Metalocalypse Now

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.WEB CLIPSExtended interview: learn about Small's inspiration for music, character voices, underscoring, and more
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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?

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 …

Click to continue reading "Metalocalypse Now"

FIG. 1: Brendon Small in the voice-over room at Titmouse studios, where he can track and edit dialog directly to picture using Pro Tools LE.

Do you change guitars when you do your overdubs for the different players, or do you keep the same guitar and the same setting?

I'll change pickups sometimes, but for the most part I'll try to change the way I play more than I change the guitar. In my mind, if I'm doing a Skwisgaar lead, it's very technical and it's got a lot of overacting in it: a lot of vibrato, a lot of drama to it. If I'm doing what I think is a Toki lead, it's a little bit more straightforward, more pentatonic. He's more of an Iron Maiden kind of guitar player to an Yngwie Malmsteen, who is the Skwisgaar character.

For authenticity in the animation, you've greenscreened some of the guitar playing, right?

I've done some stuff where I've gone into the greenscreen room because the lighting's really good. I'll say, “Here's what I'm doing,” and I'll play with the song. “And the rhythm guitar player is doing this other thing.” It ends up looking cool when you see them side by side lining up rhythmically.

But we also decided that everything in this world is a little bit extreme. This is the kind of band where, when they watch TV, they change the channels with a stompbox on the ground. Everything is music driven.

It's interesting that you have endorsement deals for the show. Is that something you asked for, or did they come after you?

It's something Tommy and I asked for from the beginning. I'm a guitar geek: I grew up knowing who played what instrument, like Slash played Gibson. I've played Gibsons for years, too [see Fig. 2]. My first guitar was an Epiphone. [Small describes how he uses the Gibson HD.6X-Pro Digital Les Paul in Web Clip 3.]

We had a connection at Gibson who knew about Adult Swim and knew about my other show, Home Movies, so he kind of knew who I was. I told him I wanted to animate guitars and have them played accurately. That this would be a show for guitar geeks and metalheads, and people who like music.

He got it, and they sent us the CAD files, the 3-D blueprints. We traced a bunch of the guitars themselves, because guitars are hard to draw, especially the asymmetrical ones like the Explorers. For example, we made sure the Thunderbird bass looked right and was played the way a bass player would play it. We would stand there with the bass and say to the artists, “This is Murderface. He has the lowest strap in the world. He can hardly reach his strings, but this is how he does it and it looks cool.”

We emailed other companies and said, “We have an Adult Swim TV show. Call me back.” Some people did and some people didn't. But Line 6 got it. Krank Amps got it. Digidesign got it. I wanted to show actual Pro Tools sessions on the screen. It makes everything a little bit more authentic. And I actually use this stuff when creating the music for the show. It's stuff we like, and the manufacturers we work with are really cool.

It legitimizes the musical aspect of the show.

Yeah, it does. I haven't seen a show do it before. I don't think the creators of Josie and the Pussycats or Jem! and the Holograms paid a great deal of attention to the musical instruments on those shows. And they'd just put in a loop, so the hands don't match the action.

How do you process your voice to get Nathan's tone?

After years of doing a Louis Armstrong impression, it's not that difficult.

You don't have to pitch-shift your voice?

No. My voice sounds like it's a lot lower, but I'm only giving the illusion of a lower voice. The tone of my voice is actually the same as my speaking voice. I just put gravelly, grumbly sound underneath it.

I use that awesome Universal Audio 6176: I just brighten my voice like crazy and it brings out the raspy lower qualities. For the TV show, I may put a little bit of chorus on it. On the record, Ulrich layered fuzzier sounds than I would normally use.

We also did some stuff where we made it sound like Nathan's underwater for the album. Basically, I recorded all the vocals in my apartment with an Audio-Technica 4040 and the 6176. Then I'd go through the [IK Multimedia] AmpliTube plug-in: I'd take all the effects off, bring in a slow chorus, slow down the rate, and raise the density of the chorus. And I would give that as a temp track to Ulrich and tell him that this is what I usually like — see what you can do with it.

So whatever you create in your personal studio goes into the episodes, and then you rerecorded the longer versions for the album separately?

I took each song and added new bridges and new parts. There's a song called “Murmaider” on the record. The only thing that existed on the song in the show was the loop of Nathan singing, “Murmaider. Murmaider. Murmaider.” It was something like a 7-second clip. Online, that was the most requested song of the entire first season [laughs]. So I built a whole song around it about mermaid murder and vengeance, with this stupid checklist of killing instruments and stuff like that. I had to figure out what that song was about.

How difficult was it to extend the songs?

I was cram writing the entire thing. But I had the blueprints for each song from the original versions for the show. I had tons of songs to consider, because I wrote one for every episode. Some episodes had two songs. It was hard to decide which songs would end up on the record.

