This Is GWAR: “It’s a Challenge to Remain Shocking”
Shudder's This is GWAR documentary reveals some of the legendary shock rock group's secrets, but we dig even deeper with one of their members.
Shudder’s new documentary This Is GWAR, directed by Scott Barber, charts the history and progress of one of the most insidious threats the planet Earth has ever encountered: An art collective who answer only to themselves and, possibly, their legion of fans.
GWAR is best known as an iconic heavy metal monster band with gory stage shows, blistering lyrical assaults, and costumes which land bandmembers in court on indecency charges. GWAR have been teetering on the edge of commercial success for over 30 years. It is also a special effects lab, a live musical theater troupe, and an independent filmmaking studio, all under a creative conglomeration called The Slave Pit Inc.
This is GWAR includes current and archival interviews with the musicians and the creative team, as well as artists who appreciate the work, like Weird Al Yankovic, who gave his own face to the band when their frontman tried to pass himself off as a children’s party clown in a very animated project.
The man who wore the “Cuttlefish of Cthulu” codpiece in the Oderus Urungus costume, Dave Brockie, died of an accidental heroin overdose at his home in Richmond, Virginia, in March 2014. GWAR is an art collective, first and foremost, and Brockie’s mission was to fill some space in a culture desperately in need of pretentious deflation. GWAR know what their long-time followers want because the creative team are their own biggest fans.
GWAR recently released The New Dark Ages album, which harkens back to the band’s early 1990s sound. Their new lead singer, Blothar the Berserker, is in strong voice, with BalSac – The Jaws Of Death, Jizmak Da Gusha, Pustulus Maximus, and Beefcake The Mighty providing the power throbbing behind and shredding on the solos.
Artist Bob Gorman, a longtime GWAR collaborator, is the resident Slave Pit historian who wrote the book Let There Be GWAR in 2015. After two years helping the band, et al, on an ever-increasing as-needed basis, he dropped out of art school to join GWAR in 1988, because assistance was necessary all the time. From prop fabrication through live character roles, to contributing writer, lyricist, and visual artist, Gorman is one of the forces keeping GWAR alive and pumping viscous fluids.
Den of Geek caught up with Gorman to hear his thoughts on the documentary, and where the multimedia troupe is going next. The below interview has been edited for length.
Den of Geek: What is your favorite part of GWAR, the band, the traveling circus, the living B-movie, experimenting with liquid propellants?
Bob Gorman: Just being able to come up with a wacky idea and see it through, to play that character and get a little of all of it.
Not many people realize that what you were doing was fairly unprecedented. Your splatter section was ingenious. Can you tell us how that developed?
It was developed before me, but we all contributed a little bit to it. Early on, when we were playing small clubs, we were called the “Grand Guignol of Heavy Metal.” I don’t even think anyone at the time knew what that meant. I had to go back and read the book about it.
The two guys that founded the band, Hunter [Jackson] and Dave [Brockie], collaborated on Death Piggy, the band that preceded GWAR. They opened up for Wendy O. Williams. I’m not sure if the story is in the documentary or not, but Wendy O. Williams had just been in Playboy. So, they wanted to pretend to jerk off to the Playboy because that was a big thing, opening up for the Plasmatics. Hunter made a dick with one of those squeezable ketchup bottles, and filled it full of creamer. That was the first spew gag.
Then Don Drakulich [Sleazy P. Martini] did a gag where he got his arm ripped off. He had a hot water bottle under his arm and squeezed it. Then it moved to fire extinguishers that we liberated. We didn’t have a compressor. In my first show with the band, we had to go to a convenience store and find an air compressor and compress the tanks. When they ran out, we used three little fire extinguishers, each one with different colors, a little one of red, one little one of green, and one little one of yellow.
In 1990, when Scumdogs of the Universe came out, we had Dave Musel. He was my mentor. He taught me the technical aspects of building things. He came up with the bigger tanks and the compressor. As the blood leaves the tanks, the air filters behind it. That was really a step up, as far as getting the volume and the reach. You probably noticed, if you saw us in 1989, we hit the first row. If you saw us in 1991, we hit the entire club, the ceiling, the back wall. We’ve just been refining it since then.
I love the name of the judge who locked up Dave. How come Dick Boner never became a character?
The weird thing is that life imitated the art, and we had already told that story. If you watch Phallus in Wonderland, I believe Jimmy [James Diaz], a friend of ours that would work in different capacities, he’s got the Alka Seltzer coming out of his mouth. You can’t tell, there are subtitles because he’s talking and also foaming at the mouth. I believe the credits say he is Dick Boner.
