Let It D: Tenacious D, The Greatest Band in the World (or Maybe the Second Greatest, They’re Still W

Dean Budnick on February 3, 2012

As the world awaits the return of Tenacious D, with their third album, Rize of The Fenix set for a spring release, we look back to our November 2006 cover story on Jack Black, Kyle Gass and the majesty that is the D…

What if everything you knew or thought you knew about Tenacious D was WRONG? (Deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. Tenderly stroke that Burrito Supreme as the magnitude of this seeps in.)

Then gorge yourself and move on.

Frankly, you probably know just about everything you need to know about the D. If you’re a neophyte, what you need to know is that despite the acoustic guitars and oft-angelic vocal harmonies, Tenacious D is all about the bombast. And the Backstage Bettys. And Beelzebub (or is all that too B for the D?).

It seems to be working. What pair can inspire Foo Fighters guitarist Dave Grohl to return to the drum-kit and achieve Nirvana once again? Who else has been selected to open shows by such a wide array of groups as Tool, Weezer and the String Cheese Incident? What two artists are so self-actualized, so free, as to extol the splendor of Sasquatch and Metamucil?

The answer (lest you think all that was rhetorical) is Jack Black and Kyle Gass. In 1991 the two were members of the Actor’s Gang theatre troupe in Los Angeles (Tim Robbins serves as the artistic director), when the moment came to contribute to the Gang’s weekly coffeehouse variety show.

Recalls Black, “We had an assignment because the Actor’s Gang was doing it once a week at this place called Highland Grounds and we were like, ‘What are we going to contribute?’ Kyle lived in an apartment on Cochrane Avenue, called the Cockroach, where we would smoke a lot of pot and jam. So we decided we should play live and write the greatest song in the world.”

This was an endeavor he had taken on once before: “There was a shitty song before I met Kyle and it goes like this… ‘To understand this song you’re going to have to take a cosmic leap, and you better bring a rope because the lyrics are so deep…’ It was going to be the greatest song in the world but I bailed on it.”

As would Black and Gass, who foundered for a few days before composing “Tribute,” a paean to the greatest song which they then brought to Highland Grounds. When they took the stage, in addition to all matters metal, another “seminal influence” (a phrase no doubt favored by the D) was Sting.

Gass explains, “Our sketch was based on Dream of the Blue Turtles. Sting could be kind of pretentious and he had a news conference where he said, ‘So many documentaries are about the end of a band but this is about the beginning of a band.’ And I thought that was funny, so I started talking about how we’re starting a band, and there was another member and then halfway through we lost him and played ‘Tribute.’ But after that performance we took three years off. We didn’t know how it worked, really, how to get gigs because we were just actors and we really weren’t versed in the club scene or anything.”

The pair resurfaced in the mid-‘90s, performing five- to ten-minute sets in alternative comedy shows, which often featured fellow performers such as Ben Stiller and Janeane Garafalo. In 1999, an association with Mr. Show’s David Cross and Bob Odenkirk yielded six HBO comedic shorts, Tenacious D: The Greatest Band on Earth and the world domination began in earnest.

After something of a fallow period, the D looms once again as a triple threat. Black and Gass star in the feature film, Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (directed by Liam Lynch, who co-wrote the script and previously worked with the group on its “Tribute” video, as well as a series of short films that appear on The Complete Master Works DVD). An accompanying soundtrack will showcase the group’s new compositions and feature a number of familiar faces from the D’s titled release, including Grohl and producer John King (who is going it solo this time, without fellow Dust Brother, Mike Simpson). In addition, Tenacious D will return to “The Road” it celebrates in song, with stops in Europe as well as the U.S.

Relix sat down with the D in late September, at New York’s Grammercy Park Hotel. At times, when speaking with Black and Gass, the pair break off to converse with themselves in a manner akin to twins who have developed their own lexicon while living in the wilds of Hades raised by Satan’s minions (if not the Big Guy himself). Plus, of course, there is also that duality whereby Tenacious D features Kyle Gass and Jack Black taking on the characters of Kyle Gass and Jack Black. Feel free to pick that lockbox, while they bring the Thunder and Let It D…

The Pick of Destiny

There are a number of guest stars in The Pick of Destiny but perhaps the one that may be most surprising is Ronnie James Dio. Didn’t you suggest he should be put out to pasture [in “Dio” ]?

