The virtual death metal band Dethklok has billions—yes, billions—of fans, and are a cultural influence and a driving economic force.
The group boasts a whole bunch of “fictional facts” that are, quite frankly, too comical to believe. As the focal point of the animated series Metalocalypse, the members of Dethklok are Nathan Explosion, Skwisgaar Skwigelf, Toki Wartooth, William Murderface, and Pickles. They’re not the brightest tools in the shed, as they are portrayed as aloof, stupid even, while the powers that be around them are often plotting much to the band’s demise.
The show appropriately airs on Adult Swim, with a TV-MA rating, as the content is often morbid—violent even—and often channels ironic humor. And to maintain the credibility of the characters’ too-hot-for-tv language, the usual “bleeps” are replaced by pinch harmonics.
The mastermind behind the characters of Dethklok, self-proclaimed “guitar nerd” Brendon Small, brought the concept of the band to life with the first official Dethklok album, aptly titled The Dethalbum, released in September 2007, about a year after the cartoon’s premiere. And while the real-world act hardly scratched the surface of its cartoon counterpart’s smashing success, the album debuted at number 21 on the Billboard Top 200 list. Its 2009 follow-up, Dethalbum II, peaked at number 15 on the Billboard 200 chart and sold 45,000 copies during the first week of its release.
This October, the band is back at it again with the release of the third installment of the Dethalbum record, which features music from the second, third and fourth seasons of the show. Small and his musical cohorts—bassist and backup vocalist Bryan Beller, drummer Gene Hoglan and guitarist Mike Keneally—kicked off a 30-city tour with All That Remains, Machine Head, and The Black Dahlia Murder on Oct. 30.
Small took some time out from his multi-faceted busy schedule to talk metal composition, why he took his guitar smarts to YouTube, and what Metalocalypse fans can expect during the upcoming season.
Congratulations on the release of Dethalbum III, out now via Williams Street Records. Where did you draw inspiration and what was the composition process like?
My composition process is really strange and I don’t know anybody else who does it this way; I write parts of a song, for the tv show [Metalocalypse], and I’ll do it very quickly. I’ll spend about two hours on it. Then I’ll come back to it and write some lyrics in about a month and a half, maybe two months, and then I’ll have about 45 minutes of music. And then I’ll revisit it like a year and a half or two years later and try to make it into a song. The goal is to see if I’m interested in listening to the song. If I’m getting through song without getting bored, that’s the objective. I always consider myself the audience, for the tv show, too. If not, I usually get rid of it and get sick of it.
If you write something very quickly and use your instincts, and then forget about it and go back to it months later, you’re surprised with what you did at the time, and then it feels very fresh and new, and I get to correct things I wasn’t crazy about during the last go around. I can make it up as I go along. I’ll show it to Gene on drums or Bryan on bass, or Ulrich Wild, who engineered, co-produced and mixed, but ultimately, there’s nobody between me and the label. So whatever gets on the record is pretty much what I feel like should be there. Having all those weird gaps of time in between composition creates a little more objectivity and [gives me the opportunity to be] “sick of shit.” And sometimes I’m just writing stuff and saying it’s a placeholder, and I’ll go back to it.
You’re gearing up for a headlining tour with Machine Head, All That Remains, and The Black Dahlia Murder. What are you most looking forward to on tour, to collaborate with such a comprehensive, influential group of bands?
These bands are incredibly cool. I’m a big fan of Black Dahlia Murder, in particular. I’m somewhat friendly with them and they’re really cool. I don’t know the other guys as well, but I’m excited to go out and play, and be loud. I’m more of a part-time musician. Most of what I do is not music—I do it for a concentrated amount of time. Metalocalypse takes up more of my time, as well as other projects I do. Ultimately, when I go on tour, I want to make sure my dumb amps and guitars work. And let’s hope people buy tickets and show up—that’s very important.
Shortly after you released your solo album, Galaktikon, this past April, you introduced your weekly “shred-ucation” sessions on YouTube to educate aspiring guitarists. What made you want to do that?
