April 24, 2012
For Brendon Small, cortex-squashing pressure sort of comes with the territory. Small is the creator of the breakaway hit TV show Metalocalypse, writing the scripts, voicing several characters, and because the show concerns a fictitious death metal band, Small composes all of the ferocious and unbelievably catchy music for each episode. The show is a bona fide cultural phenomenon, first attracting a rabid cult audience (are cult audiences any other way?), then finding seismic popularity in the mainstream. Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, award-winning documentary producer Warner Herzog and Hall of Fame inductee Slash are a few of the legion of celebrities who have proclaimed their enduring love of Metalocalypse. The show, featured on the Adult Swim cable channel, begins its ravenously-anticipated fourth season on April 29 with more preposterous plots, scorching humor and the show’s most impressive lineup of celebrity voices yet. In fact, both Hamm and Herzog will be appearing in Season Four, along with an astonishingly diverse and talented cast of other actors, comedians and, of course, musicians.
Small, a gifted guitarist with a penchant for heavy metal, writes the songs performed by the show’s fictitious band, Dethklok, and he has compiled that music into two Dethklok albums of potent, riff-heavy music that have enjoyed both critical and popular acclaim. The second album, Dethalbum II, debuted at number 15 on the Billboard 200, selling 45,000 copies in the first week alone.
Preparing for the second album, Small found himself in the throes of a quality problem–he had a collection of riffs, licks and music that were not quite suitable for Metalocalypse, but that were too catchy to ignore. The solution? Galaktikon. Can call it a solo album, a side project or a rock opera–all apply. Small himself calls it “a high-stakes, intergalactic extreme rock album.”
The release of Galaktikon will coincide with the Season 4 premiere of Metalocalypse on Sunday, April 29 at 12:15am (ET/PT) on Adult Swim. We recently met with Small to get the inside track on his new album and to find out what’s in store for Dethklok in the new season of Metalocalypse.
Let’s start with Galaktikon. What was the inspiration behind the project?
Well it was kind of an accidental project. I knew it would be fun to do something outside of Dethklok. There are a lot of different kinds of music in different genres and things that I’d love to just mess around with because, just like people aren’t in one mood constantly, I think we don’t listen to the same style of music constantly. I think most people’s iPods are pretty eclectic. I’ve got stuff from Steely Dan to ELO to Cannibal Corpse to Amon Amarth and Jeff Beck.
What happened was that I was about to do the second Dethklok record–probably the Friday before the Monday that I was going to go in and do it. And I found out later that Friday that the contract was not finished and we weren’t going to be able to start making the record on Monday. But what nobody really knew was that I had already booked the studio, I had booked (drummer) Gene Hoglan, I had booked Ulrich Wild, who was the engineer and co-producer of that record and a bunch of people, and rented equipment and all kinds of stuff. I could have canceled everything and said, “Sorry guys, we’re gonna have to wait a month or so,” but instead I thought, “You know, I’ve got all these people in one place, I’m going to use them for something. I’m gonna gather a bunch of songs that I think are kind of in the same vein, stylistically.” They were songs that I was writing and developing when I first started the show and I threw them to the side even though I liked all the riffs and these cool ideas, but it wasn’t heavy enough for Dethklok. So I though I’d use these songs and spend the next five days recording drums and figuring out guitar parts. Lucky after the five days I spent working on that stuff, the contract got signed and we seamlessly went into Dethalbum II.
But what happened was I had all these drums and songs and ideas on a hard drive, and I had to get back to them at some point because in my mind, I thought “I’ve spent a lot of money on that stuff–I should finish it.” I would hate to be that guy with the half-finished project sitting on his hard drive. Plus, no one’s asked me to do this–it’s just a personal challenge to finish this project. It’s very easy to finish a project when you have a network breathing down your throat and money’s being spent and it’s not yours. It’s very easy to hit deadlines. But when it’s your own stuff, it’s a little bit harder. So I finished Dethalbum II, we went on tour, and I did season three and a bunch of time passed and I said, “I’m gonna finish this record,” and I did after season three.
