Interview: Brendon Small on "Galaktikon II" and General Guitar Geekery

It's quite possible to be a massive fan of the work of Brendon Small without having the slightest inkling of his masterful command of heavy metal guitar. If you know him mostly as the brain behind Adult Swim's Metalocalypse and the cult classic Home Movies, you might never know that before these series hit the airwaves, there was an undergrad guitar nerd honing his scales and sweeps at Berklee College of Music.

Yet with those shows and other work over the years, a steady current of musical talent and total unabashed guitar nerdery has carried through. Home Movies includes an episode called “Guitarmageddon” that features arguably the greatest diegetic guitar solo in TV history played by Small with a DigiTech Whammy pedal.

Panel from the Galaktikon comic

Metalocalypse is essentially a non–stop stampede of musician in–jokes and ranks up there with This is Spinal Tap as the best simultaneous send up of and love letter to heavy music and heavy music culture.

This week sees the release of Galaktikon II: Become the Storm, the second in a series of albums released under Small's own name. And while there's no TV show serving as the backdrop this time around, the same total embrace of metal mythos and guitar culture is very much at hand.

In a comic book adaptation of the album, for instance, there's a robot who speaks in guitar tabs. If you play through the tabs, you can actually hear what the robot is saying.

We recently had the chance to catch up with Mr. Small to chat about composing the new album, working with Bryan Beller and Gene Hoglan, and a whole bunch of other supremely nerdy guitar topics.

Be sure to check out Galaktikon II: Become the Storm which comes out via Megaforce Records on Friday.

My Name is Murder, the lead single from Galaktikon II: Become the Storm

How would you say working on Galaktikon II has been different than previous things you’ve worked on, like Dethklok?

There are some major differences in these Galaktikon records versus Dethklok records. The fundamental difference is that when I was in Dethklok and doing Metalocalypse, I could demo out songs through the episodes. I would write these little 45 seconds of intro or chorus or guitar solo, and I’d get to test it out with the audience and put it on TV first. Then, at the end of the season, I would collect what I personally thought were the coolest songs and what I thought got the biggest reaction.

Brendon Small - Galaktikon II: Become the Storm

There was this testing of material before I put it on a record, which is interesting. It’s almost like doing stand up. You’ve got to go to a crappy little open mic and try out your jokes so you can throw them into a special.

When you’re making a record, all you have are your instincts. When I'm making a Galaktikon record, all I have are my ears. I have not kept it in front of large audiences of hundreds of thousands of people, it's just me in a room.

I really like that process because it forces me to evaluate what I think is the most important thing about music and have a list of criteria from which to judge if the song is worth putting on a record or not. That’s the fundamental difference.

One thing I’ve heard you mention when you were doing the Dethklok stuff was that it was a challenge not having a forward vocal melody since the vocals are so percussive. But here, you’re given a lot more flexibility melodically. Did you find that being more forward with the melody was challenging, or was it just this awesome, bursting of ideas that had been pent up?

Having a lot of options was not always a wonderful thing. The cool thing about Dethklok was the restrictive nature of my approach, which was that I had no melody, I had to make the guitars [melodic]. I had to make harmony more exciting because there was no melody I had to support smaller melodies to the percuss of vocal.

But with Galaktikon, I kind of ripped that apart. I’m not using Dethklok anymore, and I'm going to reserve the right to use what I think is the best instrument for the song, which is either not a lot of vocals or brutal vocal or sometimes both. That’s where the long hours come in, where I sit and just experiment with melody for days. Sometimes I’ll go, “Does this sound brutal? Is the core of this song like more brutal, or is it more melodic in vocals?”

Brendon Small with his signature Epiphone Snow Falcon

This weird thing happens when you take the double kicks and distortion and throw on a softer vocal melody on it. Something completely changes. It turns into a unique style of music, like it or not.

I’m kind of excited by these things, but the truth is that I experimented with almost every single song on this record. There are versions of melodic versus brutal vocals.

As with Dethklok, you're working with Gene Hoglan and Bryan Beller. What do they bring to the table as collaborators?

It’s been 10 years since I started working with these guys. Gene is such a huge fan of music — all kinds of music, not just metal. He gives a shit about the song, the whole song structure, and most of our conversations are about how we get from one section to another.

Bryan Beller and I have a Berkelee shorthand we still use. We kind of go, “Let’s do a first inversion of that the second time the chorus comes around,” or “Let’s reharmonize all the bass notes or do a figured bass instead of playing roots on everything.”

I get excited when I hear the third and the bass, but I like to establish the chorus first and then take the exact same chorus and do it third from the bass. What happens is that you get a new chorus, even though it’s the same chord with a different inversion sound. It just sounds like a brand new thing.

