- Scott Elmquist
- Gwar's David Brockie reigns in full costume as Oderus Urungus during the band's March 16 show at the National.
"So do you cut her head off, or do we cut her open at the stomach?"
In any other environment, the question would make klaxons erupt in the head of any person with wits. Or, at the very least, motivate a person to duck.
But normal rules don't apply. Not here in the cartoonish nightmare inhabited by Gwar. Or to be specific, the alley behind the Slave Pit, the Scott's Addition warehouse that serves as the band's headquarters.
It's 4 p.m. on a sun-drenched Tuesday and the band is rehearsing stage choreography for an upcoming show. A few passersby shoot curious glances in their direction while the band's out-of-costume frontman, lead guitarist, and three longtime members of its support staff — or slaves in Gwar parlance — throw mock punches and swing invisible swords in slow motion, mimicking onstage battle scenes.
"This is where we cut her legs off?" asks Slave Pit shop foreman Bob Gorman. Dave Brockie, who plays Oderus Urungus — lead singer, crack addict and mutant barbarian from outer space — chimes in. "We cut her," he says. "Then, blood, blood, blood. Guts and intestines spill. Spew, spew, spew. I stick my hand inside her and pull out the baby. ... 'Oh no, it's a demon conjoined twin with fangs!' Then we bring out the Jagermonsta."
For those who need a primer, Gwar is the costumed troupe of local artists and musicians that have spent more than a quarter of a century terrorizing squeamish parents and delighting moshing heavy metal fans worldwide with doses of narrative sci-fi horror, scatological humor and untold gallons of fake blood.
Comprised of singer Urungus, rhythm guitarist Balsac the Jaws of Death, Jizmak Da Gusha on drums and Beefcake the Mighty on bass, the band rose to fame in the mid-1980s largely on the strength of its unhinged live shows.
To see a show is to remember it forever. In any Gwar live performance, there's a loose narrative highlighted by mock decapitations and other macabre hi-jinks. No joke is too obscene. And no person alive or dead is above being defiled in effigy.
Such as Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, the pregnant star of MTV's "Jersey Shore." Snooki is the "her" whom Brockie and the band are rehearsing defiling one afternoon earlier this month. To a soundtrack of thrashing metal guitar, Snooki will be just the latest rubberized model to be eviscerated onstage.
Before that, it was onetime GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Years earlier it was Arnold Schwarzenegger. And the apex of the band's lowbrow humor: During one long-ago tour Oderus dumped a wad of alien semen all over an effigy of JonBenet Ramsey.
"It's awful," Brockie says, "but we've done a lot worse — trust me."
Twenty-seven years ago Brockie helped form the collective of artists and other "weirdos" that eventually birthed Gwar. This was in 1984, when punk — which begat thrash metal, which begat hardcore — was still new and the various bars and music clubs along Broad Street were a haven for the crusty youths who embraced it.
Back then Gwar was fond of chains, spiked helmets and fur-covered loincloths, which evolved into Brockie's wearing a spike-covered fright mask and adoring fans getting sprayed with fake blood and viscous goo.
That was Gwar in the early days. Twelve albums since, the band's been nominated for Grammys twice. It's toured the world dozens of times over and sold more than a million records worldwide. The band may have taken its turn as the bane of some conservative parents' groups, but generations of teenage head-bangers continue to worship it.
But as Gwar nears 30, it faces new challenges and questions. The shock parade of the band's live shows always has threatened to overshadow the music. With time, the actual shock factor has lessened. Today's parents might be more inclined to accompany their kids to a Gwar show than protest against it.
As its members head back into the studio to record their 13th album, the band is entering a critical stage. The original members are mostly in their 40s, and their recorded music never has been much of a moneymaker. Something else weighing heavily on the band's future is the death of longtime guitarist Cory Smoot in November.
Arguably Richmond's most successful musical export, Gwar always has made its keep with its live concerts — perhaps the greatest spectacle in the history of heavy metal. But how much longer can the group continue?
- Dave Brockie, lead singer and mouthpiece, holds court during a tour of Gwar headquarters, otherwise known as the Slave Pit.
BROCKIE TIPS BACK his black Washington Redskins cap while a rough track from Gwar's upcoming album blasts inside the band's recording studio. The sound is louder and less ragged than the group's early work, which is to say it sounds like Smoot.
