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Hungry for Stink:
Shooting the Shit with Tenacious D
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, November 15, 2006. (Cover Story)
Okay. This next act asked me to read this: “Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Molly Hatchet could not be here tonight. But they all had sex, and are proud to announce the birth of their two-headed baby, Tenacious D.”
—Open-mike host Paul (Paul F. Tompkins), Tenacious D, the HBO series, 1999-2000
Kyle Gass is lounging on the couch, legs spread, wearing old gym shorts or boxers and a T-shirt. Jack Black’s around the corner, finding a beverage. The 15th-floor suite at the Four Seasons has been designed to soothe aristocrats: soft and friendly pastels, glass tabletops and quote tasteful unquote artwork.
An exhausting day of junket drive-bys for folk-metal/comedy/rock act Tenacious D is nearing its end; they’ve got just an hour before heading down the hall for a high-end glossy photo shoot.
I get my trusty Celebritone 2000™ portable recording studio up and running. We do the check-cheggity-check. Everything’s good to go. All we need is content.
“All right,” I announce. “Let’s all start saying important, insightful things.”
“I wish you were here earlier,” says Jack, joining Kyle on the couch across from where I sit on the floor. “Because there was a lot of magic flowing out of our lips. We were spillin’! We were spillin’!”
“We’ll see if we can attain the same level of spillage,” says Kyle.
“I’m just going to answer every question you have,” says Jack, “as honestly, as succinctly . . . ”
“I don’t really . . . ask questions,” I admit.
“What?” says Kyle.
“You let a robot do it?” says Jack.
“Yes,” I say. “I let a robot do it.”
In the early ’80s, budding musician and actor Kyle Gass of Walnut Creek met fellow actor Tim Robbins of West Covina while both were theater students at UCLA. Robbins had recently started a theater company, the Actors’ Gang, and invited Gass to join. A few years later, in 1985, 24-year-old Gass was introduced to a new member of the Gang: 16-year-old Jack Black of Redondo Beach and Culver City.
Gass and Black didn’t get along well at first, but as time passed and they co-starred in some Actors’ Gang productions, they grew close. Gass taught Black to play guitar, and in 1994 they created Tenacious D — wistful torchbearers of the self-important melancholia of ’70s and ’80s mainstream FM rock.
As Tenacious D, Gass and Black portray KG and JB — casually attired rock-god caricatures of themselves, driven to share their supernatural musical gifts with legions of adoring fans or sparse, uninterested open-mike crowds. KG (or Kage, or Rage Kage) and JB (occasionally Jables) can cock-rock hard with acoustic guitars, dance naked with flab bold and mighty. They’re sweet and reasonable, oh-so-angry and oh-so-fucking-innocent.
They talk shit.
They’re true gentlemen.
They share an intimacy through a language that others can never fully comprehend. Kyle is much more than Jack’s straight man. The punch lines volley back and forth between JB’s roaring, deluded confidence and KG’s sublimely impassive mug. It’s the tension between the two personas — you never know whether to expect explosion or implosion — that makes Tenacious D so fucking pleasant to behold, even if you don’t like their wistfully demented ballads about supernatural powers and talents, friends and heroes, sex, politics, demon-whuppin’ and the majesty of a rock-star lifestyle.
Kyle can maintain a potent deadpan, apparently for as long as he likes, and is an excellent classical guitarist. His casual, elliptical exterior sooner suggests tailgater or mower of lawns than ingenious thrasher of ass-kicking licks. Jack’s countenance switches smoothly from pompous metallic hostility to daffy tenderness and back in a split second. His posturing can register as puerile, prurient or both. In a sense, Tenacious D is to pretentious rock what The Daily Show is to pretentious news: You still get your rock, you still get your news, but while you’re at it, you also get to laugh your ass off.
In their new film Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, JB and KG pursue an ancient plectrum carved from a demon’s tooth that allows its user to play the greatest songs in the world. Part Robert Johnson crossroads legend, part Wizard of Oz, part lots of parts of the D’s old HBO show — more than anything, POD is a love story, about a love shared by two men and their art . . . and Sasquatch.
