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DETHKLOK: Behind the Mayhem with Co-Creator Brendon Small

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Monday, October 22, 2007 @ 1:12 PM

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As the phone rings at Titmouse Inc., the production company for the Cartoon Network’s animated extreme metal juggernaut Dethklok, I’m not exactly sure who’s actually going to answer. It could be the show’s co-creator Brendon Small, or one of the characters he voices: grunting, booze-bag frontman Nathan Explosion, skullet-headed Wisconsinite drummer Pickles or marble-mouthed Swedish guitar whiz Skwisgaar Skwigelf — Small’s Dethklok partner, Tommy Blacha, voices the other band members, Rachel Ray-hating manchild Norwegian guitarist Toki Wartooth and self-loathing sociopath bassist William Murderface.

It turns out to be Small himself on the other end of the line, although with all of the promotion he’s been doing lately for “Metalocalypse’s” first season DVD, Dethklok’s just-released debut album The Dethalbum and an upcoming tour, along with the ongoing work on the show’s new second season, he admits it can be tough keeping a handle on all the various personalities.

“It gets kind of complicated, I can do interviews as myself, but sometimes people will get really excited to hear the character’s voice, so I’ll do it that way,” said Small, whose previous Cartoon Network foray was the charming cult fave “Home Movies,” in which he portrayed a precocious 8-year-old would-be filmmaker. “Or I just answer questions for the characters as myself to not embarrass anybody — mainly me (laughs). I like to keep the character stuff within reason, I do these voices all day long and I can’t escape them.”

For the uninitiated, “Metalocalypse” is a surreal reality show or sorts that chronicles the mayhem, debauchery and sheer brutality of the virtual universe of “the world’s greatest cultural force,” a metal band so stupifyingly successful that it stands as the world’s 12th largest economy, just ahead of Belgium. Dethklok’s every move — from endorsing products such as coffee or even doorknobs to releasing, or in some cases repeatedly erasing, a new album — has global repercussions. This despite the fact that the members themselves are degenerate, socially retarded nihilists who loathe their legions of fans and spend the bulk of their time in the seclusion of Mordhaus, their castle-sized, Viking dragon boat.

Such is Dethklok’s worldwide influence that a shadowy “Tribunal” of government, military and religious authorities monitors the band’s every move in hopes of eventually destroying it — thus far to no avail. That droves of fans and innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire and slaughtered willy-nilly, or die when such Dethklok stunts as summoning a Finnish lake troll or pouring vats of Duncan Hills coffee on concert-goers go awry — often in spectacularly gruesome detail — seems to be of no consequence.

Yet as outrageous and way over the top as the show is, “Metalocalypse” is also remarkably true to life in its depiction of band dynamics — from the egos, jealousies and inequities to the knuckle-headed shenanigans and inherent excesses. And it is hardly just some running joke about metal, which is such an easy target to begin with that making fun of it seems hardly worth the effort.

Instead, “Metalocalypse” is wickedly clever and knowing when it comes to metal culture — from the band’s hair-swinging stage antics (modeled after Polish titans Behemoth) and cocksure poses, to name-checking such underground acts as Carpathian Forest (as a high school), Marduk (as a mini-golf course), Finntroll (as a supermarket) and Burzum (as a Friday’s-like family restaurant). For extra metal cred, members of Metallica, Dimmu Borgir, Cannibal Corpse and Nevermore, to name a few, have done guest voices.

And Dethklok is surprisingly legitimate and adept from a musical standpoint, blasting out a grandiose power/speed/death metal mish-mash on both the show and The Dethalbum that recalls, for general comparison, Amon Amarth, Six Feet Under, Arch Enemy and, at times, Queen. Small, a one-time guitar student at Berklee College of Music in Boston who was weaned on the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani and is a big fan of modern metal, writes and performs all of Dethklok’s vocals and music, save for the drums which are supplied by Gene (Dark Angel, Death, Testament, etc.) Hoglan.

