Brendon Small is one hellacious guitar player. His playing on Dethklok: The Dethalbum and Dethalbum II is a mad parade of shredding, riffing and arpeggiating. Small, co-creator/writer/producer/actor of the Swim Channel's heavy metal animation series Metalocalypse has once again focused his estimable six-string expertise on the recording studio. Brendon Small's Galaktikon: A High Stakes Intergalactic Extreme Rock Album is the guitarist's melodic complement to the more brutal and dark strains of Dethklok. Drawing from an array of influences ranging from the Foo Fighters to Jesus Christ Superstar, the Berklee College of Music graduate has created a high-concept album about a superhero experiencing the all-too-withering human concept of divorce and jealousy. Brendon sings on all the tracks here and presents a far cleaner and melodically-driven voice than the brutal vocalist who appeared on the Dethklok records. It is an interstellar flight-of-fancy from the mind of a man who spends his days variously breathing life into Nathan Explosion, Facebones and Dick Magic Ears Knubbler, characters from Metalocalypse who are about to return in yet another season.
UG: You're working on the 4th season of Metalocalypse. How is that going?
Brendon Small: It hasn't premiered or anything but we've been in production for the last year. It's a daily grind and we have to see how all the episodes are doing and what stage they're at. All the writing has been done for about nine months or so. Right now what I'm doing for the episodes I'm directing is making sure all the animation is matching and trying to make sure each episode feels like its own thing and doesn't feel like a repeat of something else. I'm doing all the music for that stuff so I'm doing a lot of scoring too. So when I finish this phone call, I have to go back into my studio and write another song to get into the animator's hands. Even a very rough version with sloppy guitars and kind of not-finished drums and all that stuff.
Is that difficult separating out your musical ideas for Metalocalypse, Galaktikon and Dethklok?
You know I think the way I work is I'm lucky to be able to do comedy for half the day and then be able to do music the other half because they're kind of different parts of my brain. When you do one a long time you long for the other.
How did the Galaktikon project happen?
Doing the Galaktikon thing was something I was doing on my off time from Metalocalypse. The reason that project came together was because it take so long to get all the legal stuff together for the Dethklok records because I'm not just working with a label, I'm working with a network and a label. It's been a while since the second record and the third record.
Why wasn't there a third Dethklok album?
What happened was we weren't sure if the second record was gonna happen. Well actually we all thought it was going to happen and I booked some studio time and hired Gene Hoglan and Ulrich Wild who did engineering and co-producing on the first two Deth album. I thought I was going to go in and start doing the second Deth album and it turns out the contracts hadn't finished and no money was released and everything.
That must have been discouraging.
I said, You know what? I've got all these guys here and I told em I was gonna give em a job. They're expecting money and they've put all this time aside so I'm gonna put them to work on something. And that ended up being Galaktikon. So I grabbed all these songs I had written for when I was developing what Dethklok was gonna sound like. But they all ended up being too melodic and not heavy enough. I really liked them and stuff but they didn't fit into the Dethklok world so I held onto em.
So you do think differently when you're working on a Galaktikon record versus a Dethklok record?
Yeah and I said, I'm gonna grab all these songs and get Gene to record drums and put em in a hard drive and when the time comes I'll finish it. What happened was I got all Gene's drums finished and then we finished the deal for the record and started doing the second Dethklok record. So they sat in a hard drive for a while and then in-between seasons I said, You know what? I've got these drums here; I paid for em and I'm gonna finish it. Then I said, I'm gonna find out what this project is and I'm gonna kinda do something I've always wanted to do, which is this Flash Gordon kind of style. Kind of weird like how ELO had concept albums and all this stuff from the 70s and I want it to feel like that but a little bit more modern. I just started going with this whole idea.
From the start Galaktikon was meant to be a high concept project? You even described it as an audio comic book.
It is a concept album and there is a story. I kept it pretty vague but I have a whole story that's tracking through that whole thing that I really like. It's a pretty funny story and though the record takes itself pretty seriously, the story is pretty ridiculous.
