Taken from the December 2009 interview of Dazed & Confused:
Before Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, before the ultra-violent Guns N’Roses album art of Robert Williams, before Chris Cuninngham’s twisted Aphex Twin videos and before WWF, there was Gwar – a troupe of crack-addicted, heavy metal extra-terrestrials, who, beneath their grotesque rubber and latex costumes, remain among the most hopelessly underappreciated art school dropouts of our time.
In a career spanning 25 gory years, Gwar have never had a radio hit, yet their meticulously-wrought horror movie aesthetic, DIY art-punk philosophy and anarchist leanings have inspired and amused countless artists and musicians, paving the way for shock rock acts like Marilyn Manson, Slipknot, White Zombie and Lordi.
Al Jourgensen of Ministry claims Gwar changed his life; legendary Alien artist HR Giger was so blown away by Gwar that he invited the whole band to his house, and he still goes to see them play every time they visit Switzerland; Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra has repeatedly allowed himself to be “killed” on stage by Gwar; and Debbie Harry once gifted the band an axe, upon which she’d scrawled “keep on hacking”. But despite their devoted hardcore fans (2,000 or so diehard Gwar fans calling themselves “Bohabs” follow the band to each show), success has always remained tantalisingly out of Gwar’s reach.
The reason? They’re gross. Too crass to be commercial, Gwar know nothing of taste, social taboo, or decorum. Their onstage antics have included ass-fucking the Pope with a crucifix, dismembering tragic child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey, and tossing around a mangled effigy of Princess Diana barely a day after her death. Regular characters to appear in their gory slapstick shtick have included an intergalactic Klansman named “Cardinal Syn”, “Jitler” (a cross between Jesus and Hitler) and a character called Flopsy the “Cunt Face Boy” who, as his name suggests, has a vagina for a face. Death camp jokes are de rigeur, and in their ongoing 25th anniversary tour, Gwar routinely behead and skullfuck Barack Obama.
Unsurprisingly, some people just don’t get Gwar – the Spanish and Italians, for example. Germany, on the other hand, is fanatical about Gwar. The band also enjoy a sizeable UK following, even though much of their British tour was cancelled in 1990 after MPs complained about them eating live babies and having sex with animals on stage. "Can you believe they actually thought we ate real babies?" marvels Dave Brockie, Gwar's wild-eyed, pathologically creative lead singer. "I think the tabloids were actually disappointed when they showed up and realised it was all rubber dolls and make-up."
Each show night, with the help of a little latex and red food colouring, Brockie transforms himself in to Oderus Urungus, scumdog of the universe and leader of Gwar. A demonic fiend with horns, piggish snout and scarlet skin who appears to have been doused in battery acid, Oderus has a touch of the leather daddy about him, sporting a chest harness, giant studded cuffs, and shoulder pads. From his leather jockstrap protrudes his rotting, pendulous phallus. “Oderus’s dick – it is just so gross,” says Brockie. “I just added another scrotum to it and the lower half of a baby torso – it’s the weirdest thing ever. Every night I blow at least two loads out of it and I can’t believe people still enjoy it. They are like, ‘Let me lick your cum!’ Weird.”
Indeed, every Gwar show reaches a disgusting climax when Oderus’s appendage, called the “Cuttlefish of Cthulhu”, spews vile, creamy gunk over the audience. Even after 25 years, fans still can’t get enough of being drenched in fake blood, cum, and baby entrails. But being reliably scatological has come at a price. Gwar have lost merchandise deals, been banned in both their hometown and the state of North Carolina, played shows that have resulted in clubs being shut down and legal battles with the cops, and been kicked out of the Grammy Awards ceremony (even though they were nominees) thanks to their steadfastly disturbed sensibility. “We have more to do with the circus than the typical concept of a rock’n’roll band,” says Brockie, who was once arrested for simulating sex with a priest. “Because of that we haven’t enjoyed a lot of commercial success.”
