Metalocalypse Creator and Dethklok Guitarist Brendon Small: “I have a lot to say musically and story-wise; if this record sells in a way that makes me happy then I’ll probably keep on doing it”
Brendon Small is a comedian, guitarist, composer, voiceover actor and generally creative guy. His show “Metalocalypse” has been a staple on Adult Swim since 2006 and his semi-fictional band Dethklok has released several albums and toured in that time. With the Februrary 25th release of their ambitious rock opera “The Doomstar Requiem- A Klok Opera Soundtrack” (on both CD and Double LP vinyl) both Brendon and Dethklok are expanding their boundaries even further. I had the chance to speak with Brendon about the album and much more; read on…..
Legendary Rock Interviews: Your show, “Metalocalypse” is a hit animated TV show. For as many fans as you, the band or the show may have, do you find lots of people who meet you and have zero idea who you are or what you do?
Brendon Small: Everybody (laughs). That’s the thing about cartoons, that’s the whole thing about working in animation, nobody knows anything about what you do when you go to the gym or see the same people every day or whatever, nobody knows. I’ve said many times having an animated TV show is very much like NOT having one, no one really gives a shit (laughs). I do a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with the show, like I will go and do stand-up and stuff like that people don’t really know about this whole other side. It’s like a strange little dual identity thing.
LRI: I had read that you were actually not that big of an animation/cartoon fan, were there exceptions to that rule as far as guys like Mike Judge or Trey Parker, Matt Stone??
Brendon: Oh yeah, there are a few people who I think are outstanding but I guess initially the way I looked at it was that I didn’t necessarily pursue a career in animation, though I liked it. I didn’t necessarily watch Simpsons every night although I think though I think that great Simpsons is some of the best comedy in the world. I love South Park, I think Mike Judge is amazing but I didn’t really pursue that as a career, I wanted to get into like sketch comedy and do like what the “Mr. Show” guys were doing when I was starting out. That’s what I wanted to do. Also, at that point I didn’t know what I was gonna do with music, I wanted to get into film scoring and all of that but got slightly disillusioned after taking an internship when I was 20 years old at a “Jingle House” and I just didn’t wanna be that far back in post-production where you just kinda don’t have a say in anything. My idea was “How do I put a show together and do the music and do all this acting stuff and stand-upy stuff that I like doing so much?” That’s where it all kind of came together.
LRI: I had someone recommend that I watch “Metalocalypse” and described it to me as “A bunch of old guys play death metal become so big they are considered a national threat to society”. Is that a somewhat accurate description of your show?
Brendon: Yeah, that’s pretty close. We haven’t really disclosed their ages but the idea is that they’re an extreme metal band that have become the biggest entertainment act on earth and with that comes the culture influence that goes along with that type of power, the power that a band that gigantic would have….
LRI: With the reality being that most extreme metal bands are super underground and the fact that you are friends with and share stages with many of them, did you think it was mind-blowing to have the highest charting death metal release with your band Dethklok?
Brendon: Not really because the truth is it’s a TV show and we have kind of an unfair advantage in that TV obviously reaches more people than most underground death metal or extreme metal stuff, even though a band like Cannibal Corpse is well known. So we have kind of an unfair advantage there in terms of visibility and I take all of that stuff into account and we know and are aware it’s popular because of TV.
LRI: “Doomstar Requiem” is pretty much amazing as rock operas go. I watched the TV special when it came out and was just floored at how many different genres are covered, there’s everything from extreme metal of course to boyband stuff to 80s Europop to classic sounding Queen type stuff. When did this start to take shape? Was this kicking around in your head for years?
Brendon: This thing came out as one kinda big idea. I kinda knew how I was gonna do this, very early on but I still had to fine tune it a bit. The idea of this had been kind of coming along slowly. There’s an episode in Season 3 where the drummer Pickles goes to rehab, it was kind of a mess of an episode which sometimes we have. Usually, I find that if I take an episode like that by myself and write a bunch of music for it I can usually save the episode in some way and make it worth watching and hopefully make something memorable happen in it. That was the idea with this was that I was gonna pick up where I left off on that episode and make the whole thing. I had the story to tell because I left off in Season 4 with this abduction of the guitar player and this woman that the lead singer had started to have an attraction towards so I thought “Ok, this is gonna be a fun rescue story, a fun little abduction/rescue kind of thing”. I figured I would outline it with a few other people and talk about it for two weeks and then I’m gonna go into a studio and write the whole thing and it took me about a month and a half. I thought this would be really fun because I really like rock operas and musicals and all of that stuff. Just cause you like metal it doesn’t mean that’s the only thing you’re allowed to listen to, I listen to all kinds of stuff. I listen to symphonic music, I like film score stuff, I like 70s power pop like ELO, I love David Bowie and all that stuff and I like trying to rip off little bits and pieces from all of those genres as much as I can. Plus, the reason all these genres exist in this special is because I think you would become fatigued if you had just one style of music in a musical special like this. I think you need some different balances, otherwise your ear and your whole person is just gonna get tired of it early on.
LRI: “Abigail’s Lullaby” is great, who sings on that?
