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The fictional death metal group Dethklok, which is the world’s most popular band in the television series, is the centerpiece of the show, which chronicles their exploits in hilarious Spinal Tap fashion. This extraordinary positive reception was not only due to the show’s great writing and riotous antics, but also to the catchy, well-polished, tightly-crafted music that accompanies it. Their first record, aptly titled The Dethalbum, was quickly snapped up in droves when it hit the shelves in 2007, becoming the highest charting death metal album in the history of the Billboard 200. The massive popularity of his animated show and music aided by a song’s inclusion in Guitar Hero II, has led to an second album [Dethalbum II, released 9/29] and co-headlining tour with Mastodon.
We catch up with the co-creator, co-producer, musical composer and voice actor to talk about his and Dethklok’s gear, recording the new album, collaborating with Joe Satriani, and Dethklok’s faux reign as the world’s biggest band.
Let’s start from the beginning. What got you into metal? What got you to first pick up the guitar and play and write music?
I’m just a boy from the suburbs, man, so it’s my destiny to play guitar [laughs]. I always wanted a guitar since I was a kid and heard music, but I started with a tennis racket and worked my way up. Also, I got a keyboard when I was like eight years old so I immediately started writing songs about dumb kid stuff. The same stuff every kid in suburbia does when they find a piano and have make-believe radio programs. I met a friend after moving when I was about 14 years old and in like one afternoon he introduced me to Slayer, King Diamond, Yngwie, Blue Öyster Cult and all these bands I’d never heard of. Let’s just say, it was a crash course in metal and all things that would consume my musical life in the future [laughs]. And on that same day, he had a Kramer super-strat style guitar and he showed me two things and by the end of the day I was playing them. One was like a blues shuffle and the other was “Iron Man,” and pretty much from that point on I always thought that this was what I was going to do.
One of the most striking aspects of the Dethalbum II is how much more dense and orchestrated it is than its predecessor. Was this a conscious effort or process?
The truth is that I don’t have a thought process—I just start going with it. As I continue doing this project I naturally think that I just want to up everything by adding more changes and putting more weird stuff in the mix. I mean, honestly, at the end of the day I’m just doing stuff that I want to hear. I finished the first Dethalbum after closing out the first season of Metalocalypse. When I completed all the overdubs the next day, I was doing work on season two. The music in the second season was a reaction to me working on the original Dethalbum, which featured medium and slow tempo metal stuff. So, the first song recorded for the second season was “Laser Cannon Deth Sentence,” which is faster and much more aggressive than anything on the first CD.
When writing and recording the music, do you have a personal recorder you carry around or do you lock yourself up in a studio for a chunk of time?
I lock myself in my recording studio in my house. Luckily, the way I work on the show is that I’m always working on something different every hour of the day. For instance, this morning I’m rewriting a script for the show and last night I was up until 3 o’clock writing and making dance music for an episode. That one won’t feature any guitars or instrumentation that you’re used to—it’ll only feature vocals and old school mono synthesizer stuff. I’m constantly divided between different things and when I write music for the show its basically a bunch of directors hounding me to get them the music for the episodes.
I’ll usually show up with a click track, a really scratchy track of me playing guitar and maybe some mumble jumble vocals just to line up the animation sequences. I’ll buy myself some time to fix everything—to make it sound better. I’ll be committed to that tempo and committed to those words, but I can change the guitar stuff and make it cooler and beat the original riff by taking it in a different direction or you know, if that riff is simple and it works—keep it. It's definitely a step by step process. And like I said, if I go with a medium tempo song, the next one will be slower or faster because I just did that tempo and my ADD won’t allow me to be repetitive—even if the song would be good, it’ll have to wait.
Ironically enough, lately I’ve really enjoyed playing the guitar in standard E tuning. I mean, it just sounds really cool. It’s instant metal when you tune your guitar down a major third, but the guitar just sounds good, natural and it rings out clearly in standard tuning. It just gives you an ultimate range that other tunings can’t really compete with.
What were you listening to while writing and creating the new Dethklok album?
I mix it up all the time. You can’t just listen to metal constantly because you’d have nothing to distinguish it from. If you looked at my iPod its pretty eclectic—it has ELO, David Bowie, Steely Dan, Enslaved, and Yngwie along with other guitar heroes. I love the super nerdy stuff, the technical playing like Allan Holdsworth and Meshuggah is insanely good. But in relation to the new record, I can’t really say I was specifically digging on something and seeking to get that tone or vibe, well, at least not consciously because I’m sure it happens without my knowing. If I keep this Dethklok thing up, I’m sure more and more influences will creep into the band’s sound, but it’ll always have the screaming vocals, double kicks and chugging guitars. After all, it’s Dethklok so it’ll have the harmonizing guitars, some keyboards but I can take it to the left or the right pretty hard and still keep it Dethklok.
We saw a photo of you playing live a year or two ago with a Gibson Explorer that had the Dethklok logo on the neck and there have been rumors ever since of you having a signature model coming out, will this ever see the light of day?
I actually still have that guitar and it plays really well and sounds pretty cool, too, but its just going through a process and can’t really get my full attention. Once I’m done with you guys I’ll be rewriting a script, working on the videos for the upcoming tour so the instrumentation and lip movements match the music and I have to practice playing and singing. So as much as I’d like to push this thing through, I have enough spinning plates right now that are keeping my attention. But wouldn’t it be cool if there was a Dethklok signature guitar?
Hell yeah, we’d both be in line for something like that! Are there any big equipment changes with Dethklok?
One big change with Dethklok is they now use Marshall amps instead of Krank. Marshall came knocking on the door and they include Vox and Korg, which is cool because I’m also very into using keyboards. And at the end of the day, I mean, it is Marshall so you really can’t refuse an offer from them because their amps sound fantastic.
Did you use just Marshall and Vox in the studio or did you mess around with various combinations of stuff?
We just loaded the studio with whatever we had lying around and just A-B’d everything. I have a really cool Mesa/Boogie Express 5:50 that I used and I messed around with a bunch of pedals in front of that. I still used some of the Krank stuff. Gene brought in his friend Michelle’s amp—she actually passed away recently, but he still had her amp in his car—which was a solid state Marshall Mode 4 and I played that on a few songs and I thought to myself, “this is the sound I kind of want to commit to on this record.” But the amp starting crapping out on us, so that was when Marshall stepped in and opened their doors to us. Then we worked with a 100-watt, three-channel JVM head and threw it into a girthy distortion setting and put an Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer on top of it to add some creaminess to the mix. The combination of those two amps, Mode 4 and the JVM, was what we used for the rhythm tracks.
For guitars I pretty much just used my Gibson Explorer that’s loaded with EMG X Series 81 and 85 pickups because I feel they offer a little more headroom. While I use the Explorer for all the rhythm tracks, I use primarily my Les Paul Goldtop ’57 reissue with stock pickups and hardware. That Goldtop has a baseball bat for a neck and I find the more I play guitar the more I like them to be heavier and the necks to be fatter–I don’t think bulky guitars like that impede on shredding at all. For strings I usually put the fattest ones (generally .013–.060) available because I don’t want them to get slacked or loose like spaghetti.