Brendon Small is a remarkable fellow. Not only has he enjoyed the success of two animated series on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim (Home Movies and Metalocalypse), but the Berklee graduate is also a gifted musician and standup comic.
Small discusses Metal, why his next television endeavor won’t be animated, acting school, his heroes, and his hopes of returning to standup comedy.
So do you ever plan to revisit standup, and what was that like compared to acting, studying at Berklee, and then today, making cartoons?
It’s funny, ’cause my goals in standup are very specific and small from time to time because I enjoy doing it, I enjoy [it] when new stuff works. I’m kinda using it to develop some ideas right now, but there’s some other stuff that I’m working on. When I go up onstage, when you see me performing, it has nothing to do with the world of Metal, or anything. It’s more just related to my life and my family… it’s kind of almost more… about whatever’s going on in my life at any particular time. But it’s fun, I enjoy it. It’s harder than anything else you’ll do… I just kinda learned how to redo it, relearned the rules or whatever “not to do”. Stupid mistakes people [make] with the audience.
Playing Metal in front of 30,000 people is WAY easier than performing for a small room of 18 people.
Really? The pressure’s that different?
It’s just [that] comedy’s not guaranteed to work. It really is not. When you go see a comedy show, it doesn’t mean it’s gonna be funny. You’re trying something that may not work. When you go and see a Metal show, I can go and rehearse, I can sit with the drummer, I can write some songs, I can put ‘em on a CD, and… I can gauge whether people are enjoying themselves by sales on all that stuff. And then I can go and play them, and chances are good – unless I screw up – that what I give the audience is what they expect, and they’re excited and everything. But that is NOT the case with comedy. I could have a misstep from the very beginning and lose people who are actually fans, by maybe losing confidence in the moment… Even if you do really well at the top of your set, it doesn’t mean that the middle of your set is gonna go well. But you can also potentially get them back again.
Anyway… I’m still very fascinated by it, but you kind of get out of it what you put into it. You have some comics who just want to be standups for a living, then you have people that are gonna utilize it as a tool for writing.
Who are some of your standup heroes? You’ve worked with Louis C.K.
Oh, Louis is great, Louis is probably one of the best. That’s how I got started, when I started Home Movies – was when I was on a show with Louis C.K. in Boston, and Ron Lynch, who’s hilarious… Louis is doing something kind of brand new. I mean, he has been doing that for years. I mean he was on my old show, Home Movies, he was my father. He played my father and he was a recurring actor on the show before he became the super, super, number one world famous standup. I love Bill Cosby, I love old schoolers – I love Woody Allen… those are probably some of my favorites. I mean, there are some people doing great stuff out there, but I like people that can go into the longer form. There’s something about Bill Cosby – he just seems so incredibly relaxed, you’re engaged in every moment… I almost feel like he’s improvising it. Maybe he is; that guy’s just a master.
When you were doing film and acting with your friends, did you use any particular method or technique? How did you approach acting?
[With] acting, I didn’t really know what I was doing. Only recently, in the last year, did I really start studying. I wanted to start studying acting, understanding it better. I have some other projects that I’m excited about trying out in the near future, and I just wanted to make sure that I really submerged myself in the world of acting out here. I found some really great instructors, and went and tracked down Garry Shandling’s acting coach because I’m a huge fan of his. I also love Garry Shandling, by the way. He’s been one of my heroes since I was like 11 years old. So I went and tracked down his acting coach and I started studying with him, and it was incredibly humbling. I learned a lot about acting, and it made me a lot more confident. I’ve done things before, tons of pilots and stuff, where I truly did not know what I was doing, and I probably could have done a better job had I had a couple [more] tools. These classes really helped out with that.
[I studied]… some Meisner stuff… Uta Hagen’s whole world of stuff, that was something that was really big.
The Meisner method is pretty crazy, isn’t it?