Can you give us a three-minute synopsis?
Sure yeah. What happened was I had all the guitar riffs finished and I had the energy of the whole record kind of put together and I started improvising lyrics on the very last song. And it sounded like it was kind of a chase sequencelike a superhero going to save the girl. The lyrics I was improvising was a superhero going to save the girl but complaining the entire way and I thought, OK, I think I know what this story is. The story's about what if Superman and Lois Lane had this very messy public divorce and she still kinda kept on getting in trouble and he still had to rescue her all the time? Even worse what if they have a humiliating public messy divorce and what if she starts dating Lex Luthor?
Superheroes with human character flaws.
That's kinda what this is and it's about moving on from that relationship. Superman is like this egomaniac moving on from this bad relationship and still being reminded of it constantly until he does something about it at the end. That's kinda pretty much what this story isit's an intergalactic divorce story. The whole thing opens up [Triton] with a guy having an angry drive through outer space after getting his walking papers from his wife. Then the second song [Prophecy of the Lazer Witch] is basically he goes to his therapist and the third song [Deathwaltz] is the bad guy comes. The fourth song [Beastblade] is the bad guy seduces the girl and the fifth song [Truth Orb and the Kill Pool] is the good guy has to decide if he's gonna intervene because she's trapped and she's gonna get killed. So it goes on from that point and the eighth song is the chase sequence getting there with the instrumental [Dangertits.] And there's the ride through space and the ninth song [On My Way] is the final confrontation. It actually does track and it is a story in all those ways but it is a comical take on that.
Did you have this superhero idea in mind when you were writing the music?
No, I had the music first actually and this is something even as a TV writer that had limitations. So I said, Here are the tones of the songs: This first song this is energy, which is anger. The second song is like this kind of mystical epic outer space thing.' Basically I said, If it is this guy going to a therapist in outer space it wouldn't be a therapist but it would be a prophet. The song is called Prophecy of the Lazer Witch and basically the prophet is saying, Hey, you gotta move on from this relationship cause she's gonna fuckin' do stupid shit and it's outta your control. She's gonna probably go date some assholes. But it's very epic and big and grandiose and all that stuff. But no, I wrote the music first and then designed the concept around the energy of the whole piece and it all started making sense to me.
So you molded the lyrics to fit into this concept of a dysfunctional relationship?
Exactly and that's kinda what I do with Dethklok too. It's always the sound of the song first and then what I do is I do this kind of thing and I realized later on I'm not the only one that did is. But I figured out the technique, which is basically I would improvise lyrics until certain things started making some kind of sense. Then even percussion and sounds and weird things, I'd start improvising these weird sounds and stuff and finding words that would fit them.
Kind of like Paul McCartney singing scrambled eggs when he was searching for the title of Yesterday.
I just wrote a song for the 4th season that I really got excited about because I thought, Oh, this is really interesting. This whole song is about women. But the singer takes the voice of the woman and is gonna punish people in this really interesting way. So Nathan Explosion in this case is singing from a woman's point of view as a woman character throughout the whole thing. And it was pretty fun just to kind of do stuff like that. And I do that throughout this record too where I'm in one way or the otherI may not change my voice in this particular casedoing a dialog between two people.
Prophecy of the Lazer Witch has a lot of cool guitar sounds. Are you a mad scientist type in the studio looking for the next great guitar tone?
Oh absolutely, yeah. What I did was I wanted a couple things to happen on this record. I wanted the drums to feel a little bit more raw and a little less produced and I wanted em to sound a little bit roomier. Because the songs are a bit slower that was something else I was longing for that Dethklok didn't really give me because Dethklok has pretty much got to be an uptempo thing and there's no melody in the vocals in Dethklok. What I did was I experimented with a lot of different kind of pedals.
What amps were you running?
