Jack Black: On Music, Mayhem And Murder
This interview was originally broadcast on April 23, 2012.
Actor Jack Black is best known for his comedic performances in films like Nacho Libre and School of Rock. In his film Bernie, Black goes to a darker place: He plays a serious small-town funeral director who murders his live-in companion, a wealthy widow played by Shirley MacLaine.
The film is based on a true story. In 1996, 39-year-old Bernie Tiede of Carthage, Texas, murdered his 81-year-old companion, Marjorie Nugent, shooting her in the back four times with a rifle. A lengthy Texas Monthly article about the case notes that "what made the story peculiar was that Mrs. Nugent had been dead for almost nine months before people began searching for her. What made the story truly bizarre was the way many of the townspeople rallied around the 39-year-old man who had admitted to killing her and stealing her money — the soft-spoken, chubby-cheeked Tiede, the former assistant funeral director at Hawthorn Funeral Home who had gotten close to Mrs. Nugent when he supervised her husband's funeral."
Tiede, currently serving life in prison, met with Black for 45 minutes at his maximum-security prison before filming began.
"What was crucial was that he was really likable," Black tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "You could really believe that the whole town could be in love with Bernie."
Black has made a career of playing likable characters, from a substitute teacher in School of Rock to a superficial man obsessed with physical beauty in Shallow Hal. He has also simultaneously pursued a music career, performing as one-half of the satirical rock band Tenacious D.
The band's new album, Rize of the Fenix, is a heavy metal-influenced album about the power of redemption. It includes tracks like "How to Be the Best," an upbeat song reminiscent of the Flashdance theme that Black says is supposed to "inspire you to do push-ups and sit-ups and run around like Rocky."
"All those great '80s rock things — there's something so funny about that now," he says. "No one's really doing that particular brand of cheese, so we thought the world needed that right now."
The album is heavily influenced by bands like Led Zeppelin and Van Halen. Black says he grew up listening to Van Halen, but also enjoyed the vocal scat stylings of Bobby McFerrin, who became famous for his ability to sing various voices and instrumentations.
"I was obsessed with him, because I had always imagined going out on stage by myself and blowing people's minds just with the power of my singing voice," says Black. "Long before [McFerrin made] 'Don't Worry, Be Happy,' he was blowing people's minds with incredible covers of Beatles songs. ... His voice would sound like all of the different instruments."
Black says he went to every McFerrin concert he could, even running onstage when McFerrin asked for audience volunteers.
"I think I was a little too aggressive with my enthusiasm," he says. "Because he did one time tell me to tone it down. Not with words, but just with a look in his eye and a shake of his head. I knew that I had crossed the line and I wasn't supposed to be slapping my chest. That's his job."
"I don't have any real spirituality in my life — I'm kind of an atheist — but when music can take me to the highest heights, it's almost like a spiritual feeling. It fills that void for me."
On Tenacious D
"It's comedy folk rock. We're two acoustic guitars at our core and singing like Simon and Garfunkel, but then we're most heavily influenced by heavy metal bands of the '80s. And we used to make fun of the devil because the devil's influence on '80s metal is so prevalent, and now it just seems so ridiculous and hilarious. But [our] new album is more about redemption. It's a comeback-themed album."
On comedian stereotypes
"The real challenge is if you don't look super sexy, like a Brad Pitt, you're going to have to try harder. You're going to have to make up for it in other ways. You're going to have to charm the pants off them. You're going to have to make them laugh. But those are good hoops to have to jump through. You're going to have to do some writing. Let's face it, the great comedians now that are handicapped in the looks department are tremendous writers."
On his first role in a commercial for a video game
"That was my big break, my first paying gig. I was so proud of that. Before I got that commercial, I just prayed to the heavens that if I could just be on television and the kids could see me from school, that would be the answer to all my prayers and I wouldn't need anything more. And I got it. I went on the auditions, and I got the part in an Activision commercial for the Atari 2600 — the original video-game system. It was for a game called Pitfall. And I remember all the lines still, to this day. I was only 13 years old."
