Brendon Small is the living the ultimate dream of a heavy metal fan and a comedy nerd. He is a creator, an executive producer, a writer, an everything-er of Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse and the vocalist/lead guitarist of the show’s real life live entity Dethklok. His show features legends from music, comedy, and film like Ace Frehley, Marc Maron, and Werner Herzog to name a few, and Small in his artistic mission. The band is currently on tour with Machine Head, All That Remains, and The Black Dahlia Murder and stopped to chat with me at the tour’s Oakland date at the Fox Theater. When Metal Insider last caught up with him earlier this year, we spoke about the impending release of his first solo album, Galaktikon. Now that he’s on tour with his main band, we spoke with him about advice that he’d give himself, the epic story that Metalocalypse is about to go on, comedy, metal, and much more
First of all do you feel there is an added pressure on tonight’s show knowing that Yo Gabba Gabba tore this house down last night?
I do know that happened, I’m sure that was huge. I would like to have seen that show. I will accept that. I will accept the challenge that Yo Gabba Gabba has lain before us. I know that they are just monstrously huge; I think that every musician in the world would wish to be that big as Yo Gabba Gabba will be, and has been. So, yes I do know that that happened. It’s still on the marquee. We drove past here last night, it should say, “Spinal Tap THEN Puppet Show.”
I was here about a week and a half ago and it said, “Neurosis, M.s Lauryn Hill, Yo Gabba Gabba” and I thought that was just the most fucked up combination of shows.
It’s really cool to walk into the venue and see what kind of different artists it houses. We were in Kansas City and that was one of the coolest ones because they had more comedy people there. They had like, Louis CK posters backstage, Seinfeld posters backstage, Black Crowes, and then cartoon death metal.
Speaking of which, do you find it baffling that you have the highest selling death metal album of all time, or like the highest charting?
I don’t know. I think the reason we have that is because, if you subsect genres, we will be the best – we’re the best cartoon death metal band of all time, I can say that. I don’t know about any of the other stuff, but if you keep putting yourself in a smaller and smaller pocket, then it’s easier to say it’s the highest thing of a thing. So, I think it looks good on a press release, but I don’t know what it really means to anyone. I think it makes things seem like they’re doing well.
It’s something I noticed on the Wikipedia page for one of these. I followed it, and it wound up being legit.
I think it is true that we have charted higher than any other bands that are “death” metal. I think this music is “extreme” metal. I pull from a lot of different places, not all the songs are death in nature, nor is the riffing style. I think people will call it [a] “Death Metal” band sometimes, and that I will agree with, because sometimes the subject is death and the tone is more melodic. I try to cram as much melody as I can into this stuff.
When you were first starting, what was your first band called and what did it sound like?
Here’s the weird part, Dethklok is my first band.
A pretty good way to start.
It’s not bad, but it kind of is true. I’d put projects together and it would be like, “The Brendon Small Band” and I would do that at music school, put like a project together. It would be, grab a really good drummer and a really good bass player and go and do an evening of some stuff, and write some original stuff and try to put that in there too. And that’s what I would do, but it was always a project thing. This has become more of a band. It started out as a project thing. I think the influence of the other guys have kinda like, knowing what they can do, helps me compose. Knowing what Gene (Hoglan’s) fortes are helps me compose stuff.
Should Adult Swim or Cartoon Network pull the show for any reason, do you see the live entity of Metalocalypse or Dethklok continuing? Or can you even do that legally?
I think that was the whole Idea, because I did a show called Home Movies a long time ago. The idea was that, it costs a lot of money to make a TV show; even if you’re going to make a TV show and make it for just fans. Like, just make it, and let them download. Whatever few thousand people download the episodes; it still costs a lot of money. But for music it doesn’t cost as much. My favorite part of Home Movies was a process that the audience never got to be a part of was just listening to the long form audio before we would have to edit it down to 22 minutes, and I thought even a 28 minute radio play, which is what they’re called, or half-hour radio play was sometimes it’s best form. One you whittle down jokes and stories it lost a little bit of that magic, but it’s still there, still intact. The visuals I thought were more exciting in my mind then they would ever be on that particular show, because we had a limited visual style, where Metalocalypse was able to do a lot of cool visual things. But I thought wouldn’t it be cool if I could just put out just the audio? Do people really need all this stuff? I mean, in the world of podcasting, it’s cool to see that people are just listening all the time. I thought when putting together Dethklok, how could this just exist? Or before I was thinking, ‘how can my next show only exist in audio format?’ I thought, ‘Well, if I do this music thing that I want to do, then I can just put out records forever if I want to. I don’t have to worry about artwork or anything, or paying a team hundreds of thousands of dollars to make a visual thing.’ So… there’s a long way of saying. ‘Yes.’
