GWARFrom the Slave Pit to center stage: Getting personal with Gwar
By Naughty Mickie
Photos by Jason Mills

Who would ever envision a rag tag group of art students wannabe musicians would end up being two-time Grammy Award nominees? Richmond, Virginia's Gwar formed in 1985 and forever changed the meaning of shock rock. The band is noted for its stage show during which popular culture characters are beaten, dismembered and slaughtered, as sprays of their various "bodily fluids" stream 50 feet or into the audience in an array of colors. Their show encompasses sex, violence, power, greed and other vices without flinching, as no theme is too disgusting or horrifying for Gwar.

The band's members, Oderus Urungus, Beefcake the Mighty, Balsac the Jaws of Death, Flattus Maximus and Jizmak Da Gusha, appear in wild costumes, which are a mix of horror, mythology, robots and other creatures. And their onstage assistants, as well as their massive fan base, are affectionately referred to as members of the Slave Pit. The biggest quip about this group, whose effort, "Beyond Hell" (DRT Entertainment, 2006), is as literate as it is savage, is that Gwar presents the only concert where their fans go in dressed metal and come out tie-dyed.

"There's two stories," Oderus AKA Dave Brockie says of Gwar's beginnings. "One is that we were just a bunch of pimply faced art students who were desperately looking for something to occupy our time with after flunking out or in some cases actually graduating from art college. We put together this ridiculous papier-mache and rubber monster outfit band that didn't even know how to play their instruments  the first few years; the band was the most fucked up band in the universe. Or you could say that we were formed in the cosmic muck of the birth of the universe billions of  years ago and we were banished to earth, where we ultimately became the most cheesy exploitational band in the history of the universe.

"Both of those stories are equally untrue and I'm not sure which one you should go with. It's been so goddamn long now that I don't remember how this band started." Brockie goes on, "I kind of flip around, it's been so many years. I don't really know if I am Oderus any more or if I'm not. I sit around in my Gwar costume, I sleep in it, I eat dead baby casserole and have sex with dead animals. And then I'm like, 'Wait a minute, you're taking this too seriously. You're bringing your work home with you, don't do that.'"

I ask Oderus about his childhood.

"I didn't play guitar, I played tennis racquet and jumped up and down in front of the mirror to the first Van Halen album and Ted Nugent 'Double Live Gonzo,'" Brockie responds. "That's when I decided I was going to be a rock and roller. I started out with drums, I stuck with that, I played guitar, I stuck with that, then finally I went down to four strings, played bass, was reasonably good at that, and then ultimately ended up being the lead singer of Gwar because the lead singer had a nervous breakdown on stage and ran screaming down the street throwing his costume over his shoulder, screaming, 'I'll never do that again, Rocky.' 

"Because I was such a crappy guitar player, everyone else was like, 'Just go ahead and sing Dave. You're the only one who knows the lyrics any ways.' So I finally found my niche," continues Brockie. "I didn't really want to be the lead singer, I figured he would catch more shit from the artists than anyone else in the band. I didn't really want that position, but I got it by default, so I've defended by tooth and nail for over 20 years now."

I steer him back to his childhood and when he began playing drums.

"I guess I was about 11, I was terrible." Brockie admits, "I wound up telling everyone I could play drums and actually didn't really practice then drums. One day I was watching a friend's band play and they said, 'Hey, you said you know how to play drums, our drummer didn't show up, why don't you fill in for him.' I was like, 'OK.' I got up there and everyone realized that I didn't know what I was doing and I made a fool of myself. So I figured if I was going to go around telling people I played an instrument I should try to learn it.

"I tried to do that and I just completely sucked at guitar." Brockie goes on, "But then I was in a band called Death Piggy, it was a little three piece hard-core band and I played bass and sang in that and that kind of mutated into Gwar. We were this ridiculous band that had a reputation for dressing up in stupid costumes and pouring mayonnaise down our pants.

"I met these guys who were building these crazy costumes for movie they wanted to make called 'Scumdogs of the Universe,' and I was like, 'You should let me and my band wear these costumes and we'll be this cool band called Gwwaaaarrr.' It wasn't even called Gwar back then, it had like 50 letters in the name and the rest is history.

