It’s a perfect rock & roll story, really, the kind always worth re-telling — the one about the night Jack Black and Kyle Gass officially arrived as Tenacious D. It was their first show ever, at a Los Angeles coffee shop called Highland Grounds, and in the crowd, eyeing these future legends, was an old master himself. Imagine the Rolling Stones performing in front Muddy Waters. Or Whitney Houston’s first performance for Aretha Franklin. Tenacious D was performing their debut concert to a crowd that included Harry Shearer, also known for being Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap.
“It was a magical christening; it was a sign,” Black recalls to Rolling Stone with some well-earned, but quintessential over-the-top grandeur. “There’s a member of Spinal Tap in the audience at the first Tenacious D show. It was meant to be.”
Black and the duo are celebrating the 20th anniversary their self-titled debut album, Saturday, September 25, 2015. They have always been extremely aware of the elements that make rock and roll great and worthy of ridicule. Big riffs, big hooks, big egos and, perhaps most importantly, big legends.
The duo’s signature song remains “Tribute,” a brilliantly warped take on the devil-at-the-crossroads myth that positions Tenacious D as a band capable of dumbfounding the Dark Lord by spontaneously playing the best song in the world, but one not exactly capable of remembering how that song actually went. Black and Gass giddily leaned into outrage mythmaking of all kinds on Tenacious D — there’s fantasy epic “Wonderboy,” the revolutionary saga “City Hall” and the statement of grand canonical intent, “Dio,” in which the D stake their claims and the real successors to metal great Ronnie James Dio.
Twenty years later, the legend of Tenacious D itself seems more remarkable than, say, being able to kill a yak from 200 yards a way with mind bullets. This was a “fake” band that suddenly became a real one. For all their fans in comedy, they were wowing the likes of Dave Grohl (who later played on Tenacious D) and Weezer (who brought the D on tour with them) and even Dio himself (who would cameo in their 2006 movie Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny). In an episode of the short-lived HBO Tenacious D show, Black goes to smash his guitar after a performance of “Tribute,” but — starving artist that he is — lays it down gently instead; when the D performed the same track on Letterman a couple years later, he was able to give his axe the mighty wack it deserved. Perhaps their greatest achievement was coming in the early 2000s as the music business was in collapse and going gold in less than one year.
“We got caught in the file-sharing, really,” Gass quips. “I contend we would have sold way more.”
“Kyle’s convinced we would have gone quadruple platinum,” Black adds. “We’ll never know.”
“But we crawled over platinum — and we’ll take it.”
To mark the 20th anniversary of Tenacious D, the band has been dropping an array of goodies for fans in the form of an advent calendar that includes old behind-the-scenes footage, recreations of the album’s skits by the Independent Shakespeare Co. and Haim (who do a great rendition of “Drive-Thru”) and interviews with David Cross (an early fan who brought Tenacious D deeper into L.A.’s alt-comedy fold) and the album’s producers, the Dust Brothers. They’re also reissuing the album as a “Super Power Party Pack” with old demos and other rarities.
“It’s been rad to do a little doff of our cap to our first album,” Black stated. “It was such a huge moment in our lives. So we knew we had to mark the occasion. It’d be weird not to. When you say, was it fun for us to do it? It’s not really for us. It’s for the fans. It’s only for the fans!”
You two really got to know each other in the Actors’ Gang theater troupe — tell me about that experience.
Kyle: It was kind of a political theater group, sort of progressive, but it was highly entertaining, based on a style from the Commedia Dell’arte.
Jack: The first time I saw you perform was in the Actors Gang. But you didn’t know that I was there. I was just a face in the crowd… But the friendship did not blossom until I entered the Actors’ Gang officially. I entered that world as a teenager. We traveled the world together. In 1989, we went to Edinburgh Theater Festival. We travel back to the Eighties.
Kyle: Yeah, Hot tub time machine with us.
Jack: Yeah, we came from a politically active underground theater company. It was very cool. You wanted to be an actor in Los Angeles during the Eighties. It was the right spot.
“We were like the ninjas of rock. We don’t use electric guitars. That’s for, you know — not-ninjas.” – Jack Black
Was music a big component of the work you were doing there?
