“I think about Van Halen a lot. I have to play some treacherous licks, so I need the right kind of inspiration. I’m overplaying to an extent – it’s gotta be huge and bombastic”: Brendon Small on writing Dethklok’s brutal final act

(Image credit: Provided/PR)

In the unlikely event that two of the world’s greatest fictional bands – the extreme heavy metal outfit Dethklok and the hip-hop virtual group Gorillaz – should ever mix it up in a parking lot brawl, Dethklok’s main man Brendon Small is confident that his fearsome five piece would prevail. 

“Gorillaz don’t stand a chance,” he says with a laugh. “My initial description of Dethklok was, ‘They smell bad and they can hurt you.’ I like Gorillaz a lot, but I don’t think they have anything on Dethklok in the crazy department.”

Considering a more implausible hypothetical matchup, this one between Dethklok and perhaps history’s most-famous fictional band – the straight-laced, ear candy-dispensing Archies – Small also gives his metal bruisers the advantage over Riverdale’s finest. “It might not even be a fair fight,” he says. “Dethklok have a lot of power in their frontman, Nathan Explosion. The Archies are clean-cut, and they would try to avoid a fight, whereas Dethklok are insane.”

Small is the creator of the Adult Swim animated series Metalocalypse that chronicles the exploits of Dethklok, “the world’s most successful death metal band.” As writer and director of the show, Small – a guitarist since age 15 – has also composed and performed the music featured in the series, which has been released on four albums (Dethalbum I, II and III, as well as The Doomstar Requiem). 

When Metalocalypse was canceled in 2013 after a four-season run, Small figured that Dethklock’s career had come to an end, but now he’s put the band back together for a full-length movie titled Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar, available for streaming on Hulu and on Blu-ray.

What’s more, there are two new albums (Dethalbum IV and the movie’s soundtrack) recorded by Small and drummer Gene Hoglan, best known for his work with Dark Angel, Testament and Fear Factory.

“It’s been a pretty strange ride, thinking that the show and the band were over to now doing a movie and two albums,” Small says. “The fact is, I had a large part of the story that I wanted to wrap up, so when the opportunity presented itself, I said yes immediately.”

In the show, the fans are almost sacrificial lambs. They even have to sign a death waiver to be able to reach the places where the band plays

As he’s done in years past, Small is taking a real-life incarnation of Dethklok on the road. His live band includes Hoglan as well as virtuoso session/touring guitarist Nili Brosh. While he preps for the tour, the multi-talented writer, director and musician chatted about his past and present with Guitar World.

In the series, Dethklok’s “billions” of fans frequently risk their lives traveling to dangerous locations to see the band live. Your real-life fans have it pretty easy, don’t they?

“In the show, the fans are almost sacrificial lambs. They even have to sign a death waiver to be able to reach the places where the band plays. It’s almost bizarre, this concept of the band hating their fans and chastising them. It’s an exaggeration of real-life situations where you have fans getting crushed at concerts, or crazy things like Altamont. In real life, our fans can feel very safe, and we’re thrilled to have them.”

What’s the most dangerous place you’ve ever played?

“I flew to a gig in a helicopter once. It was for the time we played on an aircraft carrier at Comic Con in San Diego. They played this Wagnerian suite as we were landing; that seemed appropriate.”

Let’s talk about your guitar playing. Who got you started? Were you always a metal dude?

“It all starts with Reb Beach. [Laughs] No, seriously, he did an instructional video that I watched and practiced to a lot. I was a typical kid in the suburbs. Eddie Van Halen was on TV, and it was a great time to be alive. I was a fairly lame guitarist at first, but my family moved and our next-door neighbor was a guitar player. 

“He said, ‘Let’s get you going.’ He showed me chords, and he taught me about all the bands. He played me Led Zeppelin IV. He introduced me to Metallica and Slayer. I was off and running. Then I got the videos. A bunch of us traded tapes of Michael Angelo Batio, Steve Lukather, Reb Beach – anything that was out. We had our cheap guitars and amps, but we went for it.”

Did you have a bunch of crummy teenage bands?

“I did, but I had stage fright. I wasn’t ready to perform for people. I failed anytime I tried to play in front of anyone. It wasn’t until I tried stand-up comedy that I was able to overcome my fear of live performance.”

You studied music at Berklee at the same time you started doing live comedy. Did you have any kind of career plan?

“I didn’t know what I should do at first – comedy or music. I had gone to Berklee, but I also studied writing at Emerson College, so I had the music and the comedy writing things going on. Getting on stage and doing comedy helped big time. There were years of experimenting. After a while, I set out to put comedy and music together.”

You’re a pretty serious shredder. What kind of practice routine do you follow?

“It depends on what I’m working on. What I do is, I have a metronome on my phone, so I run scales. I work a lot on my right arm and hand, getting them positioned for a great rhythm flow, doing up and down scales. I’m pretty diligent. I do it slow, then fast. The hard part is doing it while I’m singing, but I’m in a good zone. I also work on nerdy jazz stuff. Whatever I can do to bring in something new, I’ll give it a shot.”

Over the years, you’ve introduced a few signature guitars through Gibson and Epiphone. Your most recent is the Epiphone GhostHorse Explorer.

“That’s right – the GhostHorse came out during the pandemic. I wanted to do something new with an Explorer shape while remaining true to the original. This one is 24 frets, and I added a Floyd Rose. I made the cutaway deeper, so I get total access to each fret. It’s an added level of expression.”

Nili Brosh plays live with you guys. Has she schooled you on any of her shred licks?

“She certainly knows them. Most of the time we’re trying to figure out how to play three-part harmonies with two guitars, so we’re usually concentrating on Dethklok material. But I’m hoping to sit down with her so I can say, ‘Show me the good stuff. Give me some licks.’ She’s a monster guitarist – great feel and tone. I think she fits in perfectly with this world.”

Do you get in character when you record the studio material?

“I do! [Laughs] I think, ‘Who is Skwisgaar Skwigelf? What would he do?’ There’s two guitarists in the show, but I think about Skwisgaar because he’s the lead guitarist. I go on long walks, put on my earphones and listen to Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force

“That gets me pumped up to get into Skwisgaar. And I think about Van Halen a lot. I have to play some treacherous licks, so I need the right kind of inspiration. What I’m doing is overplaying to some extent; it’s gotta be huge and bombastic. That’s the trick – playing something melodic yet over-the-top difficult.”

Nili Brosh is a monster guitarist – great feel and tone. I think she fits in perfectly with this world.

You’ve had incredible talents from the worlds of acting and music provide voices for the show. The movie isn’t lacking for big-time names.

“We’ve got some amazing people – King Diamond, Scott Ian, Amy Lee from Evanescence, Kirk Hammett – the list goes on. And we’ve got great actors like Jon Hamm, Mark Hammill and even Malcolm McDowell. We were so lucky that everybody said yes. They all add such gravitas to the film.”

From the comedy world, Marc Maron has done one of the voices for the show. He’s a pretty solid guitarist. Ever jammed with him?

“I have jammed with him. I used to do a comedy and music show at the Baked Potato. We would do a lot of cool jams. Marc is a great guitarist. He’s got the vibrato and the attack, all that Albert King stuff. The guy can jam.”

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Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.