From the Slave Pit to center stage: Getting personal with
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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.
"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."