I don’t even remember how to categorize what was going on in Meisner, but I think that’s what Uta Hagen’s style was. I read her book… It’s about getting up and doing it, it’s just like standup or music – you gotta get it out there, and do it wrong, and do it right, and critique. The best thing about Uta Hagen’s style was self-criticism. Going through a scene and realizing what worked, what didn’t, and why. Why do I feel like that first part was happening, and why do I feel like I was lost at the end? Where was I, where was my mind? Be able to direct yourself, be your own director. That’s the ultimate kind of thing, I think, that makes you a better director, it makes you understand space better, spatial relationships between actors. A lot of that stuff I brought into the 4th season of Metalocalypse just to kind of up the ante, and just try to do tiny little things to enhance the show.
You always have celebrated Metal musicians doing guest voice work on the show. Do you have any particular favorite instances out of your time working with these guys?
In the Metal world… Usually it’s a very simple and quiet and nice process, whenever someone comes over – we don’t put people on the spot, and they don’t put us on the spot. We just want to make sure we’ve got something that both parties feel good about, as far as performance…
The coolest thing I’ve done though, for me as a guitar player, is work with people like Slash, and Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai… and be able to cultivate friendships with Satriani and Vai. Now they’re actually a huge part of my recording world – they’ve helped me with equipment (like purchasing stuff). I wanted to get some microphone pre-amps and Steve Vai said, “Hey, come on over and tour my studio, and check [this] out, I’ll show you exactly what’s going on in my world.” And Joe Satriani sent me a video tape of all his pre-amps, and sent me some links on eBay, where to get them, stuff like that… It was incredibly cool and nice of these guys. You realize that most of these people that are successful in the world of music (or otherwise)… there’s a really good reason. They’re really good “people” people, and really nice guys.
Another huge highlight was working with Werner Herzog this past season.
How do you get involved with the people doing guest voice work? Do they approach you, or you them?
I always end up approaching them. I thought there’s this one voice that I knew would be a recurring [one], I wanted to have him do a whole bunch of voice overs and he would [bear] the delivery of some pretty hefty information on the show. I always thought in my mind that it should be someone with the kind of drama[tic sound] that Werner Herzog has. And somehow we managed to talk him into it. He was incredibly easy to work with and just a gentle, nice person. Just impressive, and as wonderful as we’d hoped he’d be.
So yeah, it’s always me going, “Do you think we can get Malcolm McDowell?” or, “Do you think we can get Mark Hammill?” Just puttin’ “the feelers” out and then – for Herzog – I’d heard that he’d said no to some shows, but for some reason the script that we sent him, he said yes to. He was really cool.
How is it having Mr. Luke Skywalker doing regular voice work?
It’s pretty cool. The first time you meet him, it’s a very star-striking moment where you’re going, “that’s simply Luke Skywalker, any way you slice it. It’s really him, and I’m talking to him, and we’re looking at each other.” And then later on he turns into just a regular nice guy, who’s incredibly lucid and funny and sarcastic. You take away all the Star Wars stuff from him, and you’ve still got an amazingly talented guy who’s full of tons of range. I didn’t just hire him because of Star Wars, I wanted to hear his audition for the show. And I heard it, and I was like, “Thank God, that’s exactly what I was hoping for!” He had the perfect take on this character that I was hearing in my head without directing him to do anything. He just naturally kind of did what I’d hoped he would.
I was like, “This is absolutely no problem, I’m not simply satisfying the Star Wars nerd side of me, I’m actually casting a part where the actor is going to do a great job.” And it was also to satisfy the Star Wars nerd, but…
Yeah, his work in Batman: The Animated Series was fantastic as well.
I think I was in college or something like that, or I was away from TV for a few years, but I didn’t really know about [that show]. But I heard people loved [Mark as] the Joker. But all the stuff he does is really great, too.
And how about working with Brian Posehn as a co-writer?