Any doubt about Dethklok’s musical viability went out the window in late September when The Dethalbum sold nearly 34,000 copies in its first week, debuting at #21 on the Billboard Top 200 — the highest charting death metal album ever. And on Oct. 29, Small and company were going to bring Dethklok to life onstage with a 12-date concert tour of colleges in an unlikely pairing with art rockers And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead.

In his own voice — for the most part, Nathan Explosion and Pickles does pipe in a couple times — Small detailed some of ins and outs of Dethklok, the vision behind “Metalocalypse,” his thoughts on metal and his disdain for Scooby Doo.

KNAC.COM: Do you find it easier to talk about Dethklok as yourself or as your characters?

SMALL: I, as Brendon, can talk about a lot of Dethklok stuff that they really can’t. The thing about Dethklok is the camera that follows them in omniscient one, it shows stuff that Dethklok can’t even know about, as far as the Tribunal and what’s going on behind the scenes. They don’t know it’s on TV.

I don’t have a problem bopping back and forth between characters, but I just did a podcast that I think lasted 14 hours, or at least it seemed that long, where they wanted to ask super-specific drum questions to Pickles and stuff. I’m a guitar player, but I know my drum stuff. But they were asking like, “So Pickles, when you sit at the drum throne how do you position yourself?” And I’m like (in Pickles’ nasally Wisconsin twang), “Well, the thing about it is...” I’m trying desperately to think of something clever. And it’s live and I’m like “I can’t get out of this interview.” And it went on forever.

And a lot of the metal guys when we do interviews want to know “Hey, what do you guys think about Gwar, or what bands would you like to kill?” And I’m not really gonna touch that because I don’t have a bone to pick with people. It might seem like we’re making fun of them, but the truth is we like a lot of those bands.

KNAC.COM: You’ve had pretty good luck lining up some genuine metal legends to guest voices.

SMALL: Mark Hamill is also on there. Luke fucking Skywalker! This second season, we’ve got Malcolm McDowell. What a unique meeting of different creative people — it’s total geek fodder. Most of the show is just for me, you know. A lot of fans like it, but I’m like Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher (from Cannibal Corpse), King Diamond, the Metallica guys, the dork in me is in heaven. I’m like one of those spoiled rich kids who has the birthday where everybody comes, even though he doesn’t deserve it. We’ve gotten very lucky. The whole trick to getting the show started was making sure that the metal dudes realized that we’re not trying to take the piss out of metal. The joke is about something else, the joke is about celebrityism. The good thing for us as script writers and music writers and as the show’s creators is it gets to be about metal. It gets to be something that we give a shit about, and have fun with, we really enjoy. And sure there may be some jokes about metal, but everyone’s part of the joke.

KNAC.COM: And though the setting and storyline is more absurd than, say, Spinal Tap, the characters really aren’t that far removed from reality.

SMALL: There’s certain archetypes that keep popping up in bands that we have kind of exploited. There’s gonna be a guy who doesn’t get the spotlight as much as the other guy, a bass player who doesn’t really have a part musically in the band and gets mixed out of every song, and the self-hatred some of these guys have to deal with, and the guys in the band who own the publishing and other half of the band that doesn’t and you’re all stuck in a bus together for half a year.

It’s an exercise in narcissism and selfishness. One of the first philosophies of this show is “a band is a family with no love.” You’re in a situation where it actually looks and sounds like a group of brothers and they’re all in it, but it’s not. When you have people partying together and you’re all sleeping in the same room and you have to travel in a bus, you have this disdain and this familiarity.

It’s so great to talk to bands and hear them talk about each other. They don’t hate each other, but they’re a little sick of each other, they’re so familiar with each other, it’s like (in Pickles’ voice, again) “here we go again with this story!” Or, “great, he didn’t wash his shorts again.”

KNAC.COM: Yet even though the Dethklok guys live in this massive Viking boat with like 1,000 rooms where they can get away from each other, they always seem to be together.

SMALL: That’s a celebrity thing too because there’s lot of isolation with celebrity. They don’t know anything else but than to hover around one another, you see celebrities always hanging out at the same place because they don’t really have any actual friends anymore.

