Brendon Small of Dethklok talks returning to the road, the complexities of a multimedia project and creating a satisfying conclusion for ‘Metalocalypse’

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WOUB) – Dethklok might be one of the most adventurous projects ever helmed in extreme metal.

Dethklok is a band, both a “real” one with multiple studio albums to their name; as well as a “fictional” one, being the stars of Adult Swim animated TV show Metalocalypse.

Although in the context of the TV show, Dethklok becomes so famous that they outweigh the influence of some governments; the real-life touring band hasn’t exactly come up short. Touring with bands like Mastodon and Babymetal, Dethklok has enjoyed pretty continuous success and relevance over the decades since their 2006 creation.

Now, Dethklok is closing the door on Metalocalypse with last year’s full-length movie Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar, and the band’s new studio album, Dethklok IV. While the long-term future of Dethklok may be uncertain, it’s clear that the group’s medium-crossing legacy will ensure them a permanent place in the hearts and minds of metalheads everywhere for a long time.

WOUB’s Nicholas Kobe spoke with Dethklok’s Brendon Small ahead of the band’s show at KEMBA! LIVE Thursday. Find a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, below. 

The album cover for Dethklok's most recent release. It is depicting a spooky looking mountain with skulls carved into it.

Nicholas Kobe: If you had to describe Dethklok in one sentence, what would you say?

Brendon Small: I would say this is a show about a band that’s the biggest entertainment act on the planet. It just so happens that they’re an extreme metal band and death and destruction follow them wherever they go,

Absolutely. The group was on hiatus for a while. I guess in general, how has it been kind being back?

Small: The only reason we’re back is because people kept on watching all this stuff over the years. So the business suits at Max and Adult Swim all started kind of looking at each other and going, ‘Why is this show still so popular and why are there still such solid numbers and blah, blah, blah?’ That’s why we came back. There was an idea of a movie on the table and I thought, ‘This is exciting.’ I love movies more than anything. I’d love to make one. That’s why we’re back. Touring this past year with BabyMetal was kind of the ultimate tour for me because morale was really high. Our shows are very full and touring with a band like BabyMetal is so much fun because they’re thinking just like we do: ‘How much can we entertain an audience in one sitting? How much fun can we give an audience that likes extreme music? How much can we make it feel like a ride at Universal Studios?’ So I’d say it’s all been very positive.

You just talked about your synergy with Babymetal last year. How have things been going with DragonForce so far, and what led you to partnering up with them for this tour?

Small: I’ll tell you where we’re at right now. We’ve been in rehearsal this week. Tonight (April 5), our movie Army of the Doom Star premieres on Adult Swim at midnight. Tomorrow it drops on HBO Max and lives there. April 7 is our first date, and that’s the first time we’ll be playing with Nekrogoblikon and DragonForce. When we started talking about what this tour would be, because it’s a continuation of last year’s tour, what I wanted to do is I wanted to recreate the fun that we had. I think these two bands also have a sense of humor about themselves, and I think they also really put on a really fun show.

Army of the Doom Star is going to be streaming so soon. Could you tell me about the process of working on the movie, and how you’re feeling about it now? 

Small: Well, so this is the public dropping of it. The crazy thing is it came out last fall and it was only available through Pay-per-view and physical media. The physical media sold out the first day and sold out again and sold out again, all the Blu-rays and stuff like that. I’ve been around and I’ve gotten to talk to people who’ve seen the movie and it’s offering something that a lot of these shows aren’t doing right now, which is closure. TV shows go on forever and ever and ever. At some point, you realize that the story is not part of the story. It’s more about just continuing episodes after a while. This one had a story to tell and it had a big finale and that’s why I wanted to make sure we did it the right way. So this feature is a big important part of storytelling, which says ‘the end’ at the end as opposed to continuing and continuing and continuing. I like that we got to do that. The response that the fans have given me has been very overwhelmingly nice.

What was that decision like? To be like ‘Okay, now that we have this opportunity for this movie, this was going to be the end.’