I kept my main rhythm guitar between two amps. My Dethklok guitar tech, Johnny Myer, modded a 1987XL 50-watt head. I always try to find as many 50-watt heads as I could; I think they just sound warmer as far as Marshalls go. Or in any amp I just like lower wattage amps because I'm recording in my own studio. I can turn it up to seven or eight if I want to but if I don't need to I won't. There's just something that happens with a 50-watt and it breaks a little earlier and it gets a little bit warmer and I usually try to go for warmer.
You're a Marshall guy?
I used a modded 1987XL with an added gain stage. Johnny made this thing and it sounds sparkly and it had the nice harmonic richness to it. It didn't have the tightest bottom end but I kind of started liking that woohier bottom end sound and you can hear that on the record. Then I used a Kerry King Marshall. It's cool to see what Marshall is doing now with modded JCM800s cause they have the Slash and the Yngwie and now they're gonna put out that Satriani one, which I can't wait for. Because that that seems like it's the ultimate amp. The Kerry King amp has an added gain stage but it doesn't have an effects loop or anything. But the Satriani amp seems like it's gonna solve all that stuff and also have his great EQ curves and a noise gate. It's gonna be a great live amp.
Were there some main guitars that you used on Galaktikon?
This is the album that I really got to see what the Thunderhorse could do. The Dethklok guitar that we put out on the market a year ago and I guess we're pretty much out of it at this point.
I know. But you hear on the song Dangertits, the instrumental that has the Thunderhorse on it. What you hear there is it's tuned down to C but I think the cool thing about that guitar and it's the gauge of the strings I'm using and the amp I'm playing through, it really has a lot of life to it. Because when you tune down if you're not careful it can get pretty dark and dead. So I had to make sure the core of my string was very strong so when I tune it down it maintains its tuning, its life and its resonance and all its harmonic content and all that stuff. So in Dangertits I feel like I got a lot of that in there.
What amp did you use on Dangertits?
I played through a JCM800 50-watt, a 2204. And I used that Peavey preamp, that orange pedal that I guess I learned about because Andy Timmons played it. I put that in front for a little bit of extra gain on top of it just a slight, slight touch. But that pedal's great because it retains the personality of your amp and doesn't start coloring it too much.
Did you pull out any other gear?
Oh, I used the Carvin Legacy 3. Vai hooked me up with the Carvin folks and they gave me the tweed amp. I used that on Truth Orb and the Kill Pool where I use a completely different sound. There's a solo there where I use the Jeff Beck Strat and their tweed amp, which I just gained up like crazy and it had a really cool, nice, warm sound and it doesn't sound like any other guitar on the record. I kind of wanted that sound. On the last song on the superfast solo on the end of On My Way, I used the super dry as a bone Carvin for that solo. It's a really playable lead amp
Your playing on Dangertits was insane. What does it take for you to ready yourself for a crazy guitar track like that?
You know what? Usually what happens is I write the song very quickly and learn how to have to play it very quickly. If a song is gonna be interesting for me at all, it's gonna be something that I can't play already. And that song is one of those songs. It's tricky; there are a couple tricky parts for me that I had to really work on cause I kind of record and that's also the rehearsal. I just erase everything.
So you practice on tape?
It's just lockin' in with the click track ultimately or lockin' in with the drums. Yeah, that's the thing that starts making your playing sound cleaner and faster is just making sure your time is OK. Because I record stuff often and I'll get stuff really clean and even rhythm guitars that I'm trying to double and I'll listen to them and go, Oh, my god. I just spent four hours rushing. It happens to the best of us.
Doing the Dethklok and Galaktikon projects must have raised your game.
I gotta say I was just a regular kind of dude who just liked guitar and really played a lot for my own personal pleasure before Dethklok happened. I didn't have any gigs in mind and I just really liked playing guitar. But when I really started recording myself all the time, I noticed drastic improvements in my playing. And usually it's that one weird place you have to talk yourself into. That Zen place where you have to go, OK, this hand wants to go faster. It just does. You just want to anticipate rhythm. Don't do that. Just relax. You're white knuckling the pick. Don't do that. You're white knuckling the fretboard and you don't have to press that hard.
