Brendon Small is going to crack the Adult Swim game if it kills you. His previous animated series, Home Movies, was the redheaded stepchild of Cartoon Network's hip programming block — a gentle, largely improvised comedy about elementary-school filmmakers that sadly never joined the likes of Aqua Teen Hunger Force in the upper echelons of Hot Topic marketability. Small's new project, a bombastic music-biz parody with the odd title of Metalocalypse, is everything Home Movies wasn't. It's loud, coarse and filled with disturbing images that could make even the most severely medicated viewer's jaw drop. Its enhanced appeal to the convenience-store demographic, he freely admits, was part of his pitch to the network, but it wasn't as if anyone there was making him atone for his other program's commercial shortcomings.
"They were incredibly supportive through our bad ratings and continued to give us seasons, which was pretty awesome — for me, because that was my job," Small helpfully clarifies. Even in the wake of Home Movies' demise, he says, the network's attitude remained, "Our door is always open for you."
When he walked back through that door, he was armed with an idea (brainstormed with collaborator Tommy Blacha) for a show that would capitalize on his longstanding love of hard-edged music. In Metalocalypse, the world is shaken to its foundations by the unprecedented popularity of a multinational death-metal band named Dethklok — whose members are thus awarded wide latitude to indulge personality traits that range from the merely antisocial to the violently ignorant.
Cosmetically, the show may be an easier sell to the Adult Swim crowd than Home Movies was, but it poses its own series of challenges, like a title that doesn't exactly roll trippingly off the tongue and characters whose Euro-thrash speech patterns border on the incomprehensible. And that's not even counting the bleeding eyeballs, fantasized dismemberments and related carnage that go with the headbanging territory. Small recalls his initial warning to Adult Swim Senior Vice President Mike Lazzo: "‘There's going to be a lot of murder, and I don't know that we're going to understand anything anyone's saying.' And he said, ‘Green light! Write it up.'"
The specific scenarios are meant to be "incredibly ridiculous," Small affirms. "This show is about celebrities. It's about the people that we look up to who may not be super-geniuses and do things that are business-driven — or narcissistically driven." In the second episode scheduled for broadcast, Dethklok's meticulous singer/"visionary," Nathan Explosion, records and then erases entire albums in an Axl Rose-like search for perfection. (He finally hits on the idea of recording from the Mariana Trench to secure the requisite "heaviness.") The series premiere has fans flocking to an out-of-the-way festival site to hear Dethklok perform a single tune — a short, abrasive jingle they've written for a coffee company. Their passionate yet logically unsound thesis that caffeine products "rock" is eerily reminiscent of the ludicrous PR that attended the recent opening of the KISS Coffeehouse in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Sometimes, it appears, art really does imitate life.
The life Small is aping, though, is at least tangentially his own. An accomplished guitarist who cut his teeth on Black Sabbath and Anthrax, he went to music school at a time when fret-burning riffage was considered "incredibly uncool. I could only listen to metal and stuff like that on my own personal time." Publicly pursuing loftier disciplines like fusion rendered him less likely to be made fun of — "even though fusion is worthy of making fun of someone for listening to."
Small ended up going into comedy rather than music after graduating, but he was always seeking fresh outlets for his Brian May-influenced six-string harmonies. So in addition to writing and doing voice-over work for his animated series, he's composed and performed the music for both of them. In Home Movies, he was able to slake his instrumental jones through the character of Dwayne, a sullen teen guitarist whose original compositions included a hardcore PSA for toddlers titled "Don't Put Marbles in Your Nose" ("Do not put them IN THERE!") and a rock opera based on Kafka's Metamorphosis. (Don't laugh; it was a heckuva lot more listenable than that Judas Priest "Nostradamus" record will probably be.) The music in Metalocalypse is several degrees more brutal, reflecting Small's reimmersion in the metal scene; its subsequent evolution into something even "more scary and grotesque" has pleased him no end. Lately, "I've been listening to so much metal that … I might die," he mock-intones.
It's a death wish Small shares with Blacha, a fellow hard-music fan who co-created the show and performs the same executive-producer's duties as Small. (He may also be the only person in show business whose résumé lists him as writing for Late Night With Conan O'Brien AND promoting mixed martial-arts fighting.) Having run into Blacha at numerous underground shows, Small was satisfied that his newfound partner wasn't just another of those "guys in comedy who like to fake-raise the horns and go, ‘Yeah, metal!" Now that the show is on the air, further credibility will come from its guest voice-overs: Metallica's James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett have recorded character parts that will be used in a variety of episodes (including the premiere), and King Diamond is also interested in participating, Small says.
And what of our heroes Dethklok, they of the exorbitant recording budgets and hair-trigger tempers?
"As you get to know these guys, `their` world opens up," Small previews. "We play it a little bit more for comedy. And it turns out, believe it or not, `that` you start liking them."