As ‘Tenacious D’ Turns 20, Jack Black and Kyle Gass Look Back on Their Debut Album’s ‘Stoney Fun and Friendship’

·14-min read

In the world of rock ’n’ roll, sometimes you’ve got to dream big. Indeed, Jack Black and Kyle Gass frequently proclaimed their duo Tenacious D to be “the greatest band on earth” on their eponymous HBO series, which stretched six episodes out between 1997-2000. On the show, Black and Gass utilized nothing more than acoustic guitars to conjure arena-ready anthems about Satan, Sasquatch and sex. The trouble was that they played them to a mere handful of onlookers at crummy open-mic nights, rendering visions of eventual superstardom increasingly unlikely.

But then a funny thing happened: Tenacious D (named after a phrase uttered by NBA play-by-play announcer Marv Albert) became a real-life, bad-ass rock band on its self-titled debut, released by Epic on Sept. 25, 2001. After working with Black on the film “Saving Silverman,” Neil Diamond offered the duo his recording studio. Fresh off winning a Grammy for Santana’s “Supernatural,” producers the Dust Brothers buffed Black and Gass’ endearingly raunchy material into comedy-rock gold on tracks like “Tribute,” “Fuck Her Gently” and “Explosivo.” Dave Grohl offered to play drums on a couple songs but stuck around for almost the entire album. “Tenacious D” quickly found a captive audience of college students, stoners and headbangers, and over time has become an indisputable cult classic.

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To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Tenacious D is in November releasing a “Super Power Party Pack” edition of the project, featuring a reissue of the band’s original 1995 demo cassette and 2002 “Tribute” EP. Black and Gass hopped on Zoom with Variety to discuss the enduring appeal of “Tenacious D,” doing business with Neil Diamond, the perils of fast food and new music on the horizon.

VARIETY: Pop quiz: in which country did the debut album chart the highest?

GASS: I’m gonna say, uh … Belgium?

Incorrect! Jack?

BLACK: Let me think about this. We’re also popular in (sings) Germany!

Also wrong.

GASS: U.K.!

BLACK: You’re not allowed to go again. Who gave you a second shot?

The correct answer is Australia.

BLACK: We should have known, KG. I wonder what it was that struck a chord. Which song created the rainbow connection we have there?

GASS: “Tribute.” We played live down under and I thought it was our finest live performance ever captured on tape, on Australian TV. Just the duo. It was right before we played a System of a Down song.

BLACK: We’re long overdue for a trip there. We’ve got to get back out there and rock that continent.

GASS: We should go out with ABBA’s holograms.

BLACK: You can rock the whole continent in three nights. There’s not many places where you can do that in three dates. You go Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. The power triangle. We’ve already routed it.

In case you were wondering, the album also hit No. 18 in Ireland and No. 18 in Sweden.

BLACK: We did have some great shows in Ireland. We opened for Metallica a handful of times, but Dublin was the first time. I remember thinking it was the land of Bono. We stayed at a nice hotel that I think Bono owned.

GASS: It was a little much, like: Do you have to own a hotel in Dublin, too?

BLACK: I remember the Guinness tasting better. It was like straight from the teat. So fresh and sweet. We rocked really hard that day, or night.

Let’s get your thoughts on some contemporary reviews of the album. The AV Club said, “an odd simultaneous fusion of stupid and clever.”

BLACK: That’s accurate. That’s true.

Time said, “Black and Gass set themselves up as buffoons with titles like ‘Karate Schnitzel,’ then proceed to defy expectations with precise guitars, polished vocal harmonies and slamming backup musicians.”

BLACK: Wow. That’s a glowing review. I’ll take that and put it in my back pocket. Time! They have to report on the news of the day. It sounds like we’ve got a shot for Band of the Year.

GASS: It’s Man of the Year. But it’s got to be Person of the Year now. Sometimes it’s a baddie like Putin.

BLACK: Yes. Trump was pissed off that he didn’t get it.

GASS: There was a fake one, remember? He had it hanging up at Mar-a-Lago.

BLACK: There’s a fake Trump?

The Independent said the album was full of “swearing and scatology” and was “bereft of even the slightest skidmark of humor.”

