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Are we just going to watch rock and roll as it gurgles its last breath?" asks Jack Black, the raucous actor who also performs in the band Tenacious D with longtime friend and fellow actor Kyle Gass. "Or are we going to do something about it?"
Black, who memorably starred in the hit movie "School of Rock," says it's been sad to see the music he loves dying a horrible death. And he's unsure Tenacious D has all the answers. "We're not the obvious choice to be the saviors of rock," he says.
Still, a song title on the band's third album, "Rize of the Fenix," out May 15 on Columbia, proclaims "Rock Is Dead."
"That title was just so strong, very ballsy. It felt like an erect penis of a title," Black says. "We just thought, 'Is it really dead?' Well, no, but it's very, very ill." Gass chimes in: "It has pneumonia."
Certainly there are elements of humor in these comments, but Tenacious D -which has built on a decade-plus career by fusing heavy metal with comedy -does seem intent on being part of the solution instead of the problem. The duo's last disc, "The Pick of Destiny" (2006), accompanied a film of the same name and landed at No. 1 on Billboard's Rock Albums chart and No. 8 on the Billboard 200. In 2009, the group headlined San Francisco's Outside Lands festival, and such musicians as Dave Grohl and Paige McConnell contributed to previous albums. Combined sales of Destiny and the band's self-titled debut stand at 1.6 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Of course, people will ask if it's possible to make a credible rock album with such song titles as "They Fucked Our Asses."
"We don't even think of it," Black says. "The comedy is just something that comes natural to us. It's who we are. We don't write jokes. We just take subject matter we are genuinely interested in -or genuinely angry about -and just riff. It comes out funny after we send it through the Tenacious D computer."
John Kimbrough, the producer/co-writer on "Rize of the Fenix" who initially worked with the duo for MTV's 2006 Video Music Awards (hosted by Black), agrees. But he also knew his real role on the new album was to ensure the music was viable. "What I was tasked with was asking, 'Do these hang together as songs? Do they make sense? Are they interesting as well as being funny?'" Kimbrough says. "They're a great live band, so what was going on in the back of my mind was [crafting] songs which, when played live, would have a ton of energy and drive the crowd nuts."
The tracks on the new album may translate in a live setting yet radio acceptance could be elusive, mostly because the songs written by Gass and Black are, at minimum, R-rated. The solution was to produce a clean version of the disc, which offers new takes on the originals. "We replaced all of the bad words with creative clean words," Black says. "We're not big on bleeps. I know the Eminems of the world are big bleepers, but it's a lazy way to do a clean album. If you really want to go the extra mile, you make the clean album just as entertaining, without the F-bombs."
Walmart and Amazon will be carrying the clean version of the album.
Kimbrough adds, "At first, there was some resistance to doing a clean version. Like, 'Wait a minute, this is who Tenacious D is. Why would we want to do that?' You want to give the music every opportunity to be heard by every means necessary. So if there's a way to do a clean version and still make it funny and work, then why not do that? Why deprive the opportunity to have it played by a wider circle of people?"
The band has heralded its return to the music scene by releasing such celebrity-studded videos as "To Be the Best" and streamed the album on its website two weeks before release. Five videos will accompany the album, and the duo will make the late-night TV rounds before touring Europe and the United States this summer.
So will fans hear "Low Hangin' Fruit" - a song Black wrote during "the only time we ever thought about radio" - on the airwaves?
Alternative WRFF Philadelphia PD/morning host John Allers, who regularly plays Tenacious D's debut single, "Tribute," says the new album's clean version bolsters the group's chances for airplay.
"We'll play it if it's good, even if we have to edit it ourselves," he says. "So the band's clean version makes it easier for us, and helps them sanitize in a way they approve."
Which means that the circle Kimbrough spoke of may, in fact, widen. But there's only so far the band will go in order to get its new music heard.
"If you illegally download this record," Gass says, "we will personally come to your house and take you to jail."
The Very Dirty Version of "Roadie":