Kyle Gass is a funny guy. And he plays a mean guitar, ripping Pete Townshend-style windmills on his acoustic six-string. He's half of the comedic folk-metal duo Tenacious D, the self-declared "Greatest Band in History." And when the (again, self-nominated) heir to Ronnie James Dio's rock throne isn't ruling the earth, he's one sixth of Trainwreck.
"It's hillbilly, with a touch of white trash," says Gass, who takes the stage with Trainwreck as the power-coifed Klip Calhoun. "Sort of fun, uptempo bluegrass-country, but still kind of like guys trying to rock. Also, for the costumes, it's a pretty good excuse to have hair."
The ensemble performs in character as '70s retro rockers, all mullets, mustaches, leather vests, and headbands. The group lovingly sends up southern roots rock -- the way Tenacious D co-opts metal -- on its debut, a live album dubbed simply Trainwreck Live, which features songs like "Permanent Wood" and "Rock n' Roll Timeout."
Offstage, the bald, portly Gass seems much the same as he does on HBO's Tenacious D series, but less bumbling and more self-deprecating. And he's just as affable, despite the fact that tonight's gig at Los Angeles's world-famous Viper Room has been canceled at the last minute; the band will later post a note on its website, apologizing and calling the club's manager "a fucking douchebag."
After two years, Trainwreck is building up some steam as Gass's career has taken off. Tenacious D's cult went international in 1999 following the debut of the band's series, a collection of shorts chronicling the misadventures of the duo at open-mic nights and beyond. Reruns became a fixture at the cable network and launched singer Jack Black's movie career into orbit. Gass had played small roles in The Cable Guy, Bio-Dome, and Cradle Will Rock. Following D's initial success, he continued acting, showing a knack for deadpan in Shallow Hal, Elf, and the director's cut of Almost Famous. But he really wanted to rock.
"Everybody wants to rock out, even actors and comedians. I just wanted to play in a band," says Gass, who rounded up friends and friends of friends for Trainwreck. "I don't think many people like [the band]. Or care. If we play in small enough clubs, we can probably fill them up. But it's been a lot of fun. Everybody's contributing now."
"Everybody" is a star-studded crew. Fans of the D will recognize singer Darryl Donald, aka J.R. Reed, as Lee, an eager-beaver D fan last seen singing a tender ballad of friendship, video golf, and Jenny Craig macaroni and cheese with the duo. Drummer Kenny Bob Thornton, who bears no relation to the similarly named Sling Blade star, acts under the name Kevin Weisman, playing Marshall in ABC's Alias. Lance Branson, aka screenwriter-actor Chris D'Arienzo, plays keyboards. Guitarist John B. Shredman, aka Shreddy Kreuger, aka John Konesky, came as part of a package deal with fellow Columbus native and backup vocalist Boy Johnny, aka John Spiker; both played in the rock band the Wonder of Boys. Gass's Calhoun rounds out the sextet.
Gass, 44, grew up in the suburban San Francisco Bay area. Wanting to act, he enrolled at UCLA, where he met actor Tim Robbins and joined his theater group, the Actors' Gang, which Gass describes as "a combination of comedia del arte and Jackie Gleason, big broad comedy." Using a technique based in improvisation, the group collaborated in workshops to develop original shows with a political bent. The Gang ultimately selected its material based on one criterion: whether it made them laugh. While faux rocking can be achieved through a studied combination of posing and downtuning, Gass found that comedy doesn't have such a margin of error.
"I don't think you can fake funny," says Gass. "I think funny is inherently truthful. I think that's what we respond to."
Gass spent years scraping by in L.A., and his big break arrived in the form of a threat to the modest success he'd achieved. Gass and Reed were varsity members of the troupe when Jack Black joined. Gass was the troupe's designated chubby, funny guy who plays guitar, and Black was equally adept at the role. An initial rivalry gave way to the partnership of Tenacious D.
Playing alternate comedy nights and open-mic sessions, K.G. and J.B. -- as they refer to themselves in D-speak -- connected with comedian Bob Odenkirk, who soon began developing the HBO sketch comedy series Mr. Show. Odenkirk invited the D to be part of the show, and while their act ultimately didn't fit, Odenkirk helped create their own series, which led to an album, a big-hall concert tour, a DVD, and an in-development movie. Looking at his varied performance experience, Gass sees a common denominator in show-stopping performances.
"I think it happens when you're connecting with the audience, when you're aware what's happening," says Gass. "You're not doing something by rote or indulging yourself, but really caring about the entertainment value. At some point, you have to captivate the crowd, or they won't come back. Playing guitar, I do a couple hammer-on tricks that look way more impressive than they really are. But coming from acting and theater, I always thought it was really important to look like I really knew what I was doing."
Gass continues to convincingly fake faking it in Trainwreck. The Wreck is on a roll while the D's J.B. films King Kong in Australia. The script for the Tenacious D movie, The Pick of Destiny, is nearing completion. Before the film enters production, the Wreck plans to follow its live debut with a studio album, which is being produced by John D of the Dust Brothers (Beck, the Beastie Boys). And the band is in talks with HBO to produce a reality-based series. Laughing, Gass describes the show's secret premise as "crazy and zany."
Closing live gigs with a cover of Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business," the Wreck shows that the band might not be serious, but it's real.
"It's pretty energetic," says Gass of the Wreck's live show. "Once it starts, it really barrels along and gets a good momentum. We're the Cheap Trick of hillbilly music. And the bar's not that high, so I think we jump over it with ease."
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