Somebody told me a story about party that they went to, it was huge, these were major celebrities, and pretty much everyone they invited were like their stockbrokers and their lawyers and agents, people that they work with. It wasn’t like cool, hip people, it was like their realtor. It was so boring. It’s like “we’re isolated, we can’t talk to people, we stopped being like regular humans.”

KNAC.COM: Or you get something like Paris Hilton coming to the rescue of Britney Spears.

SMALL: Exactly. It’s like, “we don’t like each other but we’re stuck in this kind of world. We’re the only ones that can actually get through to each other.” It’s those kinds of things the show is really taking the piss out of. It’s really about not paying attention to anything that’s going on in the world around you except what’s right in front of your face, even though what you do effects the world, for good or bad.

KNAC.COM: We usually hear short snippets of songs on the show, do you write full-blown songs for the show, or just those snippets that you fleshed out into the songs that are on the album?

SMALL: When I write scripts it takes me a while, I rewrite and you have to get your head around stuff, but with music I go with instinct and I go fast because I put it off to the last second, when I have to have something. Whether it’s sloppy or good or bad, that’s the song and that’s how long it lasts and that’s how much I have. So basically what I had were these half songs that were blueprints for full songs, and I built on those for the album.

KNAC.COM: Since you’re the voice of Nathan Explosion, “the lyrical visionary” in Dethklok, do you treat the lyrics any differently than the music?

SMALL: I’d like to have a bit of a reason to have a song. Like I knew “Bloodrocuted” was going to be a song, but I didn’t know what it was going to be about. And then sometimes I’ll write an entire song and figure out what it’s about as I’m writing it, even if its stupid, it’s gotta score stupid points.

I guess I’m lucky because I can have songs about eating spaghetti if I want to, but I’d like to have them be in the vein of what the characters feel and what they think is cool. I kind of put myself in their mindset, or at least Nathan. There’s a song on the album called “Face Fisted” where I wanted it to be about (in Nathan’s voice) “just fucking beating people up, I’m gonna kick your ass, you know. Yeah!”

KNAC.COM: Maybe Nathan can explain what “Bloodrocuted” is about?

AS NATHAN EXPLOSION: Well there’s this guy, an electrician, who he gets mistaken for a criminal and is being chased by mercenaries. But as he’s running, he remembers from biology class that blood is an energy conductor. So he leads them into a trap, see, at power generator. He cuts himself, bleeds all over the power lines and when the mercenaries step in the blood they get “bloodrocuted,” their eyes explode and they die. It's brutal. He bleeds to death, but he takes all the other guys with him. So I guess it has a happy ending. Sort of.

KNAC.COM: Nice. Back to the real world, so to speak, just how are you going to do this tour?

SMALL: That’s a good question. When the show was first being conceived of by Tommy and myself it was like “yeah, if we want to go out on tour we could do something like Gorillaz” [where the physical band played behind a specially designed screen that covered the stage area and the visuals were a mix of animation and silhouettes] and then all the fans started writing in and saying “dude, you should go on tour but do it like Gorillaz.”

Everyone was on the same page, and I was like “well, if we do it it should be cool, it should be funny and we should have a pretty good band playing. And it shouldn’t be about the actual band playing onstage, we should hear the band but not see them.” So we might be backlit, nearly out of sight or something, and we’ll have like an extended episode of the show playing on a huge screen that we'll play along to.

So it will be a mix of music, and the characters telling little stories throughout, have these soundoff points where you get to laugh. The musicianship should be incredibly good, and it should take itself seriously enough to do it right. So that’s what we’re doing now.

KNAC.COM: I know Gene Hoglan played on the Dethklok album, who’s going to be in the touring band?

