IF YOU GO
• What: "Metalocalypse": Dethklok featuring Machine Head, All That Remains and Black Dahlia Murder.
• When: 6 p.m. today, Dec. 6.
• Where: Track 29, 1400 Market St.
• Admission: $35.
• Phone: 521-2929.
• Venue website: www.track29.co.
Brendon Small -- vocals/guitar
Gene Hoglan -- drums
Mike Keneally -- guitar/backing vocals
Bryan Beller -- bass/backing vocals
Pete Griffin -- bass
It's not often a venue hosts a performance by a cartoon band, but tonight, Dethklok, the animated death-metal quintet from Adult Swim's "Metalocalypse," will take the stage at Track 29.
Technically, the band will "perform" a pre-animated show synched to music played by a live ensemble led by guitarist/vocalist Brendon Small, who created the show in 2006, writes its music and serves as its primary voice actor.
"This tour is something I don't get to do that often because I'm usually busy making a TV show," Small explained. "It's really fun to be able to put on a [concert] like this and have a budget for it and be able to animate an entire fun, ridiculous thing. It's like going on a stupid Disneyland ride -- but there's murder."
Small took time to answer questions about his hopes for the show when he created it, how metal fans have responded to it and what the audience can expect tonight.
Q Is the cartoon Dethklok the kind of band you would have listened to as a teenager?
A I think in terms of "Would I want to be doing that?" as opposed to "Would I follow that band around?" When I write about "Metalocalypse" ... I think about myself when I was that age and try to do something that would have caught my eye as a 15-year-old.
For example, I make sure that the guitar-playing is accurate in the animation. Also, when we put the show together, I wanted to make sure the humans were of human proportion so they could carry actual guitars in the show.
Q Do you worry that "Metalocalypse" parodying metal music has negatively affected the genre?
A I get very few negative remarks. The people who get upset about Dethklok and "Metalocalypse's" success are typically people who haven't had their success with their own thing, or they say "This is not true metal," even though I never said it was.
Honestly, what my goal is is to make music that I enjoy playing and listen to with this project, and that's what I've done. We take the music as seriously as possible when we're playing it. We have this gigantic cartoon that's playing with us on this huge LCD JumboTron, and it's completely synched up with the music we're playing. It's extremely satisfying to see the music and the video at the same time.
Q In "Metalocalypse," the members of Dethklok are portrayed as self-absorbed imbeciles. What kind of feedback have you received from metal musicians about that portrayal?
A I don't think anyone wants to see themselves as that character. I'll get people who are like, "I've got a guy like that in my band." I think everyone has a Murderface in their band somewhere. There is always that squeaky wheel who doesn't do anything for the band but hold them back and is a loudmouth who drives everyone insane.
Q "Dethalbum III" came out in late October. Is that what you've been playing at shows lately?
A It's a best of "Dethalbum I" and "Dethalbum II," and we have a bunch of stuff from the new record, too. We have four or five songs from the new record that we'll be playing.
CP: You graduated from Berklee School of Music. Did going there in any way prepare you for what you're doing now?
BS: You know, I think you learn a lot of cool tricks in music school. I didn't know what I was going to major in. I just started taking classes, and the classes that I cared about were either performance-oriented styles classes or composing classes - harmony classes and arranging classes, things like that.
Learning a bunch of tricks and understanding chords and inversions, that gives you a big bag of tricks when you have to write a lot of music in a short amount of time. That's what “Metalocalypse” is about, writing things very quickly and committing to them.
CP: Does it negatively affect the quality of the music you write to have to produce it on such a tight deadline? Is
BS: No, you know what? I think the best thing you can do for any kind of writer, for a comedy writer or theater writer or music writer, is to give them a deadline and restrictions. It's nice to have something like, 'OK, here's the deal. You've got to use one of these open strings that's really low, and that will be your key center. It's probably going to be in a minor key. There won't be any kind of major key, and if there is, it can't stay there too long. It can't be too uplifting; it needs to be dark and doomy.” So what do you do with that? What can you do that's interesting and, hopefully, worth listening to with that?
CP: When did you first hear metal music? Who was it and what do you remember liking most about it?
BS: Most of what I think about when I put music together is the music I grew up listening to. Fortunately, before I got into metal, my parents had “A Night at the Opera,” the Queen album. That, to me, was grandiose and big and epic and heavy. It still is. When I go back and listen to “The Prophet Song,” those are some of the heaviest riffs I've heard in my life, and more importantly, it's melodic.
