Life after TV, channeling the Marx Brothers, and finding inspiration in Paul Simon
Brendon Small is back with his new Epiphone Signature guitar, the Ltd. Ed. Brendon Small Snow Falcon Flying V Outfit. Small was the co-creator and comedic--and musical--imagination behind Dethklok, the virtual metal band featured in the hit animated program produced by Adult Swim, Metalocalypse. In 2015, Metalocalypse ended its run despite a spirited campaign to bring it back for one final (and epic) season. Whether Dethklok lead guitarist Skwisgaar Skwigelf will ever grace a TV screen playing a Snow Falcon is now in doubt. But Brendon Small lives! And he remains a lethal musical force to be reckoned with. Epiphone.com spoke to Brendon about his new guitar, his upcoming album, Galaktikon II, and finding inspiration in heroes that his fans scarcely could have imagined.
Brendon, it's good to talk to you again. What have you been up to?
I have a new record coming out this year --we're deciding the date right now. It's funny. I kind have become my own label over the last few years and that means I get to take the time I want to take on projects. So, something like this, which is kind of an elaborate record, I needed a lot of time for mixing, overdubs. Those kinds of things. So I definitely took my sweet time.
How would you describe your writing process?
Here's what I've learned over 20 years of show business: no one's going to give me a job. I have to create it myself. So that's kind of my philosophy. I have to have a lot of projects and ideas all the time and I gotta start doing them. So for Galaktikon II, I wrote a lot and chose the music that I thought would tell a cool story.
I knew I had drums and bass for a limited amount of time --Gene Hoglan and Bryan Bellar-- who I've been playing with for Dethklok for the last ten years. I had to map out everything that I wanted to do within an inch of its life. So I programmed a lot of drums and said to Gene: "If you can think of something better, do it, and if not, try to nail this." And he's very thoughtful and cares a lot about what goes into his insanely dexterous and technically proficient playing. I'll record everything with them and then everything is subject to change afterwards. This is the way I do TV, too. I can change a song, I can loop a part, and I can switch things around. I can kill a whole section of a song if I don't like it. I can sing a whole bunch of stuff on top of it if I don't like it. It's like a big lump of clay and I keep molding it until I feel like it's in the shape I want it to be in.
In a way, the hard part is making sure you have enough ingredients at that first stage so you have plenty of options.
True. I have a couple different ways of doing it. Sometimes I'll write music very quickly. For example, for Metalocalypse, the TV show, I'd write something very quickly and have a bridge, bass, chorus, etc. that was 45 seconds. Then the TV show would air and I would be able to get some feedback on which songs were landing on the TV show. Then I'd take those songs and I'd do more stuff like elongate them, do a kind of Odyssey section, or some twists and turns with some surprises and then I'd release that. The TV show was almost like grounds for demos.
For Metalocalypse, I did the Doomsday project, which is a 52-minute musical rock opera with a 50-piece orchestra. I didn't test any of that --I just put it on TV (laughs). When I have more time, I like to collaborate with other people. I just don't always have the time because like I said, my job is to come to the table with a project, with an energy. If I'm in the demo stage where I basically have rhythm guitars, program drums, and bass played by myself, I haven an energy and a feeling and a mode and I know that I can make that work in some way.
How did you develop these parallel worlds of having incredible technical ability and still be able to do arrangements?
Well first, forget about technique and all that. What I wonder about a song is: is it going to hold my interest so I'm not dreading the next minutes of music? If you look at a timeline on iTunes --an audition lasts 25 seconds. By then, you know if there's nothing to be said here or if they're repeating a shadow of what they used to be or something like that. Does this song have forward motion? I don't care what I need to use technique wise. I don't care if I'm playing ratty power chords on an un-tuned guitar. Do I want to listen to the rest of the song is the question. And later on I get to either spice it up with some riffs or with some cool technical ideas or have a solo section. At this point, I've been making records for a decade. This next record will come out around the 10th anniversary of the first Dethklok record. So there's a little bit of expectation that I feel my guitar playing has to have a certain amount of technical ability or flashy playing or something, which I like. I like to hear it. But pending that it moves the song forward.
You're a songwriter at heart.