BLACK: Oh, man, you saved the worst for last. That is rough. I got offered a role in a movie called “Johnny Skidmarks.” I actually really liked the script. Frances McDormand was in it. I did it, but the first day on the set, I said, “Guys, I’m really excited to be here, but this is just a working title, right?” They were like, “What’s wrong with the title?” I said, “Well, it means shit stain.” They didn’t listen to me. They called it “Johnny Skidmarks” and it skidmarked its way straight to the DVD bin.

Speaking of movies, Jack, you were in the movie “Saving Silverman” with Neil Diamond, and you wound up recording some of this first Tenacious D album at Neil’s studio. So is it fair to say that if not for Neil Diamond, this album may not exist?

BLACK: I love Neil. He was a mensch for giving us his recording studio free of charge, kind of. I’m not going to give him that much credit, though, because in a weird way, it was actually a speed bump. We had some problems there. We completed the record and it turned out great in spite of that.

GASS: He said it was free, but you had to hire Larry, the engineer who worked there. And he was getting his usual rate, which was no small penny.

BLACK: $30,000 a minute. I don’t remember how much it was, but it was like, this is not free. It’s actually really expensive. There was a snafu with the recording of Dave Grohl’s drums. Just that [laughs]. It took some time to repair the damage. But you know what? I love me some Neil Diamond.

GASS: [sings Neil Diamond’s “Love on the Rocks”]

BLACK: All would be forgiven if he just wrote us one jam. Has there ever been a better hitmaker than Neil Diamond? Who’s a better tunesmith? He figured out the alchemy of hit-writing. Who has more hits?

GASS: Paul Simon? Willie Nelson? Lionel Richie? Lionel had like 20 No. 1s in a row.

BLACK: We should go hat-in-hand to all of those artists and ask them to write us some songs. We’d call it “Tenacious D — Old Fogerties.” Fogerties, assemble!

How much experience did either of you have in a real recording studio prior to these sessions?

GASS: Goose egg comes to mind. I don’t think I’d ever been in a big studio. We came in fresh.

BLACK: We were virginal. It was all new to us. We were very innocent. We were like Axl Rose getting off the bus.

Commenters on Reddit still can’t figure out what the reference to “Zanzibar” is in the song “Fuck Her Gently.” They want to know why you’d go to the trouble of ordering food from a country in Africa for a woman you were trying to seduce.

BLACK: Do you know why? I just like saying the word “Zanzibar.” I wanted it to be somewhere far off. Many years later, I found out that Zanzibar also happened to be the birthplace of Freddie Mercury. Maybe that’s why I ordered food from Zanzibar! How many places have two Z’s? It’s just fun to say. The reference was to Pink Dot for a long time when we did it live.

GASS: It seemed a little too in the moment, like, how long will Pink Dot will be around?

The “Drive-Thru” skit is such a fan favorite. When’s the last time either of you had a small seasoned curlies from Jack in the Box?

GASS: It’s been awhile. The sodium, for a man of my age and stature, is not good. I’d probably get onion rings if we were going that route.

BLACK: (appalled) What? Well, actually, they do have good onion rings. It’s been years since I’ve had a satchel of seasoned curlies. I just salivated a lot when you brought it up, though. It brings back memories of days at Kyle’s apartment, which we called the Cockroach Hotel, because he lived on Cochran. I’d go over there with Jack In the Box tacos and seasoned curlies, occasionally. We’d smoke pot, write songs and hang out. For years, it seemed like. The incubation period when Tenacious D was in a gelatinous state. Where nobody knew us at all, except for each other. I don’t think we ever said out loud, we’re going to be a band someday. We didn’t think that way. We were just hanging out.

GASS: It was kind of about making something fun that your friends would like.

BLACK: It was like the Garden of Eden, before we even knew we were naked. We were like animals finding out way. We worked on “Tribute” for years — honing it and sharpening it. Not for any reason other than stoney fun or friendship. How weird we were.

GASS: I think there might have been a fantasy of, wouldn’t it be great if … but we thought it was impossible.

BLACK: (breaks into Bad Company’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy”)

Please confirm or deny that either of you can perform inward singing on demand.

BLACK: (inward sings) I’m not sure I can do it right now but I can do it right now and aaaaaaaaah. I was just thinking of another great inward singing possibility — a cover we could do with a slight variation. I just watched “Harold and Maude” again. What a fuckin’ great movie. Cat Stevens! There’s this one song and I want to change one lyric: “if you want to sing out, sing out” (switches to inward singing)… “if you want to sing in, sing in.”

There were some unsung heroes on “Tenacious D,” like Ken Andrews.