Hearing yourself on tape obviously makes you so much more aware of what you're doing.
When I'm playing my best and even when I'm playing live and I'm knee-deep in a tour and my hands are in really good shape, I realize it's the kind of playing that somebody could walk up and just gently take the pick out of my hand. So it's that kind of stuff and whenever I play hard I suck. It's like with acting and exercising and everything else. The more you just kind of get your technique relaxed the better off you'll be.
If we dissected Dangertits in terms of styles and influences, who would we hear?
I think every section in that song has an influence. I there's Satriani in like the main melody. There's a solo I take over major7th chords where it goes from a minor to a major and in my mind it's Steve Morse. It's something that he does. I'm doing sextuplets but they're 1/16th notes and they're not sextuplets but the scale continues in sextuplets. It's a strange thing but it's what he would do to get sextupletsinstead of playing sextuplets like diddly diddly diddly diddly diddly, he'd turn those into duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh, which is two groups of four. Anyway I don't know if I can explain that right. I'm just like playing three notes per string and if you're not trying to play like a triplet, it starts getting this really cool thing and it sounds like an incredibly fast lick but it's really one of the more simple things I can do.
"Doing the Galaktikon thing was something I was doing on my off time from Metalocalypse."
Who else is in there?
There's a moment where I come back from this big, crazy Yngwie-style like break when we get back into the main melody that's all Steve Vai. But even Satriani taking breaks with the melody and kinda laying behind the rhythm a little bit, that's happening a little bit there. In my mind, I'm trying to do Jeff Beck at one point in the very slow section in the middle when I'm hitting the high stuff. But I don't think anyone else would ever get that. I don't think I played with a pick at the very top; I think I just used my fingers. So just like hitting one note on the E string and plucking on it a little bit more with my fingers.
You can certainly hear the Brian May elements on Galaktikon.
There's that and there's Brian May throughout the whole thing; the whole record just reeks of Brian May. But I think there's definitely Yngwie and Vai and I don't know who else. If you were to name anybody I'm sure you could track it back because I listen to every guitarist and it's not like there's a guitarist I don't listen to. As a guitar fan you buy all those records anyway right? I know some people that are like, I don't listen to Eric Johnson. I'm like, Eric Johnson fuckin' rules. Even his last record I think is amazing; his tones and all this great stuff. Yeah, he's great. I listen to everybody. There are moments in the top of the record where I think I'm doing Ritchie Blackmore.
What did you dig about Brian May's sense of guitar orchestration?
He voice leads. I remember learning that in music school and what voice leading really meant. It's basically moving as few notes as possible to make something really sound big. So a lot of people will go up the scale in 3rd and 6ths and sometimes that harmony doesn't agree with what you have underneath it. Like either the chords that are playing underneath it or the bass with the root motion. But it's a very simple thing now when I look at a fretboard and voice lead something. I love keeping one guitar on the 5th because that sounds so much cooler. That's the thing that actually locks it into place and that's the thing that starts making everything sound epic is that one of those guitars is maintaining one note. You could chart it out and see it that the notes that stay the same are the ones that are very cool and the ones that move around a little bit they give it all this extra life.
Arena War Of the Immortal Masters has a pretty recognizable Queen thing going on.
Yeah absolutely; it's as epic as it can be. In my mind I'm trying for a vibe like an intergalactic We Will Rock You-ish kind of thing. Then in my mind I'm going into this whole Abacab Genesis thing there towards the end right before the guitar solo where you start hearing guitar harmonies fade in. To me it sounds like Turn It On Again or something like that and to me is like early 80s Genesis.
Have you ever had a chance to sit and talk with Brian May?
No, I haven't. That's the one guy I haven't gotten to meet just yet but I feel like I owe him some money from residuals from using his harmonies I think.
