Interview and Photos by: David Thrower
Life is full of surprises. Having suspected my interview with Kyle, head honcho of The Kyle Gass Band and one-half of Tenacious D would never happen, following a day of rescheduling and promises, I found myself being led into the Gass-man’s hotel bedroom by drummer Tim ‘Bones’ Spier. Spier, having presented his guitarist/vocalist/recorder-ist (and boss) with a ham sandwich, soon departed while I settled down on the bed beside a freshly showered Gass (something I never thought I’d write, let alone do) and finally managed to hold a conversation at the end of what had been a long day for the pair of us.
“Yeah, but it’s fun,” Kyle said, adding that he’d get tired after we were through chatting. After all, he informed me, he is an old man.
The Kyle Gass Band may only be a slight departure for Kyle from his higher-paying role with Tenacious D alongside Jack Black but the sound is bigger, brighter and far more southern than you might expect. Two albums down the line, the latest being the highly under-appreciated ‘Thundering Herd’, bristle with an Allman Brothers energy complete with enough humor to outlast the playground jocularity of other acts.
“I think you’re handicapped when you get the comedy rap,” Kyle explained, “but, the fact is, the songs are good, the players are great and if you like rock then you’re probably gonna like us. It’s like going to see a great string quartet – you’re gonna like it if they’re all good players.”
As for the jokes, they are still there, but they take somewhat of a backseat to the music.
“The music is a little more upfront,” Kyle agreed. “It also reflects the players in the band. Sometimes I feel like I’ve got my headphones on and I’ve got the two guitar guys from Thin Lizzy or something playing and I love that! As a fan, I’m a fan of my own band.”
On a tour that sees the band take in, let’s say, the more intimate venues, Kyle informed me that at one point the UK had not even been on the cards as far as the booking agent was concerned.
“We don’t do good in London, but we said, ‘we don’t do good in LA or Chicago or New York’,” Kyle informed me. “We don’t do good in big cities – no-one cares about rock. We do really well in Germany and have been to France for the first time, and they were really down with it, so I said let’s do the UK. I know there are a lot of Tenacious D fans there so we could definitely do enough. Sometimes you have to stand on your own merits. So far so good.”
“Tenacious D will always be the day job and has allowed me to do The Kyle Gass Band,” he added. “I can come over and get maybe 100 people to see what I’m doing because of Tenacious D but Jack likes to do other things and make movies while I like to gig more than he does. So, this is a chance for me to sing lead once in a while, talk to the audience and ‘do my thing’ and I like that, being more the front man. And I do love playing the clubs – we started out as Tenacious D playing the smaller places so it’s great to go back to that. A rock ‘n’ roll band today needs all the help it can get – people aren’t tripping over themselves anymore. People want to see backing tracks and young pop vocalists, stuff I’m not really interested in, so anything that can help ‘the rock’…”
Prior to our conversation, the band had graced the circular stage at Satan’s Hollow in Manchester, a venue Kyle described as ‘Thunderdome’ such is the proximity of the fan to the band, a dedicated rock/metal venue where the big, red man himself watches over proceedings. As only the second date on their tour, I asked Kyle how the previous night’s opener in Glasgow had gone down.
“The guys are great musicians,” he said, “but a lot of times great musicians don’t want to rehearse – they’re like ‘we play gigs all the time!’. So, that was kind of a rehearsal last night but it was a really good rehearsal. It’s kinda fun to get the juices flowing on stage when you haven’t played the songs in a while so there’s a freshness to them which you lose after the third or fourth week.”
As for the setlist, the band approaches the evening with an open mind as Kyle is quick to point out.
“Because we don’t rehearse we start off with a very familiar set and then gradually we’ll throw in stuff – you’ve got to keep yourself stimulated out there. Like tonight, I started playing some Backstreet [Boys – ‘I Want It That Way’] and everyone went crazy. That is one of those songs that’s got a zeitgeist in the cultural lexicon – like ‘Over the Rainbow’ or something.”
The set also included a stunning version of the Steely Dan classic ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ as well as a couple of surprising numbers sung by the drummer ‘Bones’ – ‘I Want You Back’ by The Jacksons and ‘Black or White’ by Michael Jackson. Music, it would appear, has always been a part of Kyle’s life.
“I have two brothers,” he explained, “and it was kind of a family tradition that you picked your instrument when you were growing up as a child. I was the last one so I picked the flute and then my brother said, ‘you know, you’ll never get laid playing the flute’ so I switched to guitar.”
“Whatever you grow up with – I think that stays with you,” Kyle explained. “You keep going back to that even if times change and styles change and I can’t escape the seventies.”
And his thoughts on that period?
“It was a watershed time,” Kyle continued. “Heavy rock was coming, the singer-songwriter stuff, and was magical. Much like Shakespeare and the Renaissance, I think the sixties and the seventies were a special time for rock and will live on. It’s easy [to say that] because we’re of that generation but I can listen to it subjectively and say the melodies in the arc of rock were coming into their own. In the early sixties, it was a little simpler and hadn’t really found itself but then the Beatles changed everything!”
Considering the seventies gave birth to so many styles and genres it seems inconceivable that such dramatic changes could ever happen again in a relatively short period of time.
“Never say never,” Kyle said. “It does need to re-invent but I dare say it would be unusual. Art, in general, is a re-invention. Shakespeare was re-inventing Greek plays and, in turn, we’re re-inventing Shakespeare. The way we play [seventies material] is a little peppier but it’s real people playing real instruments. It sounds weird to say but that’s almost a quaint and old-fashioned notion.”
His passion for music is evident, not only by his sitting up on the bed to underline his feelings but also by the tone of his voice.
“I’m old and old-fashioned,” Kyle admitted, “but to me, it’s about expression and communication. Certainly now. Over here ‘across the pond’, there does seem to be more interest in that – people seem to like it more. We’re not coming over here because it’s inexpensive but in the States, it’s just Bieber, Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift; the pop and urban rap and DJs have kind of taken over, which is fine, but right now we can’t really make a living in our home.”
“Since the British invasion, we’ve had this back and forth between us and it’s a beautiful thing. Considering your size, the influence you’ve had is…I mean, we’re huge and have a bazillion people and you’re just this little island but, man, the impact! If you take the Beatles, Zeppelin, the Stones and The Who, if you just take those four, that is a compendium of rock. That to me is the blueprint of just about everything of rock from that time and it’s all [from the UK]! The Beatles reinvented our stuff, the Chuck Berry stuff, and made it better and we didn’t even realize it could be better, and then the Stones and The Who had the live energy. So, the Brits? Hats off.”
As our time together drew to a close Kyle took the opportunity to ‘out’ himself.
“And then being in Manchester,” he said. “Fuck, I’m a closet Oasis fan but you can’t tell anybody in the States as they fucking hate Oasis. Everyone in the States says they’re just Beatles knock-offs and I’m like, well, if you’re going to copy someone why wouldn’t you copy the greatest songwriting team ever. If you’re going to play basketball you’re gonna try to play like Michael Jordan. Right?”
The Kyle Gass Band will be back on these shores come July to appear at the Ramblin’ Man Fair so leave all your preconceptions at the door (tent flap?) and enjoy what will no doubt surprise the hell out of you. As for Tenacious D, they are currently working on an animated show for HBO featuring new music by the band so yet again, Kyle is doing everything he can to help ‘the rock’.
The least we can do is help ‘the Gass’.