From late 2008…
It can be difficult to tell which of David Brockie’s stories are true.
He’ll tell you, for example, that he used to carry liquid LSD around at parties, squirting it into the eyes of strangers. He’ll tell you that first-wave D.C. punks like Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins used to beat him mercilessly, barely letting him escape alive. He’ll tell you that he once lived in a giant milk bottle and it was a wonderful life. He’ll tell you that he’s an alien warlord named Oderus Urungus.
Maintaining this last assertion has occupied most of the past quarter-century of Brockie’s life.
Oderus is the beastly mouthpiece of Gwar, which is, as the myth runs, a demented, debauched, drug-addled band of bellicose space monsters exiled to our planet by the Master and frozen in Antarctica. They were eventually unthawed and freed by Sleazy P. Martini, a known pimp, pornographer, pusher and record label executive. Martini taught the members of Gwar how to play their instruments and signed them to Capitalist Records.
In the decades since Martini unleashed Gwar, his befuddled war-masters have tried to write songs that will attract the humans (so they can exterminate us) and have also sought to return to deep space.
“For various reasons,” Brockie offers, “they’ve always failed miserably.”
They have succeeded, however, in melding taboo-obsessed shock rock tropes (bestiality, rape, the employment of Joan Rivers’ femur in the snorting of her brain and so forth) with satire, parody, slapstick, pummeling music and absurdist theater.
In doing this, the dozens of rock slaves who have drifted in and out of the sprawling Gwar universe have created something singular and enduring. It’s smart, dumb and really, really funny.
Gwar has never had a hit song or album, but the band is a revered, prosperous cult act that seems more popular than ever, probably because it’s a rare middle-aged group whose recent albums are far interesting than its initial recordings.
Brockie believes Gwar’s dogged persistence will eventually wear society down, until his band is acknowledged as one of rock’s great acts, comparable to the Beatles. He appears to actually believe this.
While that proposition is dodgy, Brockie’s contention that Gwar presents an unmatched stage show is irrefutable. Gwar’s costumed concerts are immersive sensory onslaughts. Urungus and crew spew an impressive range of heavy metals with virtuosic dexterity. The weeping guitars, thrashing assaults, impaling hooks and so forth are all very good for attracting the humans.
Gwar also spews oceans of fake bodily fluids on its fans, which is also, perhaps surprisingly, very good for attracting humans.
As Oderus bellows convoluted narratives about, say, trying to escape Earth by drilling to Hell and subjugating a Jewish Satan (“Jewcifer”), the alien warlords’ many onstage “slaves” stay busy feeding celebrities to the World Maggot, decapitating politicians or/and fighting one another. There is often also a dinosaur and an intricate light show and carefully-wrought video projections.
Sensible readers may wonder what occurred in Brockie’s childhood, but the singer says Gwar is, rather, rooted in his adolescence. He grew up in Fairfax and was an eager teen attending shows during the early ’80s D.C. punk explosion.
Brockie says that, among the first generation of D.C. hardcore punks, a militant, humorless, straight-laced ideology was pervasive and oppressive and that the loopy, over-the-top Gwar “was a direct reaction against a very controlling, very limited form of expression they were trying to force on people.”
At 18, Brockie fled for Richmond, Va., where he found a far more open-ended and accepting music scene, attended Virginia Commonwealth University, lived in a former milk bottling plant and became part of a community of “talented, motivated, crazy artists.” A freewheeling group of theater buffs and rockers became the nucleus of Gwar. The band, of which Brockie is the sole remaining original member (other old-timers persist in other parts of the unwieldy cottage industry) started out playing Misfits-style punk, but as Gwar became more established, its wardrobe grew more elaborate and so did its riffs. The band slowly morphed into the metal machine it is today.
“I defy you to listen to punk for 30 years and not get bored,” Brockie said, explaining.
The frontman inevitably deems Gwar’s current tour – hitting the 9:30 Club on Sunday – the band’s most astounding, elaborate production to date, and he’s already deep into planning Gwar’s 25th anniversary extravaganza.
“It’s going to be our most epic struggle yet,” he said. “As far as working in the deeper meanings, the hidden truths, the riddles, we’re really going to go off unlike we’ve ever done before.”
