“Tribute Was Our Mona Lisa” – An Oral History Of Tenacious D’s Self-Titled Debut Album
Comedy-rock duo Tenacious D may have landed on the radars of many via their 2001 self-titled debut album, but band members Jack Black and Kyle Gass had been wowing audiences long before their parody hit Tribute dominated the charts. After meeting at LA’s The Actors Gang Theatre in 1986, the duo conquered a tricky beginning to form a fast friendship that resulted in the creation of one of the most enduring rock satire acts of the past two decades. Early shows in local coffee shops and supporting live comedy acts earned them a handful of famous fans and as their profile rose, so did the number of opportunities that came their way. A short lived HBO series helped them hone a batch of faux-grandiose rock epics, and a die-hard conviction of their own ‘greatest band ever’ status had record companies eager to snap them up as the ’90s came to a close.
In the years since Jack and Kyle first burst onto the scene, Tenacious D have released three additional studio records, a collection of live tracks and a big screen adventure in 2006’s movie musical Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny. They’ve toured the world, headlined arenas, performed with the likes of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Slash and the Foo Fighters, and revolutionised pissed metal-bar singalongs - but all of it was catalysed by the arrival and swift success of that initial collection of earworm tracks and comedy skits. Still, their rise to the big time wasn’t as speedy as you might expect. As the album that started it all celebrates its 18th birthday this year, Jack and Kyle explain how their route to recording this certified gold record was longer than you might think…
Having met at The Actors Gang Theatre, the pair forge a friendship that leads them to create the world’s greatest band, Tenacious D…
Jack: We met in the ’80s, but there was a big thick wall of ice and we had to wait a few years for it to soften. We went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1989 and climbed up to the top of Arthur’s Seat. We climbed it free solo-style with no ropes - just a bottle of Scotch and some testosterone. I remember it was crazy red skies that night, as if the Gods were looking down and saying, ‘We shall create blood red skies for the birth of The D!’ But we hadn’t really bonded yet. It was during the ’90s when we became friends and started hanging out at Kyle’s apartment where he gave me the legendary guitar lessons.
Kyle: It took a while for us to start writing music together. One of our first band names was Responsive Chord, but we weren’t really close to that one. I think Axe Lords might have been next.
Jack: It was Axe Lords Featuring Gorgazon’s Mischief. Also there was Balboa’s Biblical Theatre, but in our hearts we always knew the band’s name would be Tenacious D. We’d write song titles before the actual songs - that was part of our process.
Kyle: The title can really inform you on what the song is about. It was a fun exercise.
Jack: We tried different techniques and approaches to writing songs, but personally I can’t get started until I have a kernel or seed of the concept, then I can riff off that. It’s fun to imagine what the most compelling song titles would be. What would make you want to listen to a song? There’s an art to that. We like to sit down and talk about it a little bit before busting out the melody makers.
Kyle: Meeting [comedians] David Cross and Bob Odenkirk was the whole shebang at the time. David was at our very first official gig in 1994 at Al’s Bar in Los Angeles. He was one of only eight patrons, and we only had one song. David was there and he was impressed.
Jack: He told us he wanted us to open for Mr Show live, the live version of the TV show he and Odenkirk had been doing, and we jumped on it because it was the only offer on the table. We were like, ‘Oh my God, someone wants us to play somewhere again.’
Jack: Our whole career has been a series of fiery hoops, just events that are fucking terrifying. You get these opportunities where Eddie Vedder will call and say, ‘Hey, we like your band and we want you guys to open for Pearl Jam’ and your first reaction is terror. People aren’t going to like us and it’s going to be horrible, but then you look in the mirror and say, ‘Wait. This is an opportunity. This is a fiery hoop and you have to dive through and face your demons.’
Kyle: We were fans of bands like Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters, so when they were aware of us we were like, ‘What? Really? Okay. That’s pretty cool.’ It was kind of mind-blowing that we were even on their radar.
Jack: There were so many fiery hoops before that. Our very first show was at a coffee shop. You remember who was in the audience, Kage?
Kyle: Harry Shearer from Spinal Tap.
Jack: That’s right. Harry fucking Shearer from Spinal Tap - Derek Smalls! So what should have been a no-pressure coffee shop gig automatically became a fiery hoop, because of Harry Shearer’s presence. Then we did some TV shows for HBO and those were fiery hoops, too.
Kyle: A big part of the story of the first album was how long it took to become an album. We had a TV show on HBO in ‘97 after playing for a long time. We had a little demo out, but really didn’t have any recorded music. We knew we had a really good batch of songs by the time we did the HBO series, but we still didn’t start recording until 2000. It took a while to get the first album going.
After a short-lived eponymous HBO series running from ‘97-’99, the band eventually head into the studio, with The Dust Brothers producing and Dave Grohl on drumming duty…
Jack: Once The Dust Brothers caught wind that Dave Grohl was a fan, and that he had come to see us a couple of times, they were like, ‘What?! We have got to get Dave Grohl in here.’ We were like, ‘No man, we don’t know him that well, we don’t think he’d come in…’ The Dust Brothers kind of forced the issue and pushed us into having a big band because we were resistant to it. We were really proud of how we sounded live with just two acoustic guitars.
Kyle: The Dust Brothers really encouraged us to use a full band. We weren’t even sure we were going to have one. Our friend Jon Brion was going to produce the album and it was going to be more of an acoustic thing, because that was our act at the time. The Dust Brothers said, ‘Nah, these songs would really benefit from a full rock band treatment.’ They got us headed in that direction.
