When Brendon Small
penned the first episodes of Adult Swim's Metalocalypse
, he was quickly realizing that his other great passion the guitar was becoming just as essential as the punch lines he delivered on the animated cult hit. In a sense, he had truly come full circle. After graduating from the Berklee College of Music in 1997, Small
opted for a comedian's life by honing his stand-up act and eventually creating the animated series Home Movies. It wasn't until he conceived the dark, bloody, and extremely humorous world of the fictional band Dethklok
that he was able to once again truly find a suitable outlet for his music.
With three seasons of Metalocalypse
under his belt, Small
has found himself occupied with activities that have deemed him a rock star in his own right. The sophomore Dethklok
record titled Dethalbum II
(released back in September of 2009) reached #15 on the Billboard charts while gaining a dedicated fan base. Small
further proved that had surpassed mere novelty status by landing an opening slot for Iron Maiden
, touring alongside Mastodon
, and publishing a tablature series dedicated to the music of Dethklok
. When the musician/writer/comedian recently talked with Ultimate-Guitar
, he provided more insight into the making of the most brutal album imaginable.
UG: This year you stopped by the Alfred Publishing booth at the NAMM Show. Did you have anything new to introduce at the convention?
Yeah. I was talking about the new Dethalbum II tab book that just came out. It was fun. They are super-nice people over there. I did a signing for a bunch of people that are fans. We exchanged information, and it was great. I love NAMM. I should go on Thursday, though, because I'm a guitar geek. I go there because I have to promote stuff and everything and say hi to all of the sponsors, but all I want to do is check out new gear. On a Saturday, that's the worst day to do it.
Did you get an opportunity to check out the newest gear at any point?
"I've gotten to the point with guitar playing that I've gotten a lot of cool gear."
Thank God for YouTube because I got to check out all of the low-watt amps and things like that. I've gotten to the point with guitar playing that I've gotten a lot of cool gear. If something doesn't sound good, then that's my own fault because I wasn't playing something right. I have good amps and I have good guitars. I get really good sounds that I'm really happy with now. So when I go to NAMM I'm like, Okay, what don't I have? Well, I don't have a speaker endorsement deal, so let's go talk to the Celestion guys. And I have Celestion in my amps right now! How many speakers do I need? There are boutique pedals and cool, weird things like that.
For those who want to recreate the sounds on Dethalbum II, can you give us an idea of what you used? And did they change at all from what you utilized on the first album?
They did totally change. I did a lot direct playing on the first record. Believe it or not, Joe Satriani gave me some really good advice. Let me back up, though. For the rhythm guitars I used Marshall JCMs. I put a Tube Screamer in front of it to smooth out the sound. I wanted that warmth there that I don't always hear in metal. So the rhythm guitars were all Marshall JCMs in the medium gain stage. There were no pedals involved. It was from the 30-watt Celestion and a Marshall cabinet. It was very simple and like store-bought stuff. Ultimately, I just had to play it right.
For the lead guitars, the interesting and different thing that I did this time was Joe Satriani gave me his old Palmer cabinet simulator. He gave me his saturated distortion pedal by Vox, and he helped me set it up. I used like a 50-watt amp at the time. I had a Mesa Boogie Express 5:50. I used that for the leads and got a better-rounded, creamier kind of sound with some harmonic elements that you sometimes don't get from direct lining. So I was really happy with that. It was like a 50-watt straight into the board, and that was it.
As far as rhythm guitars, I played my Explorers and my EMGs the 81 and 85X series, which are not as compressed. Then I have the heaviest strings I can find like .013-.056, sometimes .060 on the low E. Most of the leads are done with my Les Paul Goldtop '57 reissue. I was just using stock pickups. That's why I like the X series from EMG, too. It has a little more headroom and it's not as compressed. Especially with lead stuff, I really like to hear a guitar come through. You hear the string and don't hear the compressed magnets as much. So I like to use stock Gibson stuff, which are great pickups. It's that simple.
