is the creative force behind Dethklok
, the animated death metal band that appears on the Adult Swim
channel for the Metalocalypse
television series. The series first debuted in 2006 and for three insane years now, Small
, a graduate of the Berklee School of Music and one hellacious guitar player, has been writing the music along with drummer and co-creator Tommy Blacha
performed the ultimate death metal five-piece. Brendon
also recently completed work on a second Dethklok
album called Dethalbum II
and to support the record, he'll be undertaking a co-headline tour with Mastodon
On a time schedule that would reduce most musicians to tears, Brendon
took out a healthy chunk of time to talk about his television and recording work. On the day we spoke, guitar legend Les Paul
had just passed away and it seemed kind of fitting to ask Small
how he felt.
"He was an old gentleman but I will go on record saying he was one of the best inventors of the electric guitar that the world has known. I have that great documentary that Les Paul [made]; is it called Chasing Sound! or something like that? For anybody that has not seen that documentary, it's really in-depth and made by people who really care about guitar and the invention of multi-track recording. And Les Paul comes across as being an older gentleman but totally lucid and totally together. He'll be missed.
UG: Would you mind talking a little bit about the origins of Metalocalypse and Dethklok and all that stuff?
So what happened was basically to go back before the start of the show, I graduated from Berklee College of Music and going into Berklee College of Music I was one of those guys who really practiced hard and did a lot of my scales and shredding. And kind of had my technique together to enter into a music scene at a time where guitar was kind of losing its importance  in the kind of music that I liked. People weren't taking solos anymore; it was just a really weird place for guitar. Right when I started getting good was right when it was very uncool to be good at guitar.
And I know all guitarists kind of experienced that. So I went to music school and I learned a lot of stuff and I got a lot of cool songwriting chops and all that stuff. I really enjoyed it. From there, I didn't know what to do with my guitar anymore. In my last year of school, I started taking Writing For TV classes at Emerson which is a nearby school in Boston. And I did some acting and I did all kinds of different stuff because I really didn't know what to do. I kind of put my guitar in a case and said, I don't know what I'm gonna do with this. I practice all the time and I just don't know [what to do]. I didn't know what the ultimate thing would be.
Then I got very lucky; I started doing standup and got my own TV show called Home Movies that was on Adult Swim and UPN. I got to kind of start playing my guitar again and doing sloppy fun stuff. And during that time I was kind of realizing that metal was coming back with a vengeance. I was kind of reacquainting myself with what I had missed out on when I was at music school and just kind of what was happening in Scandinavia and even what was happening in the US with Cannibal Corpse and Slayer who was going strong and keeping at it and King Diamond and all these guys. And Yngwie still putting out albums every single year and all this stuff and I was like, Wow! People really do still care about guitar and I'm starting to care about it again, too.
It was super inspiring to go to all these super heavy black metal and death metal shows and to watch these guys really play their guitars articulately. And do some really kind of crazy difficult stuff like strange polyrhythms, odd times, just odd note groupings and weird scales and stuff. If you were a music nerd, you're like, Whoa, there's something pretty intellectual happening here! on top of it being totally frightening.
That made you really want to dig into the guitar again?
"Right when I started getting good was right when it was very uncool to be good at guitar."
That was just all inspiring for me and it's pretty much all I would talk about and that's all I would do is go and see these shows. And then the next thing I knew I was on the phone with the head of Adult Swim saying, I think I've got a show idea and it's about an extreme metal band and there's gonna be a lot of murder and a lot of blood, tits, and fiery guitar. All the things that make it cool and violent and that I would like when I was 15. I ultimately said, I'm not terribly interested in having anyone understand anything that anyone's saying on the show! And then they said, Well, let's start working on the show. And I said, That's great, thank you. And that's Adult Swim.
They definitely believed in it from day one which was really cool. And especially with a pitch that was as vague as that one.
How did the various characters in Dethklok get created?
I'll tell you what happened. It was me and Tommy Blacha who was a really funny guy who worked on Conan O'Brien and stuff. He developed the show with me and we developed it in a very short amount of time. After I talked to Adult Swim, they said, Write up a treatment, something on paper and I said, I don't want to put something on paper yet. I want to find out what this band sounds like. So I wrote the theme song that day and put in guitar harmonies and fast licks and all that stuff and just tried to help me understand how many bandmembers there would be.