SMALL: I have a great group of musicians that I’ll be playing with that I’m really excited to have. Gene Hoglan is on drums. He’s amazing and he’s just a cool guy. He is just a monster, he has great instinct, as much as I try to throw him off he picks right up on it, which is great because we’re going to be playing to click tracks on the tour to match up with animation. Then I have some friends, a guitar hero of mine named Mike Keneally who played with Frank Zappa on his last tour, he can do anything on guitar. He’s an amazing, scary, instinctive player. And a bass player who plays with him pretty often, Bryan Beller. They’re really cool guys, good sense of humor and scary players. And then I’ll be playing and singing. I’m real happy to be the weak link in this lineup.

KNAC.COM: "Home Movies" such an understated, innocent show. What the hell happened for you to switch gears to all of the sound and fury and violence of Dethklok?

SMALL: "Home Movies," oh my god, I miss those days. It was like, “here’s a season, is anyone watching? It doesn’t matter. Let’s just do another season and not talk to anybody about it, just keep working.” It was great to have something that was just completely under the radar and just kind of put it out there. The people who got it did, and the people who hated it, hated it. I was very proud of that show, it was exactly what I wanted it to be. But this show I wanted to be the exact opposite of that. And I gave myself a huge amount more work to do. It turns out I’m a control freak as far as doing the music and writing and voicing, and then going into the studio after the last day of color correction on the first episode and working for a couple months straight to get the record together. And the worst part is, with season two, people expect it to be good. (laughs)

But having said that, I’m incredibly happy with season two. The pressure is on and the big mantra around here is “don’t suck.” You’ve got to learn from what you did from last season and make it better and our options are limited because we did a lot of cool stuff last season. But we’ll do more creative stuff, keep pushing it and make it heavier and brutaller — or more brutal, rather (laughs) — and then stupider. Let’s keep up the stupidity, but still make it smart so you have that conflict going on.

KNAC.COM: Yeah, you don’t want to end up like "Ren & Stimpy," where the show was great out of the box and inventive and cool, then just degenerated into boogers and fart jokes.

SMALL: (laughs) We’re trying not to do that. Although boogers and farts are pretty funny, we’ve had a few of them.

KNAC.COM: But if that’s all there is?

SMALL: Well, we aspire to do something a bit more. Our goal with the last episode of the first season was to open up the world and start telling the story of Dethklok. The shows on Adult Swim are great, and I like going back to them and just laughing for laughing’s sake, but I also wanted to do something that TV is built to do, and that’s be episodic, be able to tell something a little more about this world and be able to give a sliver of story every couple of episodes about one particular character or another and keep that moving and keep that alive so people want to know what happens with the outside world and the inside world of Dethklok. And you really can’t accomplish that with just, what did you say? Farts and boogers? (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Will you start working in the back story and explain some of the history of the band and its origins? Or are you just going to leave that a mystery?

SMALL: We’re not given that up, yet. We may drop hints here and there, but that’s something we’re holding onto, we know that information but we’re not letting it out. It’s a bunch of things, having long discussions, headaches and making sure we know what we’re talking about, then doling out slivers of it and not letting everybody know until we feel it’s the right time. The inception of Dethklok is kind of a guarded thing, and that’s something we’re inevitably asked when we do these things in character and we just can’t answer. You will find out.

KNAC.COM: Is that the kind of thing you’d save for a movie?

SMALL: Well, we’re saving some things for the possibility of that. But the thing is with Dethklok is strike while the iron is hot, it’s all about momentum. However, I would like to take a few days off — and have a good long cry. (laughs) But that is in the forward thinking, something that is a little bit more grandiose, something that will very easily lend itself to a cinematic treatment. Some cartoon shows lend themselves to a movie better than others, we want this one to be like, should we end going in that direction.

KNAC.COM: There’s a couple incredibly extensive Wikipedia pages [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dethklok and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metalocalypse] about Dethklok that are constantly being updated, do you have anything to do with them and are you worried they might give some of the Dethklok secrets there?

SMALL: No, not really. Because the show’s secrets, if you want to call them that, exist in mine and Tommy’s heads. And on one of those pages, Me and Tommy never put this out there, but someone out there, someone at Adult Swim, described the show as “Spinal Tap meets Norway meets Scooby Doo.” We never said that, those are not our words. The Spinal Tap thing is cool, but I fucking hate Scooby Doo. I think it’s a shitty show, I never liked it. And Norway, we never really say where the bands lives. We know, but we don’t say it in any of the episodes. That was just one of those Hollywood mishmashes, this meets that meets that.

