The Archies of Death Metal

Animated metal band moves from Small’s mind to big stage

Though he’s best known for being the creative force behind animated cult favourites Home Movies and Metalocalypse Brendon Small’s first love has always been music. “I first picked up a guitar when I was 14” he says “which is good because I don’t know what else I would have done.”

Small’s latest series Metalocalypse follows the exploits of metal band Dethklok “the world’s seventh largest economy” and its greatest malevolent and murderous musical force. Though the band is comprised of five members (Nathan Explosion Skwisgaar Skwigelf Toki Wartooth Pickles and William Murderface) it’s really Brendon Small who is Dethklok: He writes and performs the music as well as providing the voices for three of the band members. He has also done voice work for most of Adult Swim’s shows (Cartoon Network’s lineup of more mature ’toons) including The Venture Bros. Aqua Teen Hunger Force Frisky Dingo and Squidbillies .

He’s taking Dethklok on the road in support of Dethalbum II another assault of riffs growls and tales of murder (such as “I Tamper with the Evidence at the Murder Site of Odin”). “When you put [an album] out you have to try to beat the last one — make every aspect faster and brutal” says Small. “A lot of the music for this new record was written right after I finished the first one” he says adding that most of the songs were written quickly as he was preparing the second season of Metalocalypse .

“The first song I did was ‘Laser Cannon Deth Sentence.’ With ‘Murmaider II: The Water God’ I was like ‘I’m gonna go faster make an epic rock opera sort of thing.’ With ‘Dethsupport’ I wanted to go for super speed.” There’s never a shortage of ideas for metal songs and Small says there’s a few he’s waiting to get to. “I want to do sasquatches and serpents. I have to brush up on my Dungeons and Dragons too.”

For Dethalbum II Small wanted to create a solid record that would appeal to death metal fans unfamiliar with the show. “I did a lot of guitar experimenting and switched amps” he says. “Really you just get better at recording. When someone can shred it’s not magic — they’ve sat there for hours and hours playing and practising.” Still the spirit of the show guides the record more fun pop culture curio than earnestly evil. “I wanted this one to be more melodic” he says. “I love Cannibal Corpse but I also like ELO The Beatles Steely Dan — I love those chords. Sometimes with metal the chords don’t move they’re just riffs. So I like to throw little hooks in there like in pop songs. I’d actually consider some of the songs to be pop songs although they’d never get top 40 radio play.”

This latest tour is the band’s third and Small says it’s the biggest yet headlining alongside Mastodon Converge and High on Fire. “At the end of the day you’re at the mercy of budget and time” he says. “The first tour was what I call the ‘art college pretend tour.’ There weren’t any real venues; it was free; the crew was weird strange and didn’t know what metal was and we were paired with this indie rock band. But it was good practice — last summer’s tour did really well and with this one we took the skeleton of the show and made it much bigger.” For the live show Small took a cue from Gorillaz putting the music to animated projections. “The animation is integrated into the music” he says adding that the band acts much like a chamber orchestra does providing a backdrop to the action onstage. “For the whole show we’ve got a big screen behind us. We’re supposed to sound like the record. The show is timed so that every song plays with the video — every downbeat is set to a cut with the drummer counting us in. It’s like clockwork.”

In order to bring Dethklok to the stage Small recruited three musicians: drummer Gene Hoglan (Testament Fear Factory) guitarist Mike Keneally (Frank Zappa) and Metalocalypse co-creator Bryan Beller on bass. “I enjoy being the weak link of the band” he says. “I can do the vocals and guitar separately. Together — that’s where the clusterfuck starts.”

Small says that there were always plans to tour Dethklok long before Metalocalypse debuted. “That was my first goal” he says. “I thought ‘If I play my cards right I can make the show then put out the record then tour. How do you tour? The Gorillaz do it. But ours will be metal.’” He adds that focusing on music provides a welcome break from the stresses of working for network television. “TV shows are tumultuous fucked up and weird. They can be taken away from you at any time — Home Movies was cancelled on me twice. One day you have a show the next day you don’t. You think ‘What can I do to keep this job?’ A TV show takes a lot of money to make but a record costs a fraction of that amount — the turnaround is way better. If I could have made Home Movies a series of radio plays that you could download I would have done it.”

When discussing the show Small says that he sees an overall arc for Metalocalypse hinting that he’d like to see Dethklok continue to tour and record after it’s over. “I know what the end is to the show and it’s just… well I’d love to see it” says Small. “Adult Swim isn’t interested in ‘epic.’ They just want comedy; they don’t give a shit about where the show is going. But I like telling a big story and we’re sneaking it in there.” He says guests featured on the upcoming third season (starting November 8 2009) include Steve Vai Joe Satriani and Slash adding that he’d like to get his guitar hero Brian May (Queen) on the show.

Small promises a multimedia event when Dethklok hits the stage although when asked about what it takes to create a live show that brings together Adult Swim fans and metalheads he isn’t interested. “My feeling is this: I’m selfish” he says. “I don’t consider the audience when putting everything together outside of ‘Here’s this story; it has to make some kind of sense.’ I’m doing this for myself. How many times am I going to get to make a record with all of these guitar tricks? I just want it to be cool.”