Q&A with Metalocalypse and Dethklok Creator Brendon Small

Metalocalypse, which is in its second season as part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim program slate, chronicles the misadventures of Dethklok, a death-metal band that sprang from the imagination of Brendon Small and cohort Tommy Blacha. However, the group comes to life, sort of, during a Thursday, June 12 gig at the Gothic Theatre (click here for the scoop) – and Small, who’ll be ripping killer riffs from his guitar at the concert, offers info about the performance and the show itself in an extended Q&A.

Small was trained as a musician, and he begins the conversation with anecdotes about the years he spent at the Berklee College of Music before tracing his unexpected transition into standup comedy. Next, he details his discovery by Loren Bouchard, producer of the late, lamented animated program Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist; their co-creation of another Adult Swim project, Home Movies; his confusion following the latter’s cancellation, which he attempted to dull by immersing himself in metal; his subsequent realization that he could combine two of his principal loves with Metalocalypse; the development of an in-concert variation on Dethklok; the first Dethklok tour, which plunged And They Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, a prominent indie-rock band, into a no-win situation; and the pride he takes in introducing America’s youth to the pleasures of the goriest, most visceral sound around.

Are you listening, Nobel Peace Prize committee?

Westword (Michael Roberts): I understand that you attended the Berklee College of Music. Is that right?

Brendon Small: That’s correct.

WW: What kind of music did you focus on there?

BS: I don’t think I focused on any kind of music. That’s the thing when you go to that school. You focus on everything. What I had was a guitar identity crisis when I was there. I studied tons of cool stuff. It’s just that it was all over the map. One day I’d have a jazz chord lab, and right after that there’d be a country lab. All that stuff is super-cool stuff to learn. You’d learn how to do jazz chord solos and then pedal-steel kind of things. You just keep learning all this stuff. I think the stuff I really benefited from were the theory and harmony classes, which are some of my favorite things. Just chord theory, harmony theory and stuff like that. There’s kind of a standard curriculum that you follow, and then you start taking classes in things you drift toward. So I guess my major was professional music with a concentration in composition and performance – and I didn’t even know that. It just turned out that the classes I kept adding to my schedule ended up being composing and being able to play in front of people.

WW: Did you come into school thinking I’m going to be this kind of a guitarist and come out thinking either I’m a completely different kind of guitarist than I thought I’d be or I don’t know what kind of guitarist I am?

BS: Yeah. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought the idea of making a living as a guitar player was fantasy even though I’m into that. I just wanted to study music to see if I could possibly get into film scoring or writing music for TV or things like that. I think that’s what I thought would probably be a future for me, but I really didn’t know what I was going to get out of it. I knew I really liked guitar, and I really liked technical guitar playing, and I liked metal and shred stuff. And by the time I finally started getting that stuff to work under my fingers, it became desperately uncool to play that stuff. They were omitting guitar solos from songs entirely, and I was like, “What the fuck is going on here? All this work and now, nothing. Maybe someday it’ll come back in a different form and I’ll be able to get my fingers moving again. But until then, I guess I’ll learn all this theory.”

WW: Berklee isn’t a school renowned for having a lot of funny students. Most of the people who go there take music very, very seriously. Did you stand out as a result of that?

BS: Well, there’s a certain group that has a pretty good sense of humor, and there’s a bunch of people who take themselves incredibly seriously. And Berklee was a really strange place. It was a bunch of hometown heroes. If you were a jazz king or a shred king or whatever, they’d all end up in the same room and they’d be like the opposite sides of magnets hanging out together. It wasn’t all that social of a school. Musicians, instead of getting good at being social and meeting people, they got good at their instruments. So I found myself hanging out with people at Emerson College, which was a nearby communications school. But they were like doing film production and all kinds of different writing and acting and stuff, and I’d wind up scoring their projects. Writing music for their stuff and acting in their projects and writing and all that. And I’d be like, “What am I doing in music school? This is where I think I want to be, in this kind of production facility and acting and that kind of stuff. It’s really fun, and I can still do the music.” I always thought if I was going to do a project in the future, I’d do all the stuff myself – write it, create it, produce it, and do the music.

