Former Metalocalypse director Jon Schnepp died on July 19 at the age of 51 due to complications following a stroke. Decibel was fortunate enough to speak with him back in early 2008 for a Dethklok cover story in issue #40. In tribute, we present that full cover story below.
Getting Away with Murder
Midnight has yet to strike for two-dimensional cult heroes Dethklok
By Nick Green
Nielsen ratings are always a sketchy area with regards to cable programming, though market research conducted by the Turner Brodcasting System—the parent corporation of Cartoon Network—goes a long way in explaining the strange Metalocalypse phenomenon. Brendon Small and Tommy Blacha’s manic, gory, über-violent animated homage to death metal had the highest-rated premiere of any series aired on the network in 2006. Cartoon Network—which airs Metalocalypse as part of its Adult Swim line-up—currently reaches 89 million homes. To put it in a little perspective: if you’re between the ages of 18-34, you’re probably watching this show. And if you haven’t already gotten sucked in to the fictional exploits of Dethklok, it’s time to park your ass back on the couch and tune in.
The Metalocalypse plan for world domination also apparently extends to the Billboard charts: at present writing, 110,000 fans have snapped up copies of the regular and deluxe editions of the record that Dethklok’s real-world counterparts (Small and veteran metal drummer Gene Hoglan) put together as a series soundtrack. The Dethalbum is now the highest-charting extreme music album ever, with overall sales well beyond the range of nearly all of Decibel’s 2007 cover subjects. Small figured that the show’s built-in audience would generate some interest in the record; no one involved with Metalocalypse could predict that Dethklok would literally become one of the biggest metal acts on the planet.
“There’s only two words for Metalocalypse: explosively giant,” laughs series director Jon Scnhepp. “People are still talking about Spinal Tap to this day—there really hasn’t been anything else like it. And when this show started taking form, I was like, ‘Wow, this is an animated Spinal Tap for the death metal world.’ Once we were in the middle of production in 2006, everything still felt fresh and funny and I couldn’t wait for the show to air. I figured that if the show failed, it would be the dumbest thing in the world.”
Every Bone Broken
Metalocalypse chronicles the ongoing saga of the world’s most dysfunctional death metal band, Dethklok. Proceeds from the group’s album sales and sporadic touring attempts are occasionally used for the misdirected attempt at charity, but are mostly funneled into the purchase of ridiculous amounts of alcohol and the operation of Mordhaus, the group’s Disneyland-style Norwegian hideout. Dethklok is bigger than the Beatles and more popular than Jesus: fans are literally willing to die for the chance to see the quintet in concert and the band’s combined income outstrips the GDP of Belgium.
Dethklok’s de facto leader is the brutality-obsessed frontman Nathan Explosion, a cross between Conan the Barbarian and George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher from Cannibal Corpse. The group has retained the services of the fastest guitarist alive Skwisgaar Skwigelf, and his primary competitor, Toki Wartooth, who bears a passing resemblance to Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt. The rhythm section is rounded out by a neurotic drummer with a dreadlock comb-over named Pickles and the most inept and insecure member of the band, bassist William Murderface. Amidst the omnipresent threat of lake trolls, bad acid trips and other creatures from the Id, the group’s unprecedented level of popularity has raised a series of flags with a shadow cabal called The Tribunal committed to taking Dethklok out of the picture for good—provided the guys don’t bungle their way to their own demise first.
According to series co-creator Brendon Small, Metalocalypse hasn’t deviated much from the original pitch he delivered to Mike Lazzo, the Senior Executive Vice President in charge of Adult Swim (and the mastermind behind Space Ghost: Coast to Coast), in the fall of 2005. “I picked up the phone and said, ‘I think I’ve got an idea for a show: It’s about this metal band, and they’re the biggest entertainment act in the world. There will be tons of murder and I’m not interested in having people understand anything that anyone says.’ That was all it took for us to get the green light,” laughs Small. “The whole idea is that the show is not about a band per se, but about a bunch of celebrities who can’t do stuff for themselves. They’re equal parts smart and stupid, in a way that should be familiar to most people. Well, maybe a little more stupid: The guys in Dethklok are at the top of this massive money-making empire, but they can’t even shop for their own groceries or tie their own shoes.”
