Tenacious D Talks Comeback, the Death of Rock and How to Write the Best Song Ever (Q&A)
Tenacious D’s self-titled debut came as hilarious relief from music’s seriousness in 2001. Between a HBO series produced by Mr. Show writer Bob Odenkirk and vouching by Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, success seemed to come quick and powerfully. The duo of actor-musicians Jack Black and Kyle Gass called themselves “The Greatest Band on Earth.” Soon, quotations of the songs and skits became commonplace, and fans talked of “cock pushups” and “inward singing.” The album went platinum in the United States and gold in the U.K. Finally, something to laugh about and still sing along to -- The D had arrived.
But with its 2006 follow-up album and origin-story movie, The Pick of Destiny, the duo experienced the same sophomore slump that often hits serious bands. And in the meantime, Black’s acting career had launched from supporting roles in films such as High Fidelity and Saving Silverman to becoming a top-billing star with School of Rock, King Kong and Nacho Libre. And so the future of Tenacious D seemed uncertain. Would it be a flash in the pan, closing with a flop? Or would The D rise again?
That’s where Tenacious D’s new LP Rize of the Fenix comes in. The opening title track puts the theme of the duo’s third album theme squarely in place, as Black sings, “When The Pick of Destiny was released, it was a bomb/and all the critics said that The D was done/The sun had set and the chapter had closed/but one thing that no one thought about was The D would rise again/Just like the phoenix, we’ll fucking rise again.”
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Black and Gass to discuss what exactly goes into being and staying the “Greatest Band on Earth” and what it takes to create a successful comeback album. Among other things, the answer seems to be: plenty of patience, dedication and flatulence.
The Hollywood Reporter: You’re mostly known as an acoustic two-piece but have always had sort of a heavy, hard rock attitude. What’s your technique in combining those two aesthetics?
Jack Black: It takes the delicate hands of a surgeon. Thank you for that question. No one’s ever asked that, but it’s true. It is one of the most impressive things about The D, that we’re able to balance on that high wire between sensitivity and machismo. Kyle, do you have anything intelligent to say on the subject?
Kyle Gass: [laughs] Uh, no.
THR: I’ve read that is your goal with every song you write to write the “best song ever.” What goes into making the “best song ever,” and how do you know if it is that?
Gass: A lot of blood, sweat and tears, I’d say.
Black: It’s just one of those things -- you know gold when you stumble upon it, when you fall into a field of gold poppies. I think that Kyle and I are patient. What it takes more than anything is patience. You’ve got to go into the rehearsal laboratory and just start jamming. And you’ve got to be strong because you’re going to lay out some real stinky nuggets. It’s going to be mostly bad for a long time. Many years of bad, bad, bad, bad, bad; it’s almost like a Chinese water torture, but instead of water it’s shit that’s dripping on your head. And then eventually a diamond will plop on your head, and you’ll be like, “How did we come up with this?” You know the thing about an infinite amount of monkeys? Well Kyle and I are an infinite amount of monkeys, and you’ve just got to have to have the patience to wait and slog and be prepared for that golden nugget when it drops on your lap.
THR: Because you’d hate to miss it, right?
Black: Yeah. But I feel like we’ve written some masterpieces, but we still haven’t found what we’re looking for -- which is that one that’s better than all others, the ring to rule them all.
THR: Maybe on the next album, then? It could take a lifetime to find that.
Black: Listen, don’t get me wrong: This album is better than anything else that’s out there right now. But, you know, when weighed against the masterpieces of all time …
THR: You’re talking about infinite monkeys, shit everywhere -- where do the songs actually start? Are there certain subjects that suitable for The D and subjects that aren’t?
Gass: A lot of times it starts with a concept. I was dating a woman who was a little older than I normally date.
Black: You were very proud of that fact. You were march-dancing. “I’m really making huge growings, Jack. I’ve really evolved.”
Gass: “I’m dating a 39-year-old woman.”
Black: And this is Kyle, and Kyle’s 50 years old, so it’s really nothing to write home about. It’s not some great achievement. And it made me mad, and it made me say, “Just start playing music right now because I’ve got a song.” And that’s what became “39.”
The thing is for us, I don’t think it’s as much about looking for humor as it is looking for things that we care about. Things that we can be passionate about. The humor just sort of takes care of itself when you run it through the D filter; it ends up being funny. But we sing about things that we feel strongly about. And those are the nuggets. That's the starting point for our masterpieces: passion. Me and Kyle standing on a mountaintop screaming to the heavens, “We exist!”
Gass: Well that’s true. A lot of times we’ll just sit there and chat about stuff and something will happen -- it’ll almost appear, and you think, “Wait, that could be something.”
Black: It’s similar to a ringing bell in your brain when you’ve struck possible oil.
THR: The skits that you put into your albums, has there ever been any question whether or not to include them, or as actors is it just a sure thing?
Gass: Yes, there was a question on this album whether to include them, but there was an overwhelming kind of demand amongst some of our peers. They wanted comedy, so we had to give it to them. I could have done with all music, I think.
Black: I wanted comedy nuggets, but you know, if we didn’t have any good ones, we weren’t going to put them on. But those were very strong. We put them on because they deserve to be there.
THR: Is it mostly you riffing or is anything scripted?
Black: It’s riffing. There’s one that Bob Odenkirk wrote for us that was scripted, but then we riffed on his skit. That was flutes and trombones. And another one we riffed on with no script, but then our friend JD Ryznar came in and gave us some guidance, so we gave him a credit on that one.
