The lines between reality and fantasy blur, twist and vacillate when it comes to Dethklok.
It’s a band that was created for a TV series — about a band. But like forebears such as the Monkees, Josie & the Pussycats and Spinal Tap, Dethklok has taken on a life of its own, with two albums and a growing history as a touring act, albeit with the live musicians dressed in black and playing below a large video screen showing the animated members of the group.
Brendon Small, the cartoonist who created Dethklok for Adult Swim’s “Metalocalypse” and serves as its primary songwriter and lead singer, says the group’s evolution has been “very ironic,” but he takes the balance of real and reel in stride.
“Ultimately, my goal is to make each thing stand on its own,” explains Small, 34. “If you know the show and like the show and don’t care much about the CDs, that’s fine. Or if you don’t know the show and like the music, that’s fine, too. You can take one away from the other and they can each exist by themselves.
“So whatever we do within the show and the world of Dethklok, each piece can stand on its own and not be a fractionalized piece of something else. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Small, a native of Springfield, Ill., started out in music, picking up the guitar when he was 13 and graduating from the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1997. He continued his music studies at nearby Emerson College, where he also took comedy and writing classes and started doing stand-up at the Comedy Studio; from there he was recruited to be part of the UPN animated series “Home Movies,” working as a writer, composer, musician and voice actor, before moving to Adult Swim, where he launched “Metalocalypse in August 2006.
“I’m a control freak,” confesses Small, who led his own groups before Dethklok wound up dominating his time. “I would always put bands together, the Brendon Small Band and all that ... as long as I was in charge. It’s just the way I am.”
Modeling “Metalocalypse” and Dethklok after numerous heavy metal archetypes and stereotypes — including the aforementioned Spinal Tap — Small and cohort Tommy Blacha cooked up a hapless, witless American-Scandinavian heavy metal band that enjoys an immense worldwide popularity. The quintet is so profitable it ranks as the seventh largest economy on Earth, and fans are so rabid that, in one episode, they murder the governor of Florida after he snubs Dethklok frontman Nathan Explosion (voiced by Small) — and then elect Explosion to take his place.
The brains behind the operation — because the group members barely have one cranium between them — is the smooth but ruthless Charles Foster Ofdensen, while Dethklok is pursued by a quasi-religious entity called The Tribunal that fears the power of the band’s popularity.
“It’s a little over the top,” Small acknowledges with a laugh. “But it’s supposed to be. It’s a cartoon.” It’s certainly caught the imagination of those it parodies, and members of Metallica, Megadeth, Faith No More, King Diamond and Dimmu Borgir have made voice cameos on the show, along with actors such as Andy Richter and Laraine Newman. Season three, which kicks off Nov. 8, features cameos by Slash, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Anthrax’s Scott Ian, among others. Mark Hamill of “Star Wars” and Malcom McDowell also are part of the regular cast.
Each “Metalocalypse” episode features a new Dethklok song, which Small has subsequently re-recorded and released on 2007’s “The Dethalbum” and this year’s “Dethalbum II.”
“Musically, it ends up being whatever I want it to be at any given time ... since it’s one person, me, doing everything,” he explains. “It’s whatever I feel it needs to be, that makes sense to me.
“Ultimately, the audience for the music is just me. The audience for the TV show and the comedy of it is a different ball of wax; you have to factor in storytelling objectivity, comedy objectivity. But the music is mine. If people end up liking it, it ends up being very cool.”
Small has not messed with the Dethklok sound much between seasons — “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, right?” he says — but he’s made a few subtle adjustments, mixing up tempos and expanding the dynamic range more on “Dethklok II.” But there may be changes coming; the third season of “Metalocalypse,” which moves to half-hour episodes, is “a little dark,” according to Small, as Dethklok finds itself without manager Ofdensen and “thrown into a pretty tough economy.”
Small says “it’s the best season we’ve done — funnier, more character-driven.” He won’t give anything away, of course, but he does promise that the band will “systematically (mess) everything up, as a group of five super-idiots would.”
The live incarnation of Dethklok, meanwhile, is alive and kicking and on the road this fall with Mastodon. “It’s great,” Small reports. “First off, I have a huge amount of respect for them and dig them in many ways. It’s a real pleasure hanging out with these guys who are creatively really cool and on top of that, are really cool guys.”
And, Small says, he has as much fun playing with his own band — in the dark, under an LCD screen showing the animated Dethklok, and largely not worrying about the parallel universe he’s operating within.
“I get tons of pleasure out of just playing; I don’t need to do anything beyond that,” Small explains. “I know who wrote all the stuff. I don’t need the spotlight.
“All I know is this is more work than I ever thought it would be. And it’s rewarding work, which is great; I don’t know anybody who has a cooler job than me. I would like a vacation, which I’ve been talking about since we started the show, but we’re building something here, so it’s not time to do that yet.”
Dethklok, Mastodon, Converge and High on Fire perform at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 21) at the Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward Ave. Tickets are $29.50 in advance, $35 day of show with $45 mezzanine seats and a $94 balcony six-pack. Call (313) 961-5451 or visit www.livenation.com.
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