So extreme is the shock element of Gwar that their actual music – all thunderous, doom-laden riffs, catchy metal hooks and occasional moments of sweet melody – is often overlooked. The music press, in general, dismiss them as circus freaks with limited talent. “Our show is so fucking good and over-the-top, it makes it hard to pay attention to the music,” says Brockie by means of explanation. “But if the music sucked, Gwar would have lasted no more than one record!” In fact, they recently released their 11th album, and plan to release a 12th around Halloween 2010.
Rolling Stone, Spin and other mainstream rock magazines tend to ignore them, and MTV, back when it played music videos, maintained an ambivalent attitude towards the band. The few times they did make it on MTV were in episodes of Beavis And Butthead. Gwar happens to be Beavis and Butthead’s favorite band, which tells you a lot right there. “Thing is, people look at Gwar and tell us, ‘You’re awesome – now let’s get rid of the penises and the death camp jokes, and then we can make money from it!’” says Brockie, “But we won’t do that. What gave us our notoriety is also what stunts our growth.”
It’s a shame, because behind the filth and the apparent failure to break through lies a truly inspiring artistic model. Gwar is just one element of a committed art collective know as Slave Pit Inc, whose broader creative vision is a many-headed hydra encompassing film, fine art, music and comic books (not to mention the destruction of the human race).
The vision was born in 1984 in Richmond, Virginia, a conservative, crime-ridden tobacco town two hours south-west of Washington DC. Steeped in the blood of slain Native Americans and Civil War revolutionaries, this small Southern city and former slavery hub enjoyed one of the highest murder rates in the United States around the time Gwar started to take shape.
Spiralling economic depression meant warehouse space around the city’s industrial centre was dirt cheap and art students set up camp in The Richmond Dairy, a former milk bottling plant complete with giant white bottle facades. Among the residents were Hunter Jackson and Chuck Varga, who built a production space called “The Slave Pit” in the Dairy, the intention being to film Hunter’s opus, an alien barbarian movie called Scumdogs Of The Universe. Meanwhile, art student Dave Brockie, a gifted painter and vocalist for the punk band Death Piggy was also living in the Dairy, and soon enough Brockie, Jackson and Varga would merge their twisted
“I got back on stage completely naked and started driving golf balls at the audience” – Oderus Urungus
Imaginations, blending the sound of Death Piggy and the crazed aesthetic of Hunter’s Scumdogs to create Gwar. The Slave Pit art collective’s manifesto outlined a clear aim – to encourage “a group mentality” at all times. This communal approach was what they believed would ultimately allow each of their individual creative goals to come to life.
Repulsed by the Reagan administration, censorship, and organised religion, and inspired by Mad magazine, hot rod artist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, and KISS, Gwar evolved from a collection of drunk and disorderly art punks wearing Hunter’s crazy barbarian costumes and having pie fights on stage into a finely-tuned theatre of the absurd, complete with their own special-effects workshop and a series of devoted art student interns or “slaves”, many of who became long-running performers in Gwar’s live stage show.
Their “one for all and all for one” approach has resulted in a giant body of darkly humorous output encompassing all media – Gwar have released almost as many full-length videos as they have albums, including “Phallus In Wonderland”, “Skulhed Face”, and “Dawn Of The Day Of The Night Of The Penguin”. They had a (now defunct) comic book series, and became expert prop and set designers, so much so that their members have lectured on special effects techniques at prestigious art schools on the East Coast. Gwar curated a gallery show in Richmond called The Art Of Gwar, and their aesthetic is cited as an influence by contemporary artists young and old. Bob Gorman, a long-running Gwar stage performer (Flopsy is one of his many incarnations) recalls meeting Matthew Barney in 2001 on the set of Barney’s Cremaster 3 at the Guggenheim museum in New York. “So Matthew Barney comes in and he’s naked and he’s doing his thing, then someone says, ‘This is Bobby from Gwar,’” says Gorman. “He stopped filming, came over and said, ‘I really love Gwar!’ He didn’t have to do that.”