THR: A lot of bands have uniforms or guidelines to their onstage dress. The sweat pants and T-shirts you go out in, are those your normal clothes or The D’s uniforms?
Black: That’s basically what we wear during the day, but I have been feeling like maybe we need to step our game up a bit. I’ve been thinking about our gear, our costumes. I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do yet. I was thinking about bring a big stack of white T-shirts on the tour bus and then just designing my own T-shirts for each show, just based on my emotional state of the time. So today I feel like a soaring, flaming eagle; tomorrow I may feel like a turd sandwich, and then that will be the shirt.
Gass: We could auction those off for charity.
Black: Yeah, or I could just striptease it off in the middle of a show.
THR: Either way, you’ll make some people happy.
Black: Perhaps. Perhaps not. We shall see.
THR: How about recording a clean version of the album? With a song like “Senorita,” you would have to take out the entire chorus. Is that a compromise, or is it just part of the game?
Black: Yeah, that’s part of the game. And I understand, I’ve got kids; I don’t want my kids to hear the dirty bits… Oh wait, Kyle’s leaving the room because I cut a stinky one. Kyle, come back; it’s not that bad. Yes, get some air through here. Wow, the shoe’s on the other foot now, isn’t it? You get a little taste of your own medicine. Sorry. Sorry. You’re allowed one stinky fart as payback now.
Gass: We were a little bit reticent about putting out a clean version, but then we thought it would be great if the kids could hear it.
Black: Well, also the religious people. If there’s some religious people out there who wish they could have a taste of The D but know it’s against their religion -- and believe me, this album is against all religion -- we wanted to give those folks a chance as well. It was pretty generous of us, I thought.
Glass: You’re welcome.
THR: You express in your lyrics, and quite bluntly in “Rock is Dead,” this feeling that rock music is dead. Is there sincerity to that?
Black: Yeah, of course. We wanted to do a blues song for the longest time because all of our favorite bands have cracked the code on the blues at some point or another. Led Zeppelin has [“Rock and Roll”]; that is a masterpiece. AC/DC did “Rocker.” ZZ Top did “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” which is incredible. Van Halen did “Ice Cream Man.” And so it was time for us to say, “OK, now we’re going to plant our flag in the blues.” But we couldn't think of anything that we were really sad about. And then we realized, “Wait a second, it’s right in front of our noses: Rock is dead.” And we sang the blues about that. And I think you will agree that it will go down in history as perhaps the greatest blues song since Robert Johnson plucked his fucking six-string down at devil’s lane, the crossroads.
THR: What are some of the signs that you see that rock is dead?
Gass: Well, rock used to be the only game in town in terms of radio and what the kids listen to. Now I think there was a big hip-hop takeover, and pop music, it became mechanical and computer-y …
Black: I’m not blaming hip-hop. I like hip-hop. There’s plenty of room for hip-hop and rock at the same time, it's just that there’s a lack of inspiration. Who’s the game-changer now? Who’s changing the face of music and spreading beyond music and into other art forms? No one is that powerful right now. When you look back at the heyday of rock, it was a movement that was connected to civil rights and everything. Now it’s just really weird and corporate. This is getting really serious. Next question.
THR: Could The D exist in another time?
Gass: I think we could exist in the future. I’m thinking like 2075.
Black: Man, that’s optimistic, on a lot of levels. But I think The D, we fit now because there was a need for someone to carry the torch that those before us have carried, like Spinal Tap before us. And before Spinal Tap, you had Cheech and Chong, and before Cheech and Chong, you had the Smothers Brothers. It was time for someone else to pick it up, and we did.
THR: Was it hard for you to pick it back up for this new album? Six years after the last release, with various acting work and musical projects, was it hard to dig in and get back into it?
Black: It was hard because the landscape had changed. Since our last album, the emergence of the Lonely Island boys was intense, and Flight of the Conchords had swept the nation, so there was a lot more competition than the last time. We knew we had to dig deep and had to take it to another level to compete with the heavy hitters that have been spawned.
THR: You’ve got two things that you have to deal with there: music and comedy. Both change drastically in just a year’s time as far as trends go. Was it a matter of sticking to your guns, or did you have to adapt?
Black: Well, I don't think we’ve changed our approach to it, but we just had to dig deeper. I know I already said that, but I feel like you’re not listening to my answer. We had to dig deeper into our souls. I don’t know if that clarifies it. Into our souls, into our hearts, into our nutsacks and find that extra bit of rocket sauce.
THR: As far as the image of the rise of the phoenix and playing off your film and record The Pick of Destiny being a flop, how did you use this as a tool for the narrative in The D’s story with this album?
Gass: I don’t think it was contrived at all. It actually happened. It didn’t do well and it’s part of our narrative, and so as part of digging deeper was to acknowledge it and use it to fuel inspiration.
Black: Although, he’s right. It’s also a tool. Using the concept album, the comeback was definitely our angle. It’s a funnier angle to talk about the belly flop than to ignore it and go on to the next album and pretend like the last one didn’t happen. It was a strong concept from the get-go.
THR: And one that works. To be clear, I didn’t mean to suggest that it was contrived in any sort of negative way.
Gass: It felt like you were calling us tools. But I don’t know, that was just me.
Black: I feel like it works on another level too, though, that the comeback is something that people want to relate to now because we’re kind of on the ropes with our economy. And we’re saying: “Hey man, we can make it back to the top! Who’s with us? Let’s go!” It resonates on another level there too.