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How Tenacious D Became the Clown Prince Saviors of Rock ’n’ Roll

Jack Black and Kyle Gass discuss their self-titled debut, which turns 20 this week

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Riding a steed of high-octane folk-metal, Tenacious D, the acoustic duo of Jack Black and Kyle Gass, brought rock ’n’ roll out of the nu metal mud and back into the garage with their 2001 self-titled debut.

There’s no better proof than “Dio,” a call to heavy metal’s Ronnie James Dio to pass the torch to Tenacious D. Best known as the singer behind “Holy Diver,” Dio’s range spanned from soft ballads to screaming anthems about medieval forces. But by 2001, Tenacious D thought he was “too old to rock,” so their song goes.

“I don’t think Dio wanted to pass us the torch,” Black says. “I think we stole it.”

Black is half-kidding. Though Tenacious D is full of hilarious acoustic heavy metal about mythic heroes (“Wonderboy”) and tasteful love-making (“Fuck Her Gently”), the album and band’s cult status is no joke.

Produced by the Dust Brothers (Beck’s Odelay, Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique) and featuring an array of guests, including Dave Grohl on drums, Tenacious D cemented Jack Black and Kyle Gass as kick-ass musicians who could make you flash devil horns while cry-laughing in under two minutes.

Released on September 25, 2001, Tenacious D peaked at no. 33 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. However, it spent 43 weeks on the chart, going gold in July 2002 and platinum by November 2005.

The crawl toward the achievement wasn’t without its headaches, as Black and Gass battled file sharing; whether to go on the road so soon after 9/11; album recalls due to the “inappropriate nature” of the album’s back cover, which depicted Satan standing above two babies; and a controversial animated video for “Fuck Her Gently” that Sony Music instantly buried.

Still, the duo looks fondly on their debut, which turns 20 this month. Gass calls the 21-track collection the band’s “greatest hits up to that time.” Black agrees that they cherry-picked from years’ worth of all-night writing sessions that were full of pot smoke and fast-food runs to Jack in the Box.

“That’s what they say about that first album,” Black says. “You have your whole life to write it.”

In November, to celebrate the anniversary, the band will release Super Power Party Pack, complete with original demos and never-before-heard nuggets.

Black and Gass met in the late ’80s as members of Tim Robbins’s Actors’ Gang theater company in Los Angeles. The self-described new kid on the block, Black brought recordings of jingles to be used in a stage production.

“I could tell it ruffled some feathers,” Black says of his a cappella tapes. “There was a little bit of resistance from Kyle. He was like, ‘You’re not ready for prime time. You think you can just bust in and be the musician of the group.’ It started off a little prickly.”

Gass admits he was intimidated by Black’s vocal chops, but soon took the classic stance of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

“I wanted some of what Jack had,” Gass says. “He was obviously extremely talented.”

“Kage [Black’s nickname for Gass] realized he could exploit me, and then I realized I needed a mentor,” Black retorts.

“A grandfather figure,” Gass adds.

“And what we didn’t know or couldn’t admit at the time was what we really needed,” Black says, adding a dramatic pause for effect, “was a friend.”

In 1992, Black and Gass joined forces. While Black was the musical theater kid who loved heavy metal, he didn’t know how to play guitar. Gass, on the other hand, was a softie—an acoustic guitarist who dug the sounds of James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Gass also couldn’t believe that Black only sang.

“I was like, ‘Dude, you should just play some rudimentary guitar just to accompany yourself,’ because the singing was off the charts,” Gass says.

In 1994, the duo found a strong name when they heard sports commentator Marv Albert breaking down a team’s defense on a broadcast. Black clarifies that he thinks Albert actually said: “‘They’re playing tenacious defense.’ I don’t think you can find it on the YouTubes. That was our genius. We combined ‘D’ with ‘tenacious defense.’” Also at this time, Black and Gass wrote their first song, “Tribute.”

The band’s flagship foreshadowed the greatness to come. In it, Black and Gass face off against a demon who tells the band to perform the best song in the world or he’ll eat their souls. To battle the demon, the D plays the first thing that comes to their heads, which sounds nothing like the song they’re playing in “Tribute.”

“It’s not really about anything,” Black says. “The concept of the greatest song is so dumb because it’s a matter of opinion.”

After seeing the band perform “Tribute” (then their lone song) in 1994 at legendary punk venue Al’s Bar, David Cross invited Tenacious D to open for a few alternative comedy shows on stages like L.A.’s Diamond Club—one of the birthplaces of Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s sketch comedy series Mr. Show. From the mid- to late ’90s, Tenacious D was on its way to achieving the rock star dream and still wasn’t thinking about making an album. They had a brief, six-episode run of a sitcom that ran on HBO from 1997 to 2000.

