DETHKLOK with CHIMAIRA and SOILENT GREEN at Kool Haus (132 Queens Quay East), Friday (June 20), 7 pm. $25. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
How a cartoon cast of hardcore headbangers turned a cult TV series into an international heavy metal phenomenon that’s spawned a legion of fans, a hit record and a very real North American tour.
By all accounts, Brendon Small is one of the hardest-working guys in heavy metal. He’s a total shred master, and he’s worshipped by an unholy legion of devil-sign-slinging metal heads.
But betcha a Kerry King-autographed Flying V that most of his acolytes don’t have a fucking clue what the guy even looks like.
That’s because the mysterious Mr. Small earned his hardcore musical cred in a most unusual manner – through a cartoon.
But not just any cartoon. Metalocalypse ain’t Mighty Mouse. And Dethklok, the animated death metal band around which the irreverent and abstractly funny show revolves, ain’t Jem and the Holograms.
In fact, Dethklok features Conan-the-Barbarian-meets-Munsters-esque lead singer Nathan Explosion; Skwisgaar Skwigelf, a Swedish guitar demigod whose hands are insured for “10-billion big ones”; and bassist William Murderface, who’s known for his venomous misanthropy and ability to play his instrument with his, ahem, instrument.
For all intents and purposes, Small is Dethklok. He is the creator, writer and main voice actor of the hit cartoon series, which airs on Teletoon.
Produced by Adult Swim (the same network that gave us Aqua Teen Hunger Force), Metalocalypse spawned a cult following after drawing the network’s highest ratings to date when it premiered. The Dethalbum debuted at number 21 on the Billboard top 200 chart in 2007 and has sold 195,000 copies. Fans have purchased 120,000 first-season DVDs so far, and now there’s a full-blown live headlining tour of North America, with support from big-name “flesh and blood” metal bands like Chimaira.
Small, a sharp-witted former stand-up comedian, is as surprised as anyone else by the show’s popularity. And he’s at a bit of a loss to explain how the show came together.
“I’m totally a fan of shred guitar and virtuoso players,” says Small on the phone from backstage at the Fillmore in San Francisco, where he’s setting up for a gig.
“I started playing and seeing shows, and all I would talk about for a while was metal. All my friends were sick of me – except for one, Tommy [Blacha, the show’s co-creator], who’d go out and see shows with me – cuz everyone else was scared of it. I was talking to a friend of mine who did a different show on Adult Swim about all this metal stuff, and he said, ‘I can’t believe this isn’t a show you’re pitching.’”
Small had long wanted to do a music-related TV project, and Metalocalypse felt like something he could be passionate about week after week, especially considering that he’d be writing new music for each episode.
“I called the network and said I had a show idea that was the polar opposite of [Small’s former show] Home Movies. ‘It’s about a death metal band and there’s gonna be a lot of murder.’”
The network loved it.
Of course, no one anticipated that a cartoon about a fictional metal band would catch on the way it has – although, in hindsight, maybe somebody should have.
While it’s rare for metal bands to get the kind of massive mainstream exposure that, say, Justin Timberlake or Kanye West do, there’s no denying that metal is well past the making-a-comeback stage and close to enjoying a level of popularity not seen since the 80s.
Small has recruited some incredibly influential metal musicians to lend their voices to the show, including members of Emperor, Metallica, Mercyful Fate and Dimmu Borgir, as well as Mark “Luke-fucking-Skywalker” Hamill, and sees the correlation between the popularity of his show and metal music as undeniable.
“It’s one of the fastest-growing styles of music right now, and it makes a lot of sense that people want aggressive, loud, fast, dynamic music. What else is going on in music right now? Is it indie rock? I don’t even know what’s popular, but it’s been very soft for a while, and I think people are looking for loud and scary.”
So timing has a lot to do with the show’s success.
“You could go out and pitch a show about a bunch of clowns who live in a shoe and make it the funniest show in the world, but people might not watch it because it doesn’t fill a void. That’s the thing we lucked into – an audience that was ready for this.”
Given the show’s legion of fans willing to embrace the ridiculous parody world of Dethklok – one episode has them doing charity work and adopting a child (which they later abandon) so they can write off all the money they’ve earned – and the wealth of subtle fan-only references in the form of fast-food joints called Dimmu Burger and Burzum’s and Gorgoroth’s Medical Supplies, it eventually occurred to Small, an accomplished songwriter who composes a new song for every episode of the show, that his band (which doesn’t exist in the flesh) should take its heaviness on tour. Delighted fans show up for the over-the-top spectacle as well as the band’s seriously tight and heavy chops.
“It all kind of came together in one day when I was like, ‘If we do the show, I’m going to do a new song every episode, so that’ll be a lot of songwriting, but at the end of the season I’ll put out a CD and get a real drummer, and if I get a real drummer to do a CD, then I should probably be able to do a tour.’”
So what will live audiences see when Dethklok hits town? Small describes the live show as “a big, stupid Disneyland ride, but with murder.”
“There’s a huge projection screen and a plot that unfolds, so there’s just enough story going along to hang your hat on. The whole show is perfectly synched up to the band. There are animated comedy sketches, and each song has a little story going on. It’s dynamic and stupid and funny and all that shit.”
William Murderface (left), Nathan Explosion, Pickles and Skwisgaar Skwigelf rock out with their Dethklok out.
One concern has been finding the right balance between giving the fans what they want with the animated characters (and their blend of brutal melodic death metal that, aside from the intentionally silly lyrics, comes off as shockingly high in quality and heaviness) and actually having to be onstage in person playing the songs.
“The less I put my stupid face close to the show the better, Dethklok is much bigger than that. We’re just the pit band.” Brendon Small
Small came up with a perfect compromise that allows him to keep his anonymity and spares him any lame stunts like dressing up in costume. Small’s got too much respect for fans of the show (and himself) for that.
“Metal fans have such a fantastically strong bullshit detector that I would never embarrass myself by doing that. I’m not supposed to look like Nathan. I don’t look like any of those guys. I look like Joe Regular, so I’m just supposed to sound like the band,” he says.
“The less I put my stupid face close to the show the better, because I think it’s about the band, not about who’s making the music and all that stuff. I almost like it that no one knows who does the music. I like that it’s the last thing you see in the [show’s] credits. It makes the show better and cooler to think that a cartoon [character] is coming up with this stuff.
“And that’s why when you see us live, we’re pretty much in shadows and smoke – you can’t really see who’s doing the music. The whole idea is the video behind us doing everything, so again it’s not about me or the musicians. Dethklok is much bigger than that. We’re just the pit band.”