Dethklok Co-Creator/Vocalist/Guitarist Brendon Small Interviewed
Band Photo: Dethklok (?)
The co-creation of comedic geniuses Brendon Small (creator of Adult Swim's Home Movies) and Tommy Blacha (writer of Late Nite with Conan O'Brien and Ali G), Metalocalypse is the most brutal metal cartoon to date. The show is about the metal band Dethklok, the most famous and influential band in the world. So influential, in fact, that Dethklok fans commit mass suicide when Dethklok album releases are delayed. Regardless of knowing that thousands of people die at Dethklok concerts, the fans still attend for the mere opportunity to be a part of history. Dethklok is held as the twelfth largest economy in the world (just above Belgium). Meanwhile, a secret government organization strategizes tirelessly to thwart Dethklok's rise, but keeps their efforts low key, so as to avoid a massive revolt by Dethklok's fans.
Hannah and I had the opportunity to witness two live performances by Dethklok: at The Nokia Center in NYC, and the TLA in Philadelphia. Most, if not all, of the shows on the tour were sold out, and every piece of merchandise was sold (only one box of merchandise was left for the last show of 4000 people). The band, consisting of lead guitarist and vocalist Brendon Small, rhythm guitarist Mike Keneally, bassist Bryan Beller, and drummer Gene Hoglan, played in the dark affront a giant projection screen which played clips from the Metalocalypse cartoon (with lyrics so the fans could sing along). The band incorporated interaction with the cartoons on the screen, including intervals where the band would leave the stage and the audience was left to watch the cartoon for a few minutes until the band returned. The cartoon excerpts were witty leaving the fans laughing, and cheering the band on as they would return to the stage.
This Adult Swim cartoon band has a following that is unsurpassed in death metal. We were lucky to have the opportunity to sit down with Brendon Small, co-creator (and most of the character voices) and Gene Hoglan (legendary Metal Drummer). We asked Small what he thinks about metal, how this idea was conceived, and how it feels to be the voice of the most popular cartoon death metal lead vocalist (Nathan Explosion) in the world.
Roya Butler: You started playing guitar at 13 and graduated from Berklee College of music in '97, then started writing comedy, which eventually evolved into Home Movies...
Small: yeah, I went to school in Boston, Berklee College of music. I got into comedy there, and started doing stand up, and that's how I got into animation and all that stuff. I grew up in Salinas, California. Other great men from Salinas: John Steinbeck - Steinbeck Country. Other great men from Springfield, Illinois: President Lincoln - the Great Emancipator. Soooo, you can see why I got into cartoons... following in the footsteps of genius giants.
Roya: How did you use these experiences to conceptualize and co-create Metalocalypse with Tommy Blacha?
Small: Tommy Blancha was the only guy in the comedy world who would go out and see metal shows with me. So we'd go out and see all these scary guys like Cannibal Corpse and Nile, and a bunch of fun death metal shows. Before Dethklok (Metalocalypse), I had a TV show called Home Movies; it had kids in it, and it was very dry--very dialogue driven-a very mannerism-based comedy. Home Movies got cancelled, so I wanted to use everything that I learned to not get this show cancelled. I got to write all the music on the other show, and so I wanted to continue to write a lot of music on this show; the whole idea was to do a new song on every episode, and then at the end of a season, put out a CD and be able to tour. I got in touch with Gene Hoglan, an amazing drummer with a great sense of humor; we got in the studio and started banging out songs (I'm just going over all the broad strokes of what this whole thing was). Then the opportunity came up to do a tour/live show. I wanted the whole concert to be like a Disneyland ride, with a big movie theater size projection screen behind us--and just make the whole show interactive and fun-METAL-and have great musicians playing with me like Gene Hoglan, Brian Beller and Mike Keneally.
Roya: Who was Nathan modeled after?
Small: George Corpse Grinder from Cannibal Corpse meets Conan the Barbarian was kind of what we were going for, looks-wise; the way he'd move on stage was definitely all Cannibal Corpse stuff. But attitude-wise, I don't think its George, because I hadn't met him at the time. It was kind of our own idea about how he behaved and acted, and what his sensibilities were. The rest of the characters were drawn by a guy who didn't really know a lot about metal, so everything else was coincidental. So there you go. There are half of your questions gone right there.
