Tenacious D bring guitars and laughs
When Jack Black was in Wellington in 2004 for Sir Peter Jackson's King Kong, it was the perfect opportunity to interview him and Tenacious D cohort Kyle Gass, when they announced they would play in the capital that year.
The tricky bit was that Gass was in California then, while Black had been in Wellington for weeks and the two could only be interviewed about Tenacious D while together. A telephone link was set up to best navigate the time difference.
What followed was not so much an interview but something that at times felt like being in one of Tenacious D's funny and often surreal music videos. Black was on his mobile, wandering around central Wellington with his family, looking for a restaurant to have dinner in.
Several times he had to stop talking to handle domestic duties. Then his phone reception got patchy as he and Gass played off each other.
Nine years later Black is back in the United States, but it's the same situation. Both are in different places and they can't help but be mischievous.
The two formed their comedy rock duo 19 years ago. When I ask them if there's any significant change in how they perform and how audiences react since they last played Wellington, I'm greeted by a very long silence on the line from Gass.
Then it sounds as if I can hear a radio or a television playing in the background.
"Kyle," says Black. "Are you multi-tasking again?"
"Why do you say that?" snaps Gass.
"Because I can tell," replies Black. "I can tell by the quality of the silence."
"The quality of the silence?" says Gass, then laughs.
I tell Black I was hoping Gass was just considering the question.
"I don't believe Kyle was really just waiting to hear what I had to say."
There's a hearty round of laughter. But Gass has considered the question. When they played Wellington in 2004, they had one album, their self-titled 2001 debut, which included the hilarious Tribute, which sent up the stories of musicians selling their souls to the devil. Since then there's been The Pick of Destiny, the soundtrack to their film of the same name, and last year Rize of the Phoenix.
Gass says they've never sat on their laurels, nor taken their audience for granted. They've also been tested by playing music festivals where a sizeable part of the crowd weren't there for Tenacious D.
"It's like the old days. You've got to win them over. You are never going to broaden your audience [just] playing to your fans. So we relish the opportunity to play outside our comfort zone."
"It's more gratifying when you can win a crowd over," says Black, whose Tenacious D persona is a mesmerising, over-the-top Meatloaf-style singer, with a voice as good as any rock star.
"We've actually had some great experiences at festivals. Most of the crowd is there to see Metallica, but guess what? We are going to kick ass.
"Like Kyle says, it broadens the base when you rock a new face. When you play to your own crowd, there's a Beatles aspect to it.
"Everyone's screaming from the get go and they are not even really listening because they love us so much. So it is kind of good to get out there in front of some strangers."
Black is now one of Hollywood's most recognisable actors and has even broadened his range to dramatic roles, including the acclaimed Bernie, where he returned to work with his School of Rock director Richard Linklater. Gass also has a movie and television career. This year he was on sitcom 2 Broke Girls.
But it's Tenacious D that got them started. Four years before forming the band the two met in an acting class. Tenacious D's first gigs were in a bar where they shared the bill with other emerging comedians, including Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo.
Over the years they've opened for big-name rock acts, including Foo Fighters – which cemented an ongoing friendship with Foo Fighters' founder, former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, who has drummed on all three of their albums. It's meant that Tenacious D, for all their comedic chops, are like Wellington's Flight of the Conchords in that they take their music seriously. But what's harder to get right? A guitar solo, or making an audience laugh?
"An excellent question," says Gass.
"You aren't multi-tasking again, Kyle?" I ask.
"That's what I was just thinking," says Black.
"Oh my god," says Gass, faux dramatically. "The quality of the silence."
"We just focus on what we are passionate about," Black says.
"We spend a lot of time, just the two of us, talking what things we'd like to sing about. What subjects deserve a song, what subjects we're fascinated with and we kind of retrofit the songs that way. We come up with some of the titles first before we start singing about them."
"I don't think we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make it funny though," says Gass.
"When we approach it real earnestly," jokes Black, "the comedy just sort of naturally comes through."
May 20,, Auckland Town Hall
May 21, Wellington Opera House
May 22, The Bedford Marquee - Christchurch
The Dominion Post