WW: During that same period, you also wound up drifting toward standup comedy…

BS: Yeah. The other thing about music school is, it’s a tough thing, and there’s no way getting around this: the rate of learning versus what you can physically do are two different tracks, two different speeds.

WW: Mentally, you can understand things more quickly than you can make your fingers do them?

BS: Exactly. I remember, just for example, one class. Some guy very articulately explained the theory of John Coltrane’s tonic system, this soloing system he used in “Giant Steps,” which is this mind-boggling thing at the time and still is. He said, “This is what he’s doing and this is how he did it. He went away for six years and woodshedded this kind of theory and got it under his fingers so he could do it in every key and transpose it and do all these different interpolations of it.” So I got that thing, and it’s like understanding the notion and the laws of conjugating verbs in French. I understand, but if you’d drop me off in France, I’d be dead. I wouldn’t know how to find a restroom. I’d use the restroom in my pants. And that’s how the music was. There was all this amazing shit, and you’d be like, “I have to sit down and work on this.” So your focus is being pulled from place to place.

I learned a lot of stuff and I thought, I need to start applying this shit. But you know what? I’m turning into a real wise ass. I spent a summer interning at jingle houses in New York before my last year of music school, and that also taught me that I can’t just be in post-production. I can’t work for a bunch of miserable ad executives who don’t know shit about music and can’t articulate what they want this thing to sound like. I spent a summer there, and there were all these really great composers working at these jingle houses. But I thought, I can’t have these guys pushing me around. I’ll burn every bridge. I know myself. And also, I’m too much of a control freak. I want to be the guy who’s pushing me around. I want to be the ad exec and I want to be the guy pushing myself as a musician. I’d rather not have it any other way.

And meanwhile, my roommate was interning at Conan O’Brien at the time, while I was interning in Queens that summer. And I was just so jealous of him. Every day. I’d watch the show he got to be a part of at nighttime, and he’d talk to me about how these sketches were made and how they got all the props and this and that and what he had to go and do and what his involvement was, and I just thought, this is the world I want to be in. I was just drawn to comedy from when I was eight years old and first saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Sleeper by Woody Allen and all of that stuff – the Marx Brothers and all that shit. So I was like, I have to do something with this now. I started writing a lot of comedy, writing every day and it was horrible, and then it finally got better, and I finally picked a day and I was like, I’m going to go onstage and see how I do. And I’ll either do well or I’ll bomb, but either way, I’ll get up onstage again and either do well or bomb, and I’ll keep doing that until I get good.

WW: How long did it take for that happen?

BS: Well, what happens in standup is your first night is going to be great. The host will say, “This is his first time onstage,” and the audience will be with you. The audience’s mentality is, they want you to succeed, they want you to be funny. They don’t want to feel weird in your awkward presence. They want you to do well. So your first night’s going to be a good night. Your second night, however, you’re fucked. And after that, each night, it’s up to you how you would do. It was hard. I’d have one good night and five bad nights and then a medium night or whatever. I didn’t know what I was doing. Your objectivity is out the window when you’re doing standup. You don’t know how to behave, how to carry yourself.

For me, I started pretending that I was calm. I was like, I’m going to act like a guy who’s calm onstage and eventually, hopefully I’ll become calm – but if I can make the audience feel I have no nervousness, that’ll be great, even though it was something I definitely had at the time. Even at music school, in front of juries and all this stuff, I’d blow it by being way too nervous: breaking strings from pressing too hard, you know. But I got over all that stuff, and not even a year into my standup career, I got very lucky and got this opportunity. I performed in front of one of the producers of this show Dr. Katz [Loren Bouchard]. It was kind of a random occurrence that he was in the audience, and afterward, he said, “Hey, I’m putting this new show together and I’m looking for local talent. Are you interested in doing something like that?” And I said, “Absolutely,” and I ended up co-creating the show with him.

WW: And that was Home Movies?

BS: That was Home Movies, and I was 23 at the time. It was a very lucky break. I was very young and I hadn’t even been doing standup for that long. But he saw me on a good night. I’d had five bad nights before it.