The pitch for our show was “it’s about a fucking metal band, there’s gonna be murder and we’re not going to understand anything anyone says. That’s the show.” That was my original pitch to Adult Swim. I don’t know how they got “Norway meets Scooby Doo” out of that. Fuck Scooby Doo.

KNAC.COM: The new season picked up from the first season’s cliffhanger ending, will things just carry forward from there, or will you be taking things in an entirely different direction?

SMALL: I don’t want to give too much away, but yeah, with the first episode, we meet up pretty much where it ended last season, which is where Dethklok was attacked in Poland in the Gulf of Danzig, it was kind of a rogue attempt at taking them out by Gen. Crozier. And what happened there was Gen. Crozier and Cardinal Ravenwood were punished by their boss, Mr. Salacia, and at the end of that episode you find out he’s kind of magic, you find out he can kill people with his thoughts.

So we’ll be trying to figure out who that guy is for a few episodes, because no one really knows who he is. Meantime, Dethklok has been in hiding, the attack kind of shook them up, they are afraid and they don’t want to come out, they don’t want to play for anyone, so they need a good reason to come out. The world has just turned into a darker place. It turns out that if you take Dethklok out of the mix, the economy falls apart. But Dethklok gets an offer to perform at the world’s largest execution, and they get to decide how the people are killed. And they are upset by how awesome that is, so it means they have to do it. So it’s a little darker second act, but we get back to the stupidity real soon. We get right back into silliness.

KNAC.COM: Which characters do you find yourself relating more to, the precocious kids in "Home Movies," or the debauched alpha males in Dethklok?

SMALL: (laughs) It’s funny to be negative and narcissistic and thinking only of yourself. That unfortunate part of me does relate to Dethklok. "Home Movies," that was more personal, and I easily could relate more to that kind of thing. But, honestly, Dethklok is about the selfish part of me, it’s about the fact that I get to do this and play guitar all day. And that I’ve designed the ultimate job for myself, that part I relate to because it’s for me when I was 14, Home Movies was for me when I was 8.

This is me as the fat suburban crappy kid trying to play guitar, listening to [Joe Satriani’s] Surfing With The Alien and then Slayer and then all kinds of different guitar cool, awesome stuff and learning all the stuff. I was really excited about that stuff, I just remember thinking “what if these guys ever got to be on TV,” or at least people like them. Whether or not those people would inadvertently murder all day long, if given the chance (laughs), I can’t say.

KNAC.COM: Since you are a Berklee trained musician, does any of your musical personality show up in any of the characters?

SMALL: There’s a Skwisgaar joke about (in Skwisgaar’s nearly unintelligible Swedish twang) “I can’ts reads musics,” and the same with Toki, when they have to play the “grandspas guitars” [acoustic instruments] after they summon the Finnish lake troll, which devours all the electricity in the area. And I do suck about reading music, that’s a very true thing, and I think most guitarists would admit to that too.

KNAC.COM: Are you surprised that people are taking Dethklok’s music as seriously as they seem to?

SMALL: It’s funny because I take the music part seriously. The way I look at Dethklok is that if I’m given the opportunity to do a show about a band, I should take that opportunity seriously. Whether or not the storylines are serious is a different matter. You can sweat over the jokes and is it funny enough and lose sleep over stuff like that, but the way I figure it is it should sound cool and if it does sound cool, that will help everything, it will kind of work on its own momentum, its own steam.

They should be good at what they do, it shouldn’t be about a band that sucks. And it shouldn’t something trite like Josie and the Pussycats or the Archies. That’s what irks me about the whole “Norway meets Scooby Doo” thing. There’s nothing that silly about Dethklok. I know I said it before, but I really mean it. Fuck Scooby Doo. And you can print that.

"Metalocalypse" typically airs Sunday night at 11:45 on the Cartoon Network.

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