Small and his partner Tommy Blacha have taken great pains to keep the corrupting influence of topicality away from Metalocalypse. The beauty of the show is that it’s highly irreverent without being overly referential and that it’s an escapist fantasy that largely exists in its own self-contained world. “We can count on our hands the number of references to real people within the show: there’s the Ken Burns DVD that Skwisgaar returns to Murderface; Toki mentions how much he hates Rachel Ray of the Food Network; Nathan wins an online auction for Buddy Hackett’s skull. There have been a few little things that we’ve snuck through, but I’m more than happy to avoid the clutter of topicality,” explains Blacha. “We don’t have any hard and fast rules for the show, but sometimes, things make us laugh and we sneak it through. In the cinematic world of Metalocalypse, funny basically trumps all logic.”
“The difference between this and other projects that Tommy and I have worked on is that there’s an audience that’s ready for a show about metal,” adds Small. “Whether this show was good or bad, we knew that there would be a group of people who’d check it out because of metal’s growing fan base. That’s not the only reason we started working on this show. We put Metalocalypse together for us as a passion project—it just turned out that there was an audience for it.”
The Patel Leads
The last time Brendon Small worked on an animated series, there wasn’t an audience for it. Small, who graduated from Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music, got a crash-course in the tools of the animation trade and rekindled his passion for making music with Home Movies, a quirky, animated sitcom that aired for parts of four seasons from 1999-2003. All of the show’s dialogue was developed through open-ended improvisations between the principles and Small wrote a series of sloppy garage-rock songs for the show’s soundtrack—everything was produced with the idea of getting ideas, good and bad, committed to tape as quickly as possible. UPN didn’t get it, and cancelled the show after five episodes. Cartoon Network, which picked up Home Movies as part of its initial Adult Swim line-up, totally caught on to the show’s modest approach, but the dry comedy ultimately found more success after it was released on DVD.
“By the end of Home Movies, we affected an attitude of not caring whether people were watching the show or not,” he explains. “It was mostly for us, and we really enjoyed working on it. I guess you really had to recalibrate your funny meter to enjoy that type of comedy. A lot of people hated the show. Some people really liked it, but there were only about four fans out there. So we had to get cancelled. I mean, I think I even tried to cancel it at one point. On one hand, it was a sobering reminder of how sink-or-swim the world of show business can be. On the other hand, Adult Swim definitely had our backs and I was humbled to have gotten that gig after being scouted on one of the few nights I didn’t totally bomb as a stand-up comic.”
Unlike Small, Blacha never dabbled in the world of stand-up comedy. Following a tour of duty in the Army (which he describes as his “training ground for macabre dark, humor”), Blacha spent a few years tooling around with sketch comedy and improv in Chicago before catching his first big break as a writer for Late Night With Conan O’Brien. Blacha’s professional résumé also includes staff jobs at TV Funhouse, Da Ali G Show, and—strangely enough—a long stretch as the head writer for the World Wrestling Federation and the short-lived XFL, but he remains proudest of his four-year stint on the Conan O’Brien writing staff.
“That was the greatest job in the world, but there is a little danger of having your creativity institutionalized because of the pressure of producing five episodes per week and following a set framework in that kind of format,” he says. “I got a lot of great of experience and exposure by directing and starring in my own bits, but I wanted to leave while I was still really happy. Sometimes a little voice pops into your head and reminds you that you aspire to do other things. I watched other people get burned out by the pace of the show, and I didn’t want to end up being the guy who complains about having a job that tons of people would kill for, you know?”
During the summer of 2005, Blacha and Small kept bumping into each other at shows and decided to pool their talents and filter their love of metal into a weekly sketch show at the Steve Allen Theater called “The Dumb Dildo Show.” The pair worked out scenes on the fly, usually with whatever props they had at their disposal that evening. “It was one of the most retarded, stupid things ever: we had a fog machine running through half the show and some of the comedy was really absurd and a little off-putting. During one scene, we reenacted Glengarry Glen Ross with Tommy playing George ‘Corpsegrinder’ Fisher as Shelly ‘The Machine’ Levine. We could hardly get through the sketch without breaking character,” muses Small. “Yeah, that was a defining point,” adds Blacha. “That Cannibal Corpse-does-Glengarry Glen Ross sketch was an early indicator that death metal could be funny to all.”