Jack: We were like, ‘Okay, we’ll call Dave Grohl and ask him to come down - and we will get a band together and play, but we’re going to want to listen to the acoustic version of this album and the full band version and we’ll make a decision on a song-by-song basis. At the end of the day, the entire album is full band.
Kyle: The tempos Dave set were the tempos that we went with. He brought that fast, punk-rock energy to it. It was kind of mind-blowing just to have Dave playing on our songs. It was like your hero walking through the door. There goes my hero - and he’s playing drums on your track! It was pretty crazy.
Jack: I don’t think Dave knew when he came in that he was going to be playing on the whole album. Once he got into the studio we just locked the door and said, ‘Come on man, let’s just do the whole thing.’ He knocked it out in a day.
With a full backing band in tow, it was time to capture some of The D’s classic tracks, which up until that point, had only existed live.
Jack: In a way, Tribute was our Mona Lisa. We had to work on it all throughout the ’90s.
Kyle: It started late one night with Jack playing me the song One by Metallica and saying, ‘Check this out - this is the greatest song ever.’ I was impressed, but then he said that every one of their songs is kind of the greatest because they’re so epic. I didn’t even really know who Metallica were at that point, so it had an impact. We thought that we could probably write the greatest song and then Jack said, ‘No, we can’t just write the greatest song, but we could do a tribute to the greatest song.’ Then we were off to the races and the concept was born. It felt like a signature song right out of the gate. It was big and trying to be Zeppelin-esque.
Jack: Conceptually, I’ve always been obsessed with the fastest, the best and the biggest. When I was a little kid my favourite animal was the cheetah because it was the fastest. I was obsessed with the speed of light because it was the fastest in the universe. There’s just something very funny about that to me, and the idea of ‘the greatest song’ was so absurd that it’s sort of in line with my obsession with the limits of universal laws. These absolutes and how absurd they all are .
Greatest songs aside, Tenacious D’s debut also included a heartfelt ode to Black Sabbath and Dio rocker Ronnie James Dio, alongside a selection of spoken-word comedy skits.
Kyle: We were always wondering, ‘Do you think Dio’s heard his song? Is there any way?’ We thought there was no possible way that we were on Dio’s radar, but then eventually we got word from his camp that he had indeed heard it - and he liked it! Plus, he wanted us to be in his video for Push.
Jack: That’s right - and a friendship was born.
Kyle: We must have spent like a year and a half on the music but the comedy sketches came pretty fast.
Jack: That’s true but conceptually all those bits were contemplated. We talked a long time about doing a drive-through sketch where we’re ordering fast food, but it was something that was just sitting in the subconscious cooker for months before we unleashed it. Yeah, we just pressed record - but it had been germinating and gestating for a while, maybe even years. Once you’ve cracked the code on what a good concept it, sometimes that’s all it takes. You just press record and there it is. It just pops out as a funny little sketch.
Tenacious D’s eponymous album hit shelves on September 25, 2001 and was followed by a worldwide tour that saw them play their debut UK shows.
Kyle: The release of the record was magic. It was our first album and big rock tour, so the whole thing was kind of surreal at the time. Our first tour was right after 9/11 and the record might have been the healing balm that was needed. Maybe Tenacious D provided that for the nation.
Jack: Our one big pyrotechnic special effect for that first tour was a giant inflatable dragon. It was basically from some rental house that rented out giant inflatable animals and monsters for parades. We needed something big to happen at our London Brixton Academy show, so we just rented that. It was just for that one show. We had this fire breathing dragon and it filled the whole fucking Brixton Academy with smoke. You couldn’t see us at all for a long time.
Kyle: It was epic.
Jack: That was for Wonderboy and the song isn’t even about a dragon, but it was a triumph. There was a lot of fun and excitement for us on that tour. It was definitely a fiery hoop.
18 years on, the impact of Tenacious D’s debut album remains a key moment in the band’s history, shaping their future trajectory…
Jack: 18 years. It’s like our album has finally matured into adulthood. Eighteen is the age of consent in the United States. Now we can finally make love to Tenacious D. I’ve been waiting all these years.
Kyle: I knew the self-titled eponymous album was a classic - it’s our greatest hits.
Jack: We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve never actually had to pay any real dues. You’re supposed to spend your early years driving around in a van that you drive yourself from gig to gig, staying on people’s couches and making a little extra money by selling weed on the side. We didn’t have to do any of that. We got lucky. I don’t feel like we’re way bigger than we were back in Brixton Academy, but truth be told I like those venues better than the big festivals and ginormous, enormo-domes. They’re not quite as intimate.
Kyle: We’re still Brixton Academy in our hearts. Still the same old Kage and Jables.
Jack: Back on that first album we had to throw in every song on the album and a tonne of covers just to stretch it out to have a full-length show. We were like Billie Eilish back then, we just didn’t have enough songs to have a full show. There was a lot of banter, but now we’ve got like 15 years of rad songs to choose from and can condense it down to a greatest hits. It’s more fun now, but I do get winded a little easier. I have to pace myself. You know that song Wind Beneath My Wings? Now we have to have actual wind in the wings, like, actual oxygen tanks.
Kyle: It’s on our rider.
Read this next:
Jack Black and Kyle Gass on how Metallica’s One inspired Tenacious D’s hit single, Tribute.
French experimentalist Rïcïnn goes choral on creatively florid second album…