Metalocalypse's Brendon Small: From Death Metal to Playgirl

Creating a virtual band that somehow became the highest-charting death metal band in history and posing in Playgirl magazine aren't usually two things that go hand-in-hand. However, neither is directing a Soundgarden music video, then releasing a solo album, and co-headlining alongside Mastodon in said fictional metal band -- just because fans wanted the cartoon band to tour that badly.

But that's all part of the bigger picture in Brendon Small's life, which is consumed by the February 25 release of the Metalocalypse: The Doomstar Requiem CD/vinyl soundtrack. The rock opera is based on the Adult Swim series Metalocalypse, Small's television project, in which he co-produces, co-writes, composes music, and provides his voice-acting talents. If you haven't seen it, you're probably not a true metalhead -- seriously.

It focuses on a fictional death metal band named Dethklok, and each episode features a song "performed" by the band amid a hilarious plot, animation carefully synced to the music, and a great trademark: The "bleeps" used for extreme profanity are replaced by pinch harmonics. Fans loved it so much that Small released three albums for the "band," and the second, 2009's Dethalbum II, actually became the highest-charting death metal album in history.

Four words: "metal for the fishes."

The opera premiered on Adult Swim in October 2013, but the soundtrack for the special, officially Dethklok's fourth album, is being released on vinyl and CD. It has been voted on Noisecreep as the February 2014 release of the month and features such cohorts as Emmy Award-winning composer Bear McCreary, Bryan Beller, Mike Keneally, Mark Hamill, and Jack Black, as well as a 50-piece orchestra.

Small's other ventures have included "Shreducation," 12 weekly guitar lesson in 2012 on the Adult Swim YouTube channel. He also released a solo album in 2012, Galaktikon, and has worked as a stand-up comedian for years.

Up on the Sun talked with Small about how he came up with Metalocalypse, how music school sometimes makes you lose your musical identity, and his being in love with stand-up comedy.

Tell me a bit about the rock opera. What prompted you to go that direction?

We messed around [during] season three with the ideas of rock operas and storytelling. I like the form, writing music and writing comedies, and also I had the story already there. I figured we could do it as a special, and the network said, "Absolutely."

Your most recent album, The Doomstar Requiem, featured a 50-piece orchestra, correct?

Yes, that's correct.

Can you tell me a bit about your writing process?

The way the whole thing happened was that I had this idea for a story, so I sat in the writers' room with two other writers who have been working with me on a couple other seasons. I told them the story, we fleshed it out, and I configured it musically in my head. After two weeks, I went to my own studio alone for a month and a half and wrote all the music. While doing that, I contacted my buddy Bear McCreary, who does the music for The Walking Dead and tons of other shows on TV, but you know him for Battlestar Galactica. He helped me break it down financially, and I realized how fun it would be to put an orchestra on it. And the way you do that is to cough up money. He took my arrangements and made them way better, and I gave him free rein to do that. He added a texture that I didn't have.

Were you doing this while simultaneously recording your solo album?

No. I had been finished for maybe a year at that point. That was something I did, I think between season 3 and 4 of Metalocalpyse. And that was just all on my own. And that was released in 2012, the Galaktika solo album.

You always seem involved in a dozen different projects.

Well, when you're working in animation, there's all this down time, you know? Especially with Doomstar Requiem, I finished all of my work early. I wrote all the music and the story, and then my only job at that point was to polish it all and make sure everything was recorded correctly. Then I took on some other projects that had nothing to do with the world of metal or music. A lot of comedy, actually.

It's interesting that though it seems you love creating animation, you've said in the past that you don't really like watching it.

I don't mind it. I just stray away from the stuff in the same ballpark. I like animated features, but, um, the only thing I really watch is South Park because that still makes me laugh. There's plenty of great stuff out there. I just tend to stay away from it . . . Almost like if you work in a chocolate factory, you don't want to come home and eat chocolate, you know? You want something savory. Is it also something where you feel as though your ideas could be influenced by some other animated show that you see? I don't mind being influenced like that. I think that's great. I don't want to rip anything off. But that's not why I do it. You're allowed to experience different emotions, and comedy has its place, just as extreme metal has its place. So as I'm waiting for this grandiose rock opera to get finished, I went out and did stand-up comedy.

You have directed music videos for Soundgarden and The Damned Things. If you could direct a video for any band in the world, which would it be?

Interesting question. Someone who has a budget. A really big budget. And actually, I really don't think in terms of that. It's cool to get that type of directing job, but if I were to direct a video I'd rather it be a long-form thing, like the Doomstar thing. And as long as there is story involved. But I don't really have a band in mind for that answer.

What inspired you to create Dethklok in the first place?

I went to music school a long time ago, and before that, I was listening to lots of metal and guitar-driven music. Once I got to music school, it's weird; you want to learn all types of things and different styles. Like in the Doomstar record, I got to play around with '70s power-pop stuff and classical-style music. And that's the type of stuff you learn at music school. You get pulled in a lot of directions and lose your musical identity to a certain degree, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But then I started getting back into metal again, and I started going out and seeing lots of different shows and playing on my guitar. And that's where Metalocalpyse came from: Me falling back in love with my guitar. And using the show as an excuse for me playing the guitar really helped.

Obviously for your job, technology is something that helps fuel it along. But how do you think things like social media and YouTube affect the mystique of music?

That's a hard question. You know, music is in a really, really tough place right now. The main reason . . . If you're going to do music, you should really enjoy the music you're making because slowly but surely year by year people are making less money in music because people think it's free. I'm watching friends of mine in bands who are experiencing that . . . You know, in some avenues in metal, there is a strong loyalty. I don't know what I'm talking about really. What's the question again?


Oh! I remember now. I know those guys are really good artists. Alice Cooper is such a strong songwriter. Think of Billion Dollar Babies. That's such a good album. And from the '70s, everything was creative and fresh, and people were really challenging each other back then. It could be different if you picked two other artists.

If you could be a fly on the wall for the recording of any classic album, what would it be?

It would probably be Queen. I even have that classic album, A Night at the Opera . But that band was one where each band member was an incredibly gifted musician and songwriter.

So what is up next for you?

All I'm doing right now is promoting the soundtrack and doing a lot of stand-up. When I get excited about something, my brain starts dragging my body around to places. For example, I keep showing up to these stand-up clubs to do comedy. I love it.

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Lauren Wise has worked as a rock/heavy metal journalist for 15 years. She contributes to Noisey and LA Weekly, edits books, and drinks whiskey.
Contact: Lauren Wise