JB: He heard the song and he knew it was the ultimate show of respect to say, “We want your torch.” We could have asked for Ozzy’s torch but we asked for Dio’s torch. Yes, we were saying it’s time for you to retire, you’re too old to rock. But at the core of it we were saying, “You are the cock and balls.”

KG: Dio understood.

JB: He wanted to party with us. It did not take any arm twisting.

This article will hit before the film is released. So as a bit of a teaser, how would you characterize the narrative?

JB: The story is an origin episode of the D. It’s like Superman. In the first episode you have to learn about Jor-El, you’ve got to talk about the crystals. So here you get to know, what was the beginning beginning?

KG: It’s like in a marriage when you say mommy, daddy where did you guys meet? It’s about our first epic quest.

JB: To become the greatest band on earth. We serve it up to you like a fresh salami.

The HBO series and especially the shorts seem pitched to an older audience. What is the tone of the film?

JB: It’s geared towards adults but it’s made like a child’s made it. It’s like a rated R children’s movie. Now I don’t know who’s going to see that movie…

KG: I’m saying it’s an adult fairy tale.

JB: Triple! [JB and KG exchange three high fives in rapid succession.]

If you were compare Tenacious D and The Pick of Destiny to other films, which ones come to mind – excluding Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia and Apocalypse Now ?

KG: Why did you take all of those films away from us? Okay, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca and the Godfather, Parts 1 and 3.

JB: I’m gonna say a pinch of Road Warrior, a sprinkle of Jaws, a healthy handful of Blues Brothers and a shaving, just a little parmesan shaving, of Animal House.

KG: I’m gonna say if you took Airheads, Crossroads and Grease and mixed it into a tasty liquor and poured yourself a glass, then you’d have the D movie.

JB: [Disgusted] Airheads ? Crossroads ? Grease ? A blast of the cheese!

What about the music that appears in the film: Were those existing D songs or did you write them specifically for The Pick of Destiny ?

JB: Most of them were written on assignment. We need a sad song, we need the song the D wishes they could play in their wildest fantasy…

KG: It was a tall order.

JB: We had to wrack our f’ing brains. Who were those guys who wrote all those musicals, like The Mikado ? Hammerstein and McConaughey?

KG: Gilbert and Sullivan.

JB: We were like Gilbert and Sullivan on this one.

KG: Wow!

JB: I hope you print that. I mean, you can print that!

Can you describe the songwriting process?

KG: There’s no set process. I’ll try to let the ideas seep in and then hopefully they come out of my fingers. With a sad song, maybe that’s a minor chord.

JB: I remember we had to write a sad song because it’s Tenacious D’s emotional nadir. I hope you print that. I mean, you can print that. So Kyle plays a chord and I’m like, “That’s not nearly as sad as it needs to be.” And then he goes to E-minor diminished. And I go, “Even sadder if you please.” And then he goes to a chord that doesn’t even have a name because he’s squeezing notes out of it that are half-notes and notes that don’t even exist.

KG: Let’s say it needs to be a rocker, then you have to get the right beat to it [snaps fingers]. And when that doesn’t work we just go to Liam [Lynch, the film’s director].

JB: Liam did come in and collaborate with us on a couple songs. He’s a great songwriter.

KG: In his own right.

JB: Have you heard his hit single?

KG: “United States of Whatever.”

JB: “United States of Whatever” swept the nation.

KG: Swept the world. [This is true. In June, 2003, “United States of Whatever” was a top 10 hit in Australia.]

JB: It was weird because he was on our Thunder Squad. He was working for us making short films and things like that and then all of a sudden, he accomplished something the D never did, which was to have a heavy-rotation radio hit. He had a number-one radio hit that was on every station in every city of the country.