When I was 14 years old, I made up my mind that I needed to do some guitar work and become a guitarist because I liked the sound of it. A friend of mine up the street did play guitar and, in one afternoon, introduced me to everything I probably would need to know, from who King Diamond was to who Metallica was to who Slayer was. He also introduced me to some classic rock stuff. I didn't really know that much about Led Zeppelin, but he showed me all that stuff and Jethro Tull. On my own, I would go find other things I was interested in, singer/songwriter stuff like ELO and David Bowie and The Beatles and all that shit.
My buddy was also very into metal, so Metallica was a really big one for me. King Diamond, the way way he would weave stories into his songs was very exciting to me. I grew up seeing “Tommy” and The Who and all that stuff, so story writing and music all gathered in one place I thought was really cool.
CP: Looking back to that time, if Dethklok was a band, was it the kind of band you would have wanted to be a part of as a teenager?
BS: Umm … I don't know. I have thought this way for a while, but I think in terms of “Would I want to be doing that?” as opposed to “Would I follow that band around?' I think it would be fun to be in Queen, you know? It's like when you see a movie, and you think, “Wouldn't it be fun to play with those actors and act with them?”
When I write about “Metalocalypse” now and how I write it, I think about myself when I was that age and try to do something that would have caught my eye as a 15 year old. I do a lot of stuff in the show that's specifically for me when as a kid discovering guitar.
For example, I make sure that the guitar playing is accurate in the animation. I'll have some kind of tricky guitar playing going on that I think would get me excited.
Also, when we put the show together, I wanted to make sure the humans were of human proportion so they could carry actual guitars in the show. I contacted Gibson and said, “I think the Explorer and the V's are some of the coolest rock guitars that ever existed, and I want to be able to use them. I want you guys to be part of the show.” So I did.
I used a Fender Thunderbird bass and used real amps and all that stuff to make it as realistic for the metal heads and the kids who are excited about guitars. Seeing a real one is way more exciting than seeing a crappy one someone just drew.
I haven't seen anyone design a new guitar that's worth anything in the last maybe 20 years. They're all variations on a theme. The Strat is one really cool looking guitar, and the Les Paul is another really cool looking guitar, and then there's the (Flying) V and the Explorer, and that's it. I thought, “OK, I want these to look like real guitars.”
By the way, we're having a whole bunch of people from the Gibson plant coming to that show.
CP: That's awesome.
BS: The cool thing about Nashville and Gibson is that over the years the relationship with Gibson has grown. We put out a Signature Series Dethklok guitar a couple of years ago - it's called the Thunderhorse Explorer - and it did incredibly well.
What I hoped to happen was to get people excited about the music. We could track the sales of guitars, and we also put out tablature books for all the music, and kids were buying it. When it premiered, it was the fourth most-purchased guitar tablature book between Van Halen and Led Zeppelin. It was really cool. We can say, “This is exciting these guitar kids.”
CP: It's interesting that you take the time to achieve that degree of accuracy when even movie biopics about musicians sometimes don't come anywhere close to actually mimicking real playing.
BS: Exactly, and I'm not even an animator. I just direct people who make the animation. What I would do is, at the end of each episode, I go, “If we have time, I would like to do this. I'd like to do a close up on this thing.” I get a camera on me and basically give the animators a guitar lesson. I go, “OK, I'm on this fret here, and I'm doing this. Watch my right hand and notice how there's hardly any movement at all. It's all about the left hand and that vibrato feel.”
I did that at one point, and we had Billy Gibbons come over at one point doing voices, and I said, “Hey, show Billy Gibbons the sequence of animation.” He watched it and then turned around to me and said, “Hey, that's right. That's pretty cool.” I was like, “Yeah, right?”
But yeah it's amazing. Very few movies have done that accurately. Probably the most accurate music movie I've seen in my life - and I like it when movies really nail it - is “Spinal Tap” because they really are doing everything. They're thinking like musicians and playing like musicians. They're in the world, and the thing is, they're not shining a light on it; it's just around them constantly. As opposed to when you see a movie about cars, and they have to have some moment when you talk about the engines just so people go, “Oh, they really know their cars.” “Spinal Tap” just had music around them constantly, so it was part of their tapestry.
CP: Speaking of “Spinal Tap,” some people have linked that movie's parody of hair metal as being partially responsible for the decline of that genre's popularity. Do you worry about “Metalocalypse” doing the same thing for heavy metal?
