Hostile Tool crowds, a demonic Dave Grohl, pirvate jet rides with Slash and pissing off Lemmy: How Tenacious D became the world's most successful comedy metal band

Jack Black and Kyle Gass 2023 Tenacious D
(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

The Tejon Theatre, Bakersfield, California, December 15, 1995. Tenacious D are staring out at a sea of raging hostility and wondering what the hell they’re doing here. This is not how it was supposed to be. The pair – Jack Black and Kyle Gass – have spent the past few months building a cult following in their hometown of Los Angeles with an act that combines comedy sketches and offbeat acoustic songs that celebrate their love of metal, sex and inter-band politics. 

The conceit is that Tenacious D believe they are the best band in the world, and they play every show as if they are headlining a football stadium. That both Jack and Kyle have serious acting chops alongside serious songwriting skills is essential to selling this gag. 

Among their early supporters is Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, who has invited Tenacious D to open for his band for three shows, starting with this one. Unfortunately, it’s falling well short of the transcendent comedic triumph that all parties have envisioned. Right now, armed only with acoustic guitars and an arsenal of gags, Jack and Kyle are facing a barrage of venomous cheers from an audience primed for the concussive barrage of Tool. 

“I didn’t feel like we weren’t ready for prime time,” says Jack today. “I just felt like, ‘Oh, this is what happens when we don’t go to the right audience.’ We know Tool. Tool’s great, but that crowd – they came for Tool or you better be a lot like Tool. Ha ha! We were a lot softer than Tool. We came out playing Jesus Ranch and they were like, ‘What?!’” 

Shaken but resolute, Tenacious D finish that night’s set and the two remaining support slots as well. This is more than just a baptism of fire, it’s another in a string of progressively bigger challenges that the two men will face, galvanising their confidence and becoming a crucial waystation on the most unlikely heavy metal odyssey in history. Because here’s the dirty little secret about Tenacious D – when they take the stage, pretending to be the best band in the world, in that moment there’s a part of them that really means it.

Tenacious D archive

(Image credit: Press/Tenacious D)

In the beginning, there was no Tenacious D, just a pair of would-be actors crossing paths in one of LA’s countless theatre troupes. “I liked being close to the excitement of the entertainment capital of the universe,” says Jack, speaking to Hammer with Kyle via Zoom. 

Referred to in D-speak as ‘JB’ or ‘Jables’, he’s garrulous, passionate and prone to manic bouts of hyperbole. Born in Hermosa Beach, California, his family moved to Culver City, just south of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. “You could feel its hot, black, throbbing meat just emanating from the veins of Hollywood. You couldn’t avoid its dark magic and I didn’t want to live anywhere else.” 

Kyle Gass – aka ‘Kage’ – is the yin to his partner’s yang: thoughtful, polite and possessed of a dry humour that dovetails perfectly into Jack’s sledgehammer flow (the pair’s real-life dynamic is really just a slightly toned-down version of their Tenacious D personas). Kyle trundled down to Los Angeles from Northern California in the early 80s, harbouring dreams of becoming an actor. “The music, for me, was kind of Plan B,” he says. “I figured I’d just keep practising and maybe I could play in bars. I don’t know, I just had some weird notion of music as a back-up plan.”

They met at the end of the 80s through theatre company The Actors’ Gang. Kyle was already a member, while Jack was, in his own words, “a fanboy”. The latter eventually landed a spot in the troupe, but ironically relations between the two men were initially frosty. “There was a weird kind of rivalry,” says Jack. “I think he was a little threatened by the new kid trying to take his musical comedy spot, but then finally he realised that I just wanted to be his protegé.” 

The frostiness melted completely during the summer of 1989, when The Actors’ Gang performed at the Edinburgh Festival. Perhaps it was the uncommonly strong weed or the eight-hour jetlag, but on a walk about town, they decided that McDonald’s merited investigation. “We go, ‘Let’s go see if McDonald’s tastes the same in Scotland, because it might have Scottish roots because of the ‘Mc’ in ‘McDonalds’,” says Jack. “We thought that was so dumb and funny. It tasted exactly the same as in America. Maybe a tiny bit different. The fries were better, right, Kage?” 