WW: So if he’d shown up the previous week, it would have been a very different story.

BS: He would’ve had a very different view of me. But he saw me on a good night and I let him believe that’s how funny I was every night, and I saw that as an opportunity. We ended up becoming good friends and worked together in building the show and doing four seasons of it, and I got to do music for it and learn a lot of productions things. You just keep learning.

WW: You talked about wanting to do everything. Did you find that animation was a good format for that? Did you discover that you could write music and portray a whole range of characters?

BS: Absolutely, and I had no idea I’d ever be involved in it. I liked animation, I was always fascinated by it, but I was never made the mission of statement that I’m going to become a guy who does animation exclusively. I thought I wanted to do live action, I thought I wanted to do, like, a sketch show, a Monty Python kind of a show, something like that. That’s where I always thought my mentalities would lead me. But it turns out that this is a pretty cool place to be. You can do everything you want to do and more, and get away with a lot. I don’t think Dethklok could work in live action. Home Movies, I don’t think it would’ve worked, either. You couldn’t cast the kids right. In animation, they can stay that age together. And Dethklok, I think the only reason it is interesting is because it’s not real.

WW: Where did the idea for the current show come from?

BS: It came from my love for metal. After Home Movies, I had a couple of years where I was trying to figure out what my next project was. I sold another show to Sci-Fi Network, and I thought it would be the next big thing; I thought it would be really cool. I really liked that show, but they twiddled their thumbs and it went away – and that was disappointing to me. I was like, “Oh shit, why did they do that?”

WW: That was The Barbarian Chronicles?

BS: Right. I’d done a really fun script for it and I thought it had a life. But they thought they wanted to do an Adult Swim ripoff model, and Adult Swim had something that was somewhat similar to this but different enough, and that didn’t end up getting off the ground, either. And then I just started going to metal shows, because I was so happy that people were playing their guitars again. Like I was saying earlier, I hated it when people stopped being virtuoso shred masters on guitars. I just love the way that sounds, and I love to see guitarists being good at what they do. I like people to be good at their jobs. So I was really happy seeing people playing their guitars like that again, and the drummers and everything. Everything was getting better produced: just heavier. And I was fascinated by everything from the Scandinavian scene to the American death-metal scene and all the European stuff.

And that’s all I would do. I’d go with my friend Tommy, who ended up being a writer on Conan O’Brien around the time my other friend was interning there. I found that out later on. But he was the only guy in the comedy world who’d talk metal with me and go to see shows. We’d show up at parties together and we’d wind up together talking about, “Did you hear about this band?” and this and that – and “Well, they’re playing tomorrow night. They’re super-heavy. They’re from this place, and they only sing about Egyptian stuff.” “Okay, let’s go!” And we’d go and love it. The world is a grandiose, awesome world, and you can joke about it if you want to, but the thing that attracted us was, these are people who’ve brought something back to music that’s been gone for a really long time – since the ‘70s, I think – which is an amazing live show that’s super-dramatic and scary. It’d give you a scary feeling sometimes, which is cool. I love horror films, so it all kind of fits into the same place.

So I was telling this friend of mine who works on this show The Venture Bros. about how all I’m doing these days is metal, all I care about is this, and I don’t know what my next job is going to be. And he was like, “I can’t believe you haven’t tried to pitch a show about a metal band.” And I was like, “I kind believe you had to tell me that. I kind believe you had to say that.” I was sitting there trying to pitch shows and do the Hollywood shuffle and take meetings and all this bullshit when the only thing I was into was the perfect thing for me right then.

WW: Your love for the music definitely comes through. You recognize that it’s ripe for satire, but you come at it from an affectionate place rather than looking down on it…

BS: Well, if you’re going to do a show, you live, eat and breathe a show. I don’t think we’re making fun of metal. I think what we’re making fun of in this show is celebrity-ism. We don’t treat this like a metal band. We treat it like five narcissistic celebrities who can’t tie their own shoe, make their own dinner. They don’t know where their socks are, they’re not sure what day of the week it is, they definitely don’t know what time it is. These are people who can’t do anything for themselves. They’re gigantic babies in the way that celebrities are, and that’s where we’re coming at it from. People are fascinated by reality shows and celebrities and they’re usually incredibly dumb douche bags who have no impact on the world other than, like, “Look how stupid I’m capable of being.” And we thought that was funny. But the cool part is, they get to be in a death metal band.

