Every Sunday on the Cartoon Network, blood, guts, and metal mayhem reign. The channel's latest cult hit sets the stage for everything from insane guitar solos to deeply disturbing forms of capital punishment, all with a loveable and dimwitted quintet sharing the spotlight. The cartoon Metalocalypse
could easily be described as the metal lover's answer to quality cartoon viewing, but for creator and star Brendon Small
, it is the culmination of years of hard work in comedy, animation, and his first love, music.
Viewers may be familiar with Small's past voiceover work on shows like Home Movies
(which he also co-created) or The Venture Bros., but before it all he was a guitarist first and foremost. A graduate of the renowned Berklee College of Music, Small went through somewhat of a career crisis during the 1990s. As a fan of all things metal, Small
began to see his goal of becoming the next rock god dissolve with the arrival of grunge and the disappearing guitar solo.
He decided to launch a new career in comedy and animation for several years, and eventually found a new home at the Cartoon Network. It was then that Small had a revelation of sorts. He was noticing the guitar solo had returned to the music world and heavy metal was making a comeback. Small
, along with co-creator Tony Blacha
, began to lay the foundation of a show revolving around a fictional band called Dethklok, and the world of Metalocalypse was born.
And if the band had not officially been etched into the annals of pop culture history, it's now a done deal - Dethklok
just released its debut CD The Dethalbum this month. Small, who wrote and performed on all of the songs, told UG writer Amy Kelly
that he can now safely say that he has the coolest job in the world.
UG: You've been such a huge presence on Cartoon Network over the past few years. It was only until recently that I realized that you're an amazing guitarist on top of it all.
Yeah, I've been playing guitar since I was about 14. I started out with like Iron Man and then you graduate to a little Metallica. Then you learn a little bit of King Diamond stuff. I got into all of those super-duper shred guys. Satriani was eye-opening to me. Then I was kind of hooked on technical stuff, like Paul Gilbert and a bunch of those guys. I became one of those instructional video geeks, as far as learning to do technical things.
Once I started really getting that stuff out of my fingers, it became desperately uncool to play your guitar at all. It was the grunge era, so solos weren't happening. They were frowned upon. Everything was considered self-indulgent. I was like, Are you kidding me? After all, it's all about self-indulgence!
So while I was studying that, I was learning all of my theory. I got into the Berklee School of Music and just continued studying there. I didn't know what I was going to do.
I kept studying music, and there is so much to learn and so little time. I interned at this jingle house in New York for a summer. I was far back in post-production. I wanted to be the guy that's yelling at people to get stuff done, not getting yelled at.
Another thing was starting to drive me in a different direction at the same time, and I just really felt that I wanted to start doing stand-up and comedy. I started taking classes at Emerson College for writing for TV, writing for film, and stuff like that. That's where my path kind of drove me. There, I kind of put music on the backburner for a while and started doing comedy. I started doing stand-up in the Boston area, and one night I went in to talk with the producer who does Dr. Katz for Comedy Central. They were looking for talent for a new show that they were in the very early stages of developing. That ended up being the show that I co-created with the producer called Home Movies. I got to write all of the music for that, and that's how it kind of started.
After Home Movies got off the ground, did you have an idea in the back of your head to combine metal and animation?
Home Movies was happening, and metal guitar stuff was creeping its way into Home Movies. More and more shredding stuff started to creep in and more kind of like rock stuff kind of crept in. I wrote all of the music for that show. It was very garage rock kind of stuff. That made sense for the show, but it was nothing too terribly impressive.
At that time, metal was starting to get heavier and more powerful and strong. I was going to more and more metal shows with my buddy, Tommy Blacha, who is the co-creator of Metalocalypse. Home Movies was finished. We had done 4 seasons and I was kind of looking for the next project. I didn't know what it was going to be, and Adult Swim was very gracious. They were like, Yeah, if you've got an idea, we'll look over it.
One day it kind of hit me and Tommy. I was like, I can't believe it. This show that we want to do is right here. It's metal. It's this whole world of metal that we always talk about and all we care about. People were playing their instruments again and it had gotten heavier than it's ever been. It's scarier and so cool. Why can't we use this as a show?
So I called the head of the network and I said, Hey, I've got a show idea. It's about a metal band - death metal, black or thrash or whatever. It's about a metal band and there will be a lot of murder. I don't know much more than that.
Did you have a sense that it would be the cult hit that it is today?
|"I wanted to be the guy that's yelling at people to get stuff done, not getting yelled at."|
We take anything that's successful or even not successful with a grain of salt. I don't know. I hear that people like it, so I'm happy about that. TV is a big temp job. You're just thinking about the main project and making sure everything works. The fans are really getting it, and that's great. But we've got a job to do, so we can't think about that right now.
