KTVU.com talks to Tenacious D
By Dave Pehling
Sunday, January 19, 2014
SAN FRANCISCO — Actor Jack Black has built up a solid resume as a bankable comedic star with turns in the hit films Shallow Hal, School of Rock and the animated Kung Fu Panda movies and television series, but he has always returned to Tenacious D, his hilarious musical partnership with fellow actor and acoustic guitar wizard Kyle Gass.
First featured in a short film created for the HBO series Mr. Show With Bob and David that led to the pair’s own short-lived late 1990s series on the network, Tenacious D combined the epic heavy metal bombast of Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden with the harmony-filled acoustic-guitar folk of Simon and Garfunkle while singing hilariously self-aggrandizing songs brimming with crude scatalogical and sexual humor.
Though the band was built on the conceit of being a strictly open-mic night duo, high-profile gigs opening for friends like the Foo Fighters, Beck and Pearl Jam would raise the D’s profile. The duo was signed to Epic Records and released an album in 2001 produced by the Dust Brothers (who had worked with the Beastie Boys and Beck among other) that was packed with guest appearances from Dave Grohl, Phish’s Page McConnell and others that departed from their strictly acoustic live performances. To the surprise of some, the disc debut at a respectable 33 on the Billboard charts while the D continued to sell-out larger venues as a headliner.
Tenacious D has made San Francisco a stronghold for its fans, having made some of their earliest road trips outside of Los Angeles to SF. In addition to playing Halloween at the Warfield, appearing at Neil Young’s annual Bridge Benefit in 2002 and packing the Bill Graham Civic hot on the heels of their preposterous 2006 biographical fantasy film Tenacious D in: the Pick of Destiny, the D closed out the Outside Lands Festival in 2009 when The Beastie Boys were forced to cancel duo to member Adam Yauch’s then recent diagnosis with cancer (he sadly succumbed to the disease in the spring of 2012).
Tenacious D was quiet for some time, but in 2011 the pair began to release teases of what would be their first album of new material in six years. Rize of the Phoenix and several hilarious, star-studded videos that have been released for the songs “To Be the Best,” “Low Hanging Fruit” and “Roadie,” prove that the D has lost none of its flair for the ridiculous and profane. With tunes ranging from the epic storytelling of the title track and “The Ballad of Hollywood Jack and the Rage Kage” to the filthy Neil Diamond meets Jimmy Buffett ode to a lady of the older persuasion “39,” Rize of the Fenix featured some of the duo’s best material yet.
This week, the band makes it’s first Bay Area appearance since its triumphant 2012 sold-out show promoting that album at the Fox Theater in Oakland when the SF Sketchfest pays tribute to the band at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on the opening night of the festival’s 2014 edition. The duo recently spoke to KTVU.com about their cult movie and their own comedy event Festival Supreme that was held at the Santa Monica Pier last fall.
My first question was specifically for Kyle. Since we both were raised in the same East Bay hometown of Walnut Creek, I was wondering what led you down the path to become a guitarist growing up there during the ‘70s?
Kyle Gass: Well, I started playing flute and my brother told me that was not going to get me laid. So around 13, I switched over to guitar. And dagnabbit, he was right!
Jack Black: So wait, you don’t think Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull gets any sweet stuff?
KG: [Laughs] You got me! You got me!
That’s funny. I told a friend about the interview and he said “Tell those guys if they want to get something together with Ian Anderson, I can make it happen.” So just say the word…
JB: You just gotta know how to use the whistle.
KG: You can’t talk while you’re playing the flute though. You can’t sing.
JB: But you always get a huge crowd reaction when you start playing your recorder.
KG: Yeah, I think people appreciate the baroque. The real classics.
JB: I think people appreciate the unexpected. In general, audiences today are hungry for the unexpected.
Your HBO series had plenty of surreal moments, but you took a serious turn in the Cheech & Chong direction for Pick of Destiny. What were the reasons behind the weed focus of the film?