As Black broke out in movies like High Fidelity, the group appeared in 1996’s Bio-Dome and in Foo Fighters’ 1999 music video for “Learn to Fly.” Bigger gigs followed, too, near the turn of the century, including sell-out shows at Largo and the Viper Room as well as opening slots for Beck, Pearl Jam, and Foo Fighters.

“Overnight, we became a legit band,” Black says. “It felt like we were a box office draw. We could go play anywhere in the country, even overseas, and get a big crowd. Kage was like, ‘We gotta make a record, man.’ I was like, ‘We don’t have to. Look at what we can do without a record.’ But Kage was like, ‘It’s on my bucket list. We have to make a real record.’ I was like, ‘You’re right.’”

Black says the duo had a full head of steam, an album’s worth of music, and enough industry savvy to garner the attention of Epic Records, the label that signed the band in May 2000. What made Tenacious D appealing was how different they were from the then-popular modern rock soup of nu metal and post-grunge.

“The rock scene at the time was bullshit, and the D swept them all from the face of the Earth,” says Liam Lynch, a future frequent collaborator who directed the music video for “Tribute” as well as the band’s feature-length film The Pick of Destiny. “All genres shuttered in their wake.”

Lynch respected the D’s underdog quality. Gass and Black are “seriously talented musicians who don’t take themselves seriously,” Lynch says. Such an attitude reeled in other collaborators, including bassist Steven McDonald, whose band Redd Kross had gone on hiatus in 1998 as Tenacious D’s buzz was rising in Los Angeles.

Before Tenacious D, McDonald says he was “depressed with rock ’n’ roll.” After seeing Black and Gass rip through a cover of “Heaven on Their Minds” from Jesus Christ Superstar, McDonald saw the light. Reenergized and inspired, McDonald “was trying to interact with [Tenacious D] on any level,” including trying to sign the duo and produce their record: “At the end of the day, they were like, ‘Well, we’re not going to sign with you, but you can play bass on our records.’ That was perfectly fine with me.”

When the time came to finally record, one question loomed: Would the debut be an unplugged affair or all-out, electric extravaganza? From the beginning, Tenacious D was always an acoustic act.

“The whole joke was it’s these two guys with acoustic guitars that are playing stadium-level heavy metal,” Black says. “We were afraid we were going to lose the joke if suddenly, now, we are a big rock band that sounds like Metallica. It was like, ‘Wait, does that even work?’”

Moreover, Black and Gass had never recorded in a studio.

“It was our first time,” Gass says, chuckling. “It was all new. We were wet behind the ears. We were like, ‘How’s that work? What’s that do?’”

In 2001, the duo entered Neil Diamond’s studio, a gift the legendary singer offered the band after his cameo in Saving Silverman. Black described the studio, complete with brown velvet walls and high-end equipment, as beautiful, but Gass was full of nerves as he showed off songs for their producers, Mike Simpson and John King, a.k.a. the Dust Brothers.

“I remember playing all the songs for the Dust Brothers, and I was like, ‘Here’s our repertoire,’” Gass says. “They were legends. We were like, ‘Oh, you’re the Dust Brothers. You guys did Beck and Paul’s Boutique, and you’re the shit.”

Getting the producers was another bit of the duo’s acuity at work. After seeing Tenacious D perform at small Los Angeles clubs in the early days, Simpson thought the duo could make a serious rock album and tried to sign Tenacious D in the late ’90s when he was working A&R for Dreamworks Records.

Though the timing didn’t pan out, the Dust Brothers were on board for the debut and pushed to go big even though the duo had built a career as a sparse act.

“It was a big leap,” Gass says. “The Dust Brothers were pretty persuasive. They were like, ‘That’s what we do. We produce songs, and we make them big.’ I was excited to hear a big album because I love the rock.”

And then there was the final piece—Grohl. Black remembers the drummer, another early ally of Tenacious D, poking his head through the curtain before a set at the Viper Room in 1997, telling the duo, “Just so you know, I’m here and I’m excited to see you.”

At first, Grohl didn’t fully commit to the recording gig. With a little push, Grohl agreed to record a few songs. Once he arrived at Diamond’s studio, Black says they locked the doors. Songs were tracked live and Grohl flew through the sessions.

“Grohl is just a crazy savant,” Gass says. “He’ll hear a song once—not that we’re doing crazy, complex jazz or something—but he just picks it up right away.”

McDonald remembers sweating bullets, trying to keep up with Grohl while not trying to crack up in the middle of recording live takes of songs like “Explosivo” and “Kielbasa.” Still, the day-long session was inspiring for the bassist, who was used to laying down songs with bands one track at a time.

The key to capturing the magic of the D was making sure the atmosphere didn’t feel stuffy. This couldn’t be overly produced.

“The way Jack and Kyle played off each other … their comedy was all about feeling the moment,” McDonald says. “If they were going to take an extra breath for a joke to land, they need the music to accommodate that. It was up to Dave and myself to accompany that properly. You couldn’t do it by snapping something to a grid.”