On Billy Joel
"I've had so many hot, cheesy, corny loves of music in my life. I had a very intense Billy Joel period. So once you've really Joeled it up — there's some good periods of Joel; it's not all hot cheese. But I can't judge anyone else for their cheese. I've deep-sea dived in the Gouda."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy New Year. Today, we conclude our series featuring a few of our favorite interviews from 2012. We'll start today's show with the interview I recorded with Jack Black last April. He's best known for his roles in "High Fidelity," "School of Rock," "Shallow Hal," "Tropic Thunder," "Nacho Libre," and the animated film "Kung Fu Panda." He's also known for his satiric, hard rock-heavy metal band Tenacious D, a duo with Kyle Gass.
In 2012, Tenacious D had a new album; Black starred this year in the movie "Bernie"; and he ended the year by presenting Led Zeppelin with a Kennedy Center honor, calling them the best band ever.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: So there's a new Tenacious D album. I'm going to ask you to describe the band Tenacious D.
JACK BLACK: Tenacious D is comedy folk-rock, is what I would say.
GROSS: Folk rock?
BLACK: And the only reason I say folk is because we're two acoustic guitars. At our core, it's just me and Kyle on acoustic guitars and singing - you know, kind of like Simon and Garfunkel. But then, we're most heavily influenced by heavy metal bands of the '80s.
We used to make fun of the devil because the devil's influence on '80s metal was so prevalent. And now, it just seems so ridiculous and hilarious. But this new album is more about redemption. It's a comeback-themed album.
GROSS: Which leads me into the title track, which I'd like to play, if it's OK with you.
GROSS: Yeah, so this is "Rize of the Fenix," the title track, and it's the story of your band, Tenacious D, making its big comeback. And it's a tribute to, you know, a lot of heavy metal music of the '80s. Do you want to say anything else to introduce it?
BLACK: No, I think it speaks for itself. We're - it's in reference to our last album, which was a soundtrack to our movie "The Pick of Destiny." And it didn't do well in the box office scores, and it didn't do well with the critics. And this is our triumphant comeback to say, you know, you can't kill us.
GROSS: OK, so here's Jack Black and his band, Tenacious D.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIZE OF THE FENIX")
BLACK: (Singing) When "The Pick of Destiny" was released, it was a bomb. And all the critics said that the D was done. The sun had set, and the chapter had closed, but one thing no one thought about was the D would rise again, just like the phoenix will rise again.
(Singing) 'Cause the fiery heart of a champion cannot be squelched by a failure or an embarrassment; no way, no. And the critics all agreed it was a stinky pile of cheese, but that does not mean that our hearts are not strong. Just like the phoenix, we'll rise again. Just like the phoenix, we'll rise again.
(Singing) Sunshine, it's a hell of a day...
GROSS: That's Jack Black's band, Tenacious D. What are some of your favorite things about heavy metal voices and the things that they - you know, like the really like, big, dramatic flourishes?
BLACK: Well, in general, in the vocals department, what I appreciate is glory.
BLACK: I was thinking about this the other day. And it's not just heavy metal but, you know, hard rock in general. I like to include my brothers from The Who and Led Zeppelin. But if they can take me on a journey through the clouds - I don't have any real spirituality in my life; I'm kind of an atheist. But when music can take me to the highest heights, it's almost like a spiritual feeling. It fills that void for me.
GROSS: But what about like, certain - just - like, vocal flourishes, like the - excuse me for embarrassing myself here - like the rise again thing.
BLACK: Oh, that.
BLACK: That was just me showing off. I wanted to show that I've got the chops, and I wanted to take my voice on a rollercoaster ride.
You know, that's just flexing in the mirror; vocal flex.
GROSS: So is that one of the things you love about, like, hard rock - is that, you know, the bigness of it?
BLACK: I do love the bigness. And it feels almost primal. It feels like we're Native Americans around the fire. Before there was - big buildings and cars and civilization, there was just the power of a voice singing to the heavens.