“Yeah,” Kyle replies, “the fries were better but something was off with the burger.” Following their McBonding session, the two regrouped in LA and, over heroic amounts of grass, Kyle taught Jack how to play guitar. In short order, they wrote their first song, the forlorn acoustic break-up number Melissa (it’s easily found on YouTube). “We realised right after we wrote that song that it was bad and that we were not going to be a serious band that wrote serious songs,” says Jack. “I never wanted to sing it live because it was too embarrassing and, like, emotional.” 

Instead, they turned their attention to much heavier fare. “Really,” says Jack, “the first song that we bonded over, that I played for Kyle and was like, ‘Check this out, this is the best song in the world’, was Metallica’s One.” 

Kyle: “That was kind of the real Tribute inspiration.” 

Tribute, of course, is Tenacious D’s breakout 2002 single. An absurdist take on the mythical Devil-at-the-crossroads trope in which Tenacious D encounter a horned, hoofed demon (memorably played by D über-fan Dave Grohl in the video) who demands that they play the best song in the world. On the spot, they actually come up with the best song in the world. They defeat the demon but forget the song, rendering the titular track as merely a tribute to the forgotten best song in the world.

In reality, Tribute had been written years earlier, not long after the ill-fated Melissa. “There are probably bands that wrote their flagship song on the first one,” says Kyle. “I guess with us, it was our second one.”

Tenacious D – the name comes from a comment by US sports commentator Marv Albert, referring to a basketball team’s tenacious defence – played their inaugural show in 1994 at a local LA coffee shop called Highland Grounds. Their set featured a hybrid of comedy sketches and acoustic songs. In addition to Tribute – their only original at the time – they covered Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Find The Cost Of Freedom and performed a sketch that ripped the piss out of Sting’s The Dream Of The Blue Turtles

Serendipitously, in the audience that evening was legendary comic actor Harry Shearer – aka Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls. It was another comedian, David Cross, who would help kickstart Tenacious D’s rise. He liked their set so much that he invited them to appear on Mr. Show With Bob And David, the TV sketch series he had created with future Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk. The D’s involvement with Mr. Show raised their profile immeasurably. “We went from playing in front of 80 people to a thousand people,” says Jack. “We were building a following.” 

On the back of it, the duo scored a deal with HBO for their own eponymous show, releasing three episodes between 1997 and 2000. It was during this period that they met another famous fan – one who would figure prominently in their future. “We first met Dave Grohl at The Viper Room,” says Kyle, referring to the storied Sunset Strip club. “Right before the show, Dave pops his head in and says, ‘Hey guys! It’s me, Dave! Have a great show!’ And then he’s gone and we have to play the show knowing that Dave Grohl is out there.” 

Their own star may have been on the rise, but they were still a pair of giddy rock fans at heart. “He’s just a hero,” says Kyle of their best-known devotee. “He’s the Nirvana guy!”

By the time Tenacious D recorded their self-titled 2001 debut album, they were dangerously close to becoming a legitimate rock band. With hip Beastie Boys/Beck associates The Dust Brothers onboard as producers, Jack and Kyle envisaged it as a mix of comedy sketches and original songs. They were insistent that the songs should be acoustic, reflecting their live shows, but The Dust Brothers had other ideas. 

“They were like, ‘We’ve gotta build a supergroup to back you guys up,” recalls Jack. “We don’t think it should be an acoustic album. We should fucking bust this out with a full rock band. Do you know any well-known musicians that we could put in an all-star supergroup?’” 

The obvious candidate was the man they had met briefly at The Viper Room a few years earlier. But, explained Jack and Kyle, there was zero chance of it happening. Undaunted, the Dust Brothers insisted they try. And so they reached out and asked Grohl if he would guest on a track. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll come down and do a song,’” says Jack. “When he got to the studio, we basically locked the door and said, ‘Come on, dude, it’ll be really quick – let’s just do the whole record.’ He fucking crushed the living daylights out of the album. It added another layer of rocket boosters.” 

Released on September 25, 2001 and featuring songs that had been road-tested at gigs and on their HBO special, the album sold more than 600,000 copies in the UK and a million in the US. “It was just so satisfying to take it to the next level like that,” says Jack. “There’s a couple songs on the album that we didn’t use a full band on that just sounded better with just acoustic guitars. But at the end of the day, a lot of those songs are meant to be rocked hard with a band.” 

“I disagree,” counters Kyle. “We spent years…” 

“We’re not Simon & Garfunkel, OK?” interrupts Jack. “We’re fucking Black Sabbath!”