Gwar has an intricately detailed, many chaptered “mythos”, or story, behind the weirdness, featuring a cast of literally hundreds of characters. Brockie, speaking as Oderus, explains: “Gwar are a bunch of intergalactic overlord zombie-like demons from outer space who were marooned on Earth many millions of years ago.” Key members, aside from Oderus, are Beefcake The Mighty, Flattus Maximus, Balsac The Jaws Of Death, Jizmak Da Gusha and of course, their manager, Sleazy P Martini. Song titles include “Sick Of You”, “Bring Back The Bomb”, “Fishfuck” and “Saddam A Go-Go”.
“We like cities that are close to art schools and that produce high-grade crack cocaine – and Richmond has both,” says Oderus of Gwar’s 25-year home base. Unfortunately, the band’s affection for the city was not always mutual, and in 1994, the city of Richmond banned Gwar. “We were opening up for ourselves as a band called the X-Cops and I walked off the edge of the stage and got a concussion,” recalls Brockie of that fateful night. “So I was acting like a freak. I got back on stage completely naked and started driving golf balls at the audience. They closed the club down and there was an unofficial ban on us for five years or so.”
“As soon as we got in (The Grammys) we threw on the outfits. We were just about to be seated when a phalanx of security rolled in and threw us out. We did see Michael Jackson though. That was cool” – Dave Brockie
Gwar found its first intern/slave in the shape of a soldier who was stationed at a base in nearby Norfolk, Virginia. He stumbled upon a Gwar show and went AWOL from the army so he could devote his life to the band. That intensity of reaction is typical – people tend to either love or loathe Gwar. Brockie recalls being arrested in Athens, Georgia in 1992 after he buggered Pope John Paul II with a crucifix on stage. “Backstage, I was taking off my costume and all I had left on was my dick. There was a voice behind me saying, ‘Hey Dave,’ and I turned around just wearing the penis and there were the cops. They took a picture.” Brockie and his penis were arrested, but they got their own back. A few Gwar fans at the show, who happened to be law students, subsequently helped Gwar sue the Athens police force with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. Gwar won the case, and visited the Athens police headquarters in full costume to accept their cheque for compensation. In a moment
of uncharactersitic niceness, Gwar donated all the money to charity. Despite being kept at arm’s length by the mainstream, Gwar have enjoyed a few notable mentions, such as their first Grammy nomination in 1993 for the long-form video “Phallus In Wonderland”, but they were asked not to come after making less than fl attering comments about the Grammy Awards in the press. Naturally, Gwar still pulled up to the awards in a limo. “As soon as we got in there we threw on the outfits,” says Brockie. “We were just about to be seated when a phalanx of security rolled in and threw us out. We did see Michael Jackson though. That was cool.”
Gwar toured solidly through the 1990s and, after a brief hiatus around 2003, they came back in 2004 with a reinvigorated metal sound. They have been playing festivals and touring ever since, and this autumn embarked on a massive two-year celebration marking the 25th anniversary of Gwar. The success of their most recent album, Lust In Space, hints at future success, especially since Oderus has been making a name for himself as an Intergalactic Correspondent for Fox News.
It’s impossible to truly quantify what infl uence Gwar have had on popular culture, but it’s true that within a few years of their getting started, not only had KISS put their make-up back on, but you had the emergence of so-called mask bands like Slipknot, Los Straitjackets, Mushroomhead, Mudvayne and Insane Clown Posse – whom Gwar toured with this year. “That was one of the weirdest things I have ever done,” says Brockie. “Playing surrounded by 20,000 kids dressed up like clowns and tripping on acid!” Now, Gwar says it’s time for bands that have been infl uenced by them to “hook them up”. Just don’t expect them to clean up their act.
“The one thing that I have in my life that I am proudest of is that we have never backed off,” says Brockie. He even sees Gwar continuing after he dies. “It would be nice to adopt some 12-year-old foster home kid that is totally ripped and make him the Son of Gwar. Then I can hang out on a desk recliner and he can deposit cheques into my account. But that won’t be for a while… I have a chunk of shows in me yet.”