Has there been anyone who has come through as a guest on the show that you have kind of been intimidated by or clammed up at all?
I get intimidated by… I think at some point they’re looking to you to give them directions, so you have to start saying things, and you have to prepare, like have all your character stuff worked out. Werner Herzog is in this season of Metalocalypse, and I’m a big fan of his work. I think he’s just a really intelligent and interesting person. I had to tell him, like, I had to direct him because he was asking me, “Who’s this character? How do you see this happening? What happened before?” He asked all the right questions that an actor would ask, because he just understands that whole world. I knew he was going to ask all that stuff and I wanted to make sure that I’d have a very solid direction for him without manhandling him, and badly directing a director. It just seems like the biggest nightmare in the world. It was a scary thing, but I think it was really fun and I think my direction for him was pretty ok. I got what I wanted out of him.
I thought it was funny timing to hear him on the show, because I had just watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams and then turn on Metalocalypse and there he is again. How did that come about?
At some point I knew that there was this character that I wanted to start putting on the show and have these, kind of, biblical readings at the top of each episode to slowly kind of, foreshadow who this guy is and reveal him at the end of the season as being this guy who is the High Holy Priest of the Church of the Black Klok, this underground sect of people who have been worshiping knowing that these guys were going to come at some point. I always thought, ‘hey wouldn’t that be cool if that was Herzog’s voice?’ I just started bothering people like, ‘who knows Werner Herzog?’ I had a friend of mine who acted in one of his movies and was like, ‘can you contact him?’ He’s like, “I contacted him. Nothing.” You just start asking people and I think somebody when I first asked casting they said, “Oh, we know someone who can do an impression or Herzog.” And I was, ‘I don’t want an impression, I can do an impression. I wanted the actual GUY to show up, because that means everything.’ We sent him a bunch of scripts, and took a lot of time and care wording the things using words that I think would sound cool coming out of his mouth, and he said yes. You just have to ask, I guess. People will usually do it. Also, animation and voice over is kind of fun and it’s easy. You can knock out a lot of stuff and get paid an ok amount in one sitting. So I think, ultimately I’ve lured all my heroes in with some kind of paycheck. Which, is cheating, but what are you gonna do?
There is a Lost level of depth to this show now, did you see that much depth when you first started it, or what is really going on at this point?
Well, there’s a reason for all the stuff. I’ll tell you this right now; it’s not a dream. The show isn’t going to end that way.
This isn’t purgatory?
It isn’t purgatory, it’s a very simple story that I had an idea of at the very top, and I’m following it. It’ll change, if the characters surprise us with something, but the same path is the same path, and I’ve known that path for a while. I knew from the very top, how this has got to go down in some way, but there are a lot of different ways to skin that cat, and as you get through it. You have to come at each season having an idea of what to do, I think, and last season was when I thought I really have to start telling this bigger story, and it’s kind of the point of no return now where I have to continue. I can’t go back to just silly stories. I have to kind of continue that. I can add comedy to it where it’s appropriate but I’ve got this bigger darker story that I have to tell.
What are some of your failures that you’ve had on this road here? Like, various pilots or…
That’s a good question. I think the more TV you do you learn to become a better show-runner, and I think if I were to give advice to myself when I was starting Metalocalypse I’d say, ‘Make sure the people that you work with, because there are two types of people. Those who work that [are] getting their shit done and those that aren’t. And just make sure you check references on who’s who, because sometimes those people who don’t do their shit are going to burn you really hard and make your job a lot harder.’ And you don’t know that all the time. That just takes learning and doing all this stuff, but surround yourself with people who really give a shit. That’s a big thing. And let them be creative also. Don’t take that away from them. Allow them to be creative. Put out an idea and invite them to beat that idea, and I don’t think I had that knocked into place at the top of Metalocalypse. It was kind of crazy place to be. The first two seasons were really tricky, because the team hadn’t really gelled just yet, so I found myself going, ‘What would happen if you do everything?’ Which is a tricky place to be. So, I’d say, ‘next project I do, I’d iron that out, hopefully sooner.’
