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Metalocalypse Now

Feb 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Gino Robair

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Metalocalypse co-creator Brendon Small creates all of the music of the fictional band Dethklok in his home studio. In this interview, he talks about scoring the show.

Read the online-only supplement to this Brendon Small article here.

Extended interview: learn about Small's inspiration for music, character voices, underscoring, and more


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man standing next to computer desk and hanging microphone

Photography by Beatriz Thibeaux

As the band kicks into overdrive and the guitarists do hair windmills, hot coffee and cream spill out over the audience, injuring even more fans. It's a typical show for Dethklok, a band so powerful that a secret governmental tribunal is trying to destroy it in order to prevent the coming apocalypse.

Welcome to the world of Metalocalypse, an animated series in the Cartoon Network's late-night programming block Adult Swim. Created by Brendon Small and Tommy Blacha, Metalocalypse is a lovingly satirical tribute to metal and possibly the most astute look at the genre since This Is Spinal Tap. The members of Dethklok — Nathan Explosion (vocals), Skwisgaar Skwigelf (lead guitar), Toki Wartooth (rhythm guitar), William Murderface (bass), and Pickles (drums/vocals) — are suitably self-absorbed rock archetypes that have grown to hate their fans so much, they've written a hit song about it.

But unlike other animated shows that feature music, Metalocalypse was conceived by musicians who wanted every detail to be as realistic as possible, from the fingering of the guitar solos down to the instruments and amps themselves. Small, an accomplished guitarist and composer who attended Berklee College of Music, scores the music in each 11-and-a-half-minute episode in his modest personal studio (see the sidebar “Rock Around the 'klok”). His previous work includes the show Home Movies (UPN, 2000), in which music also featured heavily. (See Web Clip 1 for a video interview with Metalocalypse cocreator Tommy Blacha.)

Although Small scores the episodes at home, the acting is tracked at Titmouse Inc., an independent animation studio in Hollywood, where the show is produced. The company's 2-room recording studio includes a vocal booth big enough for two actors (see Fig. 1). The booth is set up with a Mac-based Digidesign Pro Tools LE system, allowing the actors to track and edit themselves with greater flexibility and creativity when faced with crushing deadlines (see Web Clip 2).

When I interviewed Small in October 2007, he was knee-deep in the second season of Metalocalypse while busily preparing for a live Dethklok tour. As we drove from the animation studio to his apartment, he played me a recent remix of “Go into the Water” from The Dethalbum (Williams Street, 2007), featuring soaring Brian May-like guitar harmonies and furious double-time bass drumming.

Is this a new version we're listening to?

Yes. Hear those double kicks? The kids complained that they weren't on the album version of the song, which is more marchlike than the TV version. This one keeps the pace happening a little faster. I asked Ulrich Wild, the coproducer, mixer, and engineer on The Dethalbum, to put the 16th notes back in. We had to change the hi-hats a little bit, too, but he found some really good samples and it sounds great.

It's funny. I just put out this record, and there are purists that like the TV show versions of the songs better than the superproduced studio stuff. But we did the record differently and had Gene Hoglan play on all the songs. I program all the drums for the show, because we don't have enough time or money to get into a real studio. I do everything straight into Pro Tools LE. I'll create a demo and then later I'll clean it up at home.

What drum program do you use?

I use [Propellerhead] Reason all the time. I'm a lazy drum programmer. I normally don't program fills, because I don't have time and I'm not good at it.

For the short songs, you don't really need fills, right?

man sitting down

I don't. You'll hear a lot of reverse church bells and reverse cymbals, where a fill would advance the song to the next section. I try to use more of the music side to advance it, like a cool guitar-lead fill or reverse sound effects. I use reverse timpani a lot. I made the decision in the first episode that that'll be part of the Dethklok sound. I use it to start a song off, too, if I don't have a really cool drum fill to get into it.

That's a great guitar tone.

That's the Krank amp. I'm tuned down to C, so I get all this extra play and vibrato. They use really wide vibrato in metal.

On the melody, that's cocked wah and the Line 6 POD. My version of the Queen/Brian May tone is usually a cocked wah, and then I try playing like him, ripping off that slightly pinched harmonic kind of thing that he gets.

How many rhythm guitar tracks did you do?

I doubled everything. It was interesting to work with Ulrich. My guitar playing is okay for a guy that does comedy for a living. But he really put me through the wringer. He was not going to Pro Tools it up. He made me play it right, which was good.

When it's locked in, it makes things sound a thousand times heavier, especially when you have the left and right [channels] as closely matched as possible. Ulrich has worked with Dimebag Darrell and a bunch of great guitar players. I would ask him after sessions, when my arm was sore, “How would these other guys do it?” He said, “A lot of times you have to do it over and over again to make it work.”

And every time I recorded a solo for the record, I'd get just good enough to get through the whole thing, and then my arms would turn into Jell-O.

How many takes do you do of a solo for the show?

I'll loop it and work on it forever. Then I'll record a bunch of stuff and maybe find a part that's the beginning of the solo. Then I'll try to do it in its long, complete form, if I can.

You don't comp your solos?

I will sometimes. I'll try to play it, though. But if it's getting late …

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