I'll admit it was a pleasure speaking with Metalocalypse creator/musician/voice actor extraordinaire Brendon Small: he is, after all, who I want to be when I grow up. You can imagine my paroxysms of white-hot jealousy when a friend got a gig writing for the show—hi Dani—but you have to understand, for the better part of the last decade, I've held Small's television work in the highest regard. I'm often in awe of the career of the former lead of the classic Adult Swim staple Home Movies seemingly without effort jumps between his work on TV, live performances for a virtual version of his metal creation Dethklok, and wherever else he might pop up at any given time.
Home Movies featured Small as Brendon Small, grade school student and amateur filmmaker whose weekly stories typically centered on his small crew's attempts to either make a movie or actively avoid making one (Brendon the character was somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing at times). Metalocalypse is in many ways a spiritual (if not tonal) successor to Home Movies in that it's about the biggest band in the world, Dethklok, and their own rocky relationship with the act of making music, performing, and generally relating to the billions of people who want a piece of them.
It would be easy to play armchair analyst and ascribe this kind of uncertainty about creating the visually and musically complex Metalocalypse to Small the creator of the show, particularly given the scaled-back format of the show (down from half hour episodes in the third season back to the 15 minute format of the first and second) as well as the protracted period between Dethalbums, the first two of which collected music from Small's fictional metal band in thunderous, clever, and often technically expert rock albums.
But ambivalence isn't really the root of any of things, I learned as I spoke to Small—Metalocalypse is simply a really tough show to produce. "What I learned from season three is the way to not be in production," he told me, adding that it was a mistake to be on tour while in production with a very small staff. He says that the team was happy with the way the season turned out, but he cautions that one of your core jobs as someone making TV is "to create a job that you can keep," while also keeping the material that you're producing fresh and alive.
Between the third and fourth seasons, Small allowed himself the opportunity to finish a solo album as well as direct a couple of music videos (one with Soundgarden for their single "Black Rain"). "That time off was just a chance for me to ask how I could get better at my job. How do I become a better director? How do I become a better writer? How do I become a better actor? And how do I just become a better boss and showrunner?"
Small explained that the break between seasons allowed him to come back refreshed, and as season four began production, he found it to be the most collaborative and ultimately smoothest season for himself and the production team. He credits part of the new-found "fun" of going to work with having a production staff for two months at the start of the production cycle as opposed to previous seasons which Small described as "me under the gun, writing." This was kind of tricky in that touring/promotion/other gigs lead-up to season three. Going into the current season he thought, "We're doing this, but I don't need to work this hard."
On the story side of things, there's a clear trajectory across the first three seasons of Metalocalypse: the first involved the band rousing themselves from a collective funk to create and promote their next big album, the second following the sudden swell of their already huge popularity (and being targeted by enemies and assassins outside of the band), while the third saw a backlash among the Dethklok faithful and the group trying, well "trying" to reconnect with "the regular jag-offs" as Dethklok's frontman Nathan Explosion would describe them. When I asked Small if he could give us a sense of what kind of shape season four might take, he said that this season would give fans "the bigger, darker story meeting up with the band. It's about them turning from narcissists into actually taking an active role in their own lives."
Ultimately, that means we'll finally start understanding who the mysterious group is who've been watching the band from the shadows, the Tribunal, headed by the mysterious Mr. Selatcia (Mark Hamill). Small laughed when I asked him if he ever encountered fan frustration about the ultra slow-burn reveal as to the nature of the "Metalocalypse," the ever-enigmatic future event that centers around the band which demands that the Tribunal (and we the viewers) watch... and wait. Small isn't aware of the fan reaction because with his work schedule, "because I stay indoors and I work all day and I don't actively encounter these fans." Still, he says he and the Metalocalypse staff appreciate any fan anticipation about how this story will develop because he and the other writers want to see it all unfold as well. He describes what's coming next as "a really cool point of no return once we start acknowledging that story."
Besides the evolution of the show's story, Small promises that season four will continue the show's tradition of guest spots from luminaries of the metal community as well as comedians and actors. Cannibal Corpse will be making a return, while Dweezil Zappa, Soundgarden's Ben Shepherd, and Three Inches of Blood frontman Cam Pipes. "This is an incredibly crazy season," Small tells me, "because we've got all of these really cool musicians that I'm a huge fan of and then we managed to get an eclectic grab bag of actors." The means guest voice work from Patton Oswalt, Jon Hamm (who Small describes as "awesome and totally unrecognizable in his role), Janeane Garofalo, Amber Tamblyn, and Andy Richter.
And making his return to an Adult Swim show, Werner Herzog, who has an eight-episode stint this season. Small seemed in awe of having worked with the notoriously dour German filmmaker, who he said was actually quite interested in the process behind the show—"He did not take it lightly," says Small. "He was really great because directing him in voiceover was terrifying, but he came out of the booth in between takes and just wanted to listen to his takes and talk to me about them and discuss what we thought about them."
Moving from the voice acting to the show's technically proficient score which juggles metal (Small says his goal is to have at least one metal moment per episode) with Van Halen-style arena rock, along with the most dire rap rock, and the occasional digression for guitarist Toki Wartooth to get trapped in candy-colored techno reveries, Small was effusive when talking about season three, singling out episode eight, "Rehabklok," as his favorite. "It was a whole script and an episode that wasn't working and I decided to write an entire rock opera storyline into it... it was a huge amount of work, but it was really, really fun." For most episodes, he tries to use the score to upend the metal elements, working in snatches of John Carpenter-style sounds, or even Toki's aforementioned dance-pop digressions. "That's just the fun part," Small explains, "keeping everything fresh."
As for when we can expect news on a third Dethalbum from the series, Small was cagey but said to expect "really cool news very soon." I asked if there was ever a chance of the network releasing an album with just the show's score, the non-metal moments of Metalocalypse, but that seems unlikely. "I don't know. I really have a lot of fun making that stuff. I know I could put a record together, [but] I don't know that it would sell."
Small isn't letting Metalocalypse occupy all of his creative time: "There's a few things I want to produce. Also, I took some time off between season three and season four to do some kind of studying in directing and acting classes." Small's looking to parlay this experience into a live-action project that seems like a mix of theater and sitcoms. "What I'd like to do is rent out a theater for two months and develop a show that's supposed to be in front of a studio audience in front of an audience. And that's supposed to be a show that comments on itself and actually acknowledges the audience."
On the music front, he's also got an album that he's been working on with his real-world Dethklok cohorts on the album Galaktikon, which launches on April 29th alongside the Metalocalypse premiere. The album features Small along with Gene Hoglan on drums, and Bryan Beller on bass, featuring album artwork by Antonio Canobbio, who provided the art for Dethalbum I and II. You can sample it right now on his site at BrendonSmall.com. "That'll satisfy a lot of double kicks and sass guitar for you," Small joked.
Season four of Metalocalypse premieres Sunday night, April 29th at 12:30 on Adult Swim.