As I was doing it, all the energies of these songs were starting to kind of make sense to me and I think I wanted to tell a story.
So what’s the story?
Well, I’m very influenced by Brian May and Queen, and a bunch of 70s stuff, and a bunch of modern metal. I also like a bunch of 90s stuff like Soundgarden. I also like Foo Fighters and I like Weezer. It’s all about borrowing from these sources throughout the songs, but still it sounds like the Dethklok rhythm section at times, too.
I was improvising songs and lyrics over what would be the last song on the record, which I thought sounded like a chase sequence. I was improvising lyrics about a superhero dating a girl, but complaining the whole way. And I thought, “Wait a minute–that’s kind of fun. This guy’s really pissed-off that he’s gotta do this. He’s kind of sick of his job. Or he’s sick of this girl! OK, that’s better–I like that. He’s sick of the girl.” So there’s this big battle that happens and then the big final chorus and there’s this big song called “On My Way,” which is the last song on the record.
So I thought, “OK, what do I know now? I’ve got a superhero who’s pissed off at this girl he’s gotta constantly save.” Then I thought, “OK, I know what the story is. What if Superman had this big, horrible, messy divorce with Lois Lane? And what if it was very public and he lost a lot of money and it was really ugly, and there was a lot of name-calling in the press, and he was just humiliated and he’s kind of half the man he was–but she still keeps on getting in trouble, and because he’s Superman, he’s gotta save her all the time. Because of course, it looks bad if he doesn’t.”
Furthermore, what if she started dating Lex Luthor? And also, Lex Luthor is not gonna keep her around–he’s gonna use her as a trap to kill Superman. So our Superman character’s gonna have to make a decision: “What do I do? Do I meddle with these affairs or do I let her make her own decisions?” He’s kind of letting go of this relationship. Ultimately, that’s what Galaktikon is–it’s an intergalactic divorce story.
It begs for a movie treatment. Is that something you’d consider?
Yeah, I mean, I didn’t want to do a collection of songs, because I didn’t know what I would sing about, really. I like inventing things and coming up with stories and ideas, so I’d love to find something for this to make sense. It definitely is not Superman–he will be his own superhero. But the whole record starts out with the guy getting his divorce papers, and he’s driving angrily through space. He’s pissed off and he’s got his robot counterpart with him–this comic relief robot–and he’s kind of processing the divorce and processing what the world thinks about him, and there’s kind of a Greek chorus of people talking shit about him, and at the end of the first song, he says, “What am I gonna do now? What the fuck am I supposed to do? I’ve gotta go talk to somebody.”
The second song is that basically he goes to a therapist, and that song is called “Prophecy of the Lazer Witch,” who’s kind of like an outer space prophet who says, “You gotta move on from this relationship. She’s gonna go and do shit, and it’s gonna be dangerous. Furthermore, I think your arch-nemesis is breaking out of prison as we speak, and you’ve just gotta stay away from this and quit meddling in affairs that aren’t yours. Move on from this relationship.”
The third song is “Beastblade,” which is like Superman II, where the bad guys escape. In this case, the song is the bad guy’s point of view. He’s talking about how he’s going to fuck this guy up and how he’s vulnerable, and now is the perfect time to kill him. And the song is kind of a softer song. It’s a really heavy riff with a soft vocal on it. He’s just very methodical. It’s kind of from the point of view of a serial killer.
So the songs go on and take this shape. There’s a song where the bad guy seduces the girl, and a song where the good guy has to contemplate entering into this world where he doesn’t belong and doing something. There’s a song where he gets trapped and has to fight this monster in this arena–this big Spartacus moment. There’s a big outer space chase song called “Dangertits,” which is an instrumental, and then we’re back to where I started–the big chase sequence, and that’s the record.
Some of the clips that I’ve heard are still pretty heavy, although they are more melodic. How do these songs differ from Dethklok?