And then, as part of Brokie’s plan to wear you into submission, “When we get too old to do this, we’ll have replacements. Son of Oderus will be born. And Oderus will show up in a wheelchair every now and then, at the top of a big ramp. And they’ll push him down the ramp and, ‘Oh, no! The brakes don’t work!’ And he’ll go flying into the audience and explode.”
What part of D.C. did you live in?
Well, I grew up in Fairfax County, went to Robinson High School, but my older brother Andrew, he was a real character. He moved into D.C. very, very young. He probably had his first apartment on Capitol Hill when he was 16, and I was three years younger than him.
So when I was getting to be a rowdy little bastard, my typical routine would be to go into D.C. on the weekend and stay at his house and get as much out of the city as I could.
I would hang around the Capitol Hill area and, of course, the old 9:30 Club, D.C. Space, Georgetown.
The hardcore thing was just starting then, and it was really awesome, because D.C. was, in many ways, the birthplace of hardcore, but it was really a shame, because those guys really hated me – Ian and Henry.
They just thought I was a clown. They were all into the straight-edge thing. I used to get my ass kicked all the time.
When I finally graduated from high school I ended up in Richmond, Virginia. I was pretty glad for it.
I’m interested in talking just a little bit more about your relationship with those dudes. Do you know them at all now?
Yeah, yeah. Honestly, I have known those guys since I was about 16. Never once has one of them really been friendly to me.
I’ve met Ian many times, met Henry many times. They always come across as very pompous, very arrogant, very elitist – things that I never thought punk rock should never be about.
You know, I always thought it was really hypocritical of Ian, when he got into Fugazi, to be yelling at people from the stage, “Don’t slam dance! Don’t stage dive. Don’t do this, don’t do that.”
I’ve seen that man inside so many riots on a dance floor. I just didn’t take that seriously at all.
Punk rock, for me, is about expression. It’s about nonconformity. It’s about being yourself. And, honestly, I found their whole straight-edge mentality to be every bit as oppressive as the jocks I hated in high school.
To this day, those guys have no respect for Gwar. If they do, they’ve never said anything about it.
I’ve always tried to talk to those dudes. Every time I’ve met ’em I’ve been nothing but respectful. I’ve been polite.
I have a lot of admiration for both of them, especially Henry. I really see Henry as a funny motherfucker. But they’re two unfriendly people. They always have been.
Was it D.C. punk that was so influential on you, or was it punk generally?
Punk generally. My understanding of punk rock started in like 1976. I was watching TV with my mom. We were watching the
Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder and there was a report on the Sex
Pistols and my mom was like, “Oh, my God. That’s horrible!”
I was sitting there going, “Yeah, mom, that’s horrible,” but I was
thinking, “Oh my God. That looks like so much fun.”
So, initially, my exposure to punk was through television. And I
started going to the record stores and huntin’ shit down and for a
couple of years, my idea of punk came just from what I perceived in
the media and the albums I could find in stores. You know, I had the Ramones, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, the Clash, but it wasn’t until I saw hardcore for myself that I really started to
understand what was going on.
I remember going down to D.C. Space in my Ramones leather jacket with my Ramones long hair and my Slickee Boys button – I used to
love the Slickee Boys – and showing up for a hardcore show with, I
believe, S.O.A. and Minor Threat. I’d never seen a hardcore show. I
felt like I’d just walked into the eighth circle of hell.
It was completely insane. I mean, these were real punk rockers. These weren’t guys who were getting their fashion tips from the Tomorrow Show or Ramones album covers – this was the D.C. Scene, for real, vital, throbbing, violent, full of energy, full of anger.
It scared the hell out of me, but I wanted to be a part of it, but I didn’t really know how. I wasn’t from D.C. I didn’t really know any of these people, and right of the bat they hated me, because I was so stupid: My parents were from England [and] I decided the best way to befriend these people would be to walk around the show and talk in an English accent and pretend I was from England (laughs hard).
That did not work at all. Soon I was being hated and teased,
surrounded, called-out, jumped. And when the slam dancing started: I used to get my ass kicked so hard, though they never did it to the point of death. I figured maybe there was something about me that was redeeming. And so I would go home with a black eye or a broken nose, my Sex Pistols t-shirt in bloody shreds.
