April is proving to be a hectic yet exciting month for Brendon Small. Metalocalypse, the Adult Swim series chronicling the lives of everyone’s favorite animated death metal group Dethklok, kicks off its fourth season on April 29. As if that wasn’t enough, the show’s co-creator will be releasing his first solo project Galaktikon on the same day via his newly launched website.
With so much on his plate, we were lucky that Small had time to breathe, let alone talk with us. During our chat, Small discussed the origins and inspiration behind his “high stakes intergalactic extreme rock” album, what it’s like working with Adult Swim, what might potentially lie ahead for Galaktikon and Dethklok, how music and comedy go hand in hand together, and what he considers to be his proudest accomplishment.
I know Galaktikon came about while you were in the studio waiting to record the second Dethklok album. But how did the idea of adding a concept to the material come about?
I don’t think I can write unless I have a story or characters. I can do one-off songs, but I think it’s a lot of extra work you don’t need to do. Looking back, some of my favorite stuff that got me excited about story and music and all this stuff were these bigger concept albums. Even going back to musicals, [like] Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy. That was a big thing for me growing, seeing them. And I thought “Oh, Jesus Christ Superstar is a fucked up, weird story from the bad guy’s point of view.” Then Tommy’s this weird story about this kid who wills himself to go blind because he saw something horrible. It’s just all these weird dark storylines [that] I was kind of into as a kid.
And then by the time I was 13 or 14 years, my buddy down the street introduced me to King Diamond’s Them, and I thought “Oh I get it, there’s people everywhere doing this!” And then [Rush’s] 2112, and ELO [Electric Light Orchestra] had concept albums. Almost all of their albums were concept albums. There was an outer space one called Time I thought was pretty cool. Movie music and music that supports story was all kind of exciting to me. So that’s the angle I naturally approach it from.
Do you think that “concept” is missing or lacking in today’s current scene?
Well, I know that Mastodon does it. I think most of their albums are concept driven. They’re thinking of an overall album rather than song to song. Almost like comedy guys. Louis C.K. is a funny comic because his whole routine is about him, his life, his family and how he reacts to it. Whereas Steven Wright is living joke to joke, and they’re all really funny and incredibly well crafted. But that’s a harder thing to do as oppose to carving out a personality or story or an art.
I think it’s really interesting to hear you talk about comedy because I feel that you do such an amazing job blending comedy and metal music together with Metalocalypse and Dethklok.
Thanks. I mean, they’re not that far away from each other, to be honest. If you understand committing to the thing, you can make it funny or you can make it dark. You just have to commit to either one.
You’ve been referring to the album as an audio comic book. I was wondering if there was any potential to branching Galaktikon out into other forms of media. Maybe even an animated format similar to Metalocolypse?
That would be ideal. Also, I didn’t want it to just be a record. First of all, like I think I said in other interviews, it’s easy for me to do this by myself. Adult Swim, they’re a big network, there is a lot of legal red tape. I don’t own Dethklok. I collaborate with them on the whole project. I mean, I came up with it, but it’s a partnership between me and Time Warner. So that’s not something I can just go out and start doing. I have to make sure everyone is on board, and my legal team and their legal team and all kinds of stuff. But if it’s a project that I own, I can do whatever I want with it. I can just put out Galaktikon and I can make it a stage play or a feature if I want to. First things first, I want to see if there’s any interest in it. So I’m just putting it out there, on my own, and seeing if anyone bites. If it does, maybe I’ll see about a comic book or an animated series or stuff like that.
Galaktikon features the same team of musicians and production team that you normally work with on Dethklok (including drummer Gene Hoglan and bassist Bryan Beller). Did you ever consider working with other musicians on this project, or even to include guest appearances?
I actually was talking with Brann from Mastodon about getting him in to do some extra stuff. But he was touring all the time and I didn’t have time to get it going. I would love to. I would love to collaborate with other guys. It just makes you think differently. It’s fun. It’s like being in a room with writers, different guys will add different stuff and the project takes a totally different color.
As I ask that, though, I was thinking myself how could you really get any better than Gene Hoglan on drums?