KG: That he recorded in his living room.

JB: And I was like, “What the F?”

Beyond the really sad song and the fantasy one you described, are there any others that jump out at you?

JB: Well, there’s a song called “Beelzebus the Final Showdown,” which is pretty powerful.

KG: It is powerful. I think it dwarfs the rest of the movie now.

JB: No, no, no. The beginning of the movie, “Kickapoo,” is also a one-two club to the chops.

KG: We start and end this film with possibly the two greatest songs.

JB: I love “Pick of Destiny,” the song about the movie which is basically a shameless promotional tool but turned out to be a really kick-ass song.

KG: “Classico” is pretty cool.

JB: Now that was a great collaboration because you have Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and the D all working side by side. Can you imagine a better super group, where it was Beethoven on bass, Mozart on drums and Bach on electric flute? What would that band be called?

KG: How about Masters’ Piece?

JB: Dude, how about Master Beast?

The (Second) Greatest Band on Earth

This one has haunted me for a while. If Tenacious D is the greatest rock band on earth then who is the second greatest?

KG: Whew, tough one.

JB: I never said we were the greatest. Did you say we were the greatest?

KG: Nope.

JB: Well then, I’ll tell you who’s the greatest and you can say they’re the second greatest.

KG: I’m going to say Supernova.

JB: Rock star Supernova?

KG: Well, the band’s called Supernova. Because of the way they were formed on television and the members… when you have Jason Newsted, Gilby Clarke, Tommy Lee, Dave Navarro and Storm Large in the same band… Second greatest band, hard to say, hard to say. Phish?

JB: Phish?!

Page McConnell played keys on the first D album and Trainwreck did some Vida Blue openers but did you ever see Phish perform live?

KG: I went and saw one of the final shows. It was great. I did nitrous on the bus, and they’re big pot smokers so I had a good time. Until I got kind of paranoid and had to hide in the bus. Second greatest… Little River Band? [He hums the chorus to LRB’s “Reminiscing.” )

JB: I like The Who. I want one more guy to die and they still go on.

KG: Don’t they have Zak Starkey on drums?

JB: Ringo Starr’s son must be better than Ringo.

KG: We should have Zak go against Jason Bonham. They should have a drum off.

JB: I think that’s pretty clearly a Starkey win

KG: Is it? I don’t know.

JB: You love that show, Damnocracy. [VH-1s SuperGroup featured the made-for-reality-TV group Damnocracy, which included Bonham, Ted Nugent, Sebastian Bach, Scott Ian and Evan Seinfeld.]

KG: Any band that’s created on television is genius.

The Road

In December you begin a European tour. How are you treated over there? Do you find that the Old World is fully receptive of the D?

JB: We have only played countries where English is the second language three or four times and it’s always been a little funky because the subtleties get lost in translation. In Sweden we had this very strange clapping audience and they wanted [Black demonstrates] to-clap-to-the-beat-of-every-song. That ruined it for me. And Amsterdam, you’d think that would be the best ever because it’s a party town but there was just something off where they weren’t quite getting it. So when you say Europe, I’m really looking forward to the places where they’re going to get the nuance of every word.

KG: The U.K. loves it. God bless the U.K.

JB: The U.K., Ireland, Scotland. Is Scotland part of the U.K.?

KG: Yes. It’s the United Kingdom. If you had your asses kicked by England in that region then you’re part of the U.K.

JB: Then I don’t think Scotland is part of the U.K. How much do you want to bet? [Black reaches into his pocket and removes a handful of crumpled bills]…You’re not even going to answer me? You’re just going to look at him as if, “Do you see what I have to contend with…?” Well, you had a chance to double your money. Too late! So when you say Europe, I’m saying, "Yeah, I’m looking forward to the U.K. That’s all we really have on the schedule.

Somewhat along these lines, the two of you have opened for a number of bands over the years, particularly early on. Which group’s fans were most supportive and which ones weren’t quite down with the D?