It was like, OK, if I can harmonize guitars, that means there's two guitars, lead and rhythm but they can also harmonize. There's bass but it's kind of lost in the mix so that'll say a lot about who this bass player will end up being. Drums are fast and crazy but I thought he could sing these high harmonies like Roger Taylor from Queen. I don't know; all that stuff was starting to make sense.
What happened was, and I know he's not the fastest alive, but just for the joke we'll have the fastest guitarist alive and the second fastest in the band, too. So there's gonna be kind of a guitar war and I think the guitarists have an ego-driven relationship with each other definitely. Who's the best? Who's better than the other?
The bass player's whole m.o. is gonna be like, I'm not featured in this band; if I dropped out, I don't know that anyone would notice so I'm gonna do everything in my power to make it seem like I'm present with my personality and overshadow everybody by being such an obnoxious dildo. It's based on the idea of bass and metal.
In real life, I like playing bass and I like bass a lot. And if you drop out the bass frequency on any of our records, you'd definitely notice the difference. And it definitely holds it together. You just can't put your finger on exactly [how]; it's not a prominent instrument, you know?
And what about Nathan Explosion?
All of that stuff started to make its own sense and the lead singer we wanted him to be kind of a combination of this is the only one we actually based on somebody living just as far as what he looked like. We wanted to kind of base him on a combination of George Corpsegrinder' Fisher from Cannibal Corpse and Conan the Barbarian. Like a really cool, powerful, tough frontman. That's like big and kind of like a linebacker and he played football in high school and he was an all-American dude like from the Florida death metal scene.
And Pickles, we thought he had a band beforehand and we just wanted to squeeze in other elements of rock and metal. So we had him be in a band beforehand and kind of set that up in the first season and kind of gave him a lot of different kind of musicality.
It all just kinda started coming together. We named them in like 20 minutes and we were off to the races at that point and still going now. I think I'm in my fourth, almost fifth year since the conception of the show. It's been a while.
In creating the music for this fictitious Dethklok band, was there a fine line about what they could and could not play as cartoon characters versus how you would write for a band of real humans?
When I was submerging myself in metal, I was going, OK, in order to make this heavier and faster and sound more like metal, you've got to tune down your guitars; you've got to kind of do a guttural voice or a screaming kind of voice. When you tune down to C standard and you start chugging away on a low E, you can just feel it. And the double kicks with the blast beat or whatever? And it just happens instantly. So, it's just kind of tuning the instruments to what's popular in death metal and in extreme metal.
And I don't think it's too different from what a real band would do. I think writing-wise, chordally and harmonically, that's all kind of stuff I would write. I like energy-driven stuff; it's like high stakes/high drama kind of stuff. I love Queen and you can tell I'm ripping them off often and I don't care.
Have you found that in all the years of doing the television show that certain guitar tones and certain instruments translate better on TV? Gibsons were better than Fenders for instance?
"In real life, I like playing bass and I like bass a lot."
Yeah, basically, Fenders wouldn't have done the trick for me just because you have to have double coils; you have to have humbuckers playing. I was a Gibson fan anyway so when the show started I contacted em. But definitely when I first started messing around, it was any guitar with humbuckers or whatever. I had a Les Paul and an Ibanez Iceman at the time; a really cheap one like a $250 one. And a couple of other guitars sitting around. But the thing is to get any kind of a sound, the more I play and the longer I play guitar and I've been playing for 20 years at this point, the more simple your set up is you realize everything is in your fingers anyway. If you want to play Chicago blues, you can play it through a Marshall with a Les Paul if you want to; if you want to play death metal, you can play it through a Marshall and a Gibson; if you want to play whatever. It's not too difficult.
It's basically how you're attacking the string; it's pick attack and just feel half the time. For me what I was doing, the invention of the POD was everything to me because as a guy who lived in an apartment at the time, I couldn't turn up an amp, I couldn't do anything. So it definitely got me writing more music and it was easier writing with Pro Tools LE, a cheaper Pro Tools and definitely the POD and that's what I recorded almost everything with for the first two seasons. Nothing kind of too fancy. There's like a Metallica Master of Puppets pre-set and I would just maybe tweak the mids just a little bit but that's about it.