Roya: How do you feel Dethklok's live show compares to the Gorillaz live show? Was the Dethklok live show inspired by the Gorillaz live show?
Small: It was a cool jumping off point. Gorillaz projects animation onto scrims and the musicians play the show behind the scrims. I watched the DVD and thought the concept was really cool, and the animation and musicians were great. But the one thing that I want to see when I go to a show is the guys playing the music--even if they're back-lit - even if there's some mystery there. In metal, the music is so tough to play; you want to see how they're doing it - the fast guitar solos, the banging of the drums (because they're like Olympic athletes doing that stuff). I wanted to make sure that element was in the live show; I wanted us to connect enough with our audience in our show, and still have the animation be the star of it.
Roya: The song "Thunderhorse" was also featured on the hit video game Guitar Hero II? Tell us how that came about.
Small: I'd posted some blog on a site, right when I was in early development of this show. I think it was the last blog that I ever posted on my website. I said, "Hey, I'm gonna put out this show called Dethklok." And I put up a very rough version of the theme song. Then a guy who was a fan of my old show, Home Movies, read that and said, "Hey we're putting this game together, it's called Guitar Hero. We just got done doing the first version, can I send you a copy? I heard the music for the Dethklok theme song, and I know you're still in early development and are going to have more music on it; send it to me and we'll try to get it on Guitar Hero II." And that was it. So I sent them a few songs and they picked "Thunder Horse." It has got a lot of notes and stuff--it's kind of hard to play on the Guitar Hero game, but when we play it live on tour every night the kids go crazy, because they recognize it from that game--it's pretty nuts.
Roya: And you play the guitar on it?
Roya: Oh, wow. That's amazing because Skwisgaar Skwigelf plays that guitar and he's like the fastest guitarist in the world.
Small: Haha, the only reason people know that is because I said that somewhere in an article. He's not the fastest. There are faster guitarists, but he's pretty fast.
Roya: On the show he's the fastest.
Small: Yeah, yeah, and I play the guitar on the show, and on the record. It's just Gene Hoglan and I, basically that did the whole record. For the TV show, what I'll do is I'll play the guitar and I'll record it, and layer harmonies on it, and do rhythm guitars at the same time. And then I'll do vocals from time to time. But live, I can only do my guitar part and the vocals. Then we have Mike Keneally in there to harmonize all the fast stuff and to double on the rhythm guitars. It's fun--tonight you'll see, we'll be trading back and forth and doing all that stuff.
Roya: And the bassist isn't really mixed out of every song?
Small: Yeah, we joke about it a lot. Brian Beller basically will act like a rhythm guitarist a lot of the time--he's got this really powerful thunderous sound coming out of his bass, and he's pretty much covering what the rhythm guitarist would be doing. Because there are two guitarists on the record, I sometimes will have the guitar and do a harmonizing layer over that. When we have three people doing the guitar parts, I'll have to do the harmonizing solos and he'll have to play the rhythm guitar parts on the bass, and just have this thunderous thing that fills up all this area. He sounds huge, and he's a huge part of the show - though we love to make fun of Murderface on the show.
Roya: How did you get the name Metalocalypse and Dethklok?
Small: Well, I wanted to call the show Dethklok, but there was this legal thing that was all confusing and stupid and that I don't want to get into. So they told us that we couldn't call the show Dethklok. So that's how we got Metalocalypse--I decided that I'm just going to come out with a name that is so stupid and hard to pronounce that people just call it Dethklok anyway. Tommy and I had written down a whole bunch of names on a paper, and I think that Tommy had written down Dethklok. I saw it and just thought, that's cool, two syllables, you can chant it, it's great. There are so many metal bands out there with these big, long sentence names, and it's hard to chant.
Hoglan: Intestinal Strangulation...there's a band in LA called Intestinal Strangulation. Chanting that name....
Small: In-tes-tin-al Stran-gu-la-tion. That's nine syllables. Yeah, so that's why. Two syllables--you can chant it better, it sounds better in a big stadium: Dethklok!
Roya: Metalocalypse...are you alluding to the future apocalypse?
Small: It's going to be an apocalypse of metal, yes. It all starts in the last show of the first season. Twenty episodes, and then we go on to the next season, brilliant.