Small: I knew what it was going to be about 10 years ago, to be honest. Then a lot of things kept it from happening. Then somewhere around 2019, we got a call to start playing Dethklok stuff again with Adult Swim. We said, ‘Oh, okay. I bet you this will be a cool thing and I bet if we do this, it’ll probably kick the door open and maybe allow for this final thing to kind of happen.’ I don’t know if that’s exactly how it happened, but that is what happened. Probably during the early part of the pandemic, we started talking about this movie project and all the things that would coincide. Not only just the movie, but I wanted to make sure I had a real deal score where we got to record with an orchestra and synthesizers and all kinds of cool stuff. I wanted to set that up. I wanted to write that.

So I worked with Sparks and Shadows, which is Bear McCreary’s team, who does the Lord of the Rings stuff, and Godzilla. I had that team ready to go. I had the film team from Titmouse Animation and I kind of had been working with a lot of people independently too, and I brought them into this. I had a writer’s team too, where I brought in people who had worked on the show before, including Brian Sane and Mark Brooks, who had been working on the show forever. Also, Janine Tulio, who I’ve been working for since way before Metalocaylpse. Then, in addition, Andrew, Kevin Walker who writes for David Fincher, wrote the movie Seven, Sleepy Hollow and The Killer, which just came out with Michael Fassbender this past year that David Fincher directed. I had them all in a room.

So I had the writing team assembled, the music team assembled, and the visual team assembled. So for two years, it’s been like a kitchen. For some of the stuff, you slow roast the beef for 24 hours, and at the end, you flash fry the potatoes or whatever. That’s how you make a movie. Some of this stuff takes a long time. It’s a big long blueprint and you’re trying to engineer it until the very end. So it’s like a kitchen with a lot of different burners on and some things are on the back burner and some things are on the front burner, but it all has to go to the same place and all get finished. So this was what I was going through around this time last year. I was still working on the movie. I was still finalizing the record and getting it all ready.

Yeah. You said that you’ve wanted to make a movie for a long time. Was there anything about making the movie that kind of surprised you or that you weren’t expecting?

Small: No, not really. The thing that’s great about animation is that there are a lot of options to kind of audition ideas as you’re going. You’re not locked into what you shoot the first day as if it were live-action. I can kind of rewrite jokes as I go. I can kind of reword things as I go. Since I play the majority of the characters, I can sit in my little edit bay and constantly craft and correct as I go, which is a freeing way to work. I do the same thing with music too, where I write a song and if I can beat it with something cooler along the way, a riff, an idea, or a transition, I will take that opportunity to continually fine-tune and course correct as I go.

But ultimately what I learned, and this is something that I knew but hadn’t experienced, is movies are about the big picture. It’s about the big idea, and all the little scenes have to serve the big idea and tell the story. If they’re not doing that, they better be funny. I wanted this to be a very big epic finale and put a period on ‘the end’. TV has three acts if you get to finish your show on your own terms, most shows get canceled and they never get to finish their show. The three acts are the pilot episode, which sets up your whole world and your characters and asks the right questions. The second act is every other episode that’s existed. Then act three is the final episode, or in this case, the movie, which kind of lands the notions and gives you the reason that you were watching this whole thing in the first place.

That’s also why I think it was really important for me. That’s why I wanted to do this and do it right. Plus putting out a record. Normally what I would do is I would take all these songs from the show and kind of put them on a record and elongate them. In this case, I didn’t have that. I wanted to do a brand new record from scratch which I’d never done with this project. So that was another worthwhile challenge.

Now that the record has been out for a little bit, how are you feeling about that record, especially now that you’re getting to play some of this stuff live?

Small: I like the record. I like the way it turned out and I like the reception to the record. Again, here’s the thing about all this stuff, it’s selfish, this whole project and being an artist. Ultimately, I think what you’re trying to do is please yourself and you’re trying to ask yourself, ‘Is this something that I’m interested in? Am I interested enough in this to carry this to the finish line? I know the finish line is all the way over there and I’m going to be crossing it. Sure, the engine will be on fire and there will be four flat tires, but do I care enough about what I’m doing to get all the way over there?’ So the answer is, these are the things I care about, making the movie, making songs, making this record, and also being able to take the DNA of this project and allow it to mutate as long as it’s moving forward.

Elaborating on that a little bit more, are there any particular mutations that you’ve made for this record that you were really happy with?