I messed around with different picks while I was playing and little stupid, dumb things that actually do kind of change your playing a little bit. I switched up to the Dunlop Ultex picks, which have a really great attack. There were no real effects. All the effects were kind of done through Pro Tools. If we put in a delay or anything, it would be in Pro Tools. It would be like a spot punch-in or something. Live is a different story, but in the studio that's what I did.
Do you have a heavy hand in the production side of the recording process?
Absolutely. I record the drums, the rhythm guitars, and the basses in the studio that we paid for. Then I take the whole sessions home or file takes, and then I overdub for two month or a month-and-a-half because I'm also writing a TV show at the same time. I can't pay an engineer to hang out whenever I have time, so I have to do it all myself. I've been learning everything the hard way. When I finish all that stuff the guitar, the vocals, and the keyboard overdubs I head back to Ulrich Wild, who is the co-producer and the engineer. He does all the mixing, and then I'll just check in with him to see how he's doing. It's always interesting to hear his takes on the song. Sometimes I'll get really nervous on some of the raw versions, where the guitars are really, really loud and there are no effects. Then I'll hear his takes, and everything starts to fit together. I like his EQ curve of this record in particular.
At what point will you actually write the songs to correspond with the story? Are you able to compose while creating the episode itself?
I'll have a sequence in mind for an episode, where the band will play and we'll tell the story while the band is playing. It's the last thing I do. Usually what I'll do is take an old song from the first Dethalbum and then put it in there. I'll figure out if it's fast or slow. Then I'll pretty much record a sloppy guitar to a click track. Whatever happens in that amount of time ends up being the song. So I don't second-guess. I just try to write a riff. Usually I'll write a song if I've got an idea of what's supposed to happen. For example, I have an episode that I'm working on right now where there's a big chase sequence in the sky. I know that it's got to be a fast tempo kind of thing. That tells me everything I need to know at least what the mood of the song is going to be. I just write towards that. Even if it's sloppy, I can change things around. But the general feel, I just go for.
I read that you often have to pare down six-part harmonies into two-part harmonies for the tab books.
"I did a lot direct playing on the first record."
It's actually very simple when I break it down. If you look at a chord and a triad has three notes, you go an octave higher. When I was listening to old Queen records and stuff like that, I figured out that's what Brian May was doing. You can get this thick, huge sound that is kind of impossible to play live. What we do with the live parts, between me and Mike Keneally, we'll try to find a way to make two guitars sound like six or seven or eight. With the bass player, we can turn that into a rhythm guitarist, too. So he might takes over what the rhythm guitar is playing while me and Mike bump into these double stops or he'll put a harmonizer on one of his things. It's just a different ball of wax that is pretty fun and pretty fat-sounding.
Do you keep the characters Toki Wartooth and Skwisgaar Skwigelf in mind when writing the different parts?
It doesn't happen often. Ultimately what I like to think about is, What's the coolest thing I can do here in this song? What is the coolest melody or guitar part I can think of in the amount of time I have right now? There were a couple of times where I would go, Okay, Toki once he nails it in the studio, he's a pretty good guitarist he gets nervous live. So if I would record a live album of Dethklok, I would definitely have Toki's parts either overplayed or underplayed. I think there are those kinds of metal players who pretty much stay in the Pentatonic box. Then there are some people who go out and play in different modes with harmonic minors. Skwisgaar is probably a little more scale-based than Toki. I don't want Toki to be a bad guitar player because that limits my options of what I can do on the record. There are subtle things. I don't think it's all the time, but every once in awhile it pops up.
You've posted instructional videos where the animated character Skwisgaar is actually giving accurate guitar lessons. At this point, would you be ready to create an instructional DVD series yourself?