And one day I picked up a D.C. hardcore magazine – I believe it was called Period or D.C. Period or something like that – and there was a picture of me in the magazine and the caption was, “Pretty boy contemplates chaos.”
It was me at the show, looking into the pit with this look on my face, like, “Oh my God. What are those people doing?”
So I was drawn toward the scene, but completely alienated from it at the same time. It really made me work hard to find my own way of expressing what was going on inside of me.
That’s when a lot of the bands from the suburbs started to get a little more room in the scene, and those bands had more of a sense of humor, especially Void. They were a great, great band.
My place in the scene was to get out of the scene.
I moved to Richmond and started going to art school. And down there, I found the scene was a lot more wide-open. People were having a lot more fun.
They were more accepting of different types of punk rockers, because there were so many different schools of punk rock: there was straight-edge, then there was the Discharge, spiky-haired punks, then there was the more classic, Sex Pistols/new wave punks, then there was the California Black Flag punks, there were the Boston dudes with their black headbands. There were all these different tribes, and Richmond kinda embraced all of ’em.
Another big influence: This was one of the biggest bands that
broke the D.C. scene open and really exposed it to a lot of people who probably would have been turned off from that real monolithic,
straight-edge, “You gotta do things this way. Don’t drink. Don’t fuck. Don’t this. Don’t that.”
You know it was GI, Government Issue, with John Stabb. He was really great.
I remember onetime I went to see a hardcore show downtown. All these skinheads from Boston were there and all the D.C. crew was
representing. The pit was super-violent. I believe SS Decontrol
was playing. And then GI came out to play and John Stabb had dressed up like Adam Ant.
All the punks loved GI and they loved Stabb, but you could tell the fact that he’d done this really fucked with their heads.
They were just like, “Uh, is it cool to support this? Should I laugh? What should I do?”
That was the complete “I don’t give a fuck” attitude that they typified and which was something that I really latched onto.
Obviously, Gwar has turned away from its punk and hardcore roots and plays pretty straightforward metal now – just different kinds of metal.
Oh, I would totally agree with that. You gotta understand: When we did that first Gwar album, it was a complete joke.
We were like, “You’re kidding. You want us to do an album?”
We were just a semi-crummy punk-rock band that dressed up like monsters from Antarctica. We weren’t really trying to do anything in particular with our music, other than entertain ourselves. And the music on that album reflects that. It’s a punk album.
… For a long time – for the first five albums – if you had asked me what kind of band Gwar was, I would have said “punk rock,” but that slowly got chipped away and eventually Gwar settled in. And it took like eight albums. The first few albums are punk and metal. Then we made a few that are very experimental. They’re all over the place. There’s parodies of country songs; there’s comedy tracks; there’s sound pastiches. We thought we were Frank Zappa for awhile.
But when Gwar started its big resurgence about five years ago, the biggest reason was that we said, “You know, we need to quit playin’ around and really just crank down on the metal. We need to listen to our critics,” because the most obvious criticism that’s ever been laid at Gwar’s feet is, “The music isn’t any good. It’s all about the show.”
That always pissed us off, because we know we jam. The guys in my band, I’ll put ’em up against any band in the world.
We decided to do an album – and this was [2001’s] “Violence Has Arrived” – that’s straight-up metal and see how it went.
Immediately, we got a really big response from the metal community. People were really starting to get into Gwar again. We did the Sounds of the Underground festival tour. We’d never even done a festival tour before; next thing you know, we’ve done it three years in a row.
And the last three records have been very, very metal-oriented. There might be two or three punk rock songs on those three records.
… For the long run, I really think that metal is the more challenging and more entertaining form of music.
You know, one of the hallmarks of punk rock is the simplicity of it, and that’s great. It’s amazing what the Ramones were onto, but the music is kinda simple and I defy you to listen to punk for 30 years and not get bored with it.
Metal’s a lot more challenging. You can write an eight-and-a-half minute song. You can do a ballad that turns into a rager. The music’s got a lot more room to grow and expand and still be called metal, whereas punk rock and hardcore, there’s not much you can do without having it be called something else.
