Adult Swim dives deep into alt rock

Music for Screens: Summer 2011

From “Metalocalypse,” the death metal cartoon that spawned a sell-out tour featuring music from the show, to the forthcoming pilot starring rap sensation Odd Future, Adult Swim’s absurdist comedy programming on the Cartoon Network has a distinctly musical bent, showcasing some of the most cutting-edge acts in America, both established and emerging.

Once upon a time, young music fans might have tuned into MTV to hear the latest sounds by alternative bands. With MTV now firmly in the mainstream, Adult Swim is filling the void, showcasing the kinds of genres — death metal, shock rock, screamo, South African rap, you name it — you’re unlikely to hear anywhere else on cable.

“On all levels, Adult Swim is trying to bring you something quality and unusual, and we are very transparent about that,” says Jason Demarco, creative director of sales promotions at the network, and A&R at Adult Swim’s record label Williams Street Records.

“I try to steer way from average pop-type music and so far the fan feedback we have gotten through the years shows they appreciate it.”

The white trash cephalopod show “Squidbillies” has featured music by southern rock and alt-country acts including Drive-By Truckers, Widespread Panic and Bonnie Prince Billy. Cee Lo Green played a character on “The Brak Show.”

This year, Queens of the Stone Age front man Josh Homme wrote the new theme song for the show “Aqua Unit Patrol Squad One”; the show also featured notorious underground hip hop duo Insane Clown Posse.

This forward-thinking strategy has deepened the already strong loyalty between the Turner-owned network and its 2 million or so viewers. It also made it a bona fide destination for that coveted demographic — the 18- to 24-year-old male cultural influencers and early adopters who appreciate the network’s grasp of underground music as much as its subversive programming.

It all happened very naturally, says Mike Lazzo, senior exec VP in charge of Adult Swim. The network launched in September 2001 and from day one, it was decided that the music heard by viewers should match the unconventional content.

“One of the things that did when we started making Adult Swim was the packaging,” explains Lazzo. “For bumper music, we didn’t want to use the typical music that you saw in a TV library. We went to Jason Demarco and said, ‘Help us find interesting music.’ And from there we just got in deeper and deeper.”

Hip-hop producer Danger Mouse, a friend of Demarco’s, produced several “bumps,” later teaming up with rapper MF Doom to form Danger Doom, releasing the “The Mouse and the Mask” collaboration album, featuring guest appearances from Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Harvey Birdman characters.

From there came Metalocalypse, an animated show about fictional death metal band Dethklok, and Adult Swim’s biggest commercial musical success. When Williams Street released the first Dethklok album in 2007, it charted No. 21 on the Billboard 200, making it the highest-rated death metal album of all time. The second Dethklok album hit No. 15 on the Billboard charts, selling around 800,000 records.

Brendon Small, the show’s creator, convinced the network and sponsors to support a full American Dethklok tour, featuring a live band playing along to animated footage; the tour sold out nationwide.

“We just headlined the Mayhem festival for 30,000 people,” says Small. “It’s insane.”

The alchemy of music and television is almost certainly what allowed for Metalocalypse’s success, says Smalls. “It’s a TV show and a metal band at the same time, so we have an unfair advantage over other metal bands,” he says. “Oftentimes people say ‘I don’t know much about metal but I like Dethklok.’ ”

Adult Swim continues to expand its reach into the music biz through genre-specific compilation albums spearheaded by Demarco, usually featuring music licensed from other labels. Williams Street Records is signing underground acts like Cerebral Ballzy, and have shot a pilot with L.A. rap breakthrough act Odd Future, whose dark, subversive lyrics were a perfect fit for the Adult Swim audience.

All of this begs the question: why pour so much time, energy and money into music?

Says Lazzo, “We’re music lovers! From a business perspective, it definitely broadens our appeal and brings us to audiences who may or may not know what Adults Swim is. But the best part is that, as music fans, we are getting attention for doing things that we personally find interesting anyway. It’s a win-win for the fans and the network.”

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