I would be interested in doing that. I think it would be fun. I'm a fan of instructional videos. I think technique-wise and all that stuff, I learned it from watching Paul Gilbert, Steve Morse, and Marty Friedman. Any guitarist that has ever put out an instructional video, I would save up my money and bought it. These guys are monster players. Sometimes you've got to sit down and really break stuff down to learn how to play it. The only thing I dread is that I would have to play really well! I can play guitar fairly well, but it's like the movie Memento. There's this thing on my lap what's it doing here? If I go shooting my mouth off about it, I've learned that I end up having to do it somewhere down the line. So I shouldn't shoot my mouth off that much. I have a lot of work to do. I've got to finish this season and take a vacation before committing to any other projects.
One of the big things I want to talk about is Guitar Hero 5. It's out now on PS3, Xbox 360, and the Wii systems. I have to say that when we started out the show, I got a call from one of the developers at the time. He was a fan of my previous show Home Movies, and he had read a blog that I was going to do this metal show. The show hadn't even aired at the time, and he wanted to know if I wanted to put some music in from the show. I said sure and picked this song called Thunderhorse. It's really funny how many fans we got to check out Metalocalypse because of Guitar Hero II. Now I have kids that come to the show, and Thunderhorse is one of the most popular songs that we do. When we play it in the set, the kids know it and are playing air guitar to it. They heard it on Guitar Hero.
There are some guitarists out there who still claim that Guitar Hero is for the people who aren't able to play an actual guitar. Have you always embraced the concept behind the game?
In being a guitarist and going through the dark days of guitar when no one was playing their guitar or doing solos. That was a pretty crappy time, but it had to happen. People had to stop playing guitar so that it could come back again. I think it's exciting that 11-year-olds know what Smoke On The Water is and can sing the Ritchie Blackmore solo. They just know it. It's also turning people onto cool music. It used to be that you could only learn about cool music if you had an older sibling who had a Led Zeppelin record at some point. I didn't have an older sibling that had cool music. My sister liked Madonna and a-ha. But I had a friend down the street that turned me onto all the cool stuff. That's what this thing is kind of doing. It's being that friend down the street that's showing you cool music. If any of these music snobs think that they didn't grab a tennis racket and pretend to play guitar for years before they even grabbed real guitars, then I think they are lying and they're stupid. And I will fight them!
I've said this before, but I can't believe how much I still like guitar. It's really strange to me. I like sitting there with a guitar on my lap. When I wake up in the morning, I like to actually be able to see a guitar somewhere. I don't get it. I don't understand why I like this so much. My best and most enjoyable times over the last five years of being in a creative environment have been those times when I can just sit there and play guitar by myself. I'll just listen to it. I like the sound it makes. Guitar is cool. If you don't think the guitar is cool, then you're stupid. And I will fight you!
You've made a huge turning point in that you're now passed the point of merely being the creator of a hit animated series. Musically, Dethklok earned the 2nd place spot on the Spin Readers' Poll for Best Metal Band (beat out only by Metallica) and you toured with Mastodon. Are you content with how your life is going?
"Usually I'll write a song if I've got an idea of what's supposed to happen."
I'm clearly a frustrated guitarist. I studied guitar and ended up going into comedy. I love comedy, too. I love storytelling. Because I can do music, it makes me a better writer and storyteller in some ways. I talk to my other friends who are writers for a living. I can subtract words and use music and it's more interesting. It sticks with you longer.
In TV, you realize that you can lose your job and that can be taken away from you if the ratings drop in a heartbeat. TV is a tough job. There is no job security. If the ratings go, you're gone. When I think about how I can top this job, I can't think of how I could. I've gotten to do everything. I got to tour with Mastodon. I got to open up for Iron Maiden. I got to put out a tab book. I have an endorsement deal with Gibson guitars. This is insane! I guess I plotted this whole thing out when I was 15-years-old and somehow I stuck to it. I got to make friends with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. I'm going to recommend movies to my guitar heroes! It's all very ridiculous. It is the ultimate job.
Interview by Amy Kelly