WW: So their redeeming quality is, they can shred.

BS: Yes. And as we go through, we make them tough and you see their harder exterior in the first season – and I think you get to see what they’re really like in the second season. Still, they are narcissistic, self-serving egomaniacs, but there’s a softer side to them as well. And I think it still rings true for all of them, and it makes sense for us. I think if you’d make a show that would just make fun of metal, it’d last an episode, maybe two. I think if you have a show that’s satirizing celebrities and gets to be about metal, for me that show is endless.

WW: Did you have the idea of putting together a live Dethklok show from the very beginning? Or was that kind of a sudden, midstream brainstorm?

BS: It was like in the first week of development. I think we developed everything in four or five days – what the whole future of the show was going to be like. Because Home Movies got cancelled, and your job can just be taken away from you. You’re like, “Hey, that’s my job,” and the ratings aren’t doing well, and they say, “We’re not going to keep putting money into that. We have to put on something that gets better ratings. We have sponsors and it’s a business.” And I’m like, “Okay, I get it.” And my whole thing with Dethklok is, I’m going to have a song in every show and I’m going to work hard – I’m going to write all the incidental music, the score, and I’m going to have a song in every episode, and at the end of each season, I’m going to put out a record. Because I want the show to live in an audio format, and if the show ever did get cancelled, I could keep putting out records and the band could continue existing and find its audience.

You know, it doesn’t cost that much to put out a record. It costs about half of one episode. Shows are far more expensive, you have so many more mouths to feed. But with a record, it’s me and an engineer and a drummer doing the record. It’s three people, you know. And for a show, it’s forty-something people, and they’ve all got rent and they need to be fed and need clothes and all that stuff. So I was like, I’d like to be able to do that. I don’t know how much the network knew about that. They were like, “If you do put out a record, you must be able to tour live, even if it’s a cartoon band.” And, well, the Gorillaz did it. I don’t know if it was the best incarnation of it, but that was the starting place – and how do we get from there to somewhere else? That was the whole starting point.

WW: Those are the big questions, obviously. Do the real musicians perform in shadows and you have projections of the cartoons over them? And if not, what do you do? What were some of the various options you ran through before arriving at your current format?

BS: Well, the first thing was, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t dress up like the characters, and I didn’t want to get lookalikes to do stuff. I think the one thing that makes this band interesting is, they don’t exist. I think that’s the one thing that makes the band cool. I like bands to be larger than life, to be unattainable. If a band is wearing the same pants and shirt that I am onstage and he looks like me, I don’t think that’s necessarily too cool. Anybody can do that. So I want this band to continue to be a cartoon. I don’t want us onstage to look like the band. I want it to sound like the band. I want us to be a pit orchestra to the real show, which is this big animated movie screen above us. And we are in shadow. You can see that there are people generating this music.

The part of the Gorillaz thing that I don’t think worked is, you could never see the musicians. They were playing behind scrims, and I think at that point, you kind of lose interest. You’re like, I want to put a face to this. Is this live? Is this the real group of people who played on the record? All of that stuff. And I wanted to make sure you could see the guy who does the voice is present. There’s not a spotlight on me, because the show is much bigger than me, and I’m not interested in plastering my face all over stuff, because I think that’s kind of a letdown. So that’s the idea. We have four people onstage. I’m doing vocals and guitar. I have an amazing group of musicians playing with me. They’re just outstanding, and I feel incredibly comfortable with them. I think they’re three of the best musicians out there, to be honest. And also, I didn’t want to just show a bunch of animated clips running from song to song, but to have a little bit of story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Like a Universal Studios ride, like the Terminator 2 ride where you come in and it’s like, “There’s a breach and something terrible just happened!” Something just stupid enough to get you in there so you can have fun, and then enough of an ending so it makes sense. And comedy sketches in between songs while we’re switching out guitars and stuff. But constantly moving, where the songs are happening fast, and a good length of show, too.