I think I use the same mentality that I do when I do Dethklok stuff, which is find something that interests me, riff-wise, and contradict it later in the song. Like, louds and quiets, slows and fasts. But you know, when you’re in a metal band, everything is turned up to a million, so how do you create the illusion of dynamics? It’s usually by half-speeds, half-times or contradicting rhythms. On Dethklok I’m almost rapping–it’s almost a percussion instrument on death vocals. You don’t get to imply anything but rhythm, there’s no melody. So in Dethklok I overcompensate by putting lots of melody in the guitar parts. You’ve got these songs with these grandiose, harmonized parts because I want it to be as melodic as possible because that’s what I like. I like melody and harmonic movement and stuff like that.
Then I had this one riff in the song called “You Can’t Run Away” that was kind of a black metally kind of riff that was melodic and outer spacey and fun, in my mind. I thought, “What if I tried to do an Elliott Smith kind of vocal on top of that? How would that sound?” I kind of got breathy and falsetto-y.
So those were the kind of experiments that I was doing and that’s how I was attacking it from a different place.
Shifting gears, this coming Sunday (April 29, 2012), is the season four premiere of Metalocalypse. What can we expect this season?
Well, I’m pretty vague about this stuff, because I don’t like putting too much story out there–why even watch it? But what I have been saying is that the kind of bigger Metalocalypse story is moving forward as we continue. We’re in our seventh year of production for this show–it’s been going on for awhile–and it takes a really long time to do seasons, and I know the audience feels that, too. The show has a natural ending point that I thought of when the show started, and we’re starting to move towards that in this season. It’s moving towards the end. Any show really should have an ending. I don’t think these things can go forever because I think you start getting diminishing returns. I don’t think people are tuning into shows that have been on for ten or fifteen years, wondering, “What’s gonna happen next week on Two and a Half Men?” I know the show’s doing incredibly well but I think at some point you’re doing it just to make money and not to tell a story or because you’re creatively engaged. Not that I won’t do that in the future someday (laughs) but not with this show. This show needs to be put together carefully.
As a fan, I have to say that one of my favorite parts is reading the end credits, when you find out who the guest voices were that you heard during that episode. Because you never know who’s doing the voices during the episode–it’s all but impossible to figure them out. How do you get these metal icons to come on board and do this?
First of all, I think a lot of people’s secret goal is to do cartoon voices, because you’re not yourself, you get to goof around, and the other thing that a lot of people don’t know is that people in the world of heavy metal have a sense of humor. A lot of people, even some fans, take things out of proportion and think that people like Cannibal Corpse are serial killers. But they’re people. They eat food, they go to sleep, they play with their kids and they have a lot of time on their tour bus and they’re usually watching The Simpsons or Monty Python. They love comedy. When you combine that universal interest in animation with the idea that musicians like being funny, it’s not too difficult to cast people.
I don’t know. There are so many different things. Like Slash was on the show, easily one of my favorite guitar players. It was easy to work with him. There are some people where you’re like, “Wow, you people should be actors.” The Mastodon guys were really funny. Michael Amott, from Arch Enemy had an amazing kind of Shakespearean take on stuff. He had a great speaking voice and was a really great actor. It was really cool. A lot of people are really fun and goofy. When I first thought of the show, I thought, “Obviously King Diamond–he does a million voices, so he’d be perfect.” So that was an obvious one for me.
And I get to meet all these people and ask them questions. A lot of them are guitar heroes of mine, like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, that I got to befriend and ask the nerdiest of guitar questions. Billy Gibbons is on this season, from ZZ Top. He’s awesome. Dweezil Zappa, we have Kim Thayil from Soundgarden, Cannibal Corpse comes back. Then we have a bunch of people who are kind of new to the show. Jon Hamm came in and did a voice–he’s been watching the show for awhile. Werner Herzog is on like eight episodes of the show. That’s a pretty big coup as far as I’m concerned. I’m a pretty big Herzog fan. You’ll hear his voice a lot. And then people from Janeane Garafalo to Amer Tamblyn. This season has a nice mix of comedy and metal people.
