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Tenacious D Pities the Fools Who Don't Rock

By Steve Gdula | Posted 8/25/1999

Does believing something make it so? If you consider the strange success of Tenacious D, the answer just might be yes. After all, if you ask the D boys themselves—the comedy-rock duo of Jack Black and Kyle Gass—they've got "loser" written all over them.

"We weigh as much as Third Eye Blind, including the drum kit," Black cracks. Gass takes a more gently self-deprecating tone, merely calling himself "average-looking." Still the two, who first met in Tim Robbins' Actors Gang Theater group in Los Angeles, have beaten the odds and managed to turn their act into a cult favorite.

Doubters warned that their Spi¨nal Tap-inspired shtick might seem dated and unfunny. But Tenacious D's short sketches, which initially aired after HBO's Mr. Show With Bob And David, impressed enough of the cable network's brass to nab the twosome its own series this year. The show's since been canceled, but it brought Black and Gass acolytes and industry buzz. Their edgy, stream-of-consciousness comic style drew comparisons to the Smothers Brothers, Andy Kaufman, and of course, Spi¨nal Tap.

Maybe the biggest myth the D has shattered is that it couldn't rock. Its music, a genre Black and Gass have tagged "acoustic heavy," can only be described as so bad, it's brilliant. The band mixes acoustic heavy-metal riffs with beautiful harmonies and embarrassingly bad, often profane lyrics. The result not only rocks, it's oddly spellbinding. So is the band's performance. Tenacious D's presentation is appropriately over the top. With their hefty frames clad in sweatpants and shorts, Black and Gass pose and preen with all the svelte swagger of Robert Plant or Mick Jagger. The D routinely issues a warning before each performance. In one episode of its TV show, an open-mic- night MC announced before Tenacious D took the stage: "Warning: If you want your asses blown out, stay in the room."

A lot of people have opted to stay in the room, and Black and Gass have cultivated an avid following, with movie deals and recording contracts being placed at their sturdy feet—or so they claim. Beck and Pearl Jam have both asked the duo to serve as opening act at recent concerts. By proclaiming its act "The Greatest Band on Earth," Tenacious D has willed itself into the spotlight and is currently basking in the favorable glow.

The D is now on a seven-stop tour across the country, including an appearance at Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 Club Aug. 27. Although their HBO show is no longer in production, Black and Gass are still in full D mode. In much the same way that Paul Reubens blurred the line between himself and his character Pee-Wee Herman, it's almost impossible to tell when Black and Gass have stopped being Tenacious and have started being themselves.

"It's a combination of many factors," Black says of his act's success. "A: We're the smartest band in the world."

"That's probably true," Gass chimes in.

"B: I think we're the strongest, physically," Black continues.

"No, have you seen Danzig? And what about Henry Rollins?" Gass asks.

"I'd kick 'em in the chin. Both of them," Black responds. "And C. . . . "

Gass concludes: "I think we're really the greatest because we think we are."

It's this fervent belief in themselves that makes their shtick so effective. Like the much-revered Kaufman, the D exudes self-assurance; also like Kaufman's, the duo's material is not always what might be considered funny. But fans of the show have embraced the borderline gags as more of a philosophical exercise than a comedy routine.

So how does this translate to a concert stage? It doesn't. For the 9:30 Club gig, Gass says the D will offer "a concert plus. It'll help if you know the songs." Since the HBO series has run its course, and Tenacious D's alleged upcoming album, which won't be out until . . . until . . . well, they're a little vague on the release date—those looking for a crash course in songs such as "Kyle Quit the Band," "Sasquatch," "Rocketsauce," or "Lee" will have to check out one of the Web sites devoted to the D, where you can download the music, or at least look at the lyric sheets (which include such choice rhymes as: "I'm gonna kick your derriere/ All the way to Tiananmen Square/ Gonna rip out all your pubic hair").

As for an impending "film deal," mum's the word, though Black assures, "It's gonna be one of the biggest blockbusters."

"Did you see The Blair Witch Project?" Gass asks. "[Our film's] gonna cost less. And make more."

"It's gonna cost $88. And that's just the catering for the first day. For us," Black quips. "We are gonna have a lot of back end, if you know what I mean. Tons of back end."

The veil of secrecy that shrouds their future in Hollywood also covers their alleged recording career.

"Ever heard of a little thing called indie creds?" Black asks. "We ain't cashin' them in, no how! We heard that any record deal you sign, you get reamed. They tell you what's good and what's not good and you just have to do it. So we said, 'Nay.'

"We've been in the studio cutting it ourselves, at our own expense, much to our own chagrin. It's no easy task. You have to make something funny on a piece of tape. Who cares about the reverb and the echo? Just make it rock. And keep Kyle away from me 'cause there could be an explosion."

"There's a lot of friction in the band," Gass admits, trading on the Smothers Brothers-style conflict into which the D occasionally lapses.

Black's ferocity toward Gass was a staple of their cable series, but he doesn't reserve his wrath just for his colleague. When asked what people can expect from their live performance, Black slips into the bravado that is so key to the Tenacious D aesthetic.

"When most people play acoustic, they're delicate wimps. They're not rockin' 'cause I guess they don't feel like they could rock on acoustic guitars."

"The fact is, if we played electric, we'd rock too hard," Gass interjects.

"We're just doin' it to save the people's brains, 'cause their brains would just fucking explode!" Black adds.

"The softer we rock, the more it points out how rockin' the songs are," Gass explains. "There's no feedback to hide behind."

"That's right. I defy any of these so-called guitar virtuosos to come to the 9:30 Club," Black challenges.

"Yeah, bring it on."

"We'll let them on the stage, because like I say, what's that kid's name?" Black asks.

Jonny Lang?

"Yeah. Jonny Lang? He's my bitch."

"People say, 'He's really good for a 16-year-old.' I say, 'I don't care, I'm not looking at his ID,'" Gass taunts.

So what exactly does make Tenacious D "The Greatest Band on Earth"?

"Well, I'd say we're the second best," Black considers.

"I'd say Led Zeppelin's better," Gass says.

"They're better than the D?" a shocked Black asks. "Not all their songs."

"Pavement then? You like Pavement. They're better than the D, I think," Gass says.

"I can't believe you're saying this? Why would you say this to a newspaper?"

"I'm saying it's time to come clean, Jack. We're frauds."

Black is a silent for a moment. "OK. Then we're like, third best."

"I'm just saying let's keep it real for Baltimore," Gass advises.

"Well, we're the best acoustic heavy," Black says. "And then comes Simon and Garfunkel."

"Ha! They're wimps!" Gass scoffs.

The Greatest Band on Earth? Or the greatest hype of the moment? Maybe Tenacious D's a little bit of both.

Tenacious D plays the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 27.

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