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Brendon Small: The Man Behind Metalocalypse

October 2, 2009
As the creative mind behind the popular animated series Home Movies, Brendon Small’s metal masterpiece Metalocalpyse has garnered massive attention worldwide by way of the fictional death metal group, Dethklok. Small created the animated band Dethklok to materialize his own twisted concept: What would it be like if a death metal band ruled the world?

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.




In regards to the bass on the new record, I think it has a lot more power and sits in the mix a lot clearer. For the bass tracks I used a Fender Jazz Deluxe 5-string bass loaded with active pickups. It just really gives a natural, well-rounded sound so it’s hard to beat that guitar for what I’m doing. For an amp, I use this little Eden Electronics WTX-260 head straight into the board with that. On top of the natural Eden sound, I throw a SansAmp Bass Driver so I have plenty of tones to work with there.

Are there any cool or unusual surprises for the next season with guest artists or vocalists?

Well, we recorded Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Slash as a guest voices on the new season. And Joe said he wanted to give me something to try out for the new season/record and who I am to stop Joe Satriani from sending me gear [laughs]?! So what he sent me was his old Palmer Speaker Simulator. I really never knew what it was all about and he told me the reason he uses it was because it you just get a little bit more richness of the guitar and harmonic overtones to come through.

Also, he sent me his Vox Satchurator distortion pedal, which I’ve totally fallen in love with. But the thing about it is, once I got everything set up and running, he told me to give him a call. So here I am, sitting on the floor of my home studio messing around with stuff while Joe Satriani is giving me direct, real-time tech support to make everything sound better [laughs].

I caught myself a few times just thinking, “this is crazy because Joe Satriani is literally walking me through my signal chain and giving me advice to achieve a tone that I still wanted, but he cut some much trial-and-error-time out of it.” Ultimately, for me and many home-recording guitarists, the main struggle is recording with a tone you want, but at a volume that doesn’t piss of your neighbors [laughs].

What about some other effects you fooled around with?

For the new record I also used the new Eventide Pitch Factor that you can hear in a couple spots. I also love using that Dunlop Dimebag wah wah because it has those adjustable parameters and you can dial in a bunch of different settings. A recent pedal I’ve been jamming with is a Steve Vai Ibanez Jemini Twin Distortion pedal.

However, after talking with Joe about his setup, I’m getting more sold on just using something like he does—a good, clean amp with a distortion pedal in front. I’ve been playing for over 20 years, and in the last five years of doing Dethklok and touring when I would just plug into an amp and use its distortion, I wasn’t getting a good tone at all. I’ve learned that all you really need is a solid working guitar, a Fender or Marshall amp, a cool pedal and you’re pretty much there. There’s no real secret or special sauce.

On the previous tour you guys played in front of a screen that was showing the animated Dethklok playing in sync with the live band, what can fans expect on the upcoming tour?

The show presentation will be similar, but we’ll be working in some of the songs from the new album so I have people feverishly animating right now. The idea of the last tour worked really well and we just think its a different thing for fans and it’s a lot of fun to watch. You can find a good metal show nearly any day of the week, but you won’t see too many animated metal shows [laughs]. It’s like that saying, “if it ain’t [sic] broke don’t fix it.”

Who is rounding out your live/touring band for Dethklok?

It’s the same guys I used before. I have Mike Keneally on guitars and I’ve known about him since I was 17 years old. He played with Frank Zappa and then he toured with Steve Vai playing the keyboard parts and harmonizing the guitars with Steve. He’s a monster musician. He’ll play keyboard with his right hand and fret the guitar with his left hand at the same time and he doesn’t see the impossibility of it.

Bryan Beller is a bassist that graduated from the Berklee College of Music right when I got there. I saw him play with the Zappa brothers and with Mike quite a bit. He’s just a guy that likes metal and all kinds of music so it’s an ideal fit. He’s actually featured on Vai’s new DVD Where the Wild Things Are.

And of course, my long-time drummer/collaborator Gene Hoglan who has played with bands like Testament, Strapping Young Lad and Fear Factory.

Will your live rig reflect your studio setup or will you pare things down?

