Well before he ever began a storyboard for his Adult Swim animated series Home Movies and Metalocalypse, long before he had penned a joke as a successful stand-up comedian, long before he had ever written his first song as a musician and the architect of Dethklok, Brendon Small was a teenager in a guitar contest in Salinas, California.
On the latest episode of the Electric Theater, the creative force behind various entities of animation, comedy, and metal shared a formative story of self-awareness that would establish a very important precedent - failure can be the ultimate motivator.
As a fantastic storyteller, Small set the stage by sharing that at 14 years old, he found that ONE friend that exposed him to what would become his whole world. He taught Small his very first power chord and taught him who King Diamond was. They listened to Judas Priest, S.O.D., and Slayer. This friend was responsible for introducing metal to Small and it began a passion that the creative says would become part of his identity.
After a year and half of playing guitar, Small and said friend signed up for a local guitar competition. Though Small had gotten good, and even outpaced his friends in those 18 months, what Small didn't plan on was an audience.
In those moments before hitting the stage, Small shared that he listened to other participants tank and it was then he realized, "this could do terribly wrong." He recalled plugging into a Marshall full-stack and playing guitar the loudest he had ever played it up to that point, another thing he didn't plan on.
Comparing the experience to a caricature drawing where all of your worst characteristics are exaggerated, Small said his hands were shaking so bad, he couldn't work his tuner. His knees were actually knocking. Punctuating the experience, he shared that the MC said as he walked off stage, "not bad for a year and half," a sort of qualifier for such a sub par showing.
He and his friend drove home in silence. Small breezed passed his parents who wanted to know how it went and just opted to go straight to bed. It was the next day that Small began to take inventory of the night and in that moment, began a practice that would permeate throughout his career.
In preparing for the competition, Small had began waking up at 4am to practice guitar before school. No easy feat for a working adult let alone a kid in high school. He stood up late playing too, midnight was the witching hour. Small was playing at a level that outpaced friends that had been playing longer than he did. The guitar really became his prime focus, his motivation.
He gave himself a year. "If you aren't where you want to be in a year, then you can quit." Lucky for the world, Small never quit.
From his pioneering work as the creator of Adult Swim shows like Home Movies and Metalocalypse, to his tenure with Dethklok and his Galatikon project, to his continued career as a stand-up comedian, to his long list of contributions as an animator, voice actor, and film director, Small could very well trace his myriad of successful ventures back to that one night in Salinas, California.
During his conversation with clown that touched on musicianship, learning how to be vulnerable and understanding the value of failure, Small shared instances throughout his life that all required him to take stock of his successes while factoring in the failures along the way. Comparing the exchange to a boxing match, Small expressed that achieving any goal should come with an understanding that failure is going to hit you, it's understanding how to absorb that damage and press on.
The other consistent talking point that Small weaved into the discussion was how the guitar has been the perfect metaphor. Explaining that the relationship between the guitar and the player is a very personal one, he also shared that there is no one else involved in the learning process. It really is just you and the guitar. He's used that ideology throughout his career, embracing a DIY approach to every facet of his career.
The same way he learned the guitar, he learned how to pen a script. The same way he learned guitar, he learned how to craft a stand up set. The same way he learned guitar, he learned how to direct, act, storyboard, animate.
That one night in Salinas not only did Small learn the value of failing, he also came away with an understanding of a very important outlook that is so common sense, it's often overlooked. Life, much like learning the guitar, is limited to the kind of time and effort you are willing to invest in it.
Listen to the complete interview with Brendon Small on the Electric Theater with clown below.