JB: We just wrote the funniest movie we could think of. There were drug references in our earlier stuff to. I don’t know if you ever saw “Butt Baby” [the LSD-drenched short from The Complete Masterworks Vol. 1 DVD]. But maybe it was because Bob and David weren’t involved. You know, Bob and David helped us write those episodes on HBO. Maybe they forced us to steer clear of the drug humor. There could have been a fatherly influence there that kept us from the Cheech & Chong pitfalls that we fell prey to later. Let that be a lesson to you young budding comics; don’t follow in the footsteps of Cheech & Chong.
KG: It didn’t seem too much to me though. It felt like a pretty realistic depiction of our early days.
JB: It was autobiographical. It was very stoney, the formation of the D and us going on a mystical adventure was the whole point. Next question!
From what I’ve read, Festival Supreme was a big success. Do you plan on doing it on a yearly basis? Do you think you might try to take a version on the road?
JB: Yep. All of the above, my friend, all of the above. So rival comedy music festivals be put on notice! Festival Supreme is here to stay, mother—-ers!
Did David Cross really get mad about the Sandler snafu [Editor’s note: Adam Sandler’s main stage set threatened to drown out the live Mr. Show performance happening at the same time. At one point video feeds got crossed, showing Sandler on the screen behind Cross and Mr. Show partner Bob Odenkirk]?
JB: I don’t know. I hope not. I love David Cross, and I do feel bad about that. That’s something we’re going to remedy next time. We definitely have some kinks to work out. It’s going to be even better next time. And I’m going to say we’ve gotta get Mr. Show back again for a redemption gig.
Were you guys fairly hands on as far as curating the whole line-up?
KG: Yes. We oversaw every minute detail down to the bathrooms. Down to the catering. Down to the order. Down to the staging. Down to the parking! We oversaw it all.
Jack, you married into a talented musical family. Are there any plans for Haden collaborations, either with your wife and her sisters or their father? Do you play together socially as a family or have you played in public?
JB: Yeah, we just did a show together. We did a fundraiser for … I can’t remember what the name of the charity was. Do you remember what it was Kage?
KG: [Laughs] Oh God no. I don’t remember.
JB: It was for a kids charity. It was Kage and me and the Haden triplets. It was a great time. You wouldn’t think it would be a good mix, because they play like old Carter Family style songs, old country and bluegrass and we play acoustic rock songs about ourselves. But it worked out perfect.
As far as a collaboration with Charlie Haden, you know me and Kyle did put out a jazz album. It was simply called Tenacious D Jazz. It’s on iTunes. You can check it out if you want to. We just nailed it. We cracked the code. Jazz was like a riddle, and we solved it. I played it for Charlie, and he listened to a few bars and walked out of the room. And we never spoke of it again.
KG: Just a few bars?
JB: Well, I’m going to say a couple of minutes, but it’s a long fucking song. It’s like a 15 minute song.
KG: Wow. So he listened to it, didn’t say anything, and walked out of the room?
JB: That’s right. So either he hated it, or he was so blown away by it, maybe he was intimated. Whatever it was, he walked away and we never spoke of it. Either way, I don’t think there’s going to be a Tenacious D collaboration with Charlie Haden any time soon.
One of the acts you featured at Festival Supreme was Dynasty Handbag, the project of former SF resident and artist Jibz Cameron. Jack is also appearing in a web series for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles with her and Fred Armisen calledAmbience Man. How did you connect with her?
JB: Yeah, the MOCA thing was just a thing that popped up. Someone emailed me and said “Hey, do you want to do this MOCA thing with Dynasty Handbag?” And I was like “Sure!” It was just a little fun thing that we did.
We just saw her doing her performance art in downtown LA and it was amazing. It was exactly the kind of thing we wanted at Festival Supreme. We wanted it to be a mix of comedy, music and performance art. Kind of like the Tim and Eric thing where those lines get blurred a little bit. A little bit Andy Kaufman-esque where it’s like, “What is this? Is it this comedy or is this performance art? I don’t know, but I like it!” It’s mind expanding.
Tenacious D appear at the SF Sketchfest tribute on Thursday, Jan. 23, 9:30 p.m. $25 (sold out). For more information on the SF Sketchfest, please visit the festival’s official site.