I pretty much ended up settling on the Explorer which was one of my favorite guitars just because of its balance and it just got a good overall tone that punches through nicely. But a Les Paul does too. But the Explorer was my favorite and I used the EMG-X's just for a little extra compression on the pickups and then pretty much you're off to the races. As I keep on playing guitar, I definitely notice that I like to hear the sound of the guitar come through even when you're playing with gallons of distortion. You want to hear the attack.
So I keep experimenting every single day and on this last record I definitely experimented a lot with different amps and sounds and guitars.
Describe some of the gear and effects you used on the Dethalbum II.
One of the things I did first was we recorded some super guitar heroes for this next season of Metalocalypse that's coming out: Steve Vai; Joe Satriani; Slash; Scott Ian; and we have some others coming up soon which is pretty cool. I was talking to Joe Satriani and he was saying, So how are you recording this next record? because I was in the middle of doing overdubs and stuff. And I said, I did all the rhythm guitars at this one studio where I did the drums and stuff. Which was this big cool place but very expensive and at some point I have to take them all home and finish them on my own time because I just can't afford a studio for that much. And I can do all that stuff from home and if I have a good guy mixing which I did who can make anything sound really great. As long as you play it right and it's worth listening to; if it's a cool passage or whatever. And he's like, Yeah, if you play cool music and you play it right then I'll mix it right and it'll sound good.
So Joe said, Hey, I know you're direct lining but I've got a direct line that's even cooler. And I said, Well, OK, what's that? Because I ended up blending a lot of the Line 6 stuff and it ended up sounding really cool. What he gave me was his Palmer cabinet simulator; this old one that looked years old but he said he used it a lot back in the old days. He got a new one and he gave me his old one because he wasn't using that one any more. And he gave me one of his Vox Satchurator pedals, his own signature distortion pedal, so this is how I recorded a lot of the leads. But I got a creamier kind of more responsive harmonic kind of sound. You go straight out of an amp into the Palmer and then that goes into the band. And Joe sat with me on the phone for a while and helped me toggle through pre-sets. Well, not pre-sets but he said, OK, go to a 50-watt amp, do you have a 50-watt amp? And I said, Yeah, I have this one. And he said, Perfect. Now go to the filter button, that's gonna be your best friend. So he was just kinda giving me tech support on how to get a good nice well-rounded sound within this whole thing.
So it was really cool to have that and I definitely think that paid off a lot. Joe has a very simple philosophy about amp and guitar stuff. Even though if you've seen him live, you know how great his tone is. It's always good on the records but live it's almost even bigger and a different experience. But he pretty much finds a good amp that has a solid, clean sound and puts a pedal in front of it. As long as the clean sound is nice and harmonic and has a chimey and good sound, you can just put a pedal in front of it and make it work.
You're playing guitar, bass, writing, singing, doing keyboards, and producing the Dethalbum II. Does it ever get a bit overwhelming?
The music is the one thing where I can go away by myself and do this and I don't need eyes on me or anything. Luckily I work with people where I hand them the record and that's the record. If I approve of it they go, Well, we listened to it and we like it too. They're not saying, Change this; re-write the lyrics so we could put it on the radio. It is what it is obviously. So they're very cool with that.
One would imagine that doing the TV show might present even more challenges than recording an album because the timeline is relentless.
The TV show is so much more difficult. Wrangling a TV show with just a skeleton crew and try to make it professional and good and not suck and not look like shit and all that stuff is much more of an uphill battle than music. Luckily I was at music school and it helped me put a name to the thing that I thought sounded cool and now I have a bag of tricks and I can write music very quickly and arrange it very quickly. My Pro Tools knowledge and even my guitar knowledge, all the physical knowledge of all these things is very limited, and I probably use 4 per cent of everything. Like I do my brain, you know. But because I have all these deadlines, I end up making it work.