To top it off, you wrote a complete album to accompany the series. I've heard so many people say they love the songs as much as the show.
That's awesome. I'm always happy to hear that. That was the big challenge of Dethklok. Actually, it wasn't even a big challenge. That was the most fun challenge of Dethklok. Basically after I got off of the phone with the guy who greenlit our show, his parting words were, Okay. You have a show idea. Let's get to work on it and start writing it up.
I was like, I don't want to write this now.
So what I did was I wrote the theme song. I thought that was the more important thing to me, what the band sounded like. I wrote the theme song and I was like, Okay. This has these elements of Queen and a little bit of black metal with these crazy guitar riffs.
That was a bigger challenge, to find a grandiose, kind of epic, kind of silly song. To play the theme song, that's what the show is about. That's going to be a fun show to watch. So that's what I did.
I D-tuned my guitars and just made the demo. I brought Tommy over and we started to write the most ridiculous riffs we could think of, and we sent that in. He goes, Okay, that's good.
Then I spent another 3 or 4 months, just writing and writing music. I was going, Okay, how melodic should it be? How heavy should it be?
I've recorded some music that won't get out there because they ended up being too melodic. I just thought, How many opportunities am I going to write and produce an album, and play all of the instruments except for the drums? How many opportunities am I going to get to do that?
So I actually have a little bit of a budget and had a real producer and a really good engineer.
That's very cool that you posted a guitar lesson for the Dethklok theme song on the Metalocalypse website.
I'm like the worst teacher ever!
That same site also shows a behind-the-scenes video of you playing guitar in front of a bluescreen. Is every animated guitar solo seen on the show basically a recreation of your own playing?
Every time there is a song on the show, I basically have a production video and give the animators a guitar lesson. They don't play guitar or anything, but I actually have to kind of teach them in a way that I would a student who does play guitar and tell them what my fingers are doing when I move from here to here. I kind of play to the song live so they can see what's going on, and they match it up.
Sometimes it's pretty accurate. I was like, You know what? I didn't realize how much responsibility I've kind of given us. First of all, it was the responsibility to make it credible metal because in the metal world credibility is everything. Secondly, it's musically credible. So it was like, Why not have them play actual guitar models? Why don't we have them use actual real gear? That will make the world a little more realistic and make people kind of get it. Why not have them get a Gibson endorsement deal? So I have a Gibson endorsement deal, too, through this.
Then you have Line 6, Dunlop, all kinds of stuff like that. Krank amps and Murderface plays Eden bass amps. I think about myself when I was 14 or 15, just starting out and learning about everything that makes guitar cool. There's the gear, playing fast. For me, that's the stuff that I paid attention to.
Is it true that there is a custom Dethklok guitar currently in the works?
We're working on an Epiphone. It's going to be for public purchase. We're still working on some legal contract stuff, but we have a guitar design that's pretty fucking awesome actually. I won't say too much about it, but it's really cool. It's the kind of thing that sometimes movies or TV shows do, a custom guitar. It's like, Oh, that's of a cool collector's item.
But this is a guitar we want you to be able to play and be able to be affordable and be able to look really cool, not look too ostentatious or flamboyant. So we'll work on that and hopefully we'll have some news about that.
Is it possible that the guitar will be announced at the next NAMM convention?
I don't know. I would like to! We've got to start really getting that contract in place. Hopefully it will all happen after that. I think it's a really cool opportunity. My first guitar was an Epiphone, and then I was hooked on Gibsons. I played all kinds of guitars in between then, but I kept coming back to Gibson stuff. I just naturally really like the guitars as well, their whole product line. I think it's cool for kids to get a guitar that works that isn't cheaply made and that is affordable.
I'm sure there are quite a few fans of Metalocalypse who are just learning to play guitar, so an affordable Epiphone is perfect.
When I say that I think about myself when I was 14 or 15, I do that very often because that kid is very much alive inside of me. This show is for guitar geeks. It really is. A lot of kids play guitar out there, and I think they need their own show. So I think this is me trying to put that out there.
You've got some big names that pop up on the show from time to time. How did you get bands like Metallica, Arch Enemy, Cannibal Corpse, and King Diamond involved?
|"We take anything that's successful or even not successful with a grain of salt."|
Metallica were like the first people that we got in touch with. Other people at Adult Swim ended up talking with them about doing voiceovers before. I was like, Oh, wow! I would love to get in touch with them. Our goal is to like, Wouldn't it be cool to take people, our musical heroes, and put them on the show and just cast them as actors? To not cast them as themselves? We don't have to have celebrities be themselves. So Metallica was the first one that came on board. They were really helpful. They were really awesome and they did a great job. To me, I was incredibly excited to meet them.