I read an interview that said Mark Hamill said that season five is in the works already?
He did say that. I don’t think there’s any– We didn’t give him anything to go on, I think he may have made that up.
Was Mike (Keneally, live second guitar player) into metal prior to joining the live band?
I think he respected it from afar, but I think he’s learned a lot about metal. That’s the way Mike is. What I think he was really excited about was challenging himself to get that right hand shit going on, because he can do anything on guitar, he just didn’t do that super condensed amount of stuff. Like, metal is like playing lead guitar on the first five frets of the low E-string constantly. It’s just syncopated, crazy lines, and stuff and having him do stuff he wasn’t used to. It’s fun to watch him get a new blister somewhere, because he’s the guitar wizard. He can do anything, but I’m always excited to see him find a new challenge with this stuff, because he’ll just nail it. He just doesn’t make mistakes. I’d like to see him take some of those things and put it into his music, and to add a couple weird double kicks and syncopated things into his shit. I think he kind of started doing it and I think he checks out some stuff that is really heavy and he just gets all that stuff. You know, a lot of those super heavy places that more modern metal bands come from, I think there’s an identifiable Zappa absurdity to that. Like even Meshuggah or even like weird crazy bands with poly rhythmic things. You can hear that all the way back to Zappa, and since Mike was in that world he just gets all that that stuff. He started at the top of understanding music and all the other stuff, kind of seems more simple to him in some way.
How much metal do you listen to these days now that it’s your life?
Not as much, because it’s in my life all the time. I like really good stuff that comes out. Like, there were a few records this year that I got really excited about. I like the bands that I’ve always liked out of metal. Every once in a while someone new comes up that’s really cool to experience that. I also like songs that are really well written. I like ELO and I like Queen. I like a lot of classic rock. I like Zeppelin, and stuff like that. I think most of my time is spent with my iPod on shuffle, so you’ll get a whole bunch of different stuff.
I heard a lot of those influences on your recent solo album. Are you going to be taking that on the road?
You know, I’d like to do a one-off show and see how that goes, because we actually were warming up with some of that stuff a couple days ago, and it sounded really- it was like… Keneally had the day off, it was myself, Gene, and Bryan Beller and we just snapped into it and started playing it. And I was like, “Oh wow!” and it sounded good as a trio and it was really fun. And Mike would probably come in and play the other guitar parts, the ones that I can’t sing and play. It was like, “This is playable and it sounds really good in this area.” It would be fun to play that. It’s tricky stuff, because there’s melody in the vocal. There’s a lot of singing going on, on that record.
I’ve enjoyed the recent inclusion of comedians in the seasons of the past few years. Are any of them so unaware of what the show is when you ask them to do it? Is Marc Maron, in his Marc Maron way just kinda like, “What the fuck is going on here?”
I think he follows, I think most of them are aware of it and they like it and I know that Janeane Garofalo knew it really well, she was a fan of it. I knew that Patton Oswalt really liked it a lot.
It seems right up Patton’s alley, him and (Brian) Posehn.
I think Maron knew about what it was, because I went and did his show. I was like one of the first fifty podcasts.
I remember that one, yeah.
But he knew about the guitar side of stuff. The music side is what he was excited about. I think the show is something he kind of knew about. I think his ex-wife liked it a lot. So I think he probably stayed away from it a little bit. It’s funny, I was listening to his podcast so often, and there’s a reason that Patton, Jeanane, and he and a few others were in that season, because I was listening to that podcast so much that I was like, “I need to put a voice to this” and then I just listened to Marc Maron’s voice. He is this character. I can he the kind of percussive quality of his voice and the staccato kind of thing. There’s like an angry musician in there somewhere that would be perfectly cast, and he can also get that soft side too. So, he was kind of perfect for what I was hoping this guy would be.
So, you’re a frequent podcast listener?
BS – Not a lot of them. I went to that one a lot and I haven’t listened to them that much on the road really. I’ve just been reading. No. I drive to and from work a lot so, so I’m, always stopping and starting, but I love Maron’s podcast. Out of the few I’ve heard, it’s very inspiring, and, again, makes me want to do comedy because it’s uncovering a lot of cool stuff about comedy that I’d forgotten.