Queen were looking for a new singer.
Yeah, that would be a very funny YouTube videome trying out for Queen. My head would explode.
You were trying to expand on the palette of voices you used on Galaktikon?
Yeah, I just thought there's probably a different sound for each song and I don't need to sound a certain way each time. And when I'm singing on that song Deathwaltz, I'm singing from the point of view of the bad guy who's really excited. In my mind he's trying to talk this girl into going home with him. He's kinda leaving the door wide open and letting her make a huge mistake cause ultimately he's gonna try to kill her. So that's where that voice is coming from. It's a really excited fuckin' bad guy and I thought that would be an interesting thing to push my voice as hard as I can and see what it could do. I didn't know my voice sounded like that and so I surprised myself and hurting my voice at the same time.
You didn't want to sound like the same singer on each song.
I didn't want to do what I do in Dethklok because I've got Dethklok for all of that stuff. On my next Dethklok record, I'd really like to see how dark I can get. That can be fun sometimes to get as serious and dark as possible. Where some of this stuff ends up being a little bit fun but still the drama is there. Like I said no influence was unwelcome. I pulled way back to like Jesus Christ Superstar-styled stuff and Andrew Lloyd Webber kind of shit that I grew up on and I really liked. And seeing what my voice could do for better or for worse.
Your voice sounds amazing on the album. Have you always been a singer?
Oh, that's very nice of you to say because I'm not fond of the sound of my own voice. I just thought I'm the only person that's gonna get this job done. And you know what? I like to sing but I don't really sing publicly and there's a big difference from doing Dethklok vocals to actually having to hit pitch. You know what I mean? Pretty much I produce all the vocals myself and I'd sit there and think I'd have it in the booth and then some kind of weird psycho-acoustic bullshit sets up in the room and then I go out and listen, Whoa, I don't know what I was thinking in there. This sounds fucking awful. It didn't happen all the time; it happened on some songs. A lot of it was my headphone mix setup and weird shit and that was something that was pretty maddening was doing vocals on my own.
You trot out your acoustic influences on You Can't Run Away.
Yeah, I have a Gibson J-45 that I really like. I said this in the press release but I really meant it was no influence was unwelcome on this record. Because there's a lot of stuff I kind of have to not do. I'll try to push the envelope on Dethklok to try to make it more melodic. And then it starts kinda getting into a place where I'm like, OK, now it's starting to sound like something else. It doesn't sound as tough as it was. And that's really important to keep that with Dethklok and I'll push it a little bit but I can't go as far as I went on this record. On a song like You Can't Run Away I'm thinking about Weezer and Smashing Pumpkins and Elliot Smith. On the breakdown section of that I use my J-45 and a heavy pick because I didn't want to lighten it up or make it too pretty.
You're into more modern rock?
Yeah, there's a lot of Foo Fighters stuff. I've always liked it long before Dethklok and I like it unabashedly still. I love the new Foo Fighters stuff and I love Soundgarden. Those bands really influenced me and I know I'm not alone cause I have friends in Mastodon who love Weezer and the Foo Fighters. A lot of metal people do love melody but there hasn't been a lot of melody in metal especially over the past decade. Only a few bands are getting away with it.
Mastodon's new album, The Hunter, was amazing.
I was really excited. First of all that's a great record and I love the production on it and it shows that they've got really good ears in addition to being tough and all that stuff. They've got a really good sense of melody and they're exercising all that stuff and it makes their band more rich and interesting. And they're still Mastodon at the same time, which is what's coolyou can turn to the right or the left but if you dial it to the dark place or dial it to the bright place, it's still Mastodon and they still have that sound.
"The story's about what if Superman and Lois Lane had this very messy public divorce and she still kinda kept on getting in trouble and he still had to rescue her all the time?"
Have you heard the new Van Halen album A Different Kind of Truth?