"We started playing shows around here in Richmond, Virginia. We just did it as a joke." Brockie continues, "We would open up for Death Piggy and after doing it a few times there would be 150 people there to see Gwar and when Death Piggy would start playing everybody would leave. We were like, 'Hmmmm.' They didn't get it, but Gwar, people really got into it and people really started looking forward to our shows. We would build everything out of papier-mache and spend months preparing for a show and then we would do a show and within a half an hour everything that we built would be destroyed and broken on the floor.

"We finally figured out how to make everything out of latex rubber so it wouldn't get broken every night and piled into an old school bus that we bought and we started touring  on the East Coast. We toured the whole United States in an old school bus for four or five years. The thing did not go faster than 45 miles an hour, it had no heat and here we were touring the entire United States.

"I remember one night we played a show in Austin, Texas, got in the bus, drove for 20 hours straight, piled out and played another show in El Paso, which is about 800 miles from Austin." Brockie recalls, "We were completely insane. We didn't have any money for food. We got 10 bucks a piece to eat on and me and my friend John, he was Sexecutioner, an old character in Gwar, we bought a bunch of bologna sandwiches and put them in a paper bag and hid them under our seat, totally forgetting about this thing called refrigeration. Within a day our bologna turned into mold, but we ate it anyway, goddammit. We were so hungry on those first tours. I was driving and there was 38 cents left in gas money and I bought a bag of corn nuts and ate it in the bathroom. I was so terrified someone would catch me, I was embezzling."

Brockie attended Virginia Commonwealth University.

"I tried my best effort and somehow I ended up with a degree in painting and print making and a minor in writing, so I was able to stick with my college education. I can honestly say that the best thing I got out of college is it gave me the opportunity to meet all these other incredibly talented artists," Brockie laughs. "We never really applied a lot of the stuff we learned in college to Gwar, but it gave us an opportunity to all meet each other. State college gave me valuable experience, that and all the girls and drugs and stuff."

And like most musicians, Brockie - and the rest of Gwar - had to work a day job.

GWAR"We got into construction really quickly, actually we were more into destruction." Brockie explains, "We would tear apart old buildings and steal old boilers out of them and try to get all the old copper out of them. We were local junksters who would scavage the city for rubble that was worth money. We would drive around and load up our pickup truck with whatever we could fit into it and then go to the scrap yard and turn it all in and get about $14 for it and buy a six-pack and a thing of bologna and we were set for another day.

"It was really funny because we were all living in this abandoned milk factory, which was a place that was squatted by all these artists and musicians, and they started renovating the building so we were actually working on our own building. But that worked against us  because as soon as we were done renovating it, they kicked us all out.

"It's a real famous building in Richmond," Brockie continues. "It's got gated porcelain 80-foot tall milk bottles on the corners that actually have rooms inside of them and I went through the hierarchy of all the different people who squatted in there and finally I got cool enough that I had a room inside a milk bottle. That was one of the coolest things in my entire life."

Despite his monstrous stage appearance, Brockie has a fairly normal life.

"We try to stay active," says Brockie. "I like to snowboard. I'm a fairly avid golfer, though I've been off my game for the last year. I broke my pinky and my ball game just went to hell, so I figured I would stop playing for a while so it would get better. I like to mountain bike and I'm an avid student of history, war, carnage and art and murder. I love listening to heavy music. I love hanging out with my beautiful girlfriend slash fiancee.

"The road is such an intense experience, when you're not on it, you tend to want to make the most of the time you're away from it, but Gwar keeps us really busy." Brockie tells me, "When we're not on the road, we're back in the studio preparing madly for the next assault on the road because we try to have a new show or at least a variance of the show every time we go out. Usually I'll be touring with Gwar or I'm practicing with the band or I'm in the Slave Pit slaving on our hulking war machines."

On the surface, Gwar just seems like any other loud raucous band, but with a harder listen, you will note major themes steeped in  mythology and literature running through their lyrics.