I’m a huge fan of Dr. Rockso, and from what I’ve seen online, a lot of other people are too. Dr. Rockso and Razz Blammymatazz look very familiar. Assuming that they were inspired by real people, have you ever heard back from those people about what they think of those characters?
It didn’t start out that way. What happened was there was an episode–episode three of season one. It was Murderface’s birthday and the whole idea was that he’s a big baby. The idea of Murderface is that he thinks he’s really tough and he hates everything, but he just really hates himself. He thinks he’s a nihilist but he cares too much about being a nihilist to be a nihilist. Even before the first episode, I knew that Murderface was the most fun person to write for because he was filled with contradictions.
In his birthday party, we were looking at storyboards and I thought he should have some kind of shitty birthday clown. In the initial drawing, it was kind of a fat clown, looking sad. I thought, “You know what? That’s not good enough. It should be the wrong genre of metal. It should be humiliating.” It was like, “Dr. Rockso, the Rock and Roll Clown,” and all he cares about is cocaine and he kind of has that patter of like Paul Stanley or Steven Tyler or David Lee Roth. I drew a big picture of him with the dry-erase marker and I was like, “Yeah, he’s got a cop hat and I remember seeing KISS at the Wax Museum and they were wearing these things with these plunging neckline things and you could see the top of their pubes and everything about that was embarrassing and strange, but I thought their makeup was cool, and as a little kid I thought KISS was amazing.
So that was it–listening to those Paul Stanley things and putting in those vocal things like “Cu-cu-cu…” When David Lee Roth has a breakdown in a song, where he starts talking, we went, “That’s how this guy speaks.” And he keeps on saying, “I do cocaine.” And that was it, we got it: “Dr. Rockso, the Rock and Roll Clown. I do cocaine.” All of us that make the show, we don’t give a fuck about Dr. Rockso. In fact, we hate him! But everybody loves him, which is always the funniest part.
But as the music came, they drew him and immediately it started looking like David Lee Roth, and it was kind of undeniable how great that drawing is. I really fucking love Van Halen–like really, really love Van Halen–so thought I’d like the opportunity to do these kind of Van Halen sounds, and that to me was fun. And it’s funny that the one band member in Dethklok that’s the most innocent and stupid (Toki Wartooth) hangs out with the dumbest, most shitty idiots in the world and one of them is Dr. Rockso.
We end these interviews with five Either/Ors, so you just pick one and if you want, say why you picked it.
OK. I hope I don’t piss anybody off. Here we go…
Well yeah, you might piss someone off on the first one: Madonna or scented candles?
I have a really strong affection for scented candles. Yeah, I’d pick scented candles any day of the week. Over almost anything–not just Madonna. If you’d said, “Lady Gaga or scented candles,” that would be a tougher thing.
Black metal or thrash?
Oh, that’s a tricky one. I’d go to thrash.
The Wall or Tommy?
Commercially successful or critically-acclaimed?
Oh boy. If there was just somewhere in between… I think it’s unfortunately, critically-acclaimed. No, you know what? Fuck the critics. It’s self-satisfying making money. I wish there were a third option. Critically-acclaimed. I don’t think Metalocalypse was critically-acclaimed. I think my old show, Home Movies, was critically-acclaimed, but nobody watched it. We got cancelled early, so if there’s a way to straddle those lines, that’s what everyone is looking for.
Last one–Van Halen with Roth or Van Halen with Hagar.
Um, there isn’t a Gary Cherone option?
OK, it’s Roth, it’s Roth. And I’ll tell you, those early records are so great. I was probably like twelve years old when 5150 came out and I will follow the guitar player anywhere, so I bought all the Sammy Hagar Van Halen stuff, and I read Sammy Hagar’s book, and I re-bought all of his stuff, and I re-listened to a lot of stuff that I didn’t spend much time with, like Balance. That record’s a lot better than I remembered it being, and Eddie’s guitar sounds really fucking cool. That’s probably one of his better sounds since Roth left Van Halen. But yeah, I know that it’s an unpopular thing to think that Sammy Hagar is a big part of Van Halen, but I do think he is. I’m a fan.