That’s the thing, Gene gives you that “Gene Hoglan sound,” which is an amazing sound. But there are a lot of different sounds out there. When I hear Brann play on a Mastodon tune, I’m like “There is no drummer that sounds like that!” And that’s part of Mastodon’s sound, but I would love to hear him do some stuff outside of that too.
I know that the music style is much more melodic then Dethklok. But since you were in the studio around the same time working on both projects, did you have a hard time determining how the material was going to be used? Like “Oh this song might be more for Galaktikon, or “that song might better for Dethklok”?
Well, actually a lot of those songs didn’t exist when I was developing the sound for Dethklok. There’s this song called “Triton,” the first song on the record, which is a song that I was messing around with drum programming and just came up with the riff. And one thing led to another thing and it took all these turns and changes. And I thought “This just does not sound like Dethklok.” It just wasn’t heavy enough. I’m tuned in a standard tuning. I would have taken some of those flavors I guess and bringing them to Dethklok. But this was just too standard rock for what I wanted Dethklok to be.
But I had a ton of these songs just hanging around. What happened was, we didn’t know if we were going to do a second Dethklok album. And I got all these people that canceled all this stuff to work on this thing, and the contract didn’t go through. We were all sitting there and I said “Ok, you guys are working for me now”. So I just grabbed everything I could and I said “Whatever happens, I going to have to make sense of all this stuff,” which is kind of like post production work in TV. You have to make sense of all these elements, how do you put this stuff together, what’s the big puzzle.
Talking about working in TV production, what would you say is the biggest difficulty with working on music and TV at the same time?
You know what, the truth is I don’t see it as a difficulty. Let’s say you’re working out and you’ve got to do a hundred pushups, and then after that a hundred sit-ups. You do a hundred pushups, and then you’re like “Oh thank God I don’t have to do anymore pushups!”
Which one would be the “pushups” right now then?
Right now I’m doing music, which is a great relief from day to day production. Production is like watching a plant grow. It just takes forever with animation because it takes forever for the artists to finish the part, you’re waiting to get stuff approved. Then you’re waiting for export, you’re waiting for imports, you’re waiting for renderings. All of this stuff is so much waiting! The thing is, when I write scripts and when I’m overseeing scripts or running the writer’s room, one big element I think about is how is music going to fit into this. How is score going to help this stuff? How is it going to advance the story? So I’m thinking musically the whole time, and I feel like I have a trick that other writers don’t have. There are lots of good comedy writers out there, but none of them can tell a story with music. I have a luxury in having a bag of tricks after going to music school and developing a whole bunch of stuff.
How is Galaktikon going to be distributed? [NOTE: The April 29 release date was not confirmed until after the interview was conducted.]
Well, I’m going to Topspin, then probably iTunes and that’s it.
Totally. Here’s the thing, I’ve heard some people out, some labels out, and ultimately I was like “Well, I’ve got a pretty good audience with Metalocalypse.” I don’t know if they’re going to follow me with this project. I don’t ever want to anticipate what an audience will do because you’ll always be wrong. So I’m going to do this by myself and put my money where my mouth is. And after seeing Louis C.K. do what he did with self distribution of his last comedy special, it all just made sense. Unfortunately, it’s bad news for the labels and distributers, but really good news for the artist because you can do everything yourself, if you have enough capital to get it started. So after seeing Louis C.K., which he filmed his own comedy special back in December… I don’t know if you about this. Have you read about this?
Yeah I do remember, he actually did really well for himself through self-distribution.
Oh yeah, he made a million bucks! He sold it for $6 and he made a million bucks in like a week. And now he’s got capital for new projects. So if for some reason my scheme ended up working, I would use that to finance a pilot. I would just use it all as production money to do something cool for the future, which is what he ended up doing. So yeah, he built his own website, he shot his own thing, and edited everything himself.
I can’t believe it’s taken till January for digital to outweigh physical in sales. I thought that must have happened already. And I just thought “Ok, obviously people like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead aren’t netting as much because they’ve got big advances and all that stuff, but now they control their own distribution.” And everyone is just becoming smarter about their own personal business.