That's right. Every summer I'll go teach a bunch of kid's music --mostly metal stuff. And I'll go up to Woodstock in New York. And I have to ask myself all these questions: what is important, what is fundamental, and what do I think made me who I am as a musician?
If you've got musical tastes, those are the indicators of who you're going to be, I think. You are only as good as your influences. So when I rip off Brian May or there's a Joe Satriani passage or a (Jeff) Beck-ish moment in this cluster of craziness, I'm thinking about things that people don't know that I'm thinking about. For instance, on this record, as far as just composition styles, I was listening to Paul Simon's first solo record. He began studying music again around this time. I think he went back to school. He started doing more through-composition stuff where it didn't need to repeat as much. And I realized I like that --a twisting turning fireball of information just rocketing in a direction. There's a song called "Everything That Falls Together Falls Apart" and he's switching keys and modulating and you don't know where he's going. It's a kind of palindrome of songwriting. And it's really amazing and inspiring that you don't have to adhere to one certain style of songwriting. I know I'm in a heavy metal genre but it's great to think "how can you throw a Paul Simon reference into this world?"
There's another thing that happens where we get very caught up in pop culture or comedy. And I think the best thing I can do is not rip off anybody right now but rip off people from 40 years ago. And I do that with comedy, too. People don't realize Metalocalypse is me really enjoying the Marx Brothers and Albert Brooks and Woody Allen.
And the producers who signed off on Metalocalypse probably had no idea the depth of the influences behind the show.
That's what I love about music and comedy is that you do a ton of homework and throw in a lot of influences but what is ultimately seen is just the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully after you see it will seem bigger than it actually is.
Since we last spoke, Metalocalypse went off the air despite an enthusiastic campaign to keep it on for one last season. What happened? Is there a chance it will come back?
I don't think it's going to. We did a big campaign, got hundreds of thousands signatures, and the network said "no."
I don't know. That's a question for somebody else. And all I can say at this point is I'd love to complain and bitch and be pissed off. But it's times like that I have to stand back and look and say: I did nine years of a TV show that became very popular, I got to sell a lot of records, I got to do everything I wanted to do. Here I am on a phone call with Epiphone because I designed my second signature guitar. I couldn't do that 10 years ago! It's because of this whole whirlwind of the show and the music. Only good things came of it. Before, I was just a guy mouth breathing over my guitar in my apartment. And now I get to make records. So much time has passed since I started it that kids who grew up watching the show are now going to music school. They got excited for the reasons I hoped they would which is that the musical part was taken seriously. The show itself was a gift to myself when I was that age.
How do you like your new Ltd. Ed. Brendon Small Snow Falcon?
I love it. I used it on this new record. I love this guitar --it sounds great, very unique. And I've been sitting with my prototype and I play it out all the time. Again, just to prove that it is equal to any other guitar I would use in my arsenal! And I have some really good guitars in my arsenal. But this Snow Falcon sits next to all those and holds it own with all the glory and power you would expect. There's a very nice baroque-style song on the new album where I get to go into my full Brian May mode and squeeze out some really cool sounds between the guitar --using the natural sounds, cool Wah Wah pedal sounds, and contrapuntal things where I basically make the Snow Falcon sound like something between a clarinet and a really cool powerful distorted guitar. It's a huge passage in the song that's all about the Snow Falcon and hearing what it sounds like.
What was the inspiration for the design?
All the guitars in heavy metal are black --evil. I thought, wouldn't it be cool to try something that goes another way, that looks like it was forged from ice. And I was also inspired by Billy Gibbons, who is a hero of mine and is the voice of Metalocalypse. I was having a conversation with him and we thought a lot of Epiphone and Gibson people are like-minded. Guitar players generally are usually a bunch of curmudgeons who are set in their ways. They don't --and I don't-- want my classic guitars to be too different. We're all looking for that in-between thing between a single coil and humbucker. People don't want to look at Maple, they just want to hear it. But then Epiphone found this really cool hybrid material (phenolic) that got a sound that was similar to Maple. It's great. But mostly I was thinking I like being able to sit with a guitar and milk every single sound I can. When I'm recording, I'm still writing and what I want to do is sit there and be creative without having to switch 300 guitars. I want to get it all out of one guitar. So that's what I was thinking of for the Epiphone Snow Falcon. A cool look, cool sounds and something that's really easy to play right out of the box. I love it.