KG: We had some early dates with Tool and they just didn’t get it. I don’t think they wanted to get it and it just didn’t go well.

JB: The audience didn’t like it but Maynard the lead singer of Tool loved us and kept on trying to force it through. We did one show where it couldn’t have gone worse, really, the audience was really anti-D. This was before we had an album and then he was like, “Dude, you guys were incredible. I want you to open for us in San Diego…” And then we went down there it was even WORSE and that was it.

KG: On the other side, we opened a show for Beck and the ticket said that the show started at nine.

JB: Show starts at nine.

KG: And they said, “Okay, you guys go on at eight.” And we’re like, “But everyone thinks the show starts at nine, why do we have to go on at eight?” “It doesn’t matter, don’t read those tickets. Start at eight.”

JB: No, it wasn’t that bad. The show started at eight and they said you guys are on at 7:45. Just keep it to like a 15-minute set. Literally when we started there were two people in the audience and by the end of our set people were filtering in.

KG: But they enjoyed it.

JB: We thrive under those conditions.

KG: Another time, we opened for the Pearl Jam at the forum.

JB: The Great Western Forum which is a massive auditorium where the Lakers used to play.

KG: Pearl Jam was headlining of course. X played before them and in the third spot was Tenacious D. But we had to go when they barely had the lights off.

JB: The lights were not off.

KG: The lights were half-dim.

JB: The lights might have dimmed a bit. I don’t know that they did at all. We walked out, the lights were on, people were filtering in. It was another one of those where I don’t believe we were on the ticket or the marquee. And I couldn’t really hear that our volume was up in the house.

KG: No, I don’t think so.

JB: I think the people out there for the most part thought we were some kind of a soundcheck crew, checking things onstage. But once again we really brought a lot a fervor. It might have been one of our best shows.

KG: The piece de resistance, though, was the Miller Genuine Draft Blind Date. I don’t know if you remember the Blind Date but they would fly a bunch of drunks in who won a contest at a bar.

JB: Who then could then drink all the Miller Beer they could drink, for free.

KG: And they’re going to get to see a band that they don’t know. It’s a blind date, get it?

JB: So everyone there was drunkenly thinking they were going to see…

KG: Led Zeppelin.

JB: Or whoever their favorite band is. And zero percent of them were hoping it was Tenacious D. So the curtains open, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Tenacious D!” and instantly there’s this feeling, “Okay, this is some kind of joke and they want us to boo these no-names off the stage. No problem. BOOO! Throw ice! Cups! FUCK YOU!” And this is before we even got through ten seconds of the first song.

The thing is, we were getting paid quite a bit of money to do this show and we have been paid to play a half-hour. To my mind, if we don’t play a half-hour they may not pay us. They may find some shitty loophole, so we’re going to do it.

About 20 minutes through it, we’re coming to the finish line, I look off to the wings and our friend Lee is going to come in as Spiderman. Except he’s off in the wings with the Spiderman hat off, going [JB makes a cut gesture, drawing his fingers across his neck].

KG: He didn’t want to come out

JB: And then it just turned into an exercise in pure torture.

KG: We were actually supposed to play four but we only played that one.

JB: But we did not quit. They fired us and they had to pay us [high fives all around].

Speaking of loopholes, in the road documentary that’s on the DVD, there is that one moment where the two of you are backstage before a show and Jack says, “This just doesn’t feel right.” Then you joke about finding a loophole to get out of the gig. Is that a common occurrence? A Blind Date by-product?

JB: We’re always looking for a loophole. Pretty much every concert we’ve ever done, we’re trying to find a way to cancel the show at the last minute. There’s people out there chanting, “D! D! D!” And that’s something that causes nauseous ness when you hear it backstage. I don’t want to go out there. I want to take a liquid shit and run out the back door into a van that takes me away from the city. But then we go out onstage and we are transformed instantly into these Gods of Thunder that have all the power and zero fear. I don’t know how it happens.

KG: It’s easier to go forward, when you can’t go back.

JB: Three [JB and KG share three high fives].