For nearly a decade Smoot was Flattus Maximus, the band's mostly mute lead guitarist. Smoot was found dead on the band's tour bus in November during the first leg of Gwar's latest domestic tour. The coroner determined he died from a heart attack. Gwar kicked off the most recent leg of the tour in Richmond on March 16 with a tribute to Smoot at the National.
Before the concert, inside a small room located stage-right at the National, Oderus, Beefcake (Jamison Land), Balsac (Mike Derks) and Jizmak (Brad Roberts) stand in full regalia for a meet-and-greet with a select few members of the crowd. They smell distractingly like rubber.
Oderus invites a squealing mother and daughter pair to touch his cuttlefish. A young guy in a white suit breaks into tears upon entering. He's one of a dozen or so people in there who say they know the band personally, and to have known and become friendly with Smoot.
"We don't know why our friend decided to leave this mud ball," Oderus says at the show's opening. "All we know is that we miss his ass." Then the band's arch enemy, Sawborg Destructo, appears with some exposition about challenging the heroes to sleep for one night in a haunted house. A dummy gets decapitated, spewing reddish water out into the crowd, and they're off.
By the end of the show, there's a mass of kids whose white T-shirts have turned pink from being doused in fake blood. They'll wear them home as souvenirs. After the hour-and-a-half-long set, the band exits to Frank Sinatra's "My Way." A single spotlight shines down from the rafters on Smoot's guitar, and the crowd members cresting toward the stage pull out their lighters.
"It's the fan's chance to say goodbye," Brockie says, out of costume in his skivvies after the show. "We had our time. Gotta keep going."
Brockie says the band's long-term plan is to settle on a replacement guitar player after the next album is completed. Like every other Gwar record, the latest is a concept that is, to put it mildly, involved. The setting is post-apocalyptic and involves survivors who took refuge in underground bunkers being warred upon by surface dwellers.
"This next album is going to show the world who rules theatrical metal," Brockie says, making and renewing rivalries in one breath. "It ain't Rob Zombie and it certainly ain't Slipknot."
That hill might be tougher to climb without Smoot. "He was a fucking virtuoso," Brockie says. "He was a producer. He was perfect. His stamp on the band was so great that it totally defined our future."
Through the years, instead of getting tighter as a metal band, Gwar's sound went in a different direction, Brockie says: "People may think of us as a metal band now, but we started out as a punk band, and some of those albums were all over the place."
Back in the early 2000s, when interest in the band was waning, Smoot — an experienced metal guitarist and producer — "bridged the gap" for the band with his understanding of modern metal, Brockie elaborates.
- Inside the Slave Pit, located in Scott's Addition, band members Jamison Land, Mike Derks and Brad Roberts rehearse at their onsite studio.
So how does Gwar replace what Smoot brought to the recording process? To maintain that connection, and as a way of honoring Smoot, the new album will feature a cast of guitar players who worked with him directly or with Gwar.
Expectations for the album are high. A band with Gwar's years doesn't last this long without enduring peaks and valleys. And there aren't many indicators that this is a peak or a low. Attendance at shows is solid, band members say. And while the last album sold just 20,000 copies, there's nothing to indicate that an extension of Gwar's deal with record label Metal Blade hinges on the performance of the next album.
For Brockie, the numbers don't seem to factor into his vision of the band's future, or whether it can continue as a music project. The quality of the work the group creates is more important, he says.
"I'll be able to tell if this album is a stinker, and honestly I don't think it is," he says. "But the bottom line is if we can't make music as good as the music we were making with Cory, then the band won't survive. This will be our last fucking record."
- Longtime Slave Pit crew member Scott Krahl makes some final adjustments to the World Maggot — making its triumphant return to the band's stage show after a years'-long hiatus — days before the National performance.
FEW PEOPLE WOULD have predicted in 1984, the year the band was founded, that a group of heavy-metal playing dudes in rubber space-monster costumes would become Richmond's most famous musical export. Or that what started off as a "joke side project" still would be relevant. But that's what happened.
Gwar began as the offshoot project of a group of students and local artists who coalesced around shared studio space at North Side's Richmond Dairy. Brockie's other band, Death Piggy, borrowed costumes from a local cartoonist named Hunter Jackson, who'd been making them for a planned film about space pirates, "Scumdogs of the Universe."