GROSS: One of the tracks, "To Be the Best," is almost like a parody of "Flashdance" - of the songs from "Flashdance."
BLACK: It is. I mean, that was a song that we did almost - that was the last song that we added to the album because we felt we needed one more song that fit the theme - which was, you know, the rise of the phoenix; the comeback. And we needed a song that sounded like something that would inspire you to do push-ups and sit-ups, and run around like Rocky.
BLACK: You know, like "Eye of the Tiger" and all those great, '80s rock things - you can do it if you believe in yourself. There's something so funny about that now. No one's really doing that kind of particular brand of cheese.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BE THE BEST")
BLACK: (Singing) To be the best, we've got to pass the test. We gotta make it all the way to the top of the mountain. We can do it again. To feel the high, we've got to learn to fly. We've got to take it to the sky on the wings of an eagle. You're the best in the world.
(Singing) You are the best, but you say you don't know. You got the touch, now come on let it show. You call the shots, but you know that you gots to believe in the things that you're dreaming. Your search for the meaning is very revealing. The power of being is what you're feeling. You gotta believe that you're simply the best.
GROSS: That's Jack Black and his band, Tenacious D. So when you were, say, a teenager, who did you fantasize - yourself - as being like? If you could've been in any band, which band would it have been?
BLACK: Well, I had two sides of myself. There was the yin and yang of my musical tastes. I had Van Halen on one side, and then I had Bobby McFerrin on the other side - the hard rock, and then the jazz. Both of them had a certain type of cheese to them. And when I mixed them together in my laboratory, that's sort of what I became - a mixture of the vocal stylings of the jazz-scat master, with the bombast and power of the hard rocker.
GROSS: Who else was in your jazz side?
BLACK: OK, now you're going to reveal me to be not that deep on the jazz.
GROSS: Was Bobby McFerrin out there all by himself?
BLACK: OK, he was all by himself.
GROSS: But nevertheless influential.
BLACK: Yeah. But I was obsessed with him, I would go so far as to say, because I had always imagined myself going out on stage by myself, and blowing people's minds just with the power of my singing voice. Now, I'm revealing too much about my ambitions, but...
GROSS: No, and Bobby McFerrin was probably most famous - was definitely most famous for "Don't Worry, Be Happy." But because he could do different voices when he sang - he could, like, back himself up - it almost sounded like he did several voices at the same time. But he could sing different parts. He could sing in different voices. So it was kind of like having a whole vocal group in this, like, one man.
BLACK: Yeah. Long before "Don't Worry, Be Happy," he was blowing people's minds with incredible covers of, like, Beatles songs. He did an unbelievable version of "Blackbird."
GROSS: Right. Didn't he do, like, percussion by tapping on himself, too?
BLACK: Yes. He would slap on his chest, and that would sound like the drums. But it would also affect his voice. (Vocalizing and tapping) I'm not going to do it justice so I won't even try now, but there was a time...
GROSS: I can just tell by that, that you - you were - you did him in your room.
BLACK: Whenever he came to town - oh, yeah. Whenever he came to town, I would be there. I would be at the concerts. And whenever he asked for volunteers from the audience, I would be running as fast as I could to the stage.
GROSS: Did you make it onstage?
BLACK: I did. I did make it onstage, and I think I was a little too aggressive with my enthusiasm because he did, one time, tell me to tone it down - not with words, but just with a look in his eye and a little shake of his head. I knew that I had crossed the line, and I wasn't supposed to be slapping my chest. That's his job.
BLACK: I was just going to do what he told me.
GROSS: You said one time as if, like, you did this many times - running onstage and performing with him.
BLACK: I've been onstage with McFerrin more than once. He wouldn't remember. I was just one of the thousands that have been on the stage, you know. I did want to be part of his Voicestra.