Kyle: It was, and I was kind of the music guy. Jack then came in, and blew my mind with the four-track home recording he was making. And I felt intimidated. I was a little threatened because he was obviously a wunderkid and I was the old guy playing the guitar. I wanted to be a part of his world. I wanted his sauce.
Jack: And then you quit the Actors’ Gang for a while. You’re like, “I’m out of here, I’m done.”
Kyle: Well, I’m a temperamental guy!
Jack: And I was like, “Whoa, where’s Kage going?” And I kind of followed him out. I continued to work with the Actors’ Gang, but I followed Kage out into his side project world.
Kyle: My exile, really.
Jack: Yeah, into exile. And I was like, “I’ll still be your friend. Teach me your ways!”
Kyle: I appreciated it, you got me. My stock was low and I needed a friend.
Jack: Yeah, you finally knew I existed. Now you know, now you need me! But now we’re in the early Nineties at this point, and Kage taught me how to play guitar and we smoked a lot of weed and we wrote our first song. Well I don’t want to talk about the first song.
Kyle: OK, no that doesn’t count. I can’t believe you still don’t like the first song. [Ed. note: Tenacious D’s first song is a legitimately sincere break-up tune called “Melissa,” of which there are bootlegs floating around the internet.]
Jack: I hate it. But the first official song was “Tribute.” It took a long time to craft that masterpiece and it still remains one of our flagship songs; arguably our best song.
Kyle: It’s been downhill ever since.
Jack: We shot for the stars. By God, we did hit one.
How did you settle on the grandiose acoustic metal style in the early days of Tenacious D’s conception and development?
Kyle: Well, I think we almost needed a shield or something to hide behind, because Jack and I both find music a little embarrassing. You’re singing and exposing feelings in a traditional kind of way. So I think the comedic thing came naturally, and we’re both hilarious — I don’t know if you can tell. That was the way we were able to do it. And we love the big rock — I mean, Jack turned me on to some heavy rock that I really wasn’t into, and got me into Metallica.
Jack: Kyle was teaching me on acoustic guitar. He could play electric, but he didn’t have an amp at his house. He was an acoustic man through and through. It was something I loved. I loved the acoustic instrument. I didn’t feel like, “Eh, I wish we had electric.” I never felt that need. And I felt like, in a way, that was ours — it was like we were ninjas. Ninjas don’t use guns. We were like the rock ninjas. We don’t use electric guitars. That’s for, you know — not-ninjas.
That’s always seemed part of the bit — to have these heavy metal-worshiping dudes who just play acoustic guitar anyway.
Jack: Me and Kage, we have slightly different musical influences, but where we met was Simon and Garfunkel. Both of us were very into those songs. But I said, “Wait a second, Black Sabbath.” So that’s what we are. We’re basically Simon and Garfunkel and Black Sabbath mixed together. And that’s where the folk metal comes from.
Kyle: You turned me on to the idea that these guys, it was always about the devil worship and that whole Eighties thing. It was hilarious. Does Ozzy actually worship Satan, what’s up with that?
Is it possible that comedy and music have been intertwined? Not just “comedy music” as a genre, but were there songs that made you realize “serious music” could also be funny?
Jack: [Singing] “Hello Muddah. Hello Fadduh, here I am at Camp Granada.” Alan Sherman. Um, [Singing again] “He’s got big balls! She’s got big balls! But we’ve got the biggest balls of them all!” AC/DC. It’s very funny. But let’s face it, the real goose in the caboose that led the way, the North Star, was Spinal Tap. Duh. Funniest movie ever made — with also, by the way, great rock songs. While they were making fun at the genre, they were also celebrating the art form. And Nigel Tufnel, it doesn’t get any funnier than that ever. It has never been more funnier and it will never get any better. It might be even more funny in certain cases. It goes up to 11. But, it goes to 11.
Kyle: They did pave the way.
You had the Tenacious D HBO show before you made the album. What did you learn from that experience?
Kyle: We’d done a fair amount of live shows and then we had to actually record for the HBO show. We were able to get in tune with recording, I believe. However, we were still very new at recording with Dust Brothers. But the experience of making the show was like, “Wow, this really works on some level. It’s really gaining a cult following and people dig it.”