There’s an early version of the mock-up for Dethklok where everyone else in the group looks identical to their current incarnations, but Pickles sports a soul-patch and a skullet—the spitting image of Strapping Young Lad’s Devin Townsend. According to Small, Metalocalypse director Jon Schnepp—who once shared an apartment with Blacha in Chicago almost twenty years ago—nailed the look of the rest of the Metalocalypse principles on the first take, but Pickles went through 20 different designs before settling upon his flame-red dreadlock comb-over hairstyle.
“Even Murderface was easy—he has that super-kinky white guy ‘fro that refuses to grow past his shoulders. It’s so curly, it’s like a helmet. And that’s basically the haircut I had in college,” muses Schnepp. “But with Pickles, I ended up cycling through endless variations. One of ‘em was an homage to John Boorman’s Excalibur with a silver dome headpiece; another one was a Flock of Seagulls cut where his hair reached a Misfits point in the front of his head. His current look actually started with a double-dreadlock comb-over. Then we removed one of the dreads and now it kinda looks like he has a hand draped over his head. The idea behind these designs was to incorporate a lot of reference material and go for an animation style that was totally different from the rest of the Adult Swim line-up. As a result, the characters have a very realistic look and some of the dumbest haircuts imaginable.”
Small and Blacha’s first choice for an animation studio was Titmouse, Inc, a Hollywood production company run by the husband-wife team of Chris and Shannon Prynoski. Small, Blacha and Schnepp had all worked with Titmouse before; the company had recently put together another pilot for Small called “The Barbarian Chronicles” that never quite got off the ground. Small and Blacha were looking for a place to build the self-contained world of Metalocalypse, while the Prynoskis were looking for a new project to offset the cost of a new building to house their production company. Titmouse, Inc is currently involved in other animation and commercial projects, but Metalocalypse is the company’s biggest client. Small and Blacha maintain an office in the building, where Titmouse’s staff of approximately two-dozen animators, background artists, compositors and audio and video editors (including creative director Antonio Canobbio and animator Songgu Kwan, who collaborated on this month’s Decibel cover) are set to spend the first six months of 2008 working on the show’s sophomore season.
For a self-described “control-freak” like Small, having an environment equipped to cover all of the production phases in-house is the key to keeping a show like Metalocalypse on track: “Titmouse even built a voiceover room with a computer, so I could control Pro Tools sessions from inside the booth. We don’t have to hire an engineer and we can work late, trying to figure out what these guys sound like and replace dialogue as necessary. And since we’re working with an 11 ½ minute format, there’s a lot of cutting going on. Sometimes we have to replace lines with shorter, quicker bits of dialogue. Right now, we have something like 10 different episodes from the second season in various points of production. This is a super-fast, tight, articulate show and we’re sculpting it constantly.”
“Sometimes when you’re finishing an episode, you’re trying to get all of the shots perfect—because after that, it’s out into the void and you can’t change anything. With this type of a show, because everything comes together so quickly, the process hinges on collaboration,” adds Schnepp. “Metalocalypse is a really weird drug: it never really feels like work.” Blacha is in complete agreement: “That’s the brilliance of Adult Swim—once a show gets going and it’s apparent that there’s a formula that works, they kind of leave things alone. We’ll get notes about once every three shows and we usually agree with them. When we put together the extras for the DVD, the network signed off on everything. If anything, I’m worried that this will ruin all of us for other TV work, because this kind of freedom just doesn’t exist in most places.”
Go Forth and Die
In addition to being one of the most hilariously-violent and subversive 11 ½ minutes currently airing on any television network, Metalocalypse is also one long, brilliantly-organized love letter to the critically-maligned and often humorless genre of heavy metal. Each episode of the show is peppered with a series of fan-friendly and, at times, willfully obscure references to metal bands past and present. In one episode, Nathan Explosion commandeers the PA system at Finntroll’s supermarket and strings together a series of Cannibal Corpse song titles. Murderface buys his grandfather an electric wheelchair at a store called Gorgoroth’s and a tense confrontation between Dethklok and their insufferable families is staged at a sit-down restaurant called Burzum’s.