He’s the only other Metalhead in the world of comedy. [Everyone else] likes wimpy indie-Rock stuff, which is fine every once in a while. I think they’re all sensitive people in the world of comedy, even though they act all tough. They really like to listen to mellow, soft music about their feelings and stuff. Posehn’s the only one that likes Metal. So we would talk about Metal occasionally, and then I did the show, and he came up to me one day and he goes, “How is it that there’s only one TV show that’s on about Metal and I’m not working on it?” So I said, “Well, come and do some stuff.” He’s a great writer, he helped out a lot with the 3rd and 4th seasons. In addition to being recognizable and funny, he also understands the craftmanship of writing. It’s not only “fun”, it’s kind of a long struggle to organize events and timelines, character wants and needs and all the specific parts of the scripts. And he gets it, and he brings a lot of his own personal experience to the table, which is probably the most valuable thing you can do as a writer or an actor.
Have you begun season 5 of Metalocalypse, and is it true that it will be the last installment?
I don’t know… if it’s going to be the last. I’m going to see how much story I can get through [with] the thing that I want to do, and I’ll know by next spring exactly what the future of the show is.
Did you have any cool guests in mind that you’d like to have on season 5?
No, we don’t really think that way. We have some voices to test, sometimes people are available and sometimes they’re not. With this season, we had people from the world of Rock N Roll and Metal and all that, then we also had people like Werner Herzog and doing voices. John Hamm was a fan of the show and had been watching it, and he’s like a big comedy nerd, too, so every time I was going out performing I’d see him backstage. And I was like, “I should do something with that guy.” That guy’s got some amazing range in the voice, you wouldn’t recognize that it’s him! He can do tons of stuff.
So I really don’t know, it’s just too early to say for some of that stuff.
What’s the current status on The Barbarian Chronicles?
Oh (chuckles). You know, I told Adult Swim about that show. I really liked that show. I said, “Hey, you know what? I’ve got this little show that’s completely developed and ready to go…”, and I’d already told the guys [at AS] about it and they’re like, “Yeah, well, we should do that.” and then I said, “But you know… I don’t think I really want to.”
I want to do one thing at a time. If I’m going to start developing something else, I don ‘t think it’s going to be animated. I think it’s going to be live-action. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to do more animation, I’ll do more, but I think the next thing that I do has to be something completely different from what I’ve done before.
So how are you juggling all of your Metalocalypse/DETHKLOK duties in addition to your new side project, GALAKTIKON?
[GALAKTIKON] was something I did in between all the other stuff, so there wasn’t too much juggling. I just knew that I had about, like, I’d work on this a little patch at a time in between Metalocalypse stuff, and I just put it out there. People have been buying it… it’s been crazy. And people have been enjoying it. It’s really nice, I completely put it out by myself on my own label. All I’d wanted out of that project was to finish something that I had started, which I think is the most important thing you can do as a creative person – to not drop the ball, and to finish the thing you started whether or not people want it.
I mean, if you’re sitting there with half of a screenplay, and you never get around to the other half, it’s just like death. It’s like, “If you can’t finish that, what can you finish?”
Or, if you’re in the middle of animating your own pilot that you’ve done yourself, you’ve got to finish it, you must simply finish it. Even if it sucks, you have to get through it. You will come out the other side a better creative person.
How would you describe GALAKTIKON to people who haven’t heard it yet?
Brendon: There’s a lot of Dethklok [elements]… basically, I [am in Dethklok], Gene [Hoglan] played all the drums for Dethklok, Brian Beller is the bassist for Dethklok nowadays… I did music that I thought was a little more melodic, and I wouldn’t put it in the Dethklok world. And I wanted to experiment with vocals, and put melody in the vocals, because there isn’t any in Dethklok
And you’d said that the GALAKTIKON album was supposed to be a kind of audio-visual comic?
I knew that I just wanted some kind of story, and I thought, “I don’t think I’ve heard some intergalactic divorce story… wouldn’t that be interesting?” The other idea was: What if Superman and Lois Lane had this messy public divorce? And it was just humiliating for Superman, because he’d lost all his money and stuff? And later on, to further humiliate him, she starts dating Lex Luthor? How would he feel about that, what would that do to his ego? I thought, “I’ve got all this music… and I didn’t write the music with any story in mind, but I thought… Oh, this is kind of telling ME a story!”… so I kind of started inventing from there.