I really like that sound a lot, and [a lot of] people use it. Queen uses it all the time, and even Weezer used it all the time. Beller knows that I gravitate toward that, so he does it before I ask for it. At some point, I’ll go, “Okay, at this section, you’re going to…” and then he finishes my sentence.

My job is to come to the table and their job is to hopefully add to and/or beat my ideas with cooler ideas.

The Thunderhorse is easily one of the coolest Gibson signatures ever made. Are you still mostly in the studio doing the Explorer thing, or are you spicing it up with some other guitars?

I’ve put a lot of different guitars on this record. I did pull out my Thunderhorse prototype. You know how guitars are: sometimes you get the magic one and sometimes you don't. That was the magic one, and the frequencies just sound great.

2011 Gibson Dethklok "Thunderhorse" Explorer

I also have been messing around with a couple different Explorer prototypes that Gibson USA made for me. One of them is named the Snow Horse, which is an all–white Explorer, and a black one called the Night Horse. I experimented with a couple things as far as making it the ultimate shred guitar.

I had two versions of the Night Horse made. One of them had a really fat, ‘50s–style neck, which I really like a lot. You can hear the tone difference on that versus a thinner neck.

I put piezo pickups in both of the Explorer prototypes, and I put in some Seymour Duncans… I settled on the Full Shred for most of the album because it's actually a warmer sound. I’m always trying to put warmth into metal.

I used '59 Custom Shop reissue for a song called "Rebuilding A Planet" that's an instrumental ballad. Joe Satriani — we've been working on a project together — gave me one of his road–tested muscle car orange JS Ibanez models with a Sustainiac pickup as a gift.

The Sustainiacs are cool. Fender just released this new Ed O'Brian signature that has a Sustainiac in it. Maybe they’re kind of coming into fashion.

It’s done something that guitars have not been able to do for years. It allows your note to do the opposite. It can go from nothing to a loud note. What happens to a guitar, usually, is that it goes from a loud note to nothing — each sound just dissipating as you strike it. Whereas this pickup gives you something that keyboard players can do.

When Satriani handed me the guitar, he kind of held it back for a second and said, “Beware, you will fall in love with this pickup, you’re going to have a tough time going back to to magnetic pickups.” He was very right, because you can get this cool, dreamy, sustained feedback, getting a 9th on top of each note.

A lot of metal players have started going with the modeling stuff, particularly the Fractal racks. Have you toyed around with those at all?

I haven’t messed around with Fractal at all. I have messed around with the Helix, though, and ended up using it on this record in a couple really cool places for a cleaner sound. I used it for some really cool square wave, super soft and toothy fuzz sounds. I did this one sound where I took the Helix and put it into the Boss Slicer.

Such a cult classic.

It’s a pulsing kind of tremolo thing. If you do it right, it can sound like a Michael Mann movie — like cool synthesizers from the '80s. That’s the sound that I was going for. I snuck it into some cool tapestries of sounds that I use the Helix for. Then, after that, I got a little bit more into the Helix. It’s a pretty easy–to–use thing, but once I started getting into the IRs and that kind of stuff and getting third party IR, that’s where that really starts to come to life, and you realize this is really quality piece.

That’s a whole rabbit hole, IRs and stuff. You can never come out.

I know. You can get a 1,000 at once, and you don’t know where to start. You just start scrolling through and go this is good, this is going to work for me. I’m sure there’s a better one in there, but I’ve only got so much time in my life.

I was looking at some interviews with you from a few years ago. You mentioned that when you were in music school in the '90s, it was kind of like a dark age for guitar music — metal guitar in particular. Where do you think we stand now? Do you think things have swung in a different direction? What’s your perspective on the current state of the guitar world and the metal guitar world in particular?

I think the metal world is where all the guitar nerds have come to. I think all the people who really want to play the shit out of their guitars have gravitated into the metal world."

I think the metal world is where all the guitar nerds have come to. I think all the people who really want to play the shit out of their guitars have gravitated into the metal world. All these fusion nerds, all these jazz guys, and all these crazy people. People are playing the shit out of their guitars, and they’re really, really good. The technique is insane. People have just gotten better.

I think overall, guitar playing has elevated over the last decade. The thing about the '90s was that the guitar was pretty much dead in pop music, but it was never really dead in metal, even though metal did started omitting it in the early 2000s.

There’s that article that came out, the slow death of the electric guitar… but the electric guitar is very much alive and well in heavy metal. I don’t think that article knew that. I feel that whoever wrote that piece is not necessarily paying attention to what’s going on in the world of guitar and heavy metal because that’s where everyone moved to…

You look on YouTube and see these players, and you don’t even know who they are, but they’re some of the best guitar players in the world. They don’t even play on records, they just start playing guitar on their phone — Instagram guys who I’ve never heard of that are just insane to watch. They’re doing stuff I’ve never seen.

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