So we spent 21 days in the studio tracking drums, bass, and rhythm guitar parts. Then Ulrich gave me all the sessions with beat and bar maps of everything on a hard drive. That gave me an easy way to record all the leads and do all the vocals at home. I hadn't written any of the lyrics at that point, either. And I didn't know what half the songs were about.

What did you study at Berklee — guitar, composition, arrangement?

I was a professional-music major with a concentration in composition, which meant that I studied performance and compositional things. In some cases, I studied stuff I simply wasn't ready for, like arranging for horns. Now it makes a lot more sense to me than it did at the time, because you learn at such a fast rate. I learned beyond what I could apply at that school. I wish somebody had grabbed me and shook me and told me, “Don't forget what you liked when you came in here. Don't forget the stuff that you really care about, because that's why you're here.”

FIG. 2: Small in his personal studio demonstrating how the Gibson HD.6X-Pro Digital Les Paul utilizes the breakout box with the six outputs. Also visible is the Universal Audio 6176, the M-Audio 02, and the Digidesign Digi 003.

Did you have to relearn what you liked?

I kind of did. That's why I was in comedy: I said “See you later” to music for a couple of years. “I'm going to try to get good at doing stand-up and performing and acting and writing. I'll leave the music where it is for now. When I need it, I'll come back to it and hopefully I'll find something good to do with it.”

Did you incorporate music into your comedy?

Actually, I tried not to do that. There were tons of people that would bring an acoustic guitar onstage and do parody songs. I wrote a couple of experimental rock operas that were very short and condensed and would tell a big story and would be more arranged. But they needed work [laughs].

It started to make a little more sense on the show Home Movies, where I went from being a perfectionist — the kind of a Berklee point of view which I used to have — to a sloppy musician who would give myself an hour and a half to write and record something, and whenever it was done, that's it. And that would air on TV, and I'd be stuck with it. So I'd just try to boil it down to instincts, which seemed to be the best thing for me.

When I'm thinking of chords, it's instinctual. I try not to think too often of theory. If I paint myself into a corner, then I'll think that way: “I can go here, here, here, or here.” Whether it's comedy or music, writing is about making decisions: you have tons of options and you just go with one of them. The best thing, for me, is to know what the options are.

What was your first personal studio like?

I had an iMac with Pro Tools Free. I plugged my guitar into the Line 6 POD and, using a ¼-inch-to-⅛-inch adapter, into the microphone input of the computer. I recorded stuff that was broadcast on TV. It was just really solid guitar tone.

I used that setup for the guitar contest episode of Home Movies. But it was super-lo-fi. That's where I come from: home Fostex recording.

Did you have a multitrack cassette player at some point?

I did, but I kept trying to graduate. In music school they were teaching us [Opcode Systems] Studio Vision at the time, and I was just getting my feet wet. At the same time, around '96 or so, I was interning at jingle houses and everyone was switching over from analog to digital. The main thing I wanted to learn was how to record-enable a track. Everything else was shortcuts.

What did you take away from working in a jingle house?

That I wasn't very interested in working on jingles. The main life lesson I learned is that I'm too much of a control freak to be very far back in postproduction. And if I'm going to be in postproduction, then I at least want to be the guy who's giving myself the orders in preproduction. Luckily I've gotten a job where I get to decide what the musician does, and I happen to be the musician on the show.

It's interesting that an earlyMetalocalypseepisode included a coffee jingle.

I think jingles are hilarious. The other important thing I learned was to have a bag of tricks. When somebody needs something, you can think stylistically for a while, but you need to have a batch of chords that you can go to in a lot of different styles. I have a limited bag of tricks, but I do have one if somebody needs something on the spot.

Those jingle guys were amazing musicians: they would have to write a demo in under an hour and a half. You don't really have time to do anything other than find out what style the client wants, listen to a CD reference, and figure out the instrumentation. The chords can be anything, as long as it's in that style. They would do it immediately, even if they weren't familiar with hip-hop or whatever. That was the part that was exciting to me. And sometimes it ends up being better when you're not constantly overthinking stuff.

The spontaneity and the immediacy translate.

This whole record, except for the guitar solos and the vocals, was incredibly spontaneous. I had to actually get my fingers in shape for the guitar solos. And I'd spend a day on the vocals for each piece. I'd spend the first half of the day writing ridiculously stupid lyrics, and then record them in a Louis Armstrong voice [laughs].

When you record the vocals at home, are they temporary or the final vocals?

I did all the final vocals for the record right here with the Audio-Technica mic plugged right into the 6176.

Do you get song ideas while you're writing an episode, or do you just write the songs and get the ideas later on?

In the first season, we had a little bit more time to get things together. So we'd come up with song titles like “Briefcase Full of Guts,” about a guy who's going door-to-door and murdering his clients. But it's all sales metaphors about how work sucks. We used “ABK” for “always be killing” instead of “always be closing,” like in Glengarry Glen Ross. We're making David Mamet references in metal.

