Off-Beat Interview With Brendon Small OF Metapocalypse/Dethklok
October 9, 2009
By: Marisa Connelly
Attaining huge mainstream success with a death metal band is nearly impossible, yet Brendon Small has done it with a band that kinda-sorta doesn't actually exist. For Dethklok, (currently on tour with Mastodon, Converge and High On Fire) real life has now imitated their on screen success. Brendon chatted on the phone with me one recent afternoon about the greatest selling death metal band of all time, and about the art of balancing the “band” with the show created for them. He also explained a lot about what it takes to write a hit cartoon series, and the future of Metalocalypse.
SDM: Do initial ideas for the show come naturally to you? Are you always thinking up goofy s@it or ways to kill people? Or do you really have to spend time brainstorming?
Brendon: To be honest, every once in a while an idea comes easily. The show is not so easy to write. And I've actually brought in writers for the third season to help write and it was really tough for them too. It's really tricky to manhandle stuff. But there's certain stuff our show does and there's certain stuff our show doesn't do. We experimented with some weird stuff at the top of the whole series where we'd awaken trolls and all that stuff, but realized that if we continued doing stuff like that the show's longevity would be compromised. I think you end up getting diminishing returns when you have zero stakes in the world where anything can happen. We want to make sure it's still based on some sort of exaggerated reality. So, yeah, I say no to more things than I say yes to. We scrutinized everything pretty hard, especially in this third season where a little more concentration is on story because we're doing a half hour now. So there's a little bit more scrutiny going on; if it plays funny then it works, and if it continues being funny, we keep it. If it's boring we cut it, and sometimes we cut funny stuff to make room for other funny stuff, but nothing is easy. My staff of people will tell you that. They've been more exhausted this year than any other year. This third season is very hard, but it's up and running. It's been worth the treachery and the brutality, but this third season I think is going to be the best season so far.
SDM: Cool! But I admit I'm very jealous that you have a staff of writers. I wish I had that!
Brendon: Yeah, I did, but I still end up writing most of it myself and I'm still writing stuff. If for some reason I get duped into doing another season of this show. Basically I had like a couple days with writers, I didn't have a full blown staff sitting there writing stuff all day long. I'd like to change that... should I continue this thing.
SDM: OK, so besides having 30 minute episodes, what's going to be different in the new season of Metalocalypse?
Brendon: Well the thing is, it's more a story thing. I'm moving this show towards a place that I've always been moving it towards, incrementally. When either I or the network decides to end the show, I know where the show is ending, and what I'd say is that TV is ultimately about how strong your characters are. I don't think people give that much a shit about the story at the end of the day. I think they want to hang out with these people every week. I mean, there are some fun things that will happen that people will remember, but ultimately if your characters are really up and running and have developed their personalities, you don't really have any worries. You still have to have them do shit every week that's fun to do. But in my opinion, personally, I watch a lot of TV and I think a lot of characters are very weak. And if our characters are ridiculous celebrities that can hardly open doors or whatever, we still can give them their own sets of layers, likes and dislikes, and things that make them their own people. Things they would and wouldn't do and all that stuff, so ultimately my concentration for season three is continuing on furthering character stuff. Within that there's a bunch of just dopey stupid shit that has nothing to do with character, it's just all stupid. And within that also is a lot of story to service, because we left the second season pretty dark and precarious. The first episode deals a lot with that.
SDM: So, speaking of characters, I have yet to see a strong female protagonist in Metalocalypse. I've seen antagonists, or some females that are maybe in a couple episodes, but they're not a main character. So is there any reason why there hasn't been a female protagonist?
Brendon: I don't know. Yeah, there isn't, really. It's strange when you're sitting on a tour bus with eight dudes that smell horrible! That's kind of all I've seen really, so far. You got a good idea though. There's no reason why there's not. It certainly isn't an anti-female show. But in this world of metal, thus far, the strong characters have all been dudes.
SDM: Well, metal in real life can be very misogynistic.
Brendon: Yeah, it's dude-driven and it doesn't always need to be, and rock doesn't need to be either. Some of the coolest musicians out there have been girls; from Debbie Harry to whoever.
SDM: For sure! So, Dethalbum II debuted at #15 on the Billboard charts. Awesome! How successful do you think Dethklok would be if it was just a band, and not attached to a cartoon?