In part of what Small describes as the “childhood fantasy fulfillment” aspect of Metalocalypse, the pair’s hero-worship also extends to the voices used on the show. Small (Nathan, Skwisgaar, Pickles), Blacha (Murderface, Toki) and veteran voiceover artists Mark Hamill and Victor Brandt receive top billing on the show. Members of Metallica, Nevermore, Emperor and Dimmu Borgir have all been called on to play bit parts, though Small and Blacha purposefully avoid specifically crediting the cameos to maintain the show’s weird aura.
“The Simpsons is great and everything, but I really don’t need to see another episode with a cameo where the celebrity appears just to say, ‘Hi, I’m me! See you later!’ Our attitude is like: Let’s write the story first and if we have extra parts, we’ll call on our metal friends,” explains Small. “We don’t want them to play themselves; we’d rather have them do something a little different. And by using these guys but not really revealing who they’re playing, kids have to figure it out for themselves: who were James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett on that episode? Did I just hear King Diamond’s voice? It’s more fun that way; it’s like you’re unlocking a little secret.”
Small and Blacha have turned to George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher to provide voices for Metalocalypse on several occasions, and the real-life Nathan Explosion couldn’t wait to get back into the booth to work on the show’s second season: “I did a character on the first season called ‘Crabby Fat Kid’ and I play a recurring character called ‘The Assassin.’ Working with Tommy and Brendon was a breeze compared to spending days in the studio doing album vocals. I don’t want to make it sound like it was super-easy, but I had a ton of fun. I love the show and I’m excited about it as a gateway into metal. They’re doing this show for the same reason Cannibal Corpse continues to tour and put out records: it’s a great opportunity to get people to listen to the greatest music on the planet.”
The Natural Beauty of Unintelligibility
On the final day of production for the first season of Metalocalypse, Brendon Small grabbed his guitar and amp and headed straight to a studio to work on a soundtrack with drummer Gene Hoglan (Death Angel, Strapping Young Lad). Producer Ulrich Wild stood in for Dick “Magic Ears” Knubbler during the two-week session, while Small and Hoglan fleshed out most of the 30-45 second song snippets from the first season with additional verses and choruses (including longer versions of “Birthday Dethday,” “Thunderhorse” and a brand-new song called “Hatredcopter”). That was all part of Small’s master plan to “put as much effort as possible into the songs and extend the life of the show in audio form.” The success of The Dethalbum—which sold 33,740 copies in its first week of release—was a total shock, though.
To capitalize on the record’s strong showing, Adult Swim pushed back production of the show’s second season to accommodate a small tour of college campuses with Small, Hoglan, guitarist Mike Keneally and bassist Brian Beller performing behind an animation screen. “It probably pisses people off that a cartoon band sold so many copies of a death metal album,” says Hoglan. “Especially since we put out an album that already had a promotional engine behind it and we never had that period of roughing it in the trenches. But if the album was really shitty, people would’ve smelled a fake and turned on it instantly. There are a lot of young dudes who are discovering heavy metal just by watching Metalocalypse, and in a weird way, I think people really relate to the humor and the spectacle of it.”
“I said this before about Home Movies, but Metalocalypse is basically for the kind of people that would like a show like Metalocalypse. We put a lot of care and work into the show, but we’re not trying to change people’s minds. Some people still think that the joke is on metal, but it isn’t—and it hasn’t ever been,” sighs Small. “That show would’ve been over after, like, a handful of episodes. I’m so sick of irony as a form of comedy. That is not the goal of the show. I hate irony. It’s one notch below the pun and I hope it dies very soon. We’re very serious about stupidity with Metalocalypse.”
Blacha echoes his partner’s bright outlook and promises “more of everything you love about Metalocalypse except tits and face-fucking” during the show’s upcoming second season. “There is always a balancing act between trying to do the same thing over and over and also trying to direct the show somewhere; you don’t want to sacrifice the wonderful, stupid humor for the big, action-adventure story that might get really dull. That’s the problem with Lost and a lot of other things: action really kills the suspense and you get diminishing returns. If we have Dethklok open up the world and let a bunch of demons loose, then we’re fucked—nothing’s intriguing any more,” he laughs. “Sometimes I feel like I love these characters so much that I want to have them all die in a horrible accident, just to preserve the beauty and purity of it.”
There are still massive medical bills to cover Schnepp’s expenses. If you have anything to spare, you can do so here.