Richmond music columnist Chris Bopst was one of Gwar's original members. From 1985 to 1987, he portrayed Balsac the bassist, the one with the bear trap for a face. Bopst says it was a shared interest in the subversive, among other things, that brought the group together. "We were all in art classes at VCU. We were all going to hardcore shows and we all hated Reagan," he says. "At the beginning it was just about making each other laugh with images, Dave [Brockie's] lyrical fecal color and pissing other people off."
For those first few appearances back in 1985, Death Piggy pulled double duty as its own opening act. It performed under the name "GWAARGGGH!!!" — shortened to Gwar shortly afterward.
Later, Brockie and the others began to notice crowd shifting between the sets. "We'd do two or three songs as Gwar, and then come back as Death Piggy," he recalls. "One night we did that — the place was fucking packed for the Gwar set. We come back less than five minutes later, and there were less than 20 people there. Everyone just left. And then were just like, 'Whoa.'"
By the early 1990s the self-described Scumdogs of the Universe from the former Capital of the Confederacy had been unleashed on the country. After making the rounds on the regional punk circuit, it was selling out 2,000-seat venues and preparing for its first European tour. Heavy rotation on MTV's "Headbanger's Ball" and similar outlets earned the band national exposure. The resulting success had grown the touring group — musicians, crew and entourage — to as many as 25.
- In full costume, the band blisters through its set, which includes oldies such as "Saddam A Go-Go" and "Metal Metal Land."
But its onstage antics made the band as big a target for the moral police as Oderus' prodigious phallus, otherwise known as the Cuttlefish of Cthulhu. And the more violent and disturbing aspects of the band's act were toned down, but only a little. "We were and still are provocateurs," Brockie says. "We're just a bunch of guys with warped senses of humor spit balling the most evil ideas that we could think of, to hold up a twisted mirror to the culture."
But the band's success didn't make anyone rich. "We were making money as a group, yes," says Matt Maguire, one of the band's chief costume and prop makers. "But when you do, you draw in some people who come into the Pit thinking that there's a pot of gold at the end of this thing. Believe me, there's not."
To that extent, not much has changed for Gwar. Slave Pit Inc., the company name under which the band conducts its business, remains a camp split into two sides: designers and musicians. A few original members have moved on to other projects, faces have come and gone. But the core of what Gwar is and does endures, Brockie says.
"We're still an art collective," he says. "We've come up with an ingenious semisocialist system that cuts the designers in on the publishing rights to the music." All proceeds from intellectual property owned by Slave Pit Inc., including money earned from touring, is pooled and split between the shareholders. That's mostly the artists who fabricate and maintain the latex costumes worn by the band, the musicians who write and perform the music and a handful of former band members.
- Before taking the stage, Jizmak and Balsac greet fans at the National.
MUCH OF GWAR'S work begins and ends at the sprawling concrete compound that is the Slave Pit. As you enter, walking past the office where Brockie gruffs through a series of phone interviews, two Virginia Commonwealth University dropouts stand at their workstations in the design studio.
Laid out across each studio are various plaster molds, a spew cannon known as the bile driver and band costumes, all of which need touch-ups and reconfiguring before the group leaves for Pittsburgh after a March 16 show in Richmond.
Behind them, the tallest guy in the room, Scott Krahl, is bent over in his workspace taking a sewing needle to the World Maggot. The costume has been dug out from back rooms where 27 years' worth of costumes, props and other ephemera are stored.
Matt Maguire and Bob Gorman have been with the band since the late 1980s. Both began "slaving out" while studying sculpture at VCU, and spending their free time going to hardcore shows. It was how they met the band.
"The one were I got hooked was at the 9:30 Club in D.C.," Maguire recalls. This was during the era before the band began requesting barriers between itself and the crowd, he says: "We didn't have tickets, but we knew Don Drakulich," who for years portrayed Gwar's unscrupulous manager, Sleazy P. Martini.
"So we go to the back and find him roller-skating in the alley. He gets us on the guest list and it was just utter fucking chaos inside," Maguire says. "There were kids jumping all over the stage. Oderus takes one of them, bites his ear and then just chucks him back into the crowd. My mind just exploded. I was 19."
Maguire and Gorman began spending time at the first Slave Pit. Back then it was on Broad Street on the top floor of the building that now houses Aladdin Express. Dissatisfied with academia, Maguire and Gorman eventually dropped out of art school to work at the Slave Pit full time.