GWAR goes far beyond punk or metal, how does the added musical textures help inspire the visual representation?
It’s a back and forth. A lot of times, we’ll have an idea about something and they’ll write a song about it. Sometimes they’ll write a song, and we’ll build a prop based on it. Everybody brings their own flavor to the table. We mush it together and see what comes out. We have too many ideas. A lot of times we can’t make them happen. We were always challenged with limitations. But the music has always been very inspiring to ramp us up to build something even cooler. I hope our art inspires the musicians. Their music definitely inspires me to make some crazy effects.
Does Blothar’s voice change the direction GWAR will be going?
Oh, absolutely, and it seems like it’s going. It’s hard for me, because I’ve been in the band with a lot of changes of musicians. This new album reminds me more of when Mike [Bishop] was in the band the first time, in the early 90s.
The artists shape the creative content. That’s always a good thing, because we don’t want to get stale trying to sound like the last two albums. So yes, his voice reminds me of when he was the backup singer in the early 90s. It’s a return to a lot of those textures.
As the band historian, how does it feel to see it presented in This Is GWAR?
I couldn’t be happier. It’s different than I would have done it, but that’s a good thing because you can’t really document yourself in a way that’s not objective. Everything is important to me. Scott was able to really focus. I think, at two hours, he does a great job. There’s so many things missing, but you get bogged down. It would be a 10-hour movie if you told this entire story. For him to hit the arc is something only an outsider can do.
I gave him the full support of the archive. He showed us the first cut and we were all completely blown away at his early idea on how to tell the story, or let us tell the story. We didn’t have much input after that, like, “yeah, this is great. If you just put this other song here or song there, or say this.” But, for the most part, we were blown away with how we helped us tell the story.
Every member has left at least once. What led you to leave what brought you back? And why do you continue to slave away?
I only left when it was not happening. I didn’t want to leave, I just thought it was over. Then the band wrote an album while I was gone, and as soon as they were ready to build a show, really get to the things that I do… Dave and I talked that entire year and a half. I didn’t want to do other things because it’s really hard to work for someone else. It’s easy because you answer to someone else and can just go home and go to sleep. But I’m doing this because I love doing it, and I want to do it. When they wanted to come back and do this, I said absolutely. I wouldn’t have left if I didn’t think it was drying up.
How did you come up with Bonesnapper the Cave Troll, and what keeps him fresh?
In order to have the stamina to play the character, it has to be pretty much what you are, maybe 10% different. It can’t be too radically different from who you are. The character was really a costume I wanted to make, the first version of it. I didn’t know anything about what the character was going to be. Dave had written the song about a D&D character he created. I didn’t know much about that. I just tried to make the character similar to me, but with some input from Dave and the song.
Bonesnapper is dumber than me, I’m not a genius or anything, but I’m smarter than he acts, and I’m probably dumber than I think I am. So, we’re somewhere in the middle. David and I had a really good rapport. We had a comedy team thing going on. He was the straight man to me. When I do stuff for YouTube, it’s when I get to do the Bonesnapper, dad-joke, rubber-chicken stuff. It’s great, finally getting to play, late in my career, more than the recognizable characters. I was playing the victim suit. I still get to play one or two victims every show.
Tell me about songwriting. “I, Bonesnapper,” from Battle Maximus is a great introduction.
There’s the first song, which is called “Faces of the Slain,” which features Bonesnapper, and is the reason I built the costume. “I, Bonesnapper,” I wrote the lyrics. I’m a big fan of thrash music. I’m not a singer, but I have a high pitch screaming voice so it worked really well. I think the only thing I could really sing is a thrashing kind of thing.
There is one reference to Dave’s D&D campaign. He lent me his notebook, and there’s a reference in the song. I had to come up with more of a backstory, because I’d never really written a backstory for my character, other than what David told me. I used it as a reference before he got involved, and then wrote the story, and made Bonesnapper the scapegoat.
I always call myself the Butters of GWAR. I’m the scapegoat. I flesh that out in the song. I wrote too much. The guy that was engineering the album had given me an early version that didn’t have Brent [Purgason]’s lead in it. I thought I had to fill all this space up. I said, “I’ll just get rid of it,” and they said “No, we’ll just make the song longer.” It’s a real hassle when I have to sing it, because it’s a screaming song and I’m in a rubber mask. But it’s fun and I love it.
You usually spend your time in visual studios. What was it like in the recording studio?