BS: I get very few negative remarks. The people who get upset about Dethklok and "Metalocalypse's" success are typically people who haven't had their success with their own thing, or they say “This is not true metal,” even though I never said it was.
Honestly, what my goal is is to make music that I enjoy playing and listen to with this project, and that's what I've done. For everyone else, it's up to them.
I think the thing that we do live that I think is hard to argue with is that we take the music as seriously as possible when we're playing it. When you see us live, you'll see that. We have this gigantic cartoon that's playing with us on this huge LCD jumbotron, and it's completely synched up with the music we're playing. It's extremely satisfying to see he music and the video at the same time.
And I'm playing with monster musicians on stage. That's one thing I can say - excluding myself. I'm playing with one of the best drummers in metal (Gene Hoglan) and Mike Keneally, who is one of the best guitarists living who has played with Frank Zappa and Steve Vai, and Bryan Beller is just a monster bass player. They play so well and have so much fun with it that I think that, if anything, if I were a kid playing music, I would be inspired by that.
Plus, every comedian and every musician wishes they were doing the other thing. We have a lot of comics who get excited by the whole music and comedy thing together. It is fun and exciting. It's fun to make people laugh and to play incredibly difficult, technical things and pull them off in front of a crowd at the same time.
CP: How much intersection is there between the comedy of the cartoon and the live performances? Is it just a straight melodic metal concert or is there a lot of humor worked in?
BS: I think the videos take themselves so seriously to the point of humor, but we have these interstitials where we have a character from the show talk to the audience and do an audience warm up like you would see in the '70s. There's this interaction where there's actually a chant that happens, and the audience participates every single night. It's really strange that they're participating with a pre-recorded cartoon, but it's really, really fun. They're all into the ride.
Then, there's advice they give, like “If you happen to see a lady at a metal concert, here is how you should behave. It probably won't happen, but here's how you treat a lady. Most of you are needle dick virgins.” We have a lot of fun at our audience's expense. [Laughs.] It's kind of the nature of the show, too.
There are parts where there's blatant comedy, but also parts where comedy is out the door and people are experiencing something that is musical and visual and satisfying. They stop moshing and turn their heads. It's amazing to take a rowdy group of thousands of people and have them completely silent and paying attention and waiting to be told a story.
CP: In “Metalocalypse,” the members of Dethklok are portrayed as self-absorbed, imbeciles who can't take care of themselves. What kind of feedback have you received from metal musicians about that portrayal?
BS: I don't think anyone wants to see themselves as that character. I'll get people who are like, “I've got a guy like that in my band.” I think everyone has a Murderface in their band somewhere. They're like, “He's our Murderface, so we've got to deal with that all the time. There is always that squeaky wheel who doesn't do anything for the band but hold them back and is a loud mouth who drives everyone insane.
It's funny, as the show evolves, you'll see that what the show starts out with and ends with are two completely different things, as far as them being a bunch of raging narcissists who are inept and celebrities into something else. As you watch Season 4, you'll see that things do kind of start changing in a way that will be very satisfying to the audience.
CP: There's a lot of chatter online about the characters in Dethklok mirroring actual metal artists. Did you already have those artists in mind when you were coming up with characters?
BS: You know what? That's not true. I'm trying to dispel that because I get that all the time that, “Who are these guys based on? That's clearly blah blah blah.” That's not true. The guy who did the drawings didn't really know anything about metal, so he wasn't trying to draw people who looked like anything.
The one connection we did was that the lead singer's stage presence is modeled on George Fisher from the band Cannibal Corpse. He has a really great stage presence and is a great performer and has the same dimensions as our lead singer, Nathan Explosion.
CP: What would the audition process for Dethklok consist of? What would candidates be expected to do?
BS: That's funny. I'm going to keep silent on that one because I have something like that coming up soon that I'm going to be exploring and writing. Yeah, you'll see.
CP: Can you say what would immediately disqualify someone from consideration?
BS: Again, you'll see. I have a sequence - ah, I can't talk too much about it. It's what's coming up in the next installation of the show, so those are really good questions, but I can't answer.
CP: Since 2007, Dethklok the live band has performed alongside huge names in metal. For this show, you'll be on stage with Machine Head, All That Remains and Black Dhalia Murder. Does it feel surreal to have a fictional band sharing the stage with actual metal artists?
BS: I gotta say, everything that has happened to the show that has been positive or successful is what I hoped would happen. I didn't know if it was going to, but it was definitely part of the plan.