Early on in the movie, directed by longtime Tenacious D collaborator Liam Lynch (who also co-wrote the film with Jack and Kyle), KG is a longhaired Venice Beach busker who lives in a crappy apartment. His wig is a remarkable achievement. Even in close-up, you buy it. Such details are important, for when they are lacking, you end up with a Joe Pesci movie, wondering whether or not you’re supposed to believe that the character is wearing a bad wig and just not mentioning it, and what this means. It takes you out of the dream, and, for me, the movie’s over.
“Suspension of disbelief,” Kyle nods in agreement. “Crucial. And I like how, in the apartment, there’s the little things that I keep my wigs on. The little mannequin heads.”
“Manic heads,” says Jack. “But my favorite is the Venice boardwalk drawing of you, and you’ve got the hair.”
“Yeah,” says Kyle. “I thought it would be funny if I had caricatures, like those beach caricatures, on my wall. So we had a guy do some. And when we were done filming, I was like, ‘I really want those.’ But it’s hard to get that shit after you’re done. New Line [POD‘s studio] auctions it all off. So I got some copies made.”
“Dude,” says Jack. “They auction it all off?”
“I never hear about those auctions,” says Jack. “Do they wait until the movie comes out, wait until hopefully it’s popular, and then auction it off to the highest bidder? Is there some rich Monopoly dude who shows up and goes [snot-faced nasal-resonator twit voice], ‘500,000 for the Kage wig!'”
“Yeah,” says Kyle. “The guy with the top hat.”
Jack gets up. Takes a few paces toward the door, to where the carpet turns to tile, turns to face us, drops his pants, squats and rips a squealing, bare-assed, flapping-wet fart.
“Oh, man!” Kyle cringes.
“Gawd!” I agree.
“Dude!” Kyle scolds.
“Whaddya mean?” says Jack, offended. “I took it over there!”
“Like it’s not gonna come back over here?”
“Hell no — backdraft! It’s a backdraft!”
“It sounded semiliquid,” I say.
“No liquids,” says Jack, double-checking. “It was a dry flap-flap.”
“It was a dry flap-flap-flap,” says Kyle.
Jack pulls up his pants and returns to the couch. “It’s not often that someone will pull down their pants for the fart,” he says. “I pull them down because I feel like then it’s not going through the filter of underpants and pants. I want to keep those pants clean. So if I can pull ’em down, wheeshhh! in the air, pull ’em up — clean undies.”
“I always stretch,” says Kyle. “Stretch my butt-cheeks.”
“I didn’t,” says Jack, “because I felt like there might be a turd comin’. There might be a turtle.”
“Turtle,” Kyle nods.
“Or worse,” Jack adds.
“I’m usually the one who does those kinds of things,” I admit. “It’s frustrating to be the reasonable one.”
“You have to be the journalist today,” says Kyle.
“On my college dorm floor,” I say, “I did win an impromptu farting contest.” Jack and Kyle seem interested, so I elaborate in details that I’ll forgo here, but for the necessary end: “A turd.”
“Oooh!” says Kyle.
“No!” says Jack. “An actual shit came out?”
“Yeah. I just laid a turd and walked away.”
“I don’t know if that counts as winning,” says Jack.
“Yes,” I say. “It does. A turd always wins a farting contest.”
“It actually disqualifies you, according to Monty Python,” says Jack. “There was a sketch they did on an album, and they said, ‘Oop! He felched!’ Wait… felched? Flonched? Plotched! It was something. I can’t remember what it was.”
“Not felched,” I say.
“Nooo!” says Kyle.
“Not felched,” says Jack. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. He plotched.”
“Well, shit,” I say. “Until you just said that, that was it. That was the highlight of my life.”
“I’m sorry, dude,” Jack consoles. “You know what? I think you probably did win. I think you probably did. Did you . . . leave it for someone else to scoop, or did you come back to retrieve your trophy?”
“I came back. I just had to finish the timing, walk down the hall until my competitors fully acknowledged my achievement. Then I went and snagged it. I wouldn’t have dropped it if I couldn’t tell ahead of time that it was going to be a clean, solid log.”
“So you knew that it wasn’t a bubblin’ wet crude?”
“Yeah. I wouldn’t have done that.”
“What about the soft-swirl? That wouldn’t have gone?”