I’m sure it must also be more artistically freeing as well.
Well to tell you the truth, working with Adult Swim, like I said, the only thing is I don’t own all that stuff. I have a really fair partnership with them, but it’s even better because I can make decisions even quicker if I’m doing it myself. Having said all that, they’ve been an absolute pleasure to work with. When I finish a Dethkolk album, I basically go “here…” And they kind of hear it for the first time, and I go “That’s the record,” which is kind of how the show is. They’re all in the loop on all the stages. If I’m pretty off track they let me know. And every once in a while they’ll go “Eh I’m not crazy about this” or “How about this or that or the other thing.” But I’ve been working with those guys for… thirteen years?
Yeah, starting with Home Movies.
Yeah. I don’t know what other network would give me the creative control that I have. I don’t think anyone would.
Speaking about Metalocalypse, I always find it amazing what guest stars you are able get to make an appearance on the show. This season alone, you have everyone from Corpsegrinder to John Hamm [of AMC’s Mad Men].
This is our most eclectic crowd because we have [director] Werner Herzog next to Corpsegrinder, next to John Hamm, next to Patton Oswalt, next to 3 Inches of Blood, next to Andy Richter, next to Dweezil Zappa, and Kim Thayil from Soundgarden.
It’s a who’s who list.
It’s strange. I mean, I was really excited when I heard we got Werner Herzog because I’m such a huge fan of his work. He was great and incredibly cool to work with. They all were.
Is there anyone left you would still like to have on the show? Maybe like a “dream guest”?
Oh, there’s so many people that have been influencing this. Basically, what I’m doing with Metalocalypse is taking musicians who have influenced me and people I just really like a lot comically. I mean, that list is endless. There’s so many great bands out there I would love to see just do something funny. So many comedians I would love to get dialed into a darker side. So the list is endless, it really is.
I also find it really remarkable how successful Dethklok has been as a band, let alone as a TV show or characters. Is there one thing you have accomplished with Dethklok that you’re the most proud of?
Honestly, for me as a guy who went to music school and started getting into comedy, when I talked the network into letting me do a record, that was the coolest thing I could have thought of because I had never really put out a record before. The fact that I had a record in my hand with album artwork with special thanks, liner notes and all that stuff, that to me was like “Ok, I’m good!” Everything beyond this, if it does well or poorly, is totally out of my hands. But I’m just glad I got to make this thing and I got physical proof that I did it. The fact that it became successful, it’s really funny because I don’t think about it really. Maybe it makes me feel better, but I don’t know what it does for me really. And it’s really funny for the network because I have conversations with them and their like “Yeah, we’ve sold like almost a million with the first and second record, but we kind of don’t give a shit. We’re a TV network.”
That’s really funny to me because not only have the albums done really well, but I think they’re still the best selling death metal albums.
Well, they’re the highest charting death metal albums. They may still be, I’m not sure. At that time, of course they were. But hey, it’s what happens when you have TV networks behind you. They reach millions of people, and labels just don’t have that kind of marketing power. And people buy it, and that’s the difference with metal. Metal guys buy stuff. They actually support artists, whereas almost every other style of music is about stealing the music.
I know releasing Galaktikon is the focus right now, but are there any plans for touring? Maybe for both Galaktikon and Dethklok?
Galaktikon, I don’t think I’ve got time this year for that stuff. Maybe, let’s say the record does well, then maybe I’ll put a thing together. But basically, since I’m doing it myself, all I’m focusing on is to just get the record out there, make sure people download it, make sure it’s downloadable, make sure the files sound good, make sure the artwork is good and the linear notes are spell checked. All that stupid boring stuff. Beyond that, I’ll see. I know I don’t have time right now. As far as Dethklok goes, depending on what happens with contracts in the next couple weeks, we may have something pretty cool to announce.
Cool, well I guess I can’t push for any more details about that.
I learned as a younger man that whenever you say something, it ends up being wrong and shit doesn’t go right. And people start asking you “Hey, I thought you were supposed to tour with blablabla or something?” So yeah, I’ve got nothing to announce.