"This last album we had an idea before we went in there, we wanted to do this big hell mythos thing and it totally dipped into a lot of classical," Brockie says. "We figured it was a great theme just because it's the whole descent into hell mythos that's one of those sister themes in literature. Every religion has its version of it and it goes back thousands of years. And we've been wanting to rip on that for a  long time.

"We came up with the story of Gwar's descent and ascent out of hell through a series of meetings, then I went off and started writing lyrics and narrative segues between the lyrical parts and the band just set about really writing wicked music. They would send me tapes or I would go to practice and start arranging the lyrics into it.

Brockie explains further, "I do a lot of the arranging by listening to the tapes because it's a lot easier for me to write that way, instead of listening to the band playing the song over and over again, 'Hey, could you play that part again' five times. I'll do the whole thing on my laptop and have all the songs on my hard drive and listen to them all and throw them around in different sequences and finally when I get the lyrics all written out I'll start going to practices and we'll start working on the performance of it and we'll start throwing in backup vocals.

"That's when we have enough time to do everything we want to." continues Brockie. "Of course what usually happens is you do about half the album that way and then you run out of time and you're hastily scribbling lyrics five seconds before you actually record them. That happens as well. Sometimes some of the best records of Gwar songs were ones that I actually would write and arrange on the day we were recording them."

We discuss Gwar's latest, "Beyond Hell."

"People are stoked about it," boasts Brockie. "We've been going around with a huge chip on our shoulder the last few years. We get these criticisms about Gwar, 'Oh the stage show's so cool, but it totally overshadows their music, they can't play their instruments, blah, blah, blah.' And that's just a bunch of crap, if anything our band is one of the tightest groups around because they play really good metal while wearing all that crap.

"We decided we were going to listen to our critics about three albums ago and, OK let's take it up a notch, let's really challenge ourselves with what we're doing, let's not write so many comedy-related songs, so many parody songs. We know Gwar is always going to be funny, there's no way we can't be funny, but we tried writing some more serious metal and it's really done well for us." Brockie goes on, "The last three albums have been in that vein and as a result we've been having a lot of success because it seems that the metal community has re-embraced us. Before for a good long stretch there, a lot of people who are into serious metal thought Gwar was just too silly or even worse was making fun of them, they have accepted us because our metal has reached thunderous new levels of proficiency."

I wonder what the secret is to Gwar's staying power.

"An overwhelming fear of having to get real jobs," Brockie states with a grin. "But also I attribute it to the power of the idea itself, we didn't know when we created Gwar just how big a monster it would be and every year that we go out on tour, we've sold out shows and there's thousands of  people who are completely into what we do.

"It's just become like a little niche in American metal and pop culture in general-- everybody knows who Gwar is. We've always been the loveable underdogs of performance rock, we've never really fit in with anybody, we don't go in any particular genre, we pretty much are a metal band even though a lot of metal people wouldn't want to claim us as part of the family. We're the weird mutant cousin of metal that lives out by the woodpile. I think that underdog status keeps us going  because we've never been a huge gigantic success, but we've always been a non-presence on the underbelly of music and nobody can escape our wrath.

"We're like justice to people." Brockie continues, "Some people get away with murder, but then you go to see a Gwar show and there's George Bush up on stage getting his head chopped off and it's like we're champions of the downtrodden masses. That and a thousand other reasons, Gwar is just good, clean, American fun and the sense of humor as well, I think, keeps people coming back. Some of these bands take themselves so seriously, Gwar is not afraid to laugh at anything or anyone, including themselves. And often we do that, you have to if you do this for a living. Those are the only reasons I keep doing it, it keeps it interesting and fun for me and also I guess there's always a feeling that there's something bigger for Gwar waiting around the corner, something we haven't done.

Brockie begins listing, "We haven't done a feature-length film, we haven't done a computer game yet, we've never gone to Japan and every now and then we'll get a whiff of those things and who knows, maybe one of these days all or some of those things are going to come true. We want to bring this thing as far as we can, but if it ever felt to us like it was getting stale, you can feel when people are getting sticky, people stop coming and people stop buying the records, the phone stops ringing, you can pretty much tell when your time is over. So far that time hasn't come for Gwar."