GROSS: I can't help be reminded of your movie "School of Rock," listening to this, in which you play a musician who is kicked out of his own rock band because he's so annoying, and then you end up being a substitute teacher and you want your students to like, love rock, so you're teaching them all about rock. And you want them to form a rock band that you will lead. And you're trying to give them like, an education about rock, you're trying to teach them how to channel their anger into like, writing songs and performing songs. So let's hear a clip of that scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SCHOOL OF ROCK")
GROSS: (as Dewey Finn) All right. Now, is everyone nice and pissed off?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (as characters) Yeah.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) Good. Time to write a rock song. Now, what makes you mad more than anything in the world? Billy.
BRIAN FALDUTO: (as Billy) You.
BLACK: Billy, we've already told me off. Let's move on.
FALDUTO: (as Billy) You're tacky, and I hate you.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) OK, you see me after class. You, Gordon.
ZACHARY INFANTE: (as Gordon) No allowance.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) (Singing) I didn't get no allowance today. So now I'm really ticked off.
(as Dewey Finn) You know what I mean? What else makes you mad? Michelle?
JORDAN-CLAIRE GREEN: (as Michelle) Chores.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) (Singing) I had to do my chores today. So I am really ticked off.
(as Dewey Finn) What else?
JOEY GAYDOS: (as Zack) Bullies.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) (Singing) All you bullies get out of my way because I am really ticked off.
(as Dewey Finn) So what would you say to a bully? Zack?
GAYDOS: (as Zack) I don't know.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) No, come on. If someone was right up in your grill, what would you say?
GAYDOS: (as Zack) I don't know.
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) If someone was pushing you around, telling you what to do, what would you say?
GAYDOS: (as Zack) Step off?
BLACK: (as Dewey Finn) (Singing) Step off! Step off! Step off! Step off! - everybody.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (as characters) (Singing) Step off! Step off! Step off!
GROSS: That's great. That's Jack Black in "School of Rock." I love your heavy metal falsetto. It's such a key part of those bands.
BLACK: I look forward to, someday, my Vegas show - where I do excerpts of all the highlights of my career. I will definitely do a "Step Off." I can see it, in my golden years.
GROSS: Now, you know how in the scene of "School of Rock" that we've just heard, you were telling the kids to basically channel their anger and frustration, and turn it into music; did you do that when you were a teenager - you know, like, try to channel your anger and frustration into music?
BLACK: I did use music as an outlet. And I did like to sing and make music into my four-track. I had a four-track recorder in like, 10th grade, I got my first one. My Tascam Porta 05 - anybody out there that remembers those machines.
And I loved just to sing as hard and as loud as I could - and harmony. It was like a release. It was kind of like a form of therapy. It's like scream therapy.
GROSS: What about acting in high school?
BLACK: Yeah. I was real involved in the theater program in high school, and I was in a lot of musical theater. And that's, I guess, where my music and my acting started to mix.
GROSS: So what was your favorite role that you played in a musical?
BLACK: Well, it's got to be "Pippin." That was my best one. But we also did a production of a Bertolt Brecht play called "The Caucasian Chalk Circle." And I played Azdak, the kind of anarchistic judge in a land that was sort of in turmoil. That was a kind of a heavy play to do in high school. It was pretty advanced.
But I had a blast, and I overcame a lot of fears. I remember I was so scared opening night, when we were supposed to do our first performance for all the parents, that I just called my teacher and said, I'm not doing the play. And he said, just come meet me at the diner. And so I met him at the diner that day.
And he talked me into it, said don't worry about failing; it's going to be fine. You know, it is what it is. It's an experience. You're going to learn from it. I was like, OK. And I did it. And I was so filled with fear and adrenaline that I gave probably my best performance of my life that day.
And it's a lesson that I've carried with me - that just because I'm terrified doesn't mean that I shouldn't do it. You know, and a lot of times I'll want to turn down a role or something because I'm scared of what it is, or that I won't do it well, and people will judge me. And then I have to say, eh, remember high school? You were scared of Azdak.
And I'll - more often than not - do it if I think that the fear is based in just cowardice as opposed to something that I really shouldn't do.
GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with actor and musician Jack Black. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to the interview I recorded with actor and musician Jack Black last April. Your breakout role was "High Fidelity." And "High Fidelity," based on the novel by Nick Hornby, is set in a record store. You're one of the guys who works in the store. And you judge everybody - customers, your fellow workers - based on their taste in music. How did you get the role?
BLACK: Well, John Cusack was a friend from the Actors' Gang Theater Company - because he and Tim Robbins were tight buddies. And they were real...
GROSS: This is the theater company that you first worked in, when you were getting started. Yeah.
BLACK: That's right. Out of - yeah, out of college. Actually, as far back as my senior year in high school, I was aware of them. So John had seen my work at the Actors' Gang, and then he saw me do Tenacious D. And he said: I want him to play Barry in "High Fidelity." And I wrestled with it for a while; I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it.
BLACK: Because I was afraid. I was afraid people were going to judge me. But yes, but I was coming up with other reasons. I was like yeah, man, no, I'm not going to talk about music like that. That's not cool. You don't just talk about Kurt Cobain.
And you know, there was a few lines in the script that ruffled my feathers because, you know, there were certain things that you just don't name; you don't say those words out loud. They're too cool to be spoken out loud. But then once I got over the fact that it wasn't really the lines in the script but the fact that, you know, I was going to be on a bigger stage than usual and that I would be judged, I realized that I had to face my demons and go into the battle.
And I had that same kind of fear, adrenaline, going like I did in high school, in my first play. And I just acted my butt off. It was a transforming experience.
GROSS: Well, Stephen Frears directed that film. He's a very good director - I mean, judging as a viewer. Did he help you through your fear?
BLACK: Stephen was a great director, and he didn't tell me very much. He was very sparing with his praise. Like, I would try my hardest, and I was just doing anything to try to get his approval. You know, it was almost like a father figure. I wanted him to love me and love my performance.
So I was just diving through hoops and setting myself on fire and doing everything I could to wow him. And he wouldn't say anything. He would just say, all right, that's good; let's go to the next scene. And there was something about that that drove me crazy and sent me to higher heights. There's something to be said for the denial of praise - sometimes, that's the best kind of direction.
GROSS: And you know, your character in "High Fidelity" is very - kind of belligerent and crude. And at the end, he's going to perform and everyone who knows him thinks, like, this is going to be really embarrassing. And you end up being great. You perform Marvin Gaye's "Let Get It On" and just sing it really soulfully and with genuine feeling, which nobody knows - nobody knew you had.
BLACK: Yeah. They wanted me to sing a different song, initially. They wanted me to do a Marvin Gaye song - you know that one...
(Singing) I used to go out to parties, dance till dawn. Can't we get to something...
I can't remember the name of the song, but it didn't have the punch that "Let's Get it On" had. And I was like, guys, let me just rock "Let's Get It On." I can really sink my teeth into that one. And they were like, OK, sure. But then when it came time to do it, I kind of froze up. I got a little scared.
And we did it, and I sang it. And I was a little tentative, and it was not rocking. It just - everyone was aware that oh, this is how we're going to end the movie. Ew. And Stephen Frears came out and started yelling, but not at me. He was yelling at everyone else in the audience for not rocking more. You know, why aren't you enjoying this music more?
BLACK: And then he said, fine, Jack. Let's do it again. So he didn't yell at me - but I felt like it was all at me. And then when he said action the next time, I just, you know, I took it to another level. And then that was the take that he used in the movie.
GROSS: Jack Black, it's really been a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much.
BLACK: The pleasure was mine.
GROSS: Jack Black, recorded last April. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GET IT ON")
BLACK: (as Barry) (Singing) I've been really trying, baby, to hold onto this feeling for so long. And if you feel like I feel, sugar, come on. Wow, come on. Ooh. Let's get it on. Let's get it on. Let's love, sugar. Let's get it on. Sugar, let's get it on. Ooh. Fa-la-da-da-da-da. We are all sensitive people with so much to give... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.