Tommy came up with the intro to “Birthday Dethday”: “Many years ago, something grew inside of your mother. That thing was you.” That was the lyric, and it's just a ridiculous song. Then I'll take it from there. But most of the time, we don't have time and I'll just write everything myself. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I just do it here at home.

After the show has been scripted?

The animators need something to animate to, so I'll at least have a click track and a guitar riff. And I'll commit to a tempo: I'm not committing to anything else. Then at some point they say, “We need lyrics now, because we have to start animating.” “How much time do I have?” “An hour.” “Okay, I'll be back.” I just do everything fast and try to make it funny. And nine times out of ten, it'll just be a speed thing. It's the same with writing riffs.

If I have more time, I'll use that time doing nothing. My whole theory about writing is that 90 percent of writing anything is not writing, is doing anything but writing. Like watching TV or walking around the block. When I'm about to get in trouble, that's when I start writing [laughs].

When you give the animators a click track, is it an exact length of time?

I'll sometimes give them a bed of music to work with. Except for a couple of situations, like the main theme and the coffee jingle, most of the songs allude to being longer, and we do a hard cut or a fade as we pull out of a sequence. I do as much as I can in that amount of time. I'll arrange it and try to make that part sound good.

What do you deliver to them? A Pro Tools file?

I usually do most of the mixing of the songs myself. I'll commit to all that stuff here. I'll bounce down to either AIFF or WAV files. If I'm going to check it against picture, it's usually AIFFs, which work best in [Apple] Final Cut. If I'm going to a Pro Tools session, I'll usually use WAV files, and try to make it the highest resolution.

Does the mix include the voices?

I have to separate the vocals, because they have to have them on the dialog track. Sometimes there will be bad words in the vocals and I have to bleep them.

I was surprised to find that the profanity was still bleeped out on the season 1 DVD.

That was a budget issue. We would have to reexport all of the audio from the original masters at the production house, and they would have charged us more money. And we wanted to use the money on more animation and stuff like that.

Whose idea was it to put the guitar squeals over the profanity?

The Zak Wylde things? That was me and Tommy. It makes it more violent than it originally was. If it's the f word, we can use a little bit of the f, because it's shown late at night, and a little of the k sound, and it always has to happen right in the middle. We try to keep in what the word was. It becomes less funny when you don't know what the word is.

You can see the mouths moving, too.

You can definitely see the animated f sound.

Who were the characters of the band based on?

Nobody is based on one particular person. Tommy and I discussed a lot of archetypes. Like the really good guitar player, and the other guitar player who's not as good and is a second-class citizen. So in Dethklok we have the fastest guitarist alive and the second fastest, and that creates a little bit of friction. In metal the bass is completely mixed out almost all the time. So we have a self-hating bass player who's always trying to act like he's more important than he is. The singer is kind of a quarterback, and the drummer helps write a lot of songs. I thought the drummer should be able to do a bunch of stuff, like Roger Taylor in Queen. Even though it's not based on his personality, it's what he can do in the band and what parts of the songs he does contribute to.

Nathan has a sort of Danzig vibe.

Yeah, people thought Danzig. Honestly, we thought Conan the Barbarian would be an awesome front man. But the way that he moves we actually did base on a person: George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher from the band Cannibal Corpse. If you see Cannibal Corpse live, you'll know exactly what we're talking about.

For Skwisgaar, we created a blond Swede — a handsome guy who thinks he's the greatest thing in the world, with a little bit of Yngwie Malmsteen in his attitude. Toki is Norwegian to Skwisgaar's Swedish, pompous attitude. And, again, a second-class citizen in the same band.

You have rock-star voice cameos in the show, but they don't play on the soundtrack.

We hired the musicians to do voice-over acting only. I don't have the time to work back and forth with musicians when there's only a half hour to create something for the show.

And I don't want my name on the record too much. I'd rather have people think that the music was created by a cartoon band, not by people you recognize.

Gino Robair is the editor of EM.

Rock Around the 'Klok

Brendon Small describes the studio in the corner of his cramped apartment as “incredibly minimal,” but it's totally responsible for the brutal sound of Dethklok. “It's the ultimate in simplicity. Like something a college kid would have. It's just about instrument choice and consistency for the show.” His gear list includes:

Audio-Technica 4040 mic
Digidesign Digi 003
Eden Electronics WTX260
Gibson Explorer
Gibson HD.6X-Pro Digital
Les Paul

Gibson SG
Krank Amps (various)
Line 6 POD
M-Audio Axiom 49 and 02
Universal Audio 6176
Yorkville YSM1P monitors

Additional Resources

Brendon Small teaches the Metalocalypse theme

Brendon Small: The Thor von Clemson Advanced Fast-Hand Finger Wizard Master Class

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