold-out theaters and arenas, Small felt the squeeze. “It was pretty funny to watch me do the pedal board dance and fuck things up and switch to my clean tone on lead breaks instead of the boost channel.”
Now Dethklok—the studio core of Small and drummer Gene Hoglan, plus touring members Mike Keneally on guitar and Bryan Beller on bass—is a more seasoned live act. While Dethalbum II eviscerates the charts, the band will wrap a huge tour with Mastodon, High on Fire and Converge. So Season Three of Metalocalypse debuts just in time, for Dethklok’s rabid, panting fans, who will forever clamor for more gore and more guitar.
Why is Metalocalypse so successful?
SMALL When I was a teenager discovering guitar, and I would've loved to turn on the TV and hear what I thought was a very specific reference to my personal musical interests.
Is it delicious, being the guy who gets to compose elaborate gore scenes that you know some oppressed little 13-year-old kid will see despite his parents' best censorship efforts?
SMALL Uh… that's out of my jurisdiction, Your Honor. I write for an adult audience. If kids sneak up late and watch my show then it's up to the parents to throw paint on them and beat the daylights out of them with musical instruments. Having said that I am a kid that stayed up late and watched Conan the Barbarian and many horrible fucked up things and I turned out just fine. Kind of. But then again, maybe it's why I'm addicted to pretend violence and Yngwie.
Dethklok was your first time playing live?
SMALL I put together [musical] projects, but then I got into comedy. I’d incorporate music here and there, but I didn’t wanna be one of those comics doing parody songs on an acoustic guitar in some shitty comedy club. I wanted to do something fun with my guitar and that ended up being Dethklok. That was me falling back in love with my guitar; that’s the whole reason the show exists.
How did your live comedy work help you in live musical performance?
SMALL With comedy, you learn to relax and maintain the crowd and be funny on the spot. And just keep your shit together, you know? There are no more nerves, but it’s a lot of responsibility singing and doing sweep arpeggios at the same time. I enjoy the challenge.
One of the best attributes of Metalocalypse is its guest spots—usually from metal artists only devout metal fans would recognize. You've had guys like Hammett and Hetfield and Patton, but few outsiders would know niche guys like Corpsegrinder, Ihsahn, Samoth, Devin Townsend or Jeff Loomis. Discuss?
SMALL They say that all musicians want to be comics and vice versa, and I believe that to be true as a Berklee music school grad who became a comedy writer/show creator. And it's fun to give people whom I respect a great deal musically a chance to do comedy. And I find that all of the musicians that have been on the show have had great senses of humor. I will always try to put my guitar superheroes on the show—so that I can meet them and force them to say stupid things. And pay them to hang out with me.
Season Three features Slash, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani—guys that some metalheads would call milquetoast, mainstream and none too metal compared to the grindcore, black and death metal guys. Do you fear the wrath of the self-styled hardcore?
SMALL Maybe the dopey fans would call them that, but the smart ones know what's up. I think you'll find that guitarists who are as creative and inspiring as the above mentioned are capable of influencing far beyond the particular style they live in. Many current artists in metal cite them as gigantic influences. I'm no different. If it weren't for Slash, Joe, or Steve I don't think I'd be doing what I do. They fucking kick mega ass.
Furthermore, I find tons of metalheads are into much more than just metal. They all have eclectic tastes from Steely Dan, to David Bowie. Even Gene cites Stevie Wonder as his most favorite drummer. And I just had dinner with the Fear Factory guys—we discussed the jaw-dropping amazing-ness of the new Jeff Beck: Live at Ronnie Scott's DVD. That guy is a master.
What were Vai, Satch, Slash like in the studio? Is there such a thing as shredding a voiceover?
SMALL They were all fantastic. The whole idea is to have fun and relax and all of these guys were incredibly professional. The thing is, I think there's a general methodology that you can take from music and apply to other aspects like voiceover. They're no strangers to studios and doing multiple takes and nailing it. They know dynamics, legato, staccato, and they can all talk. Which is helpful, it turns out.
Who's left on your guest spot wishlist?
SMALL He's not a metal musician, but I'd like to get Nick Nolte in the show somewhere. Him or Gene Hackman. But they'd both make badass death metal frontmen.
Which dead metalhead would you most like to summon for ethereal voice work?
a. Dead (Mayhem) b. One of the kids that supposedly killed himself because of "Suicide Solution" or "Better By You, Better Than Me" c. Dime d. Cliff Burton e. Chuck Schuldiner
SMALL I have gigantic respect for all of those musicians, but I'd still have to go for Louis Armstrong because his voice is the funniest—and the foundation for all death metal as we know it. And for that same reason, Fat Albert (even though he's not real) and Tom Waits (even though he's alive).
Now that you’re an experienced performer, will you make time for more music projects?
SMALL Some people out here in L.A. are just badass players. I’m always so busy writing scripts and editing, working on the show and stuff, that I really envy those guys. I wanna go out and play around in an Allan Holdsworth-style fusion thing for a night and just fuck around. That’d be cool. And I’ll be finishing up a solo record at the same time with Gene. It’s gonna be very guitar-driven. Energetic and fun and very metal. There’ll be a couple instrumental shred tunes on it.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force has had its live action episode, so when will we see Dethklok and some unlucky bystanders in gloriously rent Technicolor flesh?
SMALLI think the only thing that makes my pretend cartoon band interesting is that they don't exist. I think that's why people buy the CDs, DVDs and all the other stuff. The second we make them real is when I will lose interest. I mean, there are plenty of real bands out there. I'd much rather front one that doesn't exist.