“That would’ve been effective, but I don’t think I would’ve had the balls.”
“If you’d fuckin’ really swirled it…”
“I’ve got to level with you, Dave,” Kyle says. “I’m a little worried about this interview. You haven’t asked any questions.”
“To be honest with you,” Jack says, “I’m a little relieved. I think we’re going for something organic. Just start talking and stuff’s gonna happen.”
“All right,” says Kyle, unconvinced. “You’re the expert.”
“Dude,” says Jack. “Just think of Dave as the Dungeon Master of this Dungeons & Dragons journey we’re taking. He’s like a jazz musician over there. You have to trust him. Let him fuckin’ . . . let him . . . ”
“All right,” says Kyle, turning to me. “Let me ask you, then: You were an art major?”
“Yeah. Not at first, but yeah.”
“What did you go in as?”
“Nothing. Lecture notes. I thought I was going to major in Film & Television. I dropped out for a while and went to Lee Strasberg.”
“Me too,” says Jack.
Reminiscing about his days at Lee Strasberg, Jack feels moved to re-create some dorky, low-end Stanislavsky acting exercises.
“I can still, to this day, pretend like I’m holding a hot cup of tea.”
Kyle and I marvel as Jack holds . . . in his hands . . . an imaginary cup of tea!
“Don’t burn the tongue,” I caution.
“The tongue!” Kyle admires Jack’s tongue-dipping, which is not part of the exercise.
“That has come in handy,” says Jack. “And so has this. Guess what this is?” Jack holds and peels an invisible something.
“Banana?” says Kyle.
“It’s the orange,” I say. “Don’t burn your tongue on the orange either. They kick you out for that.”
“Mm-hm,” says Jack, with his mouth full of method-acting fruit.
“Did you do Pain?” I ask, referring to another Stanislavsky classic — the re-creation of a specific past pain.
“No,” says Jack. “I don’t think I got to that level. It didn’t take long for me to realize that it wasn’t gonna be for me.”
Jack again stands, steps away from us, returns to the same spot as before . . .
“Oh, no,” says Kyle.
. . . pulls his pants down and . . .
“Oh, god, no!”
. . . rips another bare-assed fart, similar to the last in timbre and texture, but markedly longer.
“You’re awful,” says Kyle.
“What’s the matter?”
“I . . . I can’t approve of that.”
Jack is incredulous. “Why are you mad? You think you can smell it from over there? Did you smell the last one?”
“I didn’t smell the last one,” says Kyle.
“Did you smell the last one?”
“No,” I say.
“It’s just the little sounds,” says Kyle.
“I can’t believe this,” says Jack. “I can’t believe that you’re pulling that with me, Kage! That you, of all people, would be disgusted.”
“I just . . . ”
Jack pulls up his pants and sighs. Kyle heads out to the balcony for a cigarette and some phone calls.
“What questions have people been asking you all day?” I ask Jack. “The people who actually do what I’m supposed to be doing right now?”
“Oh, yeah,” says Jack. “Let’s see.”
Kyle returns from the balcony with a phone still to his ear. He determines that Jack is lecturing me on how to do an interview.
“What you’re supposed to ask,” says Jack, “is how me and Kyle met, what kind of a . . . ”
“Forget it, Jack,” Kyle interjects. “It’s no use. Dave’s not gonna do a traditional interview.”
“I’m not trying to make it into one!” says Jack, going big. He tones down, turns back to me. “Kyle’s checked out,” he says. And again, angrily, to Kyle: “Kyle has checked out.”
“I’m checked out,” says Kyle.
“So stay checked out!” says Jack.
Kyle heads back to the balcony.
“Okay,” says Jack, “you’re supposed to ask, How does it feel to be famous? And, Kyle, are you resentful of Jack’s famousness? And then you’re supposed to ask, How did we meet Liam? Then you’re supposed to ask, Where did you get the name Tenacious D? Then you’re supposed to ask, What do you like better — acting or music? Then you’re supposed to ask, What’s next for Tenacious D?”
“That sounds great,” I say. “I can’t wait to read it.”