Do you remember the first time you met the guys from Lamb of God and Municipal Waste?
No. [Lamb of God singer] Randy [Blythe] has a great story about the first time he met me. I don’t remember it.
I used to be quite a maniac. I’ve got a reputation as a really hard partier. I’m glad to say that those days are behind me. I’ve survived with a minimum amount of brain damage and I’m happy for it. I’m a happy, sober, recovering alcoholic and drug addict, you
know? (laughs). I just stay in the program, take it one day at a time.
… When I met Randy, I was in the old Slave Pit. You know, Gwar’s studio is always called the Slave Pit. We were having this huge party and my friend had sent me a big plastic food-dye bottle filled up with liquid LSD. And I was squirting it into people’s eyes.
And that was the first time I met Randy. He was like, “Hey, what’s that stuff?” I was like, “Here, open your eyes” – squirted like 12 doses right into his retina. He ended up hanging out at the Slave Pit all night, watching the walls melt.
Generally speaking, people have always got great stories about the first time they met Dave Brockie, but Dave Brockie generally can’t remember them (laughs).
It’s often said that the great thing about college isn’t what you learn, but who you meet. It seems like your experience is a pretty good example of that.
There couldn’t be a better illustration of that than what happened in my life after I went to Virginia Commonwealth University and started going to art school. I met all these amazing, talented, motivated, crazy artists and we started hanging out.
We were in the old huge building in Richmond called the Dairy. It’s a giant old milk-bottling manufacturing plant. I think it was built in 1880. It had these gigantic ceramic milk bottles in the corners of it – like nine feet high – and I actually lived inside of one of those bottles. It was great.
We were all either in art school, or had just left art school, or had dropped out of art school, or were trying to get into art school, and we all converged at the Dairy and came up with this idea for what is going to go down in history as one of the greatest bands in rock ‘n’ roll history: Gwar.
I don’t think people understand how important it is, what we’ve done. We’ve been slogging away now for 24 years and every year we get a little bit bigger. It’s just this relentless assault. The one thing no one can argue with is that Gwar is the hardest-working band in show business.
A lot of bands that have been around for 24 years, they will have taken 12 years off in the middle. Gwar was never like that. We’ve put out albums consistently. We’ve toured every year. We’ve always worked extremely hard, because it was our deal. It was our dream. It was our monster. We created it. We didn’t want to be like Doctor
Frankenstein and just let the monster wander around the landscape until it finally got killed by the hostile villagers.
…Gwar will continue on.
People who don’t like Gwar are so stuffy, usually.
They won’t even think of Gwar for like five years and then all of a sudden, they’ll look up and they’ll be confronted by evidence of Gwar’s existence and they’re like, “Oh my God. They’re still around?”
We never left, and we’re not going to. We’re going to keep hammering away until people finally, out of sheer exhaustion, are like, “OK, Gwar. Do whatever you want.”
Every year we get a little more traction. Every year we get a little more respect.
Gwar has assumed mythic proportions in our culture. We’re like the Easter Bunny, except with huge fangs. And I think people are comforted by the fact that, no matter what is going on in their lives, Gwar is out there somewhere championing the little guy. ‘Cause what is Gwar except poor man’s justice?
You’re never going to be able to get over on George Bush. You’ll never be able to outsmart the IRS. But goddamn it, Gwar’s gonna get up there and they’re gonna take that guy and they’re going to chop his head off. And then they’re going to [expletive] the stump, and that might be the best vengeance you get. It’s better than nothing. Everybody likes to see politicians get killed.
People can get a lot of different things out of Gwar. There are obviously some serious points being made, but they’re done with humor and they’re subtle.
We don’t preach. It’s there to be appreciated at whatever level you want and I’ve always felt that’s what art’s all about.
We’ve never tried to hammer home any one point in particular, but at the same time, I think the people we work with are pretty intelligent. There’s got to be something more to what we do than just squirting stuff on people, or we would lose interest in it.
So, the waters of Gwar go as deep as you want to go into them. It is a bottomless abyss.
What are some more serious issues that you’ll be subtly addressing in the future? Do you have any ideas?