After those tracks were laid down, Black and Gass went to the Dust Brothers’ studio, the Boat in Silver Lake, for overdubs. More guests, including Vandals guitarist Warren Fitzgerald, Failure guitarist Ken Andrews, Beastie Boys percussionist Alfredo Ortiz, and Phish keyboardist Page McConnell filled out tracks such as “Tribute,” “Kyle Quit the Band,” and “Friendship.” Odenkirk also swung by to record the comedic interlude “Friendship Test.”

Such all-star affairs could be a headache in other hands, but for Simpson, the album was one of the easiest projects the Dust Brothers had produced.

“Jack and Kyle had no preconceived notions or agendas,” Simpson says. “They were quite receptive to everyone’s input. Given the level of talent involved, the sessions went very smoothly.”

As recording sessions ended, the promotional campaign began. Tenacious D would be released in fall 2001. Amid the press blitz, songs were leaked.

“File sharing was near its peak,” Gass says, joking that the band was a victim. “I think we could’ve gone multiplatinum.”

“You thought we would’ve been quadruple-plat?” Black asks.

“I think we would’ve been diamond,” Gass responds.

“Ten-times plat?” Black asks, this time in a higher voice as if shocked at the suggestion.

“That’s very optimistic,” Gass says, as if admitting selling 10 million copies is a stretch. “Probably two and a half million, but still.”

“The main one you wanna get is quadruple-plat because once you start getting above that, the words are not as familiar,” Black says.

Sales numbers aside, momentum was further slowed because the album was set to hit store shelves just two weeks after the September 11 attacks. Gass remembers doubting that the album’s release would do anybody any good.

“9/11 ruined our career—that was the first thought, selfishly,” Gass says. “It was a lot of soul-searching. ‘Is this the time [to release this]?’ Then we thought, ‘Maybe it’ll help the healing.’”

Any relief from the release would be delayed as the album was momentarily recalled from big box store shelves for its back cover art, which depicted Satan standing above two babies. The design was deemed inappropriate—an annoying setback for an idea that they described as “muddled” at best.

On the front cover, Satan stands behind Gass and Black as if to show off his creation. “The idea was that the babies were me and Kyle, and Satan was saying, ‘Rise,’” Black says. “It wasn’t even really clear what we were saying. They said, ‘No babies. It’s too scary.’ I don’t know why they thought that was too scary during 9/11 times.” The babies were airbrushed out, and the album was quickly rereleased to stores in October 2001.

The more pressing question after the album’s release was whether the band could go on tour. “No one was going out of their houses,” Black says. But the band decided to rock.

“We packed our bags, got on a plane, and went to Florida, and we played some of the best shows,” Black says. “People were wanting to get their fucking minds off of all that dark shit. It felt like we were saving the world. We were creating the healing through rock.”

Through 2002, Tenacious D’s legend only grew stronger through videos like the one for “Tribute,” which featured Grohl, in five hours’ worth of makeup, as Satan (a role he reprised in The Pick of Destiny), and the award-winning video for “Wonderboy” by Spike Jonze.

More headlines followed with the music video for “Fuck Her Gently,” cowritten and directed by Gabe Swarr of Ren & Stimpy creator Jon Kricfalusi’s Spumco studio. In the animated video, Gass and Black appear as nude cherubs, descending from heaven into hell to give Satan tips on how to make love to a naked devil princess. Sony Music removed the video from the band’s and Spumco’s websites.

As controversial as it was, Tenacious D stands as a turning point for rock music. McDonald remembers hearing ’90s bands like Jimmy Eat World and Limp Bizkit, and they weren’t his cup of tea. For the bassist, Tenacious D was the bridge into a new generation of no-frills rock ’n’ roll.

“I was having a hard time getting excited about the next generation until the early 2000s,” McDonald says. “Tenacious D helped carry me over into that next era. They guided me into safe waters again. After Tenacious D, the White Stripes and the Hives were my next new favorite bands.”

Since their debut, Tenacious D has maintained their status as something more than a funny rock band. Subsequent releases The Pick of Destiny and Rize of the Fenix debuted at no. 8 and no. 4, respectively, on the Billboard 200. To date, the band has sold nearly 4 million records worldwide. In 2015, they won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance for their cover of Dio’s “The Last in Line,” recorded for the tribute album Ronnie James Dio—This Is Your Life.

As much as they wished the debut would’ve gone “quadruple-plat” and joke that they saved rock before the Strokes, Black and Gass can’t deny that they felt like they were part of a renaissance.

“When we were playing some of those early shows in the 2000s, the audiences were just so ravenous for the D. It was so exciting,” Black says. “It felt like we were part of a wave. It was just a love fest. Were there other bands that were like, ‘They’re biting the Tenacious D style?’ Not really. No. I felt like we were surfing our own wave. We created our own genre, and we were the only ones to live on that island. It was definitely special and rad.”

Matthew Sigur is a writer, musician, and comedian based in Chicago.


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