Alumni Profile: Brendon Small '97

Brenda Pike
December 7, 2009
Brendon Small '97 and his cartoon counterpart
Small in concert as Dethklok, the band from the <i>Metalocalypse</i>.
Photo by <a href="">Tom Couture</a>
Photo by <a href="">Tom Couture</a>

Professional music major Brendon Small's concerts look like many others—crowd surfing, devil's horns, light show—but with one important difference: the fans are more familiar with the animated characters on the screen behind the band than the musicians themselves. After graduating from Berklee, Small took a detour through comedy and TV development before merging the two with his first passion: heavy metal. His show on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, Metalocalypse, spoofs American celebrity culture while at the same time allowing him to write and perform the music that he loves.

Do you find it hard to take metal seriously because your show has an ironic perspective on it?

I think all art is absurd and stupid and amazing and fantastic and wonderful. Think of a Picasso painting; I'm supposed to look at that dumb, angular, weird thing and think it's amazing? But then again, it is pretty amazing. I have a huge amount of respect for metal. That's how I started playing guitar, and I wouldn't be here if I hadn't learned Black Sabbath on guitar.

Were you focusing on metal while you were at Berklee?

I was in the closet with metal. Metal wasn't really happening anymore, popularity-wise. But I would go and practice in those little closets in our dorms and just try to keep my chops up in the event that I would need to use them one day. Luckily I've created a situation where it's paying off now.

How did your education at Berklee help you get where you are today?

There's an innate discipline that comes with music. You realize that if you put in the hours, you get results. The only time I developed discipline is when I was studying something that I took very seriously, and I applied that discipline to everything else. So as I write, I'm going to wake up and write two hours worth of jokes. It's about just getting stuff done.

I got an internship at two different jingle houses in New York before my last year at Berklee, so I got to watch people write very quickly. The first song's tough, but once you learn how to do it, it's not so daunting. Just find a bag of tricks and be able to write in different styles. Berklee definitely challenges you to reharmonize and do some very difficult things, so stuff that's more simple, I can do eight of those in a day. Berklee was also very encouraging about recording yourself, so I have a leg up on a lot of people, because I can be a one-man show.

How did you end up writing a TV show?

I don't know if I was experiencing burnout or if my true wise-ass self was making its way to the surface, but I thought I needed to study some other stuff in addition to music. When you're stuck around so many musicians, you want to have some individuality. I had a lot of friends who were going to Emerson College, and it's affiliated with Berklee, so I started taking comedy classes at Emerson.

One thing you do in comedy when you start out is fail miserably in front of your peers. It's humiliating, but ultimately it's character building, and it alleviates what I had, which was near-paralyzing stage fright. I was actually blowing every opportunity to play guitar because of my nerves. I don't think people who saw me live at Berklee thought I was great, but I was a fantastic bedroom guitarist.

In my first year of standup I got seen by one of the producers of Dr. Katz, which was one of the few shows being produced in Boston. I got very lucky and was seen on a good night. So I ended up getting my foot in the door there and doing voices. And then, because I had good writing discipline, I would come to the table with tons of ideas and ended up cocreating my first show, called Home Movies, around 1999.

Because it was just me and this other guy creating this show in this tiny world, I took a crack at writing the theme song. Then I got to write the music for the show. Eventually Adult Swim asked me to write some music for another show, and they were all jazzed that I could write really quickly and record it myself. People in comedy are fascinated by music. I can be the funniest guitarist or I can be the most musical comedian. Everyone's impressed as long as I'm not doing the thing I'm supposed to be doing.

Any advice for current students?

A) Get good at your instrument, but B) Get good at other stuff. Learn how to edit, learn how to act, learn how to write a script, challenge yourself. And ultimately, do all that stuff, but write some good songs. Please, for me. I just want to listen to good music.