“There’s probably something else, some other questions you’re supposed to ask,” says Jack. “But I can’t remember. I’m glad you’re not asking them, but I don’t care if you do, by the way. No matter what comes out of your mouth . . . ”
Kyle rejoins Jack on the couch, still on the phone, on hold.
” . . . unlike Kyle,” Jack continues, “I’m going to roll with it. Kyle has checked out. At this point he’s just sittin’ here. And that’s okay. That’s part of the interview. You should print that: Kyle mistakes nonlinear artistic interview for lazy unprofessionalism, and then checks out.”
“That’s it,” says Kyle. “We didn’t do an interview, but we made a good friend.”
“Dude!” says Jack, faux-angrily twisting up the volume. “I’m pretty sure we got some gold early on. And I think we were getting ready for another dip, right before you fuckin’ checked out.”
“What?” says Kyle.
“We were gonna catch a wave!” says Jack, raising his elbows for balance.
Kyle digests this. Looks at Jack. Looks at me. Looks at Jack.
“Can I check back in?” says Kyle.
“Yes, you can,” says Jack.
“All right,” says Kyle, pocketing his telephone. “Ready. We’re back.”
Wonderboy, what is the secret of your power?
Wonderboy, won’t you take me far away from the mucky-muck man?
—Tenacious D, “Wonderboy”
Jack asks to see the small piece of paper across which I’ve scrawled the words Tenacious D, followed by my two important questions. (I figure one hour for an interview equals two questions at 30 minutes each.) I hand it to him, and he reads it to Kyle: “This is not really a question, it’s a statement. It’s just, in quotes, ‘Follow me. We are the shadows.'”
It’s a line from the film. I was going to ask some broad, important-sounding things.
“Well, in fact,” says Jack, “I actually fumbled that line. I said, ‘Follow me. We are the cha-daddows.’ It was important to me that, with that line, I show that we not only think that we’re the best rockers. We think that we’re the best at stealth, as well.”
“Well,” says Kyle. “I think at that point in the movie, you’re also taking a leadership role.”
“Yes,” says Jack.
“I’ve been exposed to be the coward.”
“Of the piece.”
“And you are the hero, taking the hero’s journey.”
“And I apologize if you feel that I forced that into the script.”
“Well, I think it’s a natural kind of alpha instinct.”
Three meaningful nods ensue. Then Jack returns to the important squiggles on the important piece of paper.
“Here’s a question,” he tells Kyle. “‘The Search for Inspirado.'”
Inspirado: the elusive creative force of the cosmos, origin of artistic ideas. “The Search for Inspirado”: title of one episode of the D’s HBO series.
“That’s not a question,” says Kyle.
“You didn’t let me finish,” says Jack.
Jack tosses me a brief see-what-I-have-to-put-up-with glare. “‘The Search for Inspirado,'” he continues. “How does that incorporate itself in Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny?”
“Wait,” I say. “That’s a question. I didn’t write that.”
“Dave, please.” Kyle shows me the face of his hand, then turns back to Jack. “Well, I think it’s a universal problem that every artist has to face: Where do you find it?”
“And after you do,” I say, “what if . . . ”
“Please, Dave!” says Kyle. “Don’t interrupt our actual interview, with your lefty, L.A. Weekly nonlinear stuff.”
“I . . . ”
“Dave, please,” implores Kyle. “Now: ‘The Search for Inspirado.’ Who hasn’t searched for inspiration?”
His phone rings. Again.
Jack reads Kyle’s face and makes some gestures indicating that this is the call Kyle’s been waiting for. “I think that might be a search for . . . a delicious muffin,” he semi-whispers. “Search for a little goo-goo. Goo-goo is our word for warm, fuzzy muffin-love.”
Kyle’s lady friend has indeed arrived downstairs, and Kyle is busy guiding/advising her where to go and whom to get in touch with when she gets there.
“So,” says Jack. “The search for inspirado.”
“Mm-hm,” says Kyle, nodding, miles away, in muffinland. “It’s a universal search.”
“Everybody searches,” says Jack. “But do they? Or do some people just check out? Like robots. And just punch the clock. And say, ‘I’m not searching for anything. I’m just gettin’ by.'”
“They say,” says Kyle, “that inspiration is 98 percent perspiration.”
“I don’t think you’re right,” says Jack. “It isn’t perspiration.”