Brendon: Um, probably not successful at all. I don't know. I mean, from the dawn of musical history people needed a gimmick to sell records, you know? From The Monkees to The Archies to KISS, all that stuff. And this is also a gimmick. I'll be the first to tell you that without a TV show, we wouldn't be anything. I think there's definitely... every record needs to stand on it's own and the TV show needs to stand on it's own. Tto have any success it's all luck at this point. I don't necessarily do the music for anyone else but myself. I don't really consider what people will think of it. I think about how much I like it and if I like it enough, it goes on the record. If I don't like it, I throw it back in the trash and maybe re-work it later or abandon it completely. The TV show is something I have to really think about the audience, because I have to go, “Alright, if I have them all go to this store, what is the reason?” I have to tell the audience the reason and here are the jokes. You have to explain everything to the audience. I obsess over a lot of stuff just to make sure it's totally understood. When you're writing a script, it ends up being kind of boring and meticulous because it's all about clarity, you know? It's really shitty even though it's in an absurd stupid death metal world, it ends up being about clarity. On the music side, I don't care if people understand it. In my mind when I hear music, there's an objectivity to it. When I'm writing scripts, there isn't, you know? And I can write a riff to a click track that makes a lot of sense and I understand the energy to it, and where it's going and how it's changing. But in a script, I still have to read it in front of a group of people like, “Is this f*cking funny? Or am I out of my mind?” And that's what every stand-up comic is doing when they go on stage with new material, they're saying, “Am I f*cking crazy? Is this funny? No one's laughing?” And there's your answer.
SDM: I heard that you first went in to stand-up comedy to help you overcome stage fright? Is that true?
Brendon: It was, but also I was driven to the world of comedy. I guess with that it really served two purposes. I definitely didn't want to live life as a person with any kind of social neurosis, and I figured the best way to overcome that was to force myself into the most difficult position possible, which was doing stand-up in front of strangers.
SDM: Was writing the second album any different from the first? Did you write full songs this time, or write just the parts for the episodes initially, and then create that into an album?
Brendon: There's a lot of new stuff that didn't happen in the songs that happened on the record. So I basically wanted to keep stuff just fresh for myself. I wanted to have these B or C or D sections that didn't occur in the song whatsoever. And then , you know, between doing a record with 21 songs-over an hour and a half worth of material, you learn how to do things better and you have a natural... you've been around the block once and you know how to get to things quicker. I've been recording so much for the show, I'll pay a little more attention to making sure I played it better on the record. I want to make sure I factor in that amount of time. For the show, it's like, “Alright, that's good enough. They get the idea.”
SDM: I can't wait to see you in in Albany in a few weeks, how much of the new album are you playing live versus older stuff?
Brendon: The thing is, it's funny. At the end of the day you're at the mercy of your time, budget, and resources. I wanted to do a lot of stuff from the old record because it's really fun to play live, and some of it just has a really great live tempo. But I also wanted to bring in some of the super fast sh*t from the new record because our live show is a good medium-fast tempo from the last one and I wanted to see how much faster we could make the live show, so I brought in some of the faster songs. We also needed to animate it and you need budgets for all that stuff. So, it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to make these things happen, so I'm begging people for money and I'm only getting so much. But I got a good amount, so we have five new songs from the new record. And then some of the favorites from the first record, so I'm really happy with the pacing and the tone of this live show.
SDM: OK, cool! So, how did you pick your live band?
Brendon: I actually just picked what I thought were the best musicians that I knew, or had heard of, ever. That's why they're there. Gene Hoglan is obviously a legendary drummer. Mike Keneally is one of the most amazing lead guitarists and one of the most creative people, and has an amazing history. Bryan Beller is the same. I consider them to be super-musicians. They can do anything, anytime, any place. They dwarf me musically. Which I think is important; to be around people that are much better than you, rather than the other way around. I don't want to be working, driving a band like, “No! This is where it's supposed to happen!” I look to them like, “How does the song that I wrote go?” So, that's how it happens.
SDM: Any news on the new video game, Metalocalypse: Dethgame?
Brendon: No, it's kind of in a strange place right now, and I can't really report anything. It was supposed to come out, and it didn't, and that's all I know. I'll have to talk to PR about that, to know what I can or can't say. But if it comes out, it will be worth it! That's all I have to say.
SDM: Because you're obviously a pretty busy guy, is touring a sort of break for you? Do you get to just focus on the tour? Or is more of a (for lack of a better term) clusterf*ck?
Brendon: It's more of a clusterf*ck. First of all, you're just exhausted from traveling, city to city, it just makes you tired. Secondly, I have more stuff to write. I have two episodes to finish, soon! And I have more music to write. I'm downloading animatics and looking at animations constantly. I'm out of the frying pan and into the fire and the second I finish the tour, I'm walking right back into the studio and getting a cup of coffee, sitting down with everybody and getting right back to work. This thing is just never going to end!
SDM: Haha! Well, thank you very very much for taking some time today to talk with me. Can't wait to see the show!
Brendon: Thank you! I'll see you in Albany. It will be fun!