Small has two Gibson and two Epiphone models based on Flying V and Explorer designs—both with epic animal names. The V is the Snow Falcon and the Explorer—dubbed the Thunderhorse—is named after a Dethklok song.
Photo by Jim Donnelly
Brendon Small originally set out to be a guitarist—he even earned a degree from the Berklee College of Music—but along the way he changed gears and decided to focus on comedy. “I spent eight years of my life in Boston,” he says. “Four of those were at Berklee, and the next four were across the river, in Cambridge, studying comedy. I studied guitar and then I studied comedy by doing standup in Harvard Square.”
Small’s experiences as a comedian led him to television and his first animated series, Home Movies, on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. “That’s how I got into all this TV baloney,” he says. “I was doing standup over there at the Comedy Studio, which is on the third floor of the Chinese restaurant, the Hong Kong. Back in the day it’d be me—Louis C.K. would stop in all the time and do shows. He was just a kid back then, but older than us. And me and Eugene Mirman [comedian and voice of Gene Belcher on Bob’s Burgers] were roommates.”
Home Movies ran from 1999 to 2004, and Small’s next project, Metalocalypse, brought him full circle. “Had Metalocalypse not happened, I still would have been a geeky guitar guy sitting in my room, being very happy with just playing guitar for myself,” he says. But Metalocalypse—a cartoon series about a fictional death metal band called Dethklok that’s bigger (and far more powerful) than the Beatles—made playing guitar front-and-center in Small’s professional life again. Small wrote the music for the show, played all the guitar parts, and, because Dethklok’s lead guitarist, Skwisgaar Skwigelf, was a shredder, Small shredded as well. He was also voice actor for the Skwigelf character and several others.
Metalocalypse was a hit. It ran for seven seasons—the final episode being an hour-long rock opera, The Doomstar Requiem—and the music from the show also proved popular. Dethklok’s first three albums charted in the top 20 of the Billboard 200 and the third release, Dethalbum III, peaked at No. 10, making it the highest-charting death metal album of all time. In addition, The Doomstar Requiem: A Klok Opera Soundtrack made it to No. 7 on Billboard’s soundtrack chart in 2013.
Small took Dethklok on the road, too. His touring lineup included drummer Gene Hoglan (Testament, Devin Townsend), bassist Bryan Beller (the Aristocrats, Steve Vai), and co-guitarist Mike Keneally (Frank Zappa, and many others). Those musicians are featured to varying degrees on Dethklok’s albums as well as Small’s current project, Galaktikon. “I set up a band where, if I dropped my guitar, no one would notice because the guys I am playing with are so good,” Small says. “They are super musicians. They can do anything. If you hand something to them, they will find a way to do it. They’re bred to do it somehow.”
Small’s second Galaktikon album, Galaktikon II: Become the Storm, dropped at the end of August and again features Beller and Hoglan. He is taking it on tour in 2018. “That’s the plan,” he says. “With Dethklok, I put together a really fun live show that was funny, entertaining, visually exciting, and with a band who could play their asses off. So my whole thing is that if I am going to do this, I have to beat my last show by making it cooler and more exciting visually and musically.”
We recently spoke with Small about his daily practice routine, his home studio, his custom axes, and the philosophical parallels between music and comedy.
When did you start playing?
I wanted to play guitar for a long time, and my neighbor—who I am still really good friends with—he had a guitar. He was already playing and he could play power chords, open chords, and he taught me about King Diamond, Metallica, Slayer. He also taught me about Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, and who Yngwie [Malmsteen] and [Joe] Satriani were—so this kid ended up being a big part of my life. He took lessons, so I started taking lessons from the same guy. We were two nerds. We were getting excited about chord theory—trying to get through chord charts. If we learned a new chord, we would try and write music with it.
TIDBIT: All the tunes for Small’s second Galaktikon album were demoed in his home studio: a converted two-car garage where he’s always got his Marshall miked
up for recording.
But most of all, I was one of those suburban kids with instructional videotapes. I had Paul Gilbert’s Intense Rock Sequences & Techniques, which was really important if you wanted to shred and learn alternate picking and three-notes-per-string stuff. That was a staple in how to play fast guitar for my generation. We didn’t have YouTube when I was growing up, so you actually had to get a physical copy of one of these tapes. That was an important part of understanding technique—seeing real players play well.
Yeah, there’s no substitute for seeing what the hands are doing—and how.
Exactly. It’s funny, you can watch a lot of guitar players who play really well but look like they’re uncomfortable playing. Other people, they’re so relaxed it looks like they’re cutting butter with a hot knife. That’s the kind of player that I wanted to be. Me and my friend had a very healthy competition in both theory and technique—who could do something the other kid couldn’t. We would drive each other nuts. If he could do something I couldn’t, it would make me upset. If I could do something he couldn’t do, he’d lose his mind because I had been playing for less time. It’s nice to have those kinds of relationships. They’re kind of antagonistic, but they’re also helpful in the long run.
What did you eventually study at Berklee?
My major was professional music, with a concentration in performance and composition. I was taking a lot of theory, writing, arranging, and getting deeper with harmony classes and stuff like that. Performance just means I took a million different guitar labs—from country labs to fusion labs. There were actually advanced prog concepts classes where we’d learn about Gentle Giant and Kansas and shit like that. It was really fun.
Were you required to study jazz at all?
My jazz playing is something that I don’t know that I would do in public. As a comedian, I think I would do it in public to get a good laugh [laughs]. Something that I keep working on every day is playing over changes. There are big, long moments where I don’t consider that stuff—where I am working too hard with other things—but whenever I have free time with a guitar, I like to go back to finding cool stuff to do with altered scales over changes, two/fives, and stuff like that. My jazz stuff is very limited, but I get it.