GASS: Ken Andrews had to fix Larry’s recordings of the drums.

BLACK: He mixed and mastered. We brought in a ringer. He was in a band called Failure, which made us worried: why are we hiring a guy from a band called Failure? But it turned out he was a winner when it counted.

What about Alfredo Ortiz?

BLACK: An incredible percussionist, am I right?

GASS: The Dust Brothers brought him in. He was playing with the Beastie Boys.

BLACK: We can’t take credit for Alfredo. That’s the thing about the Dust Brothers. They’re experts at flavor crystals and they sprinkled all those delicious, magical crystals all over our first album.

GASS: Don’t forget Page McConnell from Phish.

BLACK: KG reeled him in. We had a supergroup!

GASS: And we only performed one time, on “Mad TV.”

BLACK: On “Mad TV,” I went full-body makeup. I wanted it to look like a full-body flame tattoo all over my torso and back. Tramp-stamp flames coming up from my butt crack. I wanted to rip off my shirt and blow people’s minds. It’s worth a YouTube snoop.

What’s something nobody knows about Dave Grohl?

BLACK: You want to know about the bodies in the crawlspace? Oh, they’re there. But I’ll never tell.

GASS: Everybody knows he’s a great guy and an amazing musician. He’s a little saltier in person.

BLACK: He likes to throw a rad backyard party. His barbecue is legendary. He rolls up with his own legit smoker, and he’ll barbecue your brains off. Nothing but love for the Dr. G. From the very first time he poked his head through the curtains in our lives, we’ve never been the same.

Fans are excited that the song “Jesus Ranch” is on the “Super Power Party Pack.”

GASS: Which version?

BLACK: I don’t even know. The “Party Pack” is for the fans. It’s deep cuts and quality jams. You had to be a hardcore fan to remember the “Jesus Ranch” episode of the HBO series we did.

GASS: This is the full, Dust Brothers-produced, blown-up version, which was pretty psychedelic.

BLACK: We figured out though that the “Party Pack” is an opportunity for scalpers to take advance of the ‘sitch. Kyle and I signed our original flyer for one of our first concerts we ever did at the Actors’ Gang Theatre back in the ‘90s. You get a the CD full of extras, our original demo tape from ’95 and this flyer with our signatures.

GASS: They made them instant collectibles.

BLACK: Someone out there will be like, wait a second, a signed flyer from Jack and Kyle is worth $30. But we’re only selling them for $20, because it’s the 20th anniversary. But, whatever. Get ‘em while they’re hot. Are there any more questions? Because I have to drop a donkey deuce.

Okay, last one. You guys went on tour shortly after 9/11 to promote this album. What was that like?

GASS: I felt like, let the healing begin. People needed a good time and to cut loose. We were almost the recipient of people’s need to have a good time. It felt good, actually.

BLACK: There was a minute where it was like, wait, should we even go on tour right now? It seems like a weird time to go rock. Will anyone come to see us? Is everyone just staying home, scared? Remember, that was the coda. If you don’t do this or that, then the terrorists win. And by God, we weren’t going to let the terrorists win. So we went and we rocked and sure enough everyone came out in full force to let off some anxiety steam. It was cathartic for us and for the audience. Those were some great shows. Mainly I remember Orlando. After we rocked the House of Blues, we went to Disney World, and it was a ghost town. There was nobody there except a dude in a Mickey suit and the person who takes your ticket. It is weird that our anniversary is always going to coincide with that horrible event.

You’ve released a few one-off covers lately. Could there be a covers album? Are you working on any other new music?

GASS: We’re kind of like Prince. There’s a whole vault full of music that I don’t think can ever be released.

BLACK: It turns out covers are harder to release than we thought. We were going to do a covers album, but we took tons of liberties with them. Did you hear the Beatles cover we did? There’s tons of F-bombs and weird, crazy shit. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a Tenacious D track. We’ve got to push it through the Tenacious D filter, and it comes out a lot different on the other end. Luckily we got permission on that one. We’ve got some others that we will sprinkle out in the coming months. We’re also at work on another album — a very big idea that we’ve been working on for years. Looking forward to releasing that too. I’m thinking 2024.

GASS: Wow. We’ve got to ease off the gas, then.

BLACK: I have a little bit of OCD. I like 2024 because I’ll be “I Can’t Drive” 55, and KG will be “Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m” 64. 2024. Mark it in your calendars.

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