Brendon: Her name is Raya Yarbrough and she is the wife of Bear McCreary who did all the orchestral production for this album and he’s like an Emmy award winning composer who does the music for “The Walking Dead” and “Battlestar Galactica”. I knew his wife could sing very well and I wanted to do something that was kind of like this “Jesus Christ Superstar” style of moment where there’s just a sweet ballad even though we’re talking about terrible things throughout it (laughs). I kinda wanted that moment to be almost “Disney-esque” but with rats and bats and terrible animals that are infested with bacteria and stuff.
LRI: Yeah, what was the story with the little animals?
Brendon: In that one? The little tiny ones?
Brendon: In that moment, I was looking at one of the rough cuts and thought “You know what we should do for that one, it’s like, she’s singing a sweet song but she’s really telling him to prepare for death and how you do that is by not being present mentally, you do it by being present elsewhere.” It’s like when Snow White or Cinderella sing, animals just kind of come out. For some reason they kind of become in tune with the sound in the forest and the animals sense that there’s some purity there and they sort of come out and sort of sit there and become a small audience, that’s just straight outta “Mary Poppins’ and all that shit (laughs).
LRI: Pickles turns out to have a pretty amazing singing voice in “Doomstar”, was that revealed in the earlier episode you mentioned?
Brendon: Yeah, if you go back and watch Season 3, the episode called Rehabklok, where he is forced to go into rehab and has this tumultuous kind of experience, that has its beginnings there. I don’t think I polished the vocal as much as I did on this thing but it’s there yeah, also there’s a song called “Hatred Copter” (laughs) on the first album that Pickles sings. I wanted to have more melodic vocals appear somewhere in Dethklok and I had to give em to somebody cause I like singing that stuff and I actually like melody a lot cause I grew up on classic rock and stuff so Pickles is my excuse for throwing all that stuff in there.
LRI: Obviously you do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of the show and the music but with something like “Doomstar Requiem” were you immediately aware of your own limitations or situations where you knew you wanted to bring in other people to help?
Brendon: That’s the thing about animation. If you have a really good team like the team I’ve got then you really aren’t limited at all. I mean, do I really wanna sit there and babysit animation all day long? I wanted to do the parts that I wanted to do which is to write the stories, do the music and also be there in the room when the most important shit is happening. On this project what the process went like was I sat in a room with Mark Brooks (director) and Janine Ditullio (editor/writer) and we talked about just the structure of this whole thing and how it was gonna work. The thing is that nothing happens until I get this whole big piece of music finished that’s the nature of this thing; once I do that then Mark Brooks sits with storyboard artists and then I sit with him and then we just kinda go “Shouldn’t we cut to a shot of this” or “If this is gonna make sense isn’t this the place where a band sequence should be?” so it’s like open really creatively at that point. My whole idea is that I have to bring something to the table and what I ask of the people around me is “Ok, here’s a cool idea, see if you can beat it with something cooler” and I work with such competent people that they consistently beat me (laughs) in a good way. So if i have a cool idea like if I’ll say “Ok if we pan down and see the top of this volcano and these people chanting, how can we make that look cool?” and they’ll go “What if…we cut to this shot” or “What if we pull back and this is the angle” and then we start talking about that or we say “Ok, this section isn’t working what can we do?” It would be a really bad move on my part if I said “No, me, me, I wanna think of every part”. I’ve learned over the years that the more you involve really creative people the end result is a thousand times better.
LRI: All the characters on the show are great but William Murderface is my favorite, was there just an endless supply of guys in bands that could have inspired that character?
Brendon: Oh absolutely. It doesn’t even have to be from music, almost any kind of creative relationship you’re going to have a Murderface. Sometimes you’re the Murderface (laughs); that’s the saddest part, when you’re the egocentric guy who does nothing but take away from the project and put your ego before everything. The whole idea of Murderface came from a really simple metaphor that in metal music it’s often really hard to hear the bass, so what do you do to overcompensate? You act like a fuckin asshole almost all the time (laughs). He’s just got something to prove and he’s got a chip on his shoulder and there are so many people like that in life and sometimes our work dynamic reflects those exact same kinds of relationships. So much so that it’s easy to draw from a simple conversation you had at work and go “Oh my god, that’s a Murderface moment.”
LRI: There was internet gossip that the series would end here but you’ve also said on record that’s not the case yet and that the band could continue on either way. Clearly there is still much to learn about William Murderface and the Dethklok story though right?