At the top of the whole show, when I was putting it together, I thought I would write a lot of music for the show and episodes for the show, and if for some reason the show does well, I'm going to try and get the network to finance a record. If that works, I'll try and get them to finance a tour, and I want to tour with real metal bands and real venues. How do I do that?
That was all kind of three minutes of thinking in a straight line of, “Is that at all possible?” Hopefully, from the top of the show, we involved tons of people from the metal community to be comedy actors, from Metallica to Billy Gibbons to Dave Grohl to King Diamond. All these people would come in and lend their voices and be funny. The idea was that this was for metal people and the community of metal and for anyone else to come take a look, too. The idea was to integrate them all.
Honestly, all I care about is making a live show experience that is funny and has great really good musicianship that people walk out of with a big smile on their face. I see a lot of music, and even with my favorite musicians, I'm like, “OK, I get it. How bad is traffic going to be on the way out of here?” If I'm going to charge a ticket price, I want to really give them something worth watching that they'll remember and that will hopefully be the best concert they see this year.
CP: Did you start out creating the show by writing the episodes, working on the music or some concurrent combination of the two?
BS: I used to have a different show called “Home Movies,” which is the polar opposite of “Metalocalypse” in that it was comedy-driven with a bunch of comedians who were actors on the show. It was a really fun show to do, and I enjoyed doing it, but it ended, so it was time to do something else.
I wanted to do something different, so I called the head of the network and said, “I have this idea for a show. It's about this extreme metal band that is the biggest act on earth. They'll do all this crazy stuff and blah, blah, blah.” He said, “OK, I believe you. I know you can write music, and I know you can write story and characters and all that stuff. Why don't you write up a pilot treatment.” I said, “I'm not going to do that right now. I'm going to write the theme song and then try and write four or five songs and see what this band sounds like.”
That's what I did. I sold the idea first, and before I got into the pilot episode, I wanted to start recording stuff. That would help me understand who the band was and what their personalities were.
I knew I needed two guitar players because I wanted to do guitar harmonies like Brian May, even six-part harmonies, but as long as there are two guitar players [in the show] you would be like, “OK, they're harmonizing.”
Then, I was like, “Oh, the bassist. I remember in the late '80s or early '90s, you couldn't hear the bass at all. What does that tell us about the bass player? This guy is going to be overcompensating because he's a guy who has no job really and who you can't even hear on the mixes.” And the lead singer. I was like, “OK, the lead singer is the quarterback.”
All that stuff just started fusing and the logic of the band started coming out.
With the music, I just kept tuning the guitar lower and making things heavier and putting more double kicks in there and doing more tri-tone bass things and uglier things that are a little bit out of my genre. My natural tendencies are melodic. I put in as much melody int the guitar as I possibly could. That all helped me understand what I wanted Dethklok to sound like, which was to have Queen-style harmonies with Metallica-style riffs tuned lower and some other weird black metal things thrown in there.
CP: Were you surprised by who the members of Dethklok turned out to be? Did their personalities evolve in ways you didn't expect?
BS: You know, I don't know. Sometimes, I think bands are like that. They have their personalities and their musicianship, and those are two different thing. It's like “Amadeus.” Here's this guy who can compose these beautiful things that sound like the voice of God, but he's such a dildo; he's this laughing, giggling idiot buffoon, and Saliari was perplexed by that. That happens where there are these people who are blessed by the music gods, but they turn out to be buffoons in real life.
I think that's interesting. I used to have a theory back in music school that as good as person was at their instrument, that was equal to the amount that they were deficient and didn't know how to behave in society. I think I'm kind of right. Granted, I was just a 20-year-old in college, but it was true of musicians more than it was of theater majors people or people studying philosophy or law.
CP: “Dethalbum III” came out in late October. Is that what you've been primarily playing at shows lately?
BS: It's a Best of, of “Dethalbum I” and “Dethalbum II,” and we have bunch of stuff from the new record, too. You'll hear some old stuff, some fan favorites, but also some stuff from the new record. So we have four or five songs from the new record that we'll be playing.
CP: Anything you'd like to add?
BS: This tour is something I don't get to do that often because I'm usually busy making a TV show. I think even if you're not down with the genre, you should come check the show out because you won't see anything like this anywhere else. It's really fun to be able to put on a show like this and have a budget for it and be able to animate an entire fun, ridiculous thing. It's like going on a stupid Disneyland ride - but there's murder. It's fun and it's funny, and if we do our jobs right, you'll have a really good time and want to tell somebody about it afterward.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...