Brendon Small’s Hollywood office is a compact space lined with posters and crammed with stuff: toys, papers, boxes. There are lots of packages, the three largest of which sit in the middle of the floor.
“It’s like having a birthday,” Small says, his voice trailing off as he rips into the first box, pulls out a guitar case and opens it.
“This is a Les Paul Traditional,” he explains gleefully. “What they do with the Les Paul, is, they keep changing things, but this one brings it back to what it was, with the really heavy body. They cut out pieces of wood and weight to relieve it.”
He pauses to strum the guitar.
“This is a really cool, American-made instrument.”
This is the first of three guitars that Small receives today from Gibson, which sponsors his animated heavy-metal comedy Metalocalypse. As we talk about the show, he interrupts himself to check out each new piece, including a Joan Jett reissue and a red version of the Gibson Explorer that Skwisgaar Skwigelf, the cocky, Swedish lead guitarist whom Small voices on the show. The prototype for Skwisgaar’s guitar, a black-and-white model, hangs on his wall.
With his short, light brown hair and ordinary clothing, Small doesn’t look like a rock star, and, technically, he isn’t one. He’s a comedy writer, a TV-show creator and a guitarist who scores his own programs. But as a result of those three activities, he founded the greatest fictional band in the world, Dethklok, whose life is documented in the 11 1/2–minute-long widescreen epic series. In the Metalocalypse universe, Dethklok is responsible for the world’s 12th-largest economy. It is a band so influential that a Dr. Strangelove–styled group of leaders follows its every move. Fans are so enamored of the musicians that they are willing to die for them, and frequently do. Their every move is described as “brutal” and “heavy,” and they hold the power to make something as uninteresting as coffee “metal.” Yet, they can’t handle the simplest of tasks, like grocery shopping.
“The show isn’t even about a metal band,” says Small. “It’s about five narcissistic celebrity superbabies.”
Somewhere along the way, though, Small and co-creator Tommy Blacha’s commentary on celebrity culture set in a “cool world” filled with guitar solos and hints of Conan-styled imagery became an actual band, one whose second album was released on September 29 and which is co-headlining a tour with Mastodon. However, Dethklok’s transformation wasn’t an accident.
“The whole idea was, ‘How do you make this a band, how do you make this exist by itself with or without the TV show?’ ” Small explains. “If the TV show got canceled, could I keep on making music? That’s the goal.”
A few years earlier, Gorillaz created the template for the modern, animated band when Damon Albarn and company performed behind a group created from artist Jamie Hewlett’s images. Small tweaked the concept, positioning the live musicians as the “pit band,” visible to the audience but not detracting from the animated footage of Dethklok. The visuals are unique to the concert setting but are created by the same team that animates the television show. Small, who voices three of the five members of Dethklok, takes on multiple roles throughout the show. He sings as vocalist Nathan Explosion, plays Skwisgaar’s lead guitar and, although Gene Hoglan (Strapping Young Lad, Fear Factory) handles drummer Pickles’ parts, Small voices the character. With Dethklok, the line between reality and fantasy, product and marketing plan, are blurred.
“If you think about it, the TV show is an infomercial for the record and the record is advertising the TV show,” says Small. “It’s all the same ridiculous cartoon synergy.”
Initially, Small had studied to be a musician. He attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music, but, at the same time, took some writing courses.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do with music. The stuff that I cared about in music was kind of not happening,” he says, adding that things like guitar solos had ceased to exist during the late 1990s. “I kind of didn’t know what to do with my guitar, so I left it in its case for a while and pursued comedy and ended up being very lucky with another TV show.”
A year out of college, Small began work on Home Movies with Loren Bouchard (Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist). The show, about an 8-year-old filmmaker and his friends, was quickly canceled by UPN but picked up by Adult Swim, where it lasted for four seasons. In addition to writing and voice-over duties, Small also composed the music.
“I was an indoor guitarist,” he says. “I played a lot, because of some recording technologies that happened around the late 1990s, early 2000s, I could directly record more. I became more of a recording person.”
It was around this time that Small rekindled his love for heavy metal. “I fell back in love with the stuff that I originally liked and checking out the stuff that I had missed while I was in music school, like the Scandinavian stuff, black metal and just going to shows, seeing what Cannibal Corpse had turned into,” he recalls. “I just started digging music again, digging guitar again.”
Small and Tommy Blacha (who voices Dethklok members Toki Wartooth and William Murderface) developed the show for Adult Swim. When it premiered in 2006, Metalocalypse was an immediate success, not simply because it was funny or because the animation was perhaps the slickest found in a non-Japanese production but because it was so freakin’ metal. Everything from the instruments Dethklok plays to the techniques the cartoon band uses looks familiar to anyone who has been to a metal concert. To accomplish this, Small frequently videotapes himself playing songs from the show so that the animators can mimic his movements as closely as possible.
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“The way I look at it is this is my one shot to do a music project, I might as well do it right,” Small says. “What I’m trying to do is sell the show to a bunch of comedy people, but the people who are going to judge it most harshly are the metal people. To get the metal up and running, to get the world up and running, there’s a certain amount of credibility I thought had to be brought to it.”
The genuine love for the show’s music genre has become its selling point. When its third season premiered on November 9, Metalocalypse moved to a half-hour time slot. The members of Dethklok have been appearing in other media as well. Last summer, the comic Dethklok vs. The Goon hit store shelves. A downloadable video game is planned for the near future and one of the band’s songs is featured on Guitar Hero II. Plus, Dethklok’s tablature book has been a top seller for Alfred Publishing, ranking alongside Led Zeppelin and Van Halen, perhaps an indication that Metalocalypse isn’t only appealing to metal fans but is inspiring new ones as well.
“In my perfect little world, this show would have been for me when I was 15 and discovering guitar,” Small says. “Luckily, that’s who has been picking up on it.”
Dethklok and Mastodon perform at the Hollywood Palladium on Thurs., Nov. 19 and Fri., Nov. 20.