I push Brockie to divulge how he created Oderus.

"I got a lot of aspects of what I saw of the typical lead singer and mushed them all together and I also took a lot of elements from horror," Brockie shares. "I pretty much modeled Oderus on Satan. Take a look at Oderus' face and he pretty much is a rip on Satan. But the way he looks comes from a really obscure movie I loved when I was a kid called 'Mark of the Demon.' It's all about these weird sorcerers in England who are all trying to kill each other and it's made in the '50s. One puts this rune on a paper and slips it into your pocket and you don't know it's there and the demon uses that rune to come to Earth and kill you. He only appears a few times in the movie and you don't really see his face until the very last scene. It's fucking horrible and it looks just like Oderus with that big pig nose and the big devil horns and the big pointy ears and the big beard and everything.

GWAR"I kind of modeled him after that way that creature looked and then I just threw in equal parts of Robert Plant and Conan the Barbarian and Iggy Pop. Frankenfurter from 'Rocky Horror' was a definite big. I wanted to have a kind of sexuality to him beyond his dick hanging out, so I gave the Frankenfurter fishnets as part of his personality.

"Various other people from Gwar helped me get the different elements together." Brockie goes on, "I remember Hunter Jackson, one of the original members of Gwar, had the idea for the World War I style shoulder pads. I just figured we had a really powerful character there, how could you go wrong with this package? He's boisterous, he's loud, he's arrogant, he's obnoxious, he's very talented, but he's such an obnoxious jerk that it's kind of hard to get past that and he's really chaotic. One moment he can be really sensitive and the next moment he can be irredeemably violent. He's a complete train wreck, he's a total drug addict, but the next second he might flip-flop and go to the Betty Ford Clinic for a month. He's a creature of chaos and you can play him any way that you want to, you can turn him on and off like a light. He's so much fun to play.

"When I put that costume on and I get out there in front of people, I'm not just talking about shows, personal appearances or autograph signings or interviews, people just expect you to go berserk and if you don't  they're disappointed. So it gives me carte blanche to do whatever I want. I can literally get away with murder when I'm do that character. And I think one day Oderus will take his place up there with Dracula and Frankenstein and Frankenfurter and Gibby Haynes, some of the greatest monster frontmen who have ever been out there."

I mention that many Gwar characters have come and gone or transformed, so how does Oderus manage to stick around?

"We've gone through lots of musicians over the years," asserts Brockie. "Except for a couple of artists who have been around with me since the beginning, I'm the only who goes back all the way to hello. When we get to 'Scumdogs (of the Universe),' which was the second record, the lineup solidified and a lot of those guys are still around, but sometimes when characters come and go, we let people create their own characters as they come in and out of the band. But the five band members have always been pretty much always remained the same, like we've had three different bass players over the years, every one of them played Beefcake the Mighty, they'll do their own rip on it, but it's still basically the same character.

"Oderus, I don't think could be played by anybody else and if they ever got rid of me or god forbid anything ever happened to me that I couldn't do Gwar any more, like I got a really high paying job working for a gaming company or a sportscaster or something," Brockie laughs.

"You told me that years ago, dude," I say giggling, referring to our first meeting in the '90s.

"It still hasn't happened." Brockie chuckles. "This is my gig and I'm very satisfied with it. I'm a mutant thing that plays a bass for a living."

After that first meeting and the concert, I hung out at Hell's Gate, a now-defunct club in Hollywood, with the band. Slymenstra and I hit it off, talking music from a woman's point of few and a range of other topics. I remark to Brockie that I miss her as part of Gwar's show and I wonder if they will ever add another woman to their act.

"I feel bad about that too and a lot of people ask what's going on with Slymenstra, but it's really out of respect to her and how powerful her character is that we have never replaced her with a lesser female character." Brockie says, "Danielle, who plays Slymenstra, moved to L.A. several years ago and she's pursuing her own career and doing her own performance thing and working in movies in production. She does occasional guest appearances with us. People are like, 'Come on, you need to have another hot girl up there,' but first of all we don't really want another character except for Slymenstra Hymen because she's really the ultimate female Gwar character and we can't really see anybody else playing her.