I have and I was very, very happy to hear it. I gotta say I'm a lover of Van Halen and I love Van Halen. I started getting into what Van Halen was when OU812 and 5150 were out. I went, I'm going with this guitar player and these are real songs and then I really got to figure out what old Van Halen was and I go, Oh wow, this is a completely different beast. It's cool and dark.
What did you think of Tattoo?
The single they put out Tattoo was one of the top five worst songs I've ever heard in my life. It's one of the first things I've ever heard. I was so confused; I really want to know what the decision was to put that out and I just think it's probably people that were too close to the thing. Hey we've got that extra song. What are we gonna do with it? Let's make that the single. I'm sure some people were like, Guys, guys, guys. It's a terrible song and I would walk up to Eddie Van Halen and say that. But the record is cool and dark. I really dug it and I still am digging it and I'm really excited.
Who would have thought Van Halen would be touring again with David Lee Roth?
I saw Ed play at a live rehearsal at the Forum. It was like a shorter set and everything and there were only like 300 people there or something. So I got to watch him play and his playing was in such great shape. I'm just happy to see they're making cool music. It's funny because I don't think this record woulda come out if Wolfgang hadn't been part of it. He has a strong understanding of what Van Halen was and what Van Halen is and Eddie Van Halen may not have that same understanding. You know what I mean? Maybe I'm wrong but I heard they were going into their old demos and kind of revisiting them for this record was his idea. So maybe I'm wrong.
You probably heard about Ronnie Montrose passing.
I did and that sucks. Poor guy. Great guitar player.
Because you tend to approach Dethklok and Galaktikon with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek attitude, do you ever miss being seen as one of the metal guitar gods?
You know what? That stuff doesn't really concern me. I've been lucky enough to befriend some of my guitar heroes like Satriani and Vai. Both have been a really big part of my life over the Dethklok years and they've been very helpful. It's really nice to be able to call either one of those guys and go, Listen, I'm having a fuckin' microphone breakdown. Help me figure out the best signal path. I went to Vai's house and I got to take pictures of his mic angles on his amps. I go, What are you using? Where is that going? Work with me for one second and let me follow this signal path of this thing. He'd tell me all that stuff and he was great.
So what you're saying is you have the respect of your heroes.
You know what? They have said really nice things to me about guitar playing. At some point you sit there and here's the ultimate thing I think with any kind of art that you do: If you're an actor, writer, TV guy or musician, at some point you've got to be OK with yourself before it even hits the audience's hands. Long before this record was gonna come out cause it's been sitting on a hard drive for a long time finished, you have to belabor and kind of get sick of it and sit there and mix it. And if you're producing it yourself and financing everything yourself, it's just in your face forever. You have to kind of make peace with it for better or for worse.
Every artist is probably a bit reluctant to let their creation go out into the world.
There are some things where you go, You know what? I'd like to redo that thing or That song makes musical sense but I wish I could have written something else. But at some point you have to go, This is what I think of the record. I think it's good and I also think it's bad. I just have a full understanding of what I think it is and I wouldn't put it out unless I thought it was something that was worth listening to. But I've got my mind made up about it and I got my mind made up about my guitar parts. I know a guitar part comes on and I'll go, Ooh, coulda done that better. And the same thing with the TV showwhen it airs I don't like to watch it again. You know? I'm not interested and I already know and I've made peace with it and I know what I did well and what I didn't do well. I hope to have a pretty good understanding of why those things happen. You can only do your best with the amount of time you have; your ability at the time; and whatever your finances are because everything costs money.
You obviously just love the pursuit of playing guitar.
People that spent time on guitar and made records, the chances are pretty good that I've heard you and chances are pretty good it all snuck in and influenced everybody at some point. And that's how I feel about guitar players. Whether or not I want to there are moments when I'm trying to do Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan licks. Or Stevie Ray Vaughan ripping off Albert King. I'm a big fan of guitar.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"I gotta say I was just a regular kind of dude who just liked guitar and really played a lot for my own personal pleasure before Dethklok happened."