Jack: It was a great way to work up material, because we had just a handful of songs when they said, “Hey, we want you to do some comedy short films to be part of the Mr. Show Cinematic Universe.” And so we wrote a few episodes with Bob [Odenkirk] and David [Cross], and the first few episodes were no problem because we already had enough songs for that. But then when we went further, we were like, “Oh fuck, we need more songs.” And we wrote a lot of songs to order; what do you call that Kage when you’re writing?
Kyle: You know, you put your order in, “I need a Sasquatch song to go.”
Jack: Yeah, we needed to write songs for the episodes. There were many songs we wrote on assignment. Then we had enough songs to be able, after the TV gig was over, to get into the studio.
In the advent calendar interview you did with John King of the Dust Brothers, you spoke about finally going electric, and John described it as fulfilling the fantasy embedded in the acoustic originals. How was it for you guys to recreate those songs with a full orchestra for the first time.
Kyle: That was a dream come true. We were big rock fans, and then to hear our songs blown up like that, with Dave Grohl playing drums behind the little songs you came up with in your living room — that was pretty heady stuff for me. Although it was a big leap, it was very exciting. It was clear from the Dust Brothers that this isn’t unusual. The song is created by bringing in songs. It’s a different art form, really, than the live thing. But it felt amazing. I remember I couldn’t stop listening to it the first time, I was like, “This is incredible, I can’t believe I’m on a rock album that sounds this good!”
Jack: It was cool fleshing out all those songs, but there was something magical in the time before we had an album, when we were on HBO and before we got a record contract. There’s a couple years in there where we were famous as a band and we were able to go and book big rooms and play in rooms all around the country without an album. We were the most indie band of them all. We don’t even have a record label, that’s how indie our record label is — it doesn’t exist! Our music is available on the airwaves or on videotapes. We went to Seattle and Eddie Vedder attended one of our shows. He was there before we had a recording. He was just fucking around there.
“I think people related to the episodes. The underdog, kind of shlumpy guys that are a little bit deluded, but are kind of good and actually funny. So you can laugh at them and with them — and tap your toe.” – Kyle Gass
So there was a reluctance when we first went into the studio with the Dust Brothers and they were like, “You gotta form a supergroup.” And we were like, “Do we, though?” Because the joke is, it’s these two guys with acoustic guitars playing heavy metal to the heavens, like we’re playing to a million people. Aren’t we going to lose that joke and that magic once we get a band? So we told them, “We’ll do it — but just so you know, at the last minute we may bail and just go acoustic.” And they were like, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll always have the acoustic versions and you guys can decide.” And then as soon as we started, it was like, “What were we talking about? This sounds so much better with the band. We’re not going to put out the acoustic!”
Kyle: There are a couple acoustic songs on there. This was crucial. It’s a good variety.
Eddie Vedder came to see you play, Dave Grohl is on the album, you toured with Weezer and Dio even became a fan — what do you think the allure of Tenacious D is for other artists?
Kyle: I think people related to the episodes. The underdog is a group of slimy, deluded men who are actually quite funny and kind of cute. So you can laugh at them and with them — and tap your toe.
Jack: We were saying, “Hey, anyone can do it.”
Kyle: Of course they can’t.
Jack: The radio will tell you that only very, very special people can do it. But we’re telling you that’s bullshit. You can do it. Anybody can rock. I think that’s where Brad Bird came up with Ratatouille, “Anyone can cook!” We’re the fucking rats from Ratatouille, dude!
Both of you have remained true to your friendship through Tenacious D. What’s kept the band so exciting and creatively engaging?
Jack: You know, we’re still Tenacious from the block.
Kyle: It’s our thing and we get to be as artistic and creative as we want to be. That’s a rush; it’s the greatest thing. We’re actually working on some stuff right now, and when something comes out, I don’t know if there’s a better feeling. It’s the act of creation — it’s really exciting.
Jack: It’s like when you strike a gold mine, or like there’s a geyser of bubbling crude — like we struck oil, why would you stop pumping? Just keep pumping until it’s dry. It’s just bubbling crude. Were we going to just bail someday and go full electric? Perhaps.
Kyle: We don’t know a thing. We’re slaves to the muse!
Jack: But right now? Jack: But right now?