“What is it? Preparation?”
“Yeah. 90 percent condensation.”
For their first public performance, at downtown L.A.’s venerable (and now defunct) Al’s Bar in 1994, Tenacious D had but one song to sing. Fortunately, it was their greatest-and-best-song-in-the-world tribute, “Tribute,” and fortuitously, one Al’s Bar regular, David Cross, was in the audience. One of the finer comedic minds of our time, Cross, and his Mr. Show partner, Bob Odenkirk, introduced the band to L.A.’s alternative-comedy scene — Largo, UnCabaret at LunaPark, HBO Workspace — and soon they were performing regularly, then headlining clubs, then opening for the likes of Beck, Pearl Jam, Tool and the Foo Fighters. A devoted local following of mostly young, jaded sophisticates who relished the band’s peculiar rock-comedy catharsis rose swiftly, and in 1998, following Black’s appearances in multiple Mr. Shows, and the D’s appearance on Saturday Night Live, Cross and Odenkirk’s Dakota Films persuaded HBO to back a television series, Tenacious D, which aired briefly but strongly in 1999.
With their new HBO audience, the D’s fan base quickly multiplied in size, strength and mania. The band’s self-titled 2001 debut CD, produced by the Dust Brothers and featuring Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), Page McConnell (Phish), Warren Fitzgerald (the Vandals) and Steve McDonald (Redd Kross), went platinum in 2001, hitting No. 33 on the U.S. pop charts and No. 38 in the U.K. (Black’s fast-rising popularity as an actor probably didn’t hurt.)
“Dude,” says Kyle. “I’m excited about this article. I really am.”
Jack says, “Can I try to salvage something here?”
“Inspirado,” says Jack, as Kyle’s fucking phone rings again. Jack presses on. “When we were writing this movie — the songs, the script, the whole shaboodle — I took a page out of the David Lynch . . . this is going to sound really pretentious. I watched an interview with David Lynch on Bravo. Some dude named Elvis was interviewing him?”
“And Elvis was asking David Lynch where he got his inspirado. And he said [decent Lynch impersonation], ‘I have a chairrrr, that’s my favorite chairrrr. And I’ll sit in it. And I’ll just wait.’ And I just thought that was so kick-ass. I was, like, ‘Yeah. You’re gonna fuckin’ sit in your favorite chair, and you’re gonna wait for the voice in your head to tell you what the fuckin’ answer is.’ And I employed that. I would close my eyes and put my hands on my eyeballs, like this, and kind of wait, Lynchian-style.”
“Did it happen?” asks Kyle.
“It works!” says Jack. “But sometimes you’ve gotta wait. You’ve gotta be there for 15 or 20 minutes. You wait [Jack conjures a cat face and shoves it against Kyle’s] like a pussycat at the mouse hole.”
“Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!” says Kyle.
“And the fuckin’ mouse of inspiration will fuckin’ pop its head out. And then you . . . Oh. My. God! It takes some ef-fort. It takes some in-tent. Like, I in-tend on fucking getting it. I don’t know what it is. That’s what I’m waiting for.”
Jack stands. “You two lovebirds talk a minute. I’m gonna take a piss.”
Kyle stares at me. I stare back.
The government totally sucks, you motherfucker
The government totally sucks
—Tenacious D, “The Government Totally Sucks” (POD soundtrack)
Jack returns. Kyle’s phone rings. Kyle checks out.
Jack says, “Do you know what I was trippin’ on when I was in New York recently? I was walking down the street thinking, ‘I’m so self-conscious.’ Constantly thinking about how there’re people who are looking at me and thinking something. About me. The way I’m . . . walking, they’re thinking that I’m lame, they’re thinking that I’m walking self-consciously. They’re thinking, ‘Why is he walking so weird? It seems like he’s walking like he knows we’re watching him.’ Just getting all up in my head. And then I realized, No, they don’t care. They’re not looking at me, and if they are, they’re not thinking what I think I’m thinking they’re thinking. But then I thought, Everybody that I see is also thinking that — totally in their own self-conscious bubbles. And we’re all fuckin’ walkin’ around in this weird mirror-bubble, worried that other people are looking at us. And if you can kind of separate yourself from that, get a little bit of objectivity on that . . . ”
“I think that’s probably the most common sort of delusion,” says Kyle, checking back in. “Thinking that people really care about what you’re doing.”
“Yeah,” says Jack. “But if you’re like, way above it, like a fuckin’ Buddhist monk, you could just fuckin’ take off all your clothes and just walk down the street and say rude things, because you know it doesn’t matter. I can’t do that, but that’d be cool.”
“I get maybe five or 10 minutes a month like that,” I say, “where ego takes a hike. But the rest of the month is mirror-bubble. It’s all Dick Cheney’s fault.” I rise. “I must pee. Say important things.”
Kyle rises too.
“Where are you goin’, Kage?” says Jack.
“I gotta go take care of business.”
“I can’t do it alone.”
“Yeah, you can.”
I stick my head out from the bathroom. “I can leave the door open and ask shit from here, if you like.”
“It’s okay,” says Jack, tilting his head back, placing fingers on eyes, David Lynch–style. “I’m just gonna monologue it.”
I aim for porcelain and listen.
Jack says: “I was thinkin’. I was thinkin’ that there’s so much shit going on in the world. And when you’re a kid, you think there’s a plan to all of it, and that your parents understand the cosmic plan, and that when you get older, you’ll get to know the Ultimate Plan. But then, slowly but surely, you realize there’s no Tooth Fairy, and there’s no Santa Claus, and then there’s no God, and then there’s no plan. Everyone’s just on this fuckin’ weird little globe, spinning through space. There’s all kinds of different shit you can do, but no one’s at the top controlling it. Yeah, you can blame it on Cheney, but Cheney doesn’t have any control either. He’s fuckin’ spinnin’ around, making bad decisions, but he’s not like an overlord minister of destruction as much as he is just another fuckin’ schlub who doesn’t know what the fuck is goin’ on.
“Same thing with the Hollywood industry. Early on, when you’re young, you think, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna get in there and do some movies or something. I’ll break into the thing. I’ll break into the industry club, and I’ll fuckin’ know how it works and what it’s about. But then you get in there and you realize there’s no real club or industry, or any rhyme or reason. Everyone’s just floatin’ around, doin’ weird jobs, and it’s a very fuckin’ random, Nietzschean universe of fuckin’ endless, empty, mindless destruction. Sometimes there’s good shit in there too. There’re some rainbows.”
Jack opens his eyes. I’m back, sitting across from him.
“I’m good with the monologue,” he says. “I like to just monologue. No need for questions.”
“Keep going, if you like.”
“I was thinking not.”
The D’s stylist, Roz Music, enters with a selection of T-shirts for an impending photo shoot. Others enter and leave. Someone goes to retrieve more shirts from Jack’s room. I shut down the Celebritone 2000™ and start packing.
“Dude,” Jack tells Kyle. “You missed it. While you were gone, and D was gone, I just started doing a fuckin’ ‘Dust in the Wind’ monologue.”
“Dude!” says Kyle.
“That’s going to be the focus of the article,” I say.
“You should just print that, dude,” says Jack. “You might win a Pulitzer.”
“What?” Kyle asks.
“HE MIGHT WIN A PULITZER!” Jack yells.
“Has anyone at the Weekly won a Pulitzer?” Kyle asks.
“He might win a Nobel Peace Prize!” says Jack.
More T-shirts have arrived. Jack says, “Get a load of this, Dave,” and pulls his shirt up to expose his chest. “Print that in your article: Jack takes off his fuckin’ shirt!”
The hallway is buzzing with promotional conversations — who’s scheduled to go where and do what next, and for how long, and will they have food. The new T-shirt seems to work. Just as I zip my last bag, Jack begins serenading Kyle with a variation on some old Styx song, full volume: “LAYYY-DEAHH!! WHEN SHE’S WITH YOU, I’M SMAHHHY-LEEEEEENG!! SEE YOUR LAYYY-DEAHH!! WILL YOU SEE HER TONIIIIGHT? SHEEAH’S YOAHHR LAYYY-D’sh-guh-guh-guh-guh-guh- guh-guh-guh-guh-guh-guh-guh-guh-guh- . . .”
Needle stuck in the groove.