I’m a guitar nerd. I grew up with instructional videos and I know that they’re incredibly helpful. I know how many guitar players there are out there. I know a lot of them watch our show. I know that because we sell a lot of tablature books and guitars. There’s a big audience for the show. One of the reasons I wanted to have this show is because, if I were 15 years old, this would be my show. If I were a guy discovering guitar, carving out my identify through being a guitarist, I’d think this show would be fun to watch. People need to realize there’s a guitar sitting out there, waiting for you to play it. It’s not impossible and no one that plays guitar well is magic—they just worked really hard at it. You just have to practice it.
As the creator of Metalocalypse, you are interestingly multi-talented. You fuse the art of metal music with animation. It’s such a great show at face value with a great storyline, but integrating the elements of metal, music composition and hard vocals makes it that much more impressive. What inspired you to create a “virtual death metal band” and the show?
The big thing that would make a show like this different than any other the show is a lot of attention has to be paid to the music. It can’t just be generic rock or generic metal. I knew it would have specific, and be what I would want a metal band to sound like if I were in charge of it. That’s how it all came together. When I sold the concept of the show, I called the head of the network. I said I had this idea about this extreme metal show, but the characters would be the biggest entertainment act in the universe, as opposed to having the band be on its way out.
That’s what Spinal Tap did, and that’s why it’s great—they did it the best. We thought, “Why [not] have them be the biggest entertainment act on Earth?” And they’re pretty much fueling the economy; they’re bigger than Belgium. If they were that big, what then are the cultural effects? I said, “Here’s the show idea.” The network told me to write a treatment for it. I spent the next few months figuring out what the music sounds like. It’s cheaper than it is to make a record than it is to make a tv show, and I thought a tv show ultimately could get canceled really quickly if it doesn’t catch on. If I could just make this tv show work and get people excited about it, then maybe I could just quit the tv show and make the music. That was the whole idea.
The last episode of the season was a cliffhanger, to say the least. Now that the characters on the show are privy to the conspiracy happening around them, can you share anything about what’s next for the show?
I don’t do a good job at telling people what’s going to happen on the show. I leave people in the lurch. I don’t want anyone to really know what’s going to happen next, but at this point, I think you’ve got all the information you need to have for the show; they say at the very last moment of the season they’re finally aware of their surroundings. That was the biggest part of the season, to make them aware of their own story. Will they turn from these narcissistic idiots into potential heroes? That’s the question. That’s where we’re at right now.
Will the show continue?
Oh yeah, I’ve got more of the story to tell. I don’t think it’s going to be a bunch of quarter hours or half hours. I’m trying to go for a longer amount of time to tell the next part of the story. We’ll see what the network comes back with.
What can fans expect to see from Dethklok in a live performance?
We’re supposed to sound like Dethklok, but we’re not supposed to look like Dethklok. We have this big movie theater style screen that we’re locked in with through a click track that’s running through the drummer’s headset. The way I originally pitched the show is that it should be a Disneyland ride but with murder and tits. That’s the way it should feel, a big, stupid Universal Studios thing. But it’s about the audience each time. We have new songs. We have all new comedy sketches. [Film director, producer and screenwriter] Werner Herzog is doing the whole intro, and it’s amazing that we got him to do this.
It’s a self-contained show. I’m not interested in wearing out our welcome on stage. I’ve been to so many shows. One great thing about metal bands is that they do their thing, they get off stage and they make you want more so you come around next time.
I somehow found the best band that’s alive right now to play with me. I exclude myself from those people because I am definitely the weak link, which I’m very happy to be. If I were the best person in the band, it’d be shitty, and I’d have to fire them all. If anyone is going to make a mistake, it’s always me. They’re so amazingly tight. I can brag about that, as long as I exclude myself from that. With the band alone, even if we didn’t have the cartoon show, it would still be a good show.
Dethklok’s new album, Dethalbum III, initially released on Oct. 16, will be out on vinyl Nov. 6. See them at The Electric Factory on Oct. 31 and the Roseland Ballroom on Nov. 3. For more information, go to adultswimcentral.com.