“TV SHOWS CAN GET CANCELED, BUT THERE’S always music, games, and print,” says Brendon Small, co-creator of Adult Swim’s animated Metalocalypse series (now in its third season) and real-life guitarist, producer, and multi-instrumentalist for Metalocalypse’s cartoon band, Dethklok. “I’m trying to run with it as long as I can.”
To this end, like the fictional Dethklok—a band that generates so much revenue that it has become one of the world’s largest economies— Small is diversifying his interests. Not long after logging a second term as the host of Guitar Player’s Guitar Superstar competition on September 12, 2009, Small released the second Dethklok album, The Dethalbum II [Williams Street]. The record debuted at number 15 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, putting it in fine shape to match or best 2007’s The Dethalbum, which became the biggest selling death-metal album to date. Small also rocked concert stages with Mastodon, bringing his flesh-and-blood Dethklok outfit (featuring Small, co-guitarist Mike Keneally, bassist Bryan Bekker, and drummer Gene Hoglan) out on tour. In addition, his Dethklok songs have made it into various Guitar Hero versions, and Konami released the Xbox game, Metalocalypse: Dethgame, in July 2009.
So, in the strange fiction/non-fiction universe that Small orbits, it’s entirely possible for Dethklok to exist beyond Metalocalypse and become, as with Pinocchio’s transformation from wood to fresh, a “real boy.”
Has your recording setup changed since you recorded the first Dethklok album in your apartment?
Ten years ago, when I was doing music for my first Cartoon Network show, Home Movies, I just used a Line 6 Pod and a free version of Pro Tools. I was just happy to be able to record whenever I felt like it in my room. For the first Dethklok record, I was still living in an apartment. I can’t believe I recorded a death-metal album with a neighbor directly to my left with Gene Hoglan double-kicking everywhere on drums. I tracked that album on a Digidesign Digi 002 system, doing all the lead and rhythm guitars, bass, and vocals myself. Now, I have ProTools HD, but I still used the Pod on The Dethalbum II. The cool advance on my guitar sound for the album, however, was also playing real amps through a Palmer Speaker Simulator that was given to me by Joe Satriani, who is one of my guitar heroes.
What’s the story behind that?
I met Joe at Guitar Player’s Guitar Superstar event. He’s such a methodical guy—you can tell he used to be a guitar teacher by the patient way he explains things. He has a lot of advice on recording and getting good guitar sounds. He asked me about my studio setup, and he told me about these cool Palmer Speaker Simulators that he used to record loud amp sounds without having to go through a speaker cabinet and deal with high volume levels. The next thing I knew, he had Fed Ex’ed them to me! He even put one of his Vox Satchurator Distortion pedal in there. He told me to get the stuff up and running, get some sounds coming out, and then give him a call. So, there I was sitting on the floor in my new house with Joe Satriani giving me step-by-step tech support. He really took the time to help me, and you can hear the result in the extra rhythm-guitar girth and creamier lead sounds on the new album.
Has Dethklok’s music evolved in any other ways?
Basically, I write all the stuff, go into a little hole, and when I come out I have a record. And I do this without the use of any drugs. Unless you count Cherry Coke Zero. This time, I wanted the music to be faster, uglier, and more melodic. I also felt the songs needed to be more epic, because the new Metalocalypse episodes are twice as long as they used to be. But the songs are still about volcanoes exploding and comets crashing into the earth, and you’ll always know it’s Dethklok because of the harmonized guitars and grumbly vocals. I wanted the band to try to take itself more seriously this season, but, I mean, how seriously can Dethklok really take it? Ultimately, I found myself going back to my main conceptual question: How would Conan The Barbarian write this song?
Musically, is it hard to tell where Dethklok ends and you begin?
I’ve been writing so many songs and riffs in the Dethklok vein over the years that Dethklok wouldn’t be too far off from the kind of band I would start in real life—except I don’t know if I’d go with the guttural vocals. I’d be looking for a little more melody, but with the same double kick drums and cool guitar stuff that a 15 year old would like. I actually started recording my a solo record during the sessions for The Dethalbum II.
What was the gear setup for The Dethalbum II?
Along with the Pod, I used Gibsons and Marshalls pretty exclusively. The two Gibsons I stuck with the whole time were an old Explorer with EMG81 pickups and the heaviest strings I could find without actually playing on telephone lines—.013-.056—and a stock, 1957 reissue Les Paul goldtop from the Gibson Custom shop. I just threw on some new strings, and tuned it down to C standard. I also used a Gibson SG for some harmonies. What can I say about The Marshalls? They sound like Marshalls, and that’s hard to beat. I used a Marshall Mode Four and some Marshall JVM Series amps. For effects, I used an Ibanez Tube Screamer, and MXR’s Full Bore Metal and Carbon Copy. My main picks were Dunlop Jazz IIIs, and I also started using 1.14mm Dunlop Ultex Sharps. I like them because they‘re really heavy and dense, and the clear yellow color reminds me of a fungal toenail.
Is it hard to juxtapose the world of television with music?
The TV show is a long uphill battle where 30 people are working with you, and there are so many ways that the vision can lose its footing and get away. There are so many opportunities to make it suck. The editor can miss a mark, the storyboards can be weak, or the animation can be wrong. After three months of manhandling and tinkering, you beat it into some kind of shape and get it out. My goal is to make it not suck. The music is, by far, the most satisfying part. I can sit down all alone with my guitar, and have a song in two hours. It may not be the best version, but I’ll know what the energy is, where the changes are, and how it feels.
Was it a steep learning curve to go from studio to live musician for the Dethklok tours?
Before this whole thing, I was an indoor guitarist. I didn’t play out in public much. Everything I’ve learned about touring has been a trial by fire. All the basic stuff that everyone else got the hang of years ago, I had to learn in a matter of weeks. I’m finally getting a better grasp of all the lighting and switching, as well as figuring out what works live. Now that I know so much about amps and pedals and string gauges, I could definitely get a job at Guitar Center.