Right now for example in the last three months, I had to complete a record; we have to do the animation for the tour; get enough episodes in the can so we can air them while we're touring and that's the part that is, Oh, my God, how are we gonna do this? But we will. So there's a lot of stuff going on at the same time; scoring episodes right now so when I get off of this phone call I go back upstairs to get some kind of a rough track so we can animate to it so I can finish the track later on and scream out some vocals. And I don't know what those are gonna be but I'll go figure them out somehow.
You mentioned the tour that you'll be co-headlining with Mastodon. That must be like life imitating art imitating life.
"I like energy-driven stuff; it's like high stakes/high drama kind of stuff."
Yeah, we did a tour last summer and it was really successful; it really worked out great and we sold out every single venue like minus on. It's a really fun show to come and see. Basically I'm playing with pretty outstanding musicians [including guitarist Mike Keneally] and we're not supposed to be Dethklok, we're supposed to sound like Dethklok. And there's a big animated screen above us, like movie theater size, and we play to picture. We play to a click track so every single thing is lining up, every down beat is coinciding with a cut so the synergy is pretty fun. It all makes sense to me.
I've had shows cancelled on me before so the whole idea was how do you live outside of the TV show. Because TV shows are really expensive to make and records aren't that expensive so tours can break even pretty easily.
Are people sometimes surprised that this character Brendon Small who is a master musician and a graduate from Berklee is the person responsible for creating this death metal music for a band called Dethklok?
I think when I talk to guys in the death metal scene they're all like-minded musically; they don't just listen to death metal. They're all a bunch of nerds; they like their Allan Holdsworths, they like all kinds of stuff. They're not just into one thing. The bass player from Cannibal Corpse is just so into odd, weird mathematical strange but cool melodic proggy fusiony kind of stuff. It's cool; it's very interesting.
And everybody I talk to that plays death metal, their influences are all over the place. And you get these drummers from Norway who are into [Dave] Weckl and stuff like that. I think everyone is kind of a music nerd if you start getting into it. You can't just play death metal overnight; you really have to practice. I remember Michael Amott from Arch Enemy and he listened to my guitar playing and he gave me a nice compliment but it was very matter of fact in the way that it made sense. He said, Hey, I listened to your guitar playing and it's pretty good stuff. It sound like you put the time in. And that's pretty much all it is; I put the time in; I practiced a lot; I did a lot of scales by myself in a room somewhere and that all collects at some point. And you try to get it back and keep your muscle memory and all that stuff but it's not that big of a deal.
I mean, if you start practicing you've just got to sit there with a metronome and just be bored and just try and concentrate and say, OK, there's a good reason why this isn't working; let me see if I can figure that out. This is a string skipping lick and I've been watching Paul Gilbert videos all day. But that is what I thought I was gonna do for a living was music when I was a teenager and through music school.
But I guess you're asking what is the music nerd from music school doing playing death metal?
I think, whatever, I don't think I have more knowledge than anybody else about music. I'm a terrible music reader; if you throw music in front of me, I'll throw it back at you. I'm terrible at reading. I can get through chord charts and all that stuff and all my modes; I know the stuff that guitarists are good at learning quickly. Modes, scales, the patterns, and things like that; I know my sub-dominants and all my jazz chords and tensions and all that stuff. But what I learned taking a bunch of composition classes was to hold onto the stuff that I like to hear. I like minor thirds and I like modulating on parallel minors and blah blah blah; I like doing all that stuff. Always being able to paint yourself out of a corner.
On the Dethalbum II, are you trying to push yourself as a guitarist and a composer? Maybe into areas and stuff that wasn't covered on the first album?
I don't know if it is; I'm just trying to not be bored. Honestly for me, to get the Dethalbum out the door, I have to like it. I don't know if the guitar playing is better or worse; I really don't honestly. I think the sounds on the record are better because I'm playing with what I think are better sounding amps and a cooler kind of way of getting lead sounds. And then it's just learning the process. The Dethalbum was pretty much my first album that I did with one guy. And this time, it was, OK, now that I know that and I know a little bit more about how to arrange a little bit better or to get better sounds, or whatever. But ultimately I don't know what I'm doing.
Interview by Steven Rosen