In addition to building and maintaining thousands of props and costumes, Krahl, Maguire and Gorman are the stagehands for live shows. Gorman plays "Bonesnapper," Oderus' green-skinned sidekick, the guy who keeps the scripted action flowing during shows. All three are shareholders in Slave Pit Inc, but they aren't exactly on a salary. They get paid as the band works, Gorman says. Right now that's a good, he says, because interest in the band is at a five-year high.
As evidence, an ad campaign for Hard Music Magazine features Oderus and recent appearances by the band on the late-night talk-show circuit. Last year they did a gig on Jimmy Fallon, and just last week Brockie, an eternal Washington Redskins fan, was asked to sit in during a segment on the Dan Patrick radio show.
"The early aughts were rough," Gorman says. "We were starting to tone it down. Everybody was burnt out. And metal just wasn't as hip as it had been. I took a year off and moved to New York. We were really thinking about packing it up."
By the middle of the decade, "Headbanger's Ball" had reappeared on MTV. The band had completed a number of successful stints on the Sounds of the Underground tour. It was at that point that the band became viable again, Gorman says. "There were all these bands out there that sounded like retro metal. So the mantra became: 'You like bands that sound like they're from 1988? Well, we're from 1988.'"
- Metal doesn't do pink, except when it's a spew stain obtained from standing near the stage at a Gwar concert.
HOW DOES GWAR actually make its money, and how much money is that exactly? The answer is difficult to nail down. After nearly 30 years of existence, the band has multiple streams of revenue. There's the most obvious, record sales. They've been slipping.
When talking about financials, Brockie, for his part, is cautious not to say exactly how many shareholders there are. And those who are shareholders are reluctant to divulge how much in the earnings they take home.
Released in 2010 on Metal Blade Records, "Bloody Pit of Horror" sold 20,000 copies. The band's previous outing, "Lust in Space," fared only slightly better with 24,000 albums sold. That's down from the band's 2001 release, "Violence Has Arrived," with record sales of 47,000.
There are the movies, which the band produces in-house. And there's the annual Gwar-B-Que, an orgy of heavy metal and seared meat, which until this year was held at Hadad's Lake in Varina. The band through the years has sold a number of full costumes to fans and collectors, some of which can fetch up to $4,000.
The Internet is where Gwar's earning potential now resides, Brockie says. The band plans to wire up the Slave Pit with cameras, selling access to the feed and exclusive programming to subscribers online. Given that Gwar is an act driven by visuals, it might end up a moneymaker.
But it's the merchandise and ticket sales from the tour that keep the lights on, says Bopst, who writes music columns for RVANews and The Richmond Times-Dispatch. Gwar always has been a better than competent metal band, he says. But that has yet to translate into significant album sales.
It may be that the purposefully gross and vile humor that the band traffics is a double-edged sword. Mainstream critics haven't viewed the band as anything more than a novelty act. For hardcore fans, the lunacy of the live shows is the draw. "There are guys in their 40s out there who will brag about seeing us 30 or 40 times," says Brockie, who's 48. "It's the interactive nature of the shows, the theatrical part of it. We create an experience."
The band is on the road as much as 30 weeks out of the year, Gorman says. This month Gwar heads out for the second half of the Return of the World Maggot Tour, a 24-stop march with Richmond's Municipal Waste and Ghoul on the undercard. That's after playing 35 dates in the fall.
As long as the crowds continue to show, Brockie says, the band will continue to tour. Having created perhaps the longest-running art installation in the city, perhaps the men behind Gwar simply want to make money to keep the gallery open.
During an interview with Style Weekly in August 1992, Brockie said, "We still haven't known great commercial success, but I haven't had a real job in over four years." He continued, "My goal when I was in art school, all my life, was to support myself with my art. I feel if I can do that then I've won a large battle."
Fast forward 20 years, and here's Brockie, waxing on about his ambitions and that of the band. "I still have mad dreams for where we should be and hopefully where we're gonna be," he says. "I got a nice crib lined up, but honestly I gotta worry about money more to get stuff like that and, honestly, I just can't. I just can't bring myself to worry about those things."
The band, Brockie says, puts as much of its earnings back into the show as possible. "It's because Gwar eats fucking money," Brockie says. "The less money we can take from Gwar the easier it is for Gwar to kick ass."
Still, wouldn't the band kick even more ass if the Slave Pit Inc. put more effort into capitalizing on the its brand, license the intellectual property and slap its logo on things as mundane as coffee mugs and T-shirts?
There's a simple answer, Chris Bopst says:
"They're not whores, that's fucking why." S