Also, I wanted to write a story that was something I hadn’t heard before. I didn’t want to write a bunch of individual songs about my feelings, or something. Who cares about that shit?
All bets are off as far as influence, because I can pull from anything that I like. If there’s a Weezer moment, I’ll go for it. If there’s a Soundgarden moment, I’ll go for it… Foo Fighters… I hear the kind of stuff that I’m influenced by, it’s all kind of in there in a big wad.
Speaking of Soundgarden, you directed a music video for them and another for The Damned Things. Are you going to be working on directing any more music videos?
It’s fun, I mean, it’s a lot of work but it’s totally fun… The Soundgarden s a really cool experience going to a wider-screen format and just navigating the world of compositing and animation a little bit more, and we definitely took that into season four [of Metalocalypse], all the stuff we had learned experimenting with different things for the Soundgarden video. The Damned Things was really fun because it was a live-action thing, which was so much easier to do than animation. It takes so much less time. Live-action – I would love to do that, because it gets you outside, and you can do it so much quicker. Animation… it took a year and a half to do 12 quarter-hour episodes in season four.
That sounds really tedious!
It’s completely tedious. And then taking all that and making sure all the music is in place. But it’s pretty satisfying too, because it’s your own show and you can do whatever you want!
And you’ve said before that while making cartoons has been a dream job, you don’t really care to watch much animation yourself. What do you like to watch?
Lately, I think we’re in an amazing era of TV. Maybe animation hasn’t really caught onto that just yet… But we have some of the worst TV on air right now and some of the best that TV’s ever seen. Like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, and all the big nerdy shows. The craftmanship there is amazing. I love Louis C.K.’s show, and whatever History Channel stuff.
I’d rather not watch other cartoons, but I think South Park is probably one of the funniest animated shows that’s on right now. That’s the one that has a real reason for being on the air; it’s a satirical playground that they keep alive, and their show gets better in my opinion. I would have to say that that’s probably the best animated show I’ve seen.
You’ve said you’re of Lithuanian descent. Have you ever been to Lithuania or become really interested in your heritage?
My Lithuanian descent is very faint, because my mother’s full Lithuanian, her mother who died recently was Lithuanian, and we don’t know who my mother’s father is. So that’s where the family tree ends, so we couldn’t really go back that much further. I guess I know about 1930’s/1940’s Lithuania was a pretty shitty place to be, because it was under communist rule, and it was time to get out. But before that, I don’t know that much, except at one point – there are different places around the Baltic Sea and/or Scandinavia that claim to be the most depressing nations in the world. Lithuania had the highest suicide rate at one point. It also has a lot to do, I think, with the amount of light they’re getting.
Brendon Small is currently on tour with Dethklok, with support from Machine Head, All That Remains, and The Black Dahlia Murder. You can check out the remaining dates of the trek below:
11/13 – Fargo, N.D. @ The Venue
11/14 – Minneapolis, Minn. @ Myth
11/15 – Milwaukee, Wis. @ Rave / Eagles Club
11/16 – Chicago, Ill. @ Aragon Ballroom
11/17 – Kansas City, Mo. @ Midland
11/18 – St. Louis, Mo. @ The Pageant
11/20 – Denver, Colo. @ Fillmore
11/21 – Salt Lake City, Utah @ Great Salt Air
11/23 – Seattle, Wash. @ Showbox SODO
11/24 – Portland, Ore. @ Roseland Theater
11/26 – Oakland, Calif. @ Fox Theater
11/27 – Hollywood, Calif. @ Palladium
11/28 – Phoenix, Ariz. @ Marquee
11/30 – Dallas, Texas @ House Of Blues
12/01 – Austin, Texas @ Stubbs
12/02 – Houston, Texas @ House of Blues
12/04 – Orlando, Fla. @ House Of Blues
12/06 – Chattanooga, Tenn. @ Track 29
12/07 – Charlotte, N.C. @ Fillmore
12/08 – Atlanta, Ga. @ Tabernacle
For more on Brendon Small, visit his official website. Dethklok’s Dethalbum III and Brendon Small’s GALAKTIKON are both out now on Williams Street Records