Small: Yeah. I think this record is our best-sounding record. I like the music. I think it’s got the perfect cross-section of what this project can do, which is that it can be funny if it wants to, and then it can be epic if it wants to. In this case, we got to put a little bit more moodiness into this thing because it all kind of coincides with the idea of this movie. So there are a lot of fun things I got to experiment with. I think metal is always shape-shifting. The thing about Metalocalypse and Dethklok is that I’m always kind of paying attention to what’s going on in modern metal. Whatever it is that excites my ear will be reflected inside of this record, which is just meant to sound like a modern metal record.

Could you point to any particular big changes in modern metal that inspired you between the third and fourth records? 

Small: That’s a good question. But I mean, there are so many different bands that are doing such cool things. There’s so much cool froggy stuff going on in the instrumental guitar world that I’m always interested in. There are production aspects that I think are kind of always shape-shifting. I think just the way that distorted guitars are recorded now, they’re a little bit punchier now. It’s not even scoopy, but it’s somewhere between what Musshaggah is doing and Animals As Leaders. There’s just a tightness, there’s a sound to that. Using modern guitar equipment and stuff was all kind of part of it. Using plugins and amping ideas and all that stuff. That’s part of what modern metal is.

Then just getting Gene’s kit sounding appropriate was another kind of great thing that we did. Gene’s playing is just outstanding all the time. Like I said, it was a big dare to myself to go, ‘Okay, I’m not repeating anything. I’m only going to move this project forward as if I were just still doing this project. This is what it would sound like right now.’ I’m not going to go back and try to recreate an old sound because I don’t think that would be in service to anybody. I think the fans would kind of recognize it as like, ‘Oh, he’s trying to recreate something that he already did. I’m not interested in that.’ I think even in this fictional world, I think it needs to move forward. Like I said, it’s the same DNA, it’s just mutated.

Especially when in this fictional world, we’re talking about the biggest band of all time. They have to keep moving forward.

Small: Yeah. I mean, it’s true of all bands. There are a few bands that get away with being AC/DC on every record, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But that’s the idea. How do you keep the creative ball moving forward? And that’s the question I ask myself. I don’t know how I get there, but I just know when I don’t have it or how I feel when I don’t think it’s there, and only with the things that I think I’ve gotten there ended up on the record.

Absolutely. Looking back on the project of Metalocalypse and Dethklok as a whole, is there any piece of lore or storytelling that you’re particularly proud of?

Small: I don’t know if I’m proud of anything I do. Seriously, my relationship with the art that I do is, as it’s being done, I am as focused and worried as much as I can be. Then when it’s done, it’s almost like I never did it. I never look back really, unless I have to relearn the songs and play them live. But when I get Dethklok back up on its feet, like we’ve been rehearsing this week, I’m excited to see that the songs that we’ve chosen are incredibly fun to play. The band plays them so well, and there’s an energy there that I’m really happy we got lucky enough to capture along the way. It’s funny when I finish a project, I do not look back. I do not check it out again. I am done with it. I basically said, ‘This is no longer mine. This is yours. Do with it as you please, internalize it. If you want to consider it, do whatever you want to do. But it’s no longer my project.’

Yeah. You get to the point where you’ve been with something so long, you’re like, ‘I got to put it out there and just let it be in the world,’ versus thinking about it all the time after I’m done.”

Small: Yeah, there’s an old story where a guy got arrested by the police for breaking into a museum and touching up one of his own paintings. I see how that could happen because at some point, what you want and what you get are two different things, but what you get versus what you thought you needed may not be the thing that works for your thing. You have to keep on course correcting, bending, and allowing and making sure you’re still kind of telling the bigger picture story.

Absolutely. We talked about it a little bit when you were talking about the movie and the album in general, but how has your philosophy, if it has at all, changed on balancing the comedic aspects of this project versus the death metal side of it? 

Small: I mean, the idea with this is that there are a lot of different ways to be funny with this, but ultimately, the one thing that I keep coming back to is that I’ve got to serve it up as straight as possible. I don’t want to be poking fun and being goofy, going like, ‘Hey, look, we’re being silly.’ I want you to consider this band as deadly serious as they’re saying these things. I think that an important part of comedy is to believe the thing you’re saying as opposed to acting goofy and silly, which also works occasionally. We have songs that you would not know are comedy songs unless you really kind of looked deep into the lyrics and kind of realized that there’s comedy here. I mean, there are songs on this new record about food poisoning and stuff, and this is what, to me, it sounds like when you have food poisoning. Total brutality.