For over three decades, the members of GWAR have been pushing risque humor, audience endurance and decibel meters. Their schtick of being “Antarctica’s No. 1 band” never gets old. That’s because they never focused solely on just one element. Between tasteless jokes and tasty riffs, the Richmond, Virginia, performance art collective-cum-metal force mean a lot of things to a lot of different fans. Which is precisely what this APTV oral history video is about.
It hasn’t always been a smooth ride for GWAR. The band were delivered some serious blows from the death of band founder Dave Brockie (Oderus Urungus) in 2014 and Cory Smoot (Flattus Maximus) in 2011. But with the return of former member Michael Bishop (as singer Blothar, formerly bassist Beefcake The Mighty), GWAR continue to rock among us. Bishop, Mike Derks (Balsac The Jaws Of Death), Brad Roberts (Jizmak Da Gusha) and Bob Gorman (Bonesnapper) got on a Zoom call with APTV director Bobby Makar to discuss everything from concerned parents (theirs, not their fans’) to how they want to be remembered.
BOB GORMAN: I always thought GWAR’s big things were being super-underground, but having little push-throughs into the mainstream. So people will always say, “Oh GWAR, you mean that band that’s Beavis and Butt-Head’s favorite band?” or Empire Records or the Grammys. We’ve tried to retain our ethos, which is do it yourself and do what you want. And there’s been little breakthrough moments where the mainstream has acknowledged, “Wow, this thing’s going on, and this thing’s pretty weird.” Whether it’s Mystery Date, Empire Records, Beavis And Butt-Head and two Grammy nominations.
BRAD ROBERTS: Jerry Springer…
GORMAN: Jerry Springer! Right. Exactly. You can’t buy a house with street cred. But, you know, that’s all GWAR have. We have no money, but we have a lot of credibility. People with money try to reference us to get cool points. And I’m like, “No, give us money.” We have cool. We’re just broke.
MICHAEL BISHOP: I first joined GWAR when I was in high school in the late ’80s: ’87 is when we started. That’s the year I graduated. I had a little hardcore band in Richmond. I was a fan of Death Piggy, who were the pre-GWAR band led by Dave Brockie. They were older than me by a little bit, I guess, like four to six years. It was an honor for me to be involved.
Brockie decided he was going to make the band into a real touring entity. Dave decided to make a transition and make it more viable as a performing act. So he brought in some new musicians that actually turned out to be the exact opposite of the original musicians. I never understood why he picked the people he picked, but he did. And I was very happy to be a part of it.
ROBERTS: If you look at all of us, he got the young blood because they were four to six years older than all of us. And he really did get the young blood players to keep it going. Probably so he wouldn’t have to deal with his friends that are the same age as him. And he could tell us what to do.
GORMAN: I think he had just worked through all the older people, and they were already sick of him, or he already fired them all. [Laughter.]
I remember us playing it straight, like barbarians from outer space, you know, like Spinal Tap. We were the greatest thing you’ve ever seen. I remember going, “Oh, these costumes aren’t too great, but they’re good enough and great in their own way.” I remember playing The Pyramid [Club] in New York City, and there’d be people screaming like, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it!” Like, it was the greatest thing they’d ever seen. And I thought it was great for a completely different reason. It was great because it felt great. It was fun. But it wasn’t great. It was pretty sloppy and crappy.
So I never could tell if we had an effect on people that I remember very strongly in small clubs. I think it was almost like, “Oh, my God, they’re doing it.” That’s something we’ve always wanted to see. But no one really did it because they couldn’t afford to do it. So they just didn’t bother to do it.
But, you know, that’s the thing I definitely learned from Hunter [Jackson] and Chuck [Varga] and those guys that started the art department. They were like, “What doesn’t matter?” Like, you know, just do it. And if it breaks, do it better next time.
BISHOP: My parents were really religious people and very Southern. We’re very, very conservative Christians. But my mother was very supportive. I remember the first time she came to a GWAR show. And her reaction was, “I just think it’s so creative. But why does it have to be so nasty?” She didn’t understand. She thought it was really great that we had all the outfits, and there was a lot of creative energy. They were generally supportive. They were never super-hypercritical. [With] my father, maybe the whole thing was just bullshit to him. It’s like, you know what? I wasn’t playing country music, so I was never going to make any money.
MIKE DERKS: My dad was a psychology professor at William & Mary, who actually specialized in the psychology of humor. My parents would never come to a show. But my dad would use GWAR as source material in his class as an example of chaotic, aggressive humor. He was very proud to say, “Yes, this is my son.” [Laughs.]
ROBERTS: I thought my parents were supportive. My mom was just like, “Oh, cool, you’re doing something you love.” And, you know, my dad was always [like], “You’ve got to make money, though.” My mom was just like, “Always keep doing it. You’re having fun. It’s great.” It’s probably really important for all the guys sitting here. They probably had a lot of support from their parents, so that’s why we’re still doing it. You know, if you’d have been really beaten down as a kid, you probably wouldn’t last this long in something like GWAR. It’s the most fun you’ll ever have trying to not work.
BISHOP: We’re trying to do something that has some meaning, and that’s a lot of fun. But that is not just gratuitous—even though it is as gratuitous as could possibly be imagined, right? We never got a ton of resistance from people. There were people who looked at GWAR and said, “All right, that’s dumb” or dismissed it because it was theatrical and not serious musically.
But then, later on after Dave’s death, people started looking at GWAR in an artistic way, as an act of performance art and valuing it in that way. I’m talking about the marks of high culture. I think that reflects a change in the halls of high culture where they’re looking at having a broader, more inclusive view about what art is. GWAR began to be included in those conversations.
GORMAN: I had a conversation with my aunt. I had forgotten about this. She had seen a video, and she was concerned about me. She was an open-minded hippie lady. But she was like, “It’s just so negative.” And I said, “Well, through that negativity, we bring things that we actually care about to light.” She said, “Well, how is [the song] ‘Have You Seen Me?’ anything good, where you’re saying abduct children and eat them?” We’re bringing to light that that’s happening.
By us saying “do it,” that’s like you’re making a joke about molesting children and you’re actually for it. No one in their right mind would ever take that seriously. We had a whole line of dancing milk cartons that came out and sang “Have You Seen Me?” onstage. Through that negativity, I think it’s a very punk way of looking at art. It’s like showing the most negative aspects to bring it to light and ridicule it.
ROBERTS: It’s just a gross parody of American culture. We didn’t create this stuff: It already exists. We’re just doing it in a really overblown, cartoonish way, like Bob said, to shed some light on it. And that’s GWAR’s whole shtick: That human beings are the worst things that ever happened to the planet, and they must be eradicated.
GORMAN: People say, “How do you justify going on without any original members?” And I’m like, “SNL.” Different casts, same thing. You know what SNL is? It’s always the same, always different people. That’s GWAR. So the ethos from the guys that started this in a cold, abandoned building to now, it’s pretty much the same group. Nobody is left from then, but we do things the exact same way.