Tenacious D

(Image credit: Press/Tenacious D)

In the typical Hollywood three-act drama, the first act introduces the characters (in this case Tenacious D) and lays out their goals (world domination, basically). It’s the second act where things go dark and this was very much the case for Jack Black and Kyle Gass. In 2006, the pair released their debut full-length movie, Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny, accompanied by an album of the same name. Moving from sketches to a full-length film was quite a jump, but it was one they relished. 

“We just wanted to fucking party with the form,” says Jack. “The long form, because we had done the little bite-sized Chicken McNuggets of comedy rock but we wanted to stretch that out.” 

A heavy metal hero’s journey bursting with slapstick humour, The Pick Of Destiny boasted a pack of Hollywood stars including Ben Stiller, Tim Robbins, Amy Poehler and Fred Armisen, along with epic turns from such rock A-listers as Ronnie James Dio, Meat Loaf and their old buddy Dave Grohl. By then, both Jack and Kyle had emerged as actors in their own right, thanks to the appearances in movies such as School Of Rock and Elf respectively. But The Pick Of Destiny bombed right out of the gate. 

Critics lambasted its sophomoric humour (in fairness, one scene involves Jack’s character using his penis to deactivate a laser). What Jack and Kyle had hoped would be the first instalment of a lucrative film franchise was a box office flop. In 2022, Tenacious D released an audiobook, The Road To Redunktion, in which they charted the history of the band. In it, they reveal that commercial failure of The Pick Of Destiny was a blow. For Kyle, the situation was compounded by the fact his bandmate had the cushion of fame as an A-list actor that he didn’t. 

According to the book, Kyle spiralled into depression, and there are allusions to substance abuse. Eventually, Jack flew to LA to support his friend and to arrange for an intervention. Though initially opposed to treatment, Kyle eventually accepted the lifeline. Jack hired a private jet to take Kyle to treatment and en route the two wrestled, cried and confronted some of the childhood traumas that they had both experienced. Kyle completed the programme, returned to work and the D were back in business. 

This period inspired one of Tenacious D’s best songs, 2012’s The Ballad Of Hollywood Jack And The Rage Kage. Building from a three-chord chug into a surging, full-band throwdown, it outlines the story of Kyle’s struggles in characteristically OTT fashion. “Hollywood Jack hit the big time and went to make movies / Rage Kage was left far behind in the dust of his dreams,” sings Jack in his booming baritone, but the theatrics are underpinned with very real emotion. When the subject of this seemingly dark chapter is raised, Kyle pauses, then begins to respond before Jack cuts in. 

“You don’t have to answer that question if you’re uncomfortable with it,” he says, adopting an authoritative tone that makes it difficult to determine whether he’s being serious or playful. Kyle begins to speak but Jack again cuts him off, “Nope! Nope! No more questions! Read the audiobook if you want to hear more about that dirt!” 

“I will say that The Ballad Of Hollywood Jack And The Rage Kage is 100% accurate,” says Kyle with a laugh. Then he’s serious. “It’s a meaningful jam for me.” 

Dropping his irate publicist character, Jack adds, “What’s weird is that it’s one of our most powerful jams and it’s because we did go to some actual deep, dark places, which we promised ourselves we would never do after the first song we wrote about my break-up, about my heartache and feeling of loss and pain, and yet we had to come back to that actual real sauce to find out.” 

“I don’t disagree,” says Kyle simply.

Whatever happened during that time, Tenacious D came roaring back in 2012 with Rize Of The Fenix. The album was nominated for a Grammy for Best Comedy Album (they lost to stand-up turned chat show host Jimmy Fallon). They would finally win a Grammy three years later, beating Anthrax, Slipknot, Mastodon and Motörhead to the Best Metal Performance award for their cover of Dio’s The Last In Line from the Ronnie James Dio tribute album This Is Your Life (the award proved controversial in some quarters – Mastodon’s Bill Kelliher dismissively compared it to “Weird Al Yankovic winning Best Rap Album for a Snoop Dogg song”). 