Brendon: It’s so funny because the fans have just taken over this whole thing and are saying “This is the end of the show, oh my god!” and I haven’t said that this was the last episode (laughs), I never did. Like a really long time ago I said “Oh wouldn’t it be cool to finish this whole thing with a gigantic movie? but “Doomstar Requiem” isn’t a movie to me, it’s a one hour special, I don’t consider that a movie, I consider that a one hour special. All I needed to do with this one hour special was to find a way to get my guitar player back in the band and that’s what it was. It’s a simple story, a rescue story, not the end of the story or the big finish. I have something much bigger planned. I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to top what we did with “Doomstar” but I have a different, bigger story beyond this. That’s the idea. You never know though. Will I be able to do it my way? I mean, in a perfect world it would be a grandiose movie or a mini-series kind of thing or something like that but I’m not sure yet and as long as it’s cost-effective I’d love to try to keep the band happening. Records don’t cost that much and the whole reason I’m doing interviews and all this stuff now is because I am now the label of Metalocalypse. Which is good and bad to be honest but basically our label ( Williams Street, a division of TBS) was like “Yeah, I don’t think we’re gonna make any more records, we don’t really wanna be in the record making business anymore” and I was like “Well, you’ve got a pretty cool entity here so I don’t really see why you wouldn’t wanna do it but if you don’t wanna do it do you want me to do it? I’ll do it” So we came to an agreement and basically, if this record sells in a way that makes me happy then I’ll probably keep on doing it. If it’s not cost-effective then it’s not cost-effective so it really comes down to stupid business motifs but I like doing it, I’ve proven that I can and I really get a lot of satisfaction from doing it so I will continue to do it as long as it makes sense for me to do and as long as I’ve got something to say. Like this whole rock opera album, I have a lot to say musically and story-wise; I wanted to put a 50 piece orchestra on there, I’ve never done anything like that before and amazingly we did it.
LRI: Some of the poppy stuff on this is as good as any of the metal stuff you’ve done. The trippy, dreamy, little kiddish 80’s pop scene in Doomstar is amazing.
Brendon: Thanks, the weird part about it is, most people know me as this guy who does all this metal stuff but my sensibilities are like that, that’s what I like writing. I really like the way that song turned out and drew from about 80 influences there, that was exciting and fun for me. I really like to write pop songs that get stuck in your head, like really fun melodies that just stay there for a while.
LRI: The visuals really hold up as well.
Brendon: They did and hats off to Mark Brooks and Antonio Canobbio and all the compositors and animators and the background artists and everyone, they really topped themselves. I think Season 4 was really a beautiful season and what we try to do with the show is just what we try to do with the music and everything else. We just wanna see how we can get better at our jobs like “How can we make this more cinematic and beautiful? How can we make it so good that you could turn the volume off and still completely understand exactly what’s going on?” or conversely “What can we do to make it great entertainment even if you turn the picture off and leave the audio on?”
LRI: Dethklok has some very real endorsements with some very real companies like Gibson Guitars among others. The details of the show right down to the guitar fingerings are real important to you guys aren’t they?
Brendon: Yeah it was and even the whole thing about having real guitars and equipment on the show. I remember what it was like being 14 years old and being really excited about guitar and when you’d see a guitar on TV or even on a cartoon show you wanna see the guitar, you wanna know what kind of guitar it is and you wanna make sure it kind of actually exists in this world. I love Gibson anyway so I called them and said “Look, I wanna feature your guitars on the show so they gave us the CAD files, the AutoCAD files which are like the 3d files of all of the guitars. Some of those guitars are asymmetrical and you can screw them up pretty easily in a bad drawing so we made sure we had the correct scale of guitars at all times and then like you said actually having the characters play the guitar and actually be in the ballpark was also important to us because I just thought “Who else is gonna do this?” Nobody had in the past and they still hadn’t (laughs). So I figured “Ok, I love guitar, this whole show exists as kind of a love letter to my guitar so why not kind of take all that stuff seriously?”. It’s such a pain in the ass to animate anyway so you might as well do it correctly.
LRI: If someone had told you twenty years ago that you would have your own TV show with your own band and music and have Mark Hamill as a voiceover actor would that have been plausible to you, would you have dreamed such a thing?
Brendon: I don’t think it would have been that specific as to have pictured working with Mark Hamill although that is truly awesome (laughs) but even 20 years ago I did really want to be a guy who got to direct and write music as well as act in and write comedy at the same time. To be able to cast people who not only were influential to my upbringing but also, more importantly for the show, just great actors who contribute greatly to the show.
LRI: He always seems deeply into the voiceover characters that he portrays on animated series.
Brendon: Oh yeah, that’s his thing. You know, I listen to him tell stories about like back in the 70s, even pre-Star Wars he was a big comic book guy. He was just really excited about voices and animation and all that stuff. Long before he had “The Force” or lightsabers he was the guy who really, really loved that world and I think that some of the best voiceover guys in the business really, really love doing that stuff, guys like Tom Kenny who does Spongebob, if you talk to him you’ll see that he has a real passion for it and that’s why he keeps doing it.
LRI: Thanks for taking the time out to talk Brendon, hope to pick up the double vinyl lp or CD when it’s released.
Brendon: It’s really cool, obviously the only way I could have the music be ready for release in time for the TV Special was to put it out digitally as wav files on my website so we did that and it’s really cool and actually sounds good and comes with some cool extra stuff that you can only get there but I think the vinyl and CD sounds even better and are really cool and collectible as well, it’s a really cool picture disc and you get some other extra stuff as well like a featurette, the booklet and the orchestra only version which sounds really fuckin cool.
To order the CD or Autographed Double Vinyl of “Doomstar Requiem” and get immediate digital download while you wait for physical product CLICK HERE