It was great. I had done stuff on other albums, background stuff, and I enjoy it. I grew up in a punk rock background, that makes you think that everything is possible. You see someone you know is not a singer, all of a sudden, they’re singing. It wasn’t overwhelming, and I had a lot of support from the people. It was more about the timeframe, and making sure I wrote all the lyrics quick enough. By the time you go on tour, you’ve figured out how you’re going to do it. In the old days, I think they worked out the stuff live and then recorded later. Now they write it to be recorded, and then start playing live later. So that was the case. I enjoyed it. A lot.
I really enjoyed Phallus in Wonderland, I put it up there with Troma or John Waters’ films. When will we see GWAR long-form videos treated like independent studio works?
We’re working on that. The problem was, at that point in our career, we were a bunch of artists that did not do anything. We would make these incredible things and give them over to other people who didn’t know what to do with them. We didn’t really do the follow-up to say: we need to find a film distributor, we need to do this, we need to do that. No one did. We have management that does all that now. We’re working with Shudder now. We’re working on content that is really what we want to do. We’ve got a million ideas and we’re a creative powerhouse. So, let’s all keep our fingers crossed that we’ll get to do it all.
I know Phallus is more popular than Skullhead Face, but for me Skullhead Face was the one. It’s just so absurd and so much is going on. It’s probably not understandable to most people. But that’s what I love about it. It’s all these insane ideas mashed up together that everyone says, “let’s throw that in there too.”
GWAR is a collective, you’ve compared the Snake Pit to the Not Ready for Primetime Players. Where do you see the lineup going?
I always say we’re like an art collective. We all create content together. It’s wherever we can find an outlet. Our new management is finding us lots of outlets for these things. We could do a lot of stuff for nothing when we were really young, and we did a lot of stuff. We got paid next to nothing because we loved it. Those are the things that people remember us for. We’re trying to figure out how to make some cash, and we’re making that happen.
Chuck Varga, the Sexecutioner, did a Slave Pit-written play, Flopsy Bleats Appreciatively, in a theater in New York. He still keeps that stuff alive. You should really check out Chuck Varga and Bambi the Mermaid, they do theater stuff in Coney Island all the time.
Did you get the chance to see what was going on in the local underground movements and Grindhouse theaters while you were touring?
Sadly, no. I’m a huge music fan, I’m a huge, pop culture weirdo fan. We’ve had brushes with a lot of our heroes. But when we tour, we play six nights a week. We made connections with Joe Coleman, H.R. Giger, Robert Williams and Screaming Matt George. It’s fantastic we were able to do things with them and meet them. It was hard because it takes most of the afternoon to set everything up. There’s a small window of free time. So sadly, not as much as I would want it. I always like to keep my ear to the ground of what weird stuff is happening. But, like everyone else, I found out about something after it’s over two years later.
You were part of the Subculture Gallery in New York. Do you think the subculture still thrives, or has social media made everything too accessible?
Yeah, I think everyone’s doing it off in their own corner. Sometimes I think social media will bring some of that out. Me and our guitar player had a live stream last night with some theatergoers who watched the movie and they asked about the collective and how people meet. I think it’s a good way to bring like-minded people together, especially with COVID, when people couldn’t get together. I’m not thinking it’s necessarily a bad thing. Normally I do, because I think people should be face to face, but it might be the only way for like-minded weirdos to get together right now.
Is a “shock rock” band still possible today?
We ask ourselves that constantly in this dystopian future we live in currently. I’ve always likened us to Mad magazine, which is out of print now, sadly. I don’t know if it’s shocking, I still think South Park can still shock. It’s how you do it in a creative, smart way. It’s easy to be dumb, and to dumb things down, and we’re not opposed to doing that. We’re trying to figure out the best way to spear everyone equally, and to just show people their foibles, much like Mad magazine.
It is a challenge to remain shocking, after the last presidency, and what’s happening right now. How can we be weirder than that? But I think our charge now is not weird, but how to be smart, and how to make fun of things in a smart way. There are a lot of good examples of that popular culture, I’d say South Park is one.
Was there any working relationship between GWAR and Mike Judge on Beavis and Butt-Head?
He was very kind to us. His whole thing was: Beavis and Butt-Head, who are these guys and who are their favorite band? Their favorite band would have to be GWAR. He just put that in their backstory. MTV, at that time, and maybe to this day, hated us and wouldn’t show any of our videos. The only videos GWAR ever got on MTV were through Beavis and Butt-Head. That was a huge push for us. That was fantastic.
We couldn’t thank him enough. But we didn’t really work with him, other than when the Sega Genesis video game came out. Hunter supplied the animation cels for the top level when Beavis and Butt-Head actually get to the GWAR show. We felt it was important to have it represented by GWAR artists. But that was mostly Viacom. All I know is he was very kind to us and helped us a lot. So, thank you Mike Judge.
This is GWAR is now streaming on Shudder.