But Kyle’s travails weren’t quite over. In 2012, Tenacious D played before their largest-ever crowd at Germany’s sprawling Rock Am Ring festival. As they ripped through belters such as The Metal, Beelzeboss (The Final Showdown) and Tribute, members of headliners Metallica watched them from the side of the stage and everything seemed to be going great. But Kyle was feeling disorientated and unwell during their set. He managed to push through the show, but afterwards he was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, a neurological condition that can lead to temporary paralysis of the face. 

“I woke up with Bell’s palsy on the day of my biggest concert!” he says now. 

“Weirdly,” says Jack, “it was the best show because it was the biggest show and they fucking loved us! And it was the worst show because Kyle was fucked up.” 

Today, Kyle is in good health and proud to have left it all on the field that day. “I did get a bronze star,” he jokes. “It was pretty metal. But it’s also like, ‘Listen, I gotsta get paid.’ You could have propped me up there. I’m a greedy bastard.”

The ordeal of facing hostile audiences like the ones at those Tool gigs are long gone for Tenacious D. These days, they’re the best-connected Dio-loving acoustic comedy-metal duo on the planet. They’ve opened for Metallica more than once over the years. “For some reason, it was a better fit than Tool,” says Jack. “I don’t know why… that crowd really embraced us.” 

Then there was a memorable encounter with Slash when they gave him a ride home on their private jet after a show in Las Vegas. “Slash was like, ‘Oh man, that was the greatest show’, and we were like, ‘You saw that fucking show?’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, man, I love Tenacious D!’” says Jack proudly. 

In January 2015, they hooked up with the Guns N’ Roses guitarist and the Foo Fighters onstage at LA’s Staples Center for a propulsive version of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song during Dave Grohl’s 46th birthday gig. “All of a sudden we had this fucking mountaintop jam with Slash and Dave Grohl and it was fucking cream dream deluxe,” says Jack. 

Not all of their rock’n’roll fantasies have played out as they would have hoped. While preparing to open for Motörhead in L.A. one evening, word came down right before their set that Lemmy – unaware that he had an opener, let alone that it was Tenacious D – wanted none of it. 

“We get the word that Lemmy said, ‘No! I don’t want nobody opening! Fuck sake! I don’t need ’em, I don’t want ’em!’” says Jack. “We were like, ‘Oh, fuck, Lemmy hates us. He’s not gonna let us do the thing.’ I think what it really was, was that he was just pissed that the show didn’t sell out and he didn’t want to admit that we were actually helping.” 

They did the set anyway, with Lemmy none the wiser.

Tenacious D MHR374

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

There is one thing Tenacious D bristle at slightly, and that’s comparisons with spoof metal icons Spinal Tap. Not because they aren’t fans – far from it. But Spinal Tap aren’t real, and Tenacious D - despite occasional appearances to the contrary – very much are. 

“Spinal Tap is the fucking gold standard,” says Jack. “The thing is that they were pretending to be rock stars. We’re more playing ourselves when we get up there. Spinal Tap were all doing characters with the accents and making fun of the genre. We don’t make fun of it as much as Spinal Tap does and we don’t put on any fake accents. We actually love it. We are funny just because we’re idiots.” 

That idiocy shows no signs of slowing down. Tenacious D began a European tour in June, including their biggest ever UK headlining show, at London’s 20,000-capacity O2 arena. Jack’s also hinted that there could be sequels to both The Pick Of Destiny and School Of Rock in the pipeline. And then there’s the follow-up to their most recent album, 2018’s Post-Apocalypto

“Well, you know, I have a little bit of OCD, so I’ve always felt that this next album would be released in the summer of 2024 because then I will be 55 – I can’t drive 55 [a reference to ex-Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar’s 1984 hit] – and Kage will be, [singing The Beatles’ song] ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when he’s 64.’ In the summer of ’24. Mega fucking album from the D. A big album is gonna drop.” 

“That’s how we do things,” adds Kyle. That is indeed how they do things. When you’re the best band in the world, it’s the only way.

Joe Daly

Hailing from San Diego, California, Joe Daly is an award-winning music journalist with over thirty years experience. Since 2010, Joe has been a regular contributor for Metal Hammer, penning cover features, news stories, album reviews and other content. Joe also writes for Classic Rock, Bass Player, Men’s Health and Outburn magazines. He has served as Music Editor for several online outlets and he has been a contributor for SPIN, the BBC and a frequent guest on several podcasts. When he’s not serenading his neighbours with black metal, Joe enjoys playing hockey, beating on his bass and fawning over his dogs.