Roya: Does it have to do with the Mayan calendar and 2012 being the apocalypse?
Small: There isn't too much of that. I don't know about that, so no. 2012--The Mayan Apocalypse? Maybe that's how many seasons we'll do--whether we want to or not.
Roya: There are a lot of ocean themes (Blood Ocean, Mermaider, Go into the Water), why is that?
Small: In the first season, there's a whole under-water-themed record. That was the thing that made Dethklok even bigger than they were in the first season. And it's just the whole way the world's working with the polar ice caps melting; it's going to be a water world with Kevin Costner. So we just kept going back to this water theme. There's just something about the whole idea of the earth being consumed by water, and humans devolving back into fish. That's what "Go into the Water" is all about; it's about becoming single-celled bacteria again. We've evolved, but now it's time to regress and turn into animals again. So that was the whole idea. It's kind of all not terribly serious, but it was just a theme that we kept thinking about, and going back to. I don't think there's any really great way to explain that. But it was just themes. There's a lot of water. In movies there's always some kind of... I'll stop there, because I got nothing to say.
Roya: Your album, "The Deathalbum," debuted at #21 in the Billboard 200, making it the highest charting death metal album ever. Did you foresee that?
Small: It's better than the "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," by the Beatles. I'll go on record saying that.
Roya: Metalocalypse premiered on Aug 6, 2006. You posed naked holding a medieval flail and metal shield for a humor-themed Playgirl pictorial in April 2006. Was that to promote Dethklok?
Small: It was a comedy issue, and I think that I look like a sweaty car-salesman. They asked me to do something and to appear nude, and I said, "Yeah, no, I don't think you want that, but I will." So I accepted the challenge. I said, "The only way I'm going to do it is if I can paint my dick to look like King Daimond." And then I chickened out at the last minute. I'm not going to do that, my last show was about kids and stuff like that, now I'm showing my dick in Play Girl? I don't know. It was a comedy issue, so it was in no way serious--I think you can tell that from the photos.
Roya: The guys in the show seem like they are so detached from the world that they can't do anything for themselves.
Small: That whole thing comes from celebrities. When we are putting the show together, the whole thing is about celebrities first, and metal second. In the last ten years of television, it's all been reality shows, and we've had people like Paris Hilton who don't know how a phone works, or how a doorknob works, or what day it is--they're not the brightest people around. So we thought what if we took the biggest celebrities in the world and made them a death metal band? We got to put in all the stuff that we loved about death metal, and all the stuff to make fun of celebrities. So that was the whole idea. They're celebrities, so that means that they don't know how to make their own dinner. There are just a lot of things that they're not capable of doing for themselves--they're celebrities, and they're being babied all the time. But they can negotiate a contract like nobody's business, and they know how to order off the menu in a fancy restaurant (and stuff like that - like a celebrity would).
Roya: Why does Dethklok hate their fans?
Small: It's just funnier for them to hate their fans. It wouldn't be that funny if they were all about their fans. The point is that they don't care about anyone, nor do they care who dies.
Roya: How does it feel to be the lead singer of the most popular cartoon death metal band in the world?
Small: I'm not the lead singer.
Roya: You are the voice of Nathan Explosion.
Small: Here's the thing. We do all these shows, and we've been really lucky and spoiled rotten, because all these shows have been selling out at every single venue. And the feeling is really weird because you get off stage and the people are chanting "Dethklok! Dethklok!" The way that this show is done is that it's not about us or what we look like. It's about what we sound like, and we're supposed to sound like Dethklok. You'll see tonight that we're back-lit. We're these anonymous shadows. You can see that we're holding the instruments and we're playing them and you can watch Gene drumming like crazy. But when we get off stage, they're cheering for this guy Nathan Explosion and his band, and that's not me. That's the fun part about animation is that you can be anonymous to a degree. We do kinda show the audience who we are at some point through the night and say, "Hey we were here the whole show, how you doing?" But I think that everyone's looking above us, so it's not about us, it's about what's up there. We're a pit band to a musical that's happening above us; I think that you gotta keep that kind of mystery going on. Sure I do the voice, and I write the music, but it's not my band. It's Dethklok, it's THEIR band. That's how I feel.
Transcribed by Hannah Wagner.
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