I think that’s important. I’ve gone to so many metal shows and so many rock shows where I’ve been like, “Okay, you guys have worn out your welcome – and I like you.” At the hour point, I’m ready to fucking split. I don’t care of you play that song I was here to see at this point. I’m just tired. I think the trick is leave them wanting more, and I think we’ve done a good job of ordering and arranging things. Because you’ve got to leave them wanting more. Like I said, the worst thing you can do is wear out your welcome. If you’re my ultimate guitar hero, I want to see you play less than you think you should play. Don’t worry about ticket price. People want to be wowed, and they want to see you again next time and have it be a brand new show. That’s the way I feel. Our show is under an hour, and I think it’s a really good length. That combined with comedy and these kind of palate-cleansing moments is what we’re shooting for. The ultimate description of the show for me, what I’ve been saying to everyone is, “It’s like a big, stupid ride – but with murder.” If you don’t like metal, I think you’ll get a kick out of everything. Because we’re always trying to get people excited about metal, and that’s what the show’s been doing. That’s been very cool. Having people say, “Hey, I like Dethklok. What other kind of stuff is like that?” We have these amazing bands with us, too.

WW: On your last tour, you went out with a well known indie band, And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. Did that bill draw a bizarre mix of people: indie-rock fans, but also death metal fans and Adult Swim fans?

BS: I’ll tell you what happened. I like that band, Trail of Dead, and have their records – but I had no say in them being a part of the show. It was just somebody who said, “Hey, they’re on the show.” And I’m like, “They’re not a metal band. We’re hoping to go out with a metal band. A band that’s in the same genre. If you have two different kinds of bands, I’m predicting two things will happen.” First of all, I knew we were opening for them, and I knew what our show was going to be like – and I was like, “This is going to be a really hard show to follow. We’ve got video, these loud sounds, and then we’re going to have an indie-rock band on. It’s just going to be hard for them to follow if you look at the technical aspects of each show. Ours has big video, a big story and a huge ending, so I think our audience is going to leave after we play. And we have a TV show, so I think our audience is going to be bigger.” People didn’t know how big Dethklok could be or not be at this point. They thought, it’s just a stupid TV show. But our record had just come out and it was selling really well. And then the other thing was like, even if they open for us, I just think they’re going to get booed throughout the whole show – and that’s pretty much what happened. It wasn’t the same audience. It was some dude who didn’t know what he was doing who put it together. I think he was a fan of the show and he had a girlfriend who liked this band or whatever and put them on the thing. They were all incredibly cool dudes, but it was a real mismatch, which is something I really wanted to iron out for this tour.

WW: Who are you touring with this time around?

BS: We’re with two bands that are incredibly awesome. One of them is a band from Louisiana called Soilent Green. This doom rock band. They’re really cool, they’ve been around for a long time, and they’re a legendary metal band. And then there’s this band called Chimaira, from Ohio. We just did our first show with them last night, and man, they were ready for it. They were so good. They just get the audience going, and I think it’s really cool for newcomers to metal to come to a Dethklok show – for these kids who are just getting into metal to come see these bands and get blown away by them before they even see us. I think it’s going to be a really fun, cool thing.

WW: It sounds like one of the things you’re happiest about is that people aren’t coming to the shows thinking, “Let’s make fun of this” but “Let’s get into this.”

BS: Yeah. The majority of the fan mail I get has been like, “I don’t think I like metal at all, and I definitely don’t like death metal, but I really like Dethklok a lot. I’ve been listening to this record. What else is like this? Introduce me to some new metal. I think I’ve got a flavor for it now.” There’s been this curiosity factor that’s happening, and I like that, because I like the bands we put on the show and the bands that we involve ourselves with are some of my favorite bands. And they’re hard workers and all of that stuff. It makes me happy that people are getting into what we’re doing.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts