When it comes to mixing rock and comedy, self-proclaimed "greatest band on Earth" Tenacious D occupies the same rarified stratum as Frank Zappa and Spinal Tap. For 20 years, Jack Black and Kyle Gass have been belting out hilariously vulgar acoustic anthems that seamlessly match Dio-era Black Sabbath bombast with Simon and Garfunkel-style harmonies.
Building on the modest success of their late-'90s cult HBO series (a template that Kiwi duo Flight of the Conchords later followed to global fame), the D grew from sold-out club tours to become a major concert attraction and festival favorite. Though an extended break from recording followed the pair's weed-hazed cinematic origin story Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, they re-emerged victorious in 2012 with Rize of the Fenix, another collection of hysterical epics featuring possibly the most preposterously phallic cover art known to man. Black and Gass spoke of recent triumphs ahead of SF Sketchfest's opening night tribute to the D at the Castro, which reunites the duo with HBO series cast member Paul F. Thompkins for an evening of clips, conversation, and song.
SF Weekly: The Rize of the Fenix tour was the most visually spectacular Tenacious D show I've seen so far. The Stones may have introduced the giant inflatable phallus to the rock stage, but you went several better with one that climaxed confetti all over the audience at the end of the show and transformed into a vagina that you two popped out of for the acoustic encore. Did you have a hand in the design?
Kyle Gass: A lot of credit goes to our lighting guy, Dan Hadley. But yeah, that was our doing, for sure.
The set was so over-the-top when I saw you at the Fox in Oakland; it seemed perfect for larger outdoor venues or festivals.
Jack Black: Sometimes the head of the phoenix would smush up against the ceiling of the venue. Because our phoenix is incredibly large, and sometimes it gets too tight!
Last year, Rize of the Fenix got nominated for a Best Comedy Album Grammy, and you won the Revolver Golden Gods Award for Comeback of the Year. How much did it mean to you to get that kind of recognition?
KG: Well, I think awards are pretty meaningless. They're fun. I was excited to be nominated for the Grammy, but prizes are a little strange.
JB: I thought our album was the best album of the year. Forget comedy album. I was a little insulted that we only got recognition for comedy album. Really? There were five better rock albums? Which ones? Bullshit! So I was a little bitter about the whole thing. We ended up losing to... who cares? The Golden Gods was a sweet honor, although we have to confess it seemed like whoever showed won the Golden God Award. We beat Aerosmith and we beat Van Halen, but I think if Van Halen shows up, they fuckin' win!
KG: Wait, we beat Van Halen? We shouldn't be able to beat Van Halen at anything. They should automatically win that, I think. [Note: Van Halen wasn't actually nominated.]
JB: On the Grammys, I'm saying bullshit. We lost to Jimmy Fallon. His album was just songs they did on his TV show. They didn't even re-record them in the studio. They just put them on a record. And then they won because — I'm convinced — that all the voters didn't even listen to any of the albums.
KG: No, I agree. I don't think they listen.
JB: This is what I'd do. I'm not saying all the voters are dicks, but the way it's set up, it's like you get your fucking ballot, you look at it, and you go, "Hey, who's on the ballot? Oh, Jimmy Fallon! I like his show. I saw Larry Buttafuoco on there. [sic? Joey Buttafuoco?] It was funny! I'm voting for Jimmy Fallon." They're not listening to the records. This whole interview has gone into a very bitter place.
It seems there has been a real renaissance in artists mixing comedy and music since Tenacious D first rose to fame. Do you think your success has led more comedians and comedic actors to explore music?
JB: We can't take that. We didn't start the fire! If you want to give someone the real credit, you go with Spinal Tap, of course. We definitely took the guitar and ran with it from there. Did we maybe keep the flames a-burning so that the Flight of the Conchords could come later and rule the world? Yeah!
KG: Well, they're not really rock per se. They're folky.
JB: But should we take credit for the comedy music renaissance? I'm going to take that! We already know who the competition is. There's Flight of the Conchords, there's Spinal Tap, and there's everyone we had at Festival Supreme [a comedy festival the duo held last October]. You can also include homeboys from South Park, Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker].
Have you been the subject of the kind of tribute you're receiving at the Castro Theatre for Sketchfest before? What can fans expect?
JB: It'll probably be like the Kennedy Center Honors, where we'll sit there and get lauded. And then we'll have to play some songs to prove that we deserve the honor. It won't be the first time we've had to jump through a fiery hoop.
So what are the D's future plans? Are there more film projects or another album in the works?
JB: Yeah we've got another album coming soon. Look for it in 2015. And we've got an animated show that will be on the Internet extremely soon. I think we should circle 2015 for the big unveiling of the next Tenacious D project.
KG: Put that down. Call the calendar people.
JB: Tell all the other artists they might want to take that year off, because no one is going to be interested in anything else.