"Second of all about four or five years ago we went through a transition where we had to let a lot of those side characters go away because we were going out on tour with 18 to 22 people every time-- two tour buses. The overhead was so insane that nobody was making any money. We needed to get a little leaner, a little meaner and concentrate more on the band and playing music and not so much about having 800 different characters and five different people singing on every record. I'm not Gilbert and Sullivan over here, I want to have a rock and roll album that I get to sing all the songs and not worry about writing plays basically every time.

"So we leave those characters in a permanent guest rotation." Brockie goes on, "I'd love Slymenstra to come back and do a tour with us at some point and we have talked about it. I'm sure she'll be back around at some point some time. She's awesome and because she had so much potential and so much talent, she felt she had to do something rather than just wait around for the couple of songs she'd do with Gwar every night."

When we spoke, Gwar had just confirmed a spot on the Viva La Bam tour this fall with Cradle of Filth.

"It's really an indication of how far Gwar's come that we will be doing a show with Cradle of Filth," gushed Brockie. "They're a serious black metal act, they wouldn't even play with us. This is making us really really happy."

Otherwise they will continue touring in support of  "Beyond Hell" through the rest of the year.

"Finally at the end of this year this whole sobbing nightmare will plop to a bloody heap here in Richmond and we'll probably rest until the end of the year and throughout New Year's and then we'll start working on a new album." Brockie says, "It's the unending cycle of making music and going on tours. We've gone on longer than we ever thought."

He adds that they're even planning on playing at some state fairs on this tour.

"Wow, we finally reached that level, for our band to be playing at the state fair," Brockie snickers. "What can we reach after that?"

I counter that it's not so bad. I've been dancing at the Los Angeles County Fair for the past few years. The only mixed experience I had was when I had to perform near the pig races.

"Actually it's pretty cool," Brockie agrees. "We'll be right next to the hog calling tent. A lot of pigs love Gwar, so you'll see them in the mosh pit."

In discussing Gwar's future, I would be remiss if I didn't ask if they had a theme planned already for their next album.

GWAR"No we don't, it's wide open." Brockie muses, "We might stay in Hell because Hell's got so many layers that Gwar's riding around Hell now. We kicked Satan's ass and we rule Hell now, but there's so much of it we haven't explored yet. Maybe we'll stay in Hell for a while and continue having our endless journeys through the abyss-- Oh my god, we've actually been damned! Or maybe we'll finally get off the planet once and for all. Or maybe we'll get horribly addicted to crack again and have a more urban nightmare. Or who knows, maybe some strange menace will rise up from the mist. Maybe Slymenstra will come back with a vengeance in a giant bloody tampon. The next chapter in Gwar's history is waiting to be written.

"I get fans all the time who write the next chapter, they send me an 80 page manifest, 'Did you read that thing yet?' It's crazy. So many different cultures have versions of Hell, there's so many different demons down there, we can get a lot of mileage out of it.

"The theme's not figured out," Brockie goes on. "But what we maybe want to do is do an album that's an album, a movie and a video game all in one that would be for Playstation or on a computer platform. Create a new interactive product that gets beyond just putting out a record. You can download the songs, but when you buy the thing it's like a Gwar game, you have to unlock different levels to hear the music and see new scenes from the movie.

"Our deal with DRT Records is at it's end right now, so we'll be going after a new deal and we're thinking of not just hitting up traditional record companies, but going after a lot of these multi-media digital production companies and seeing where Gwar can take us. I can't rest until Gwar puts out the sickest, most violent, fucked up video game that was ever created,"  Brockie continues rambling about  characters and the Gwar kingdom and all the various degenerate things you could do and be in the game.

When he finally pauses, I ask him for a final thought.

"Sooner or later the assault of Gwar will win the day," states Brockie. "We refuse to give up until Gwar has taken its place as masters of the complete universe, more powerful than even He-Man. Until then, we're just going to fight the good fight or die trying."

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