Was it intimidating to work with Metallica?
Yes, it can be intimidating, but then you have to get over that in a second. You have to direct them and tell them exactly what you had in mind. Then they work towards that goal, getting the read right. That always happens. You go, All right, let's start here. Okay. Louder. Louder. Okay, do it even louder. Now do it louder than that. It ends up actually being a huge amount of fun. It's fun because everyone gets to blow off all this steam and make each other laugh and stuff. So it's really fun. I had to get over being intimidated immediately.
But I've gotten to meet a lot of my heroes throughout the show. Bands that I really, really admire and that I'm a huge fan of, like Arch Enemy, Cannibal Corpse. We got to bring in Marty Friedman from Megadeth. We got him to do the show for a short amount of time. He's one of my guitar heroes, too. But on top of that, we have people that are not musicians that are just heroes of mine that are on the show, too, including Mark Hamill.
Yeah, he's the very same one. He's in every single episode. He's one of the coolest guys out there. Incredibly nice, funny, self-deprecating. In the new season, we brought on Malcolm McDowell, another huge hero of mine. It's basically like a kid in a candy store! Metallica. Episodes with Mark Hamill. I think the cast alone is worth watching the show, regardless of what the show is about.
How hard is to come up with story ideas each week?
The good part of it, when we start getting everything working, is the laughter part. The part before that is usually, All right. How much work do we have? What do we have so far? I don't like that Neither do I. Let's throw that one away. Okay, what about this? Nah, I don't like that. Neither do I. Let's throw that one away. What about this? Nah, I don't like that.
The best thing about working on the show is working with this network, who leaves us alone. They get the show and they're very cool. They trust us. That's just something that never happens in TV, is that we get to kind of pilot the destiny of the show - be it good or bad. The decisions that we make will determine the fate of it. We could send it down a rocky path and kill the show in some way, or hopefully make it funny and keep it energetic. Keep it unique and thoughtful and keep it alive. The most fun is to be able to be creative. That's the name of the game here. I get to play guitar and I get to be creative. It's pretty hard to top this job!
If someone approached you to make an instructional guitar DVD series, would you be interested?
I would love to! I love guitar teaching. I love learning guitar. I've been a fan of all the guitar magazines and instructional videos and clinics and all that stuff. Whenever any of that stuff happens and I'm available to check it out, I always go. When I was in music school, I was giving guitar lessons the entire time for extra money, too. I love guitar teaching. I always thought that maybe I would just become a teacher one day. So I would love to help a kid get better at guitar.
I always itemize whenever I learn how to do something. I don't think anything comes naturally to me on guitar. I don't just pick it up and play. I have to really talk myself into what I'm doing properly and what I'm doing improperly. So I always itemize those things in the back of my head. Like, The reason I can do this now is because I figured out this thing right over here. I finally got over that.
But yeah, I would love to do something like that. That would be fun! That would probably be more of a reward to me. That would be more fun for me than anything.
That's refreshing to hear that you would teach if you could find extra time.
|"We have a guitar design that's pretty fucking awesome actually."|
I'm so swamped with time these days, but every once in a while I'll try to write a kid back that asks about gear or asks about how I did a thing. I wish I had more time to answer those kinds of things. Right now, that's more fun, just contributing any information. There is always someone who is in the dark about something that took you a while to figure out. And now that you have that information, you may be able to help other people become better guitar players.
Do you see Metalocalypse having several more seasons?
I don't know. Dethklok is just a really big undertaking, it turns out! The first season was a huge, huge amount of work in a short amount of time. Then the last day, we basically kind of checked the season finale out in the editing bay. It was like, Okay, the colors look good. Let's send it off. We're done, guys.
That day I had my guitar in my hand and I had to put the amp into a truck, and then go into the studio to start the record. So I didn't get any time off from then until now.
I finished the record. I started having to produce the DVD while I'm finishing the record, then start writing season 2. All of that stuff was happening. Now I'm still writing season 2, still editing season 2. The record is out, thank God. The DVD is out, thank God. But now we're going to do a tour that's going to be like The Gorillaz, with the animated characters. But oh, man. We need to take a week off! But I'm not.
So there's no break in the future for you?
I can kind of fake complain, but I can't really. I invented the coolest job that I think exists: cartoons, being funny, and I get to play music. I think it's a life goal. Having said that, I would like to get a week off!