Before touring I always considered myself an “indoor guitarist”—a guy that just records and practices a lot but doesn’t really gig. I had a lot to learn about live and stage gear and I’m finally realizing less is more for touring. I’d love to be in a situation where I didn’t have to hit a booster pedal for solos. I just have too much going on between singing and playing guitar to be tap dancing on stage. The nights where I hit everything correctly and my playing is good I say it was a “Skwisgaar Skwigelf night” [Dethklok’s lead guitarist], but if things get hairy and I’m hitting the wrong pedals or my playing was off I’ll say it was a “Toki Wartooth night” [Dethklok’s clumsy rhythm guitarist]. The big trick behind everything when performing is act like you meant to do it, even if it was obviously wrong.

Dethklok is the biggest band in the world, but is metal. How did you conceptualize the whole premise of the show?

The way I approach writing for the show is not to think of it as a show about metal, it is a show about celebrities, their personas and the fact that over the last decade there have been a slew of reality TV shows. The question that pretty much started the show is, “what if the biggest celebrities in the world were a death metal band?” At this point, it becomes about metal and the metal personas. And then I get to throw all my fun guitar tricks and stuff in there.

So the basis of the episode ideas come from celebrity-related narcissism and shit just has to be about them. Then you can reference stuff like audience members dying, weird brutality things happening at public events and other non-metal-related things. Like in the second episode where Dethklok goes over budget while recording their album and it misses the release date and they ultimately scratch the album and re-do it underwater. That’s totally Chinese Democracy and Axl Rose type stuff—13 million dollars and nine years for crap. It happens all the time with artists in all genres… well at least the over budget part, not so much the underwater recording thing. That’s definitely Dethklok.

It’s a very strange thing where they act like a family, but they’re very much not. We’ll say a funny, dysfunctional family.

For those not hip to Metalocalypse and Dethklok, it features a less than impressive and mentally unstable bass player named William Murderface. Since we’ve heard all the bass player jokes out there, is Murderface based on a specific person or notion you have regarding bassists?

[laughs] Murderface was the character that was built out of the whole notion that bass players and the bass itself is not a prominent instrument within music. Let’s just say, it is a frequency that gets lost in the mix. I love bass in metal… this is coming from a guy that tracks all the bass parts for the show and albums, so I definitely have respect for the bass but its much funnier to make fun of it. It is like a guy working at an office where people ask, “what does that guy fucking do?” And he’s the biggest asshole in the office because he doesn’t have job validation or basic social skills so he acts like the boss. That’s definitely Murderface to a T. He’s overcompensating because he feels worthless and that’s why he’s a big dick and super narcissistic.

Brendon's Gear Box
Guitars
Gibson Explorer loaded with EMG X Series 81-85 pickups
Gibson Les Paul Goldtop ’57 reissue
Gibson Joan Jett Signature Melody Maker
Fender Deluxe Jazz 5-String Bass

Amps
Marshall JCM800
Marshall Mode 4
Mesa Boogie Express 5:50
Marshall Kerry King 2203KK JCM800
Line 6 Spider Valve
Bogner Alchemist
Eden Electronics WTX260
Effects
Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer
Eventide Pitch Factor
Dunlop Dimebag wah wah
Vox Satchurator Distortion
Ibanez Steve Vai Jemini Twin Distortion
SansAmp Bass Driver
We know that fans would kill for a Dr. Rockzo album. So, do you think you’ll ever do music for the other bands or characters featured on the show?

Oh man, definitely, I think about that quite a bit. It’d be something like “The Other Music of Dethklok” album or something. We’d have to include Dr. Rockzo and his band Zazz Blammymatazz, something from the Pickles’ first band, Snakes n’ Barrels, and the Amazelingtons who are the band of Dethklok’s therapist Dr. Johnathan Twinkletits. I’d imagine they’d sound like Toto [laughs].

For the guitarists out there, young and old, what is some advice you can give after playing for 20 years?

As a guitarist and fan, I’m always asking “how does that guy or this guy get that sound?” He uses a guitar and plays it well! It just comes down to a simple setup, some chops and letting your fingers do the rest. If I could grab and shake me when I was 14 years old and say “listen, get a good amp and just play.” As a kid I started with a decent Fender amp, a double-cutaway Epiphone Les Paul and a Turbo RAT distortion pedal and it was my best setup. I just kept downgrading by getting these outer space guitars, shittier amps and multi-effects processors and modeling amps that just ended up being crappy and noisy. Ultimately, keep it simple and work on your playing. The tone comes from you, not piles of gear.