Well (long pause) … Yeah, yeah. We’ve got everything lined up for next year. Next year’s gonna be our 25th anniversary.
Gwar’s greatest struggle, throughout the 24 years since they were de-thawed in Antarctica, has been to escape the planet Earth and get back to outer space, so they could rejoin their brothers in their glorious cosmic conquest, but, for various reasons, they always fail miserably. They always end up being stuck here on Earth.
You can look at Gwar as a metaphor for the human condition. Gwar represents man. Earth represents oppression and outer space represents freedom. The whole struggle of Gwar is man’s struggle for freedom. That’s pretty deep stuff and you can have a lot of fun with that.
So, what’s going to happen next year – and I’m going to spill a little bit of beans down my shirt here – Gwar finally is going to escape Earth.
And they’re going to go back to all the planets they used to hang out at and they’re going to see that they’ve all been completely Giulianied, as I like to say. Basically, the same thing happened in outer space that happened in Times Square. It became Disney-fied.
The irony of it is: There’s only one place left in the whole galaxy that’s still free – that Gwar has to defend against this tide of mediocrity – and that place is the planet Earth.
We have to return to the very place that we escaped from, because it’s the only place left in the universe that’s worth a damn.
It’s going to be our most epic struggle yet and we’re just starting to get into fleshing out the script.
After all these years of working with Gwar, I really feel like next year’s script is going to be the widest open. As far as working in the deeper meanings, the hidden truths, the riddles, we’re really going to go off unlike we’ve ever done before.
… We’ve got miles and miles on this next one and we’re excited to get into it.
It sounds awesome. This ties in with something I wanted to ask you: It seems like you have all the story lines either written down or thought out – where you want to go – the idea I have is that rest of the band just puts the songs together and then you come in at the end and fit lyrics to the songs. Is that right?
Well, no, not really. We have meetings like every day when we’re on the road, at sound-check we’ll all sit down and we’ll have brainstorming sessions.
I like to get the whole group on the same page as far as what the
whole record and show is going to be about, because the record and
show always tie in with each other.
… So we’re trying to get everybody on the same page. I have to know
what the story is, what the main characters are, what everybody wants to do. And you got like 12 different people in this organization and we all have very strong ideas. You don’t want to start writing an album until those ideas have coalesced in one direction, because you might find yourself writing songs that have nothing to do with what’s going on, and that’s happened before. In fact, that’s happened many times.
24 years have taught us who we can rely on. A lot of these guys have been around since “Hell-O.” This is not Dave Brockie getting whoever he can to fill up these suits and do Gwar. We’ve got the original artists who’ve been there since the beginning, and we’ve learned over the years how to work with each other very, very well. It makes the writing process easier and easier as we go along.
Right now we’re in the conceptual phase. We’ll write a script or a
treatment or a synopsis or whatever you want to call it. We’ll decide what the characters are and then, basically, the art department and the band will split into two groups. The art department will start working on the show and the costumes and the sets and the band will start writing the music and recording the album.
When the album’s all done and the costumes are all done, then the two groups will re-merge with each other. We’ll do some videos, we’ll start rehearsing the show, and then we’ll hit the road again.
It’s been rolling like that for 24 years. I think every year we get
a little bit better at it. A lot of bands will put out a couple great albums and then slowly fade into obscurity – albums get crappier and crappier.
I think our shit gets better as we go along. It’s so complicated, it’s such a monster to tame and we finally got really good at it. Every year we get a little bit better and it’s just a joy to work with these guys. I’ve known these guys over 20 years. We never compromised.
When I look around at these dudes, there’s such a bond between us. I can’t even say that all of us are great friends, but we’re like a family. We’re like brothers. We’d do anything for each other. We’re like some weird misfit military organization. It’s like some bizarre crime family. But instead of crime or war, we’re into art.
Is Gwar a democracy?
More of a socialist democracy. Generally speaking, the ideas: The good ones will rise to the top. But when we really have a decision that’s impossible to reach, we will just vote and the majority will rule.
No one person is running this show.
I’m lucky to be the figurehead and the mouthpiece a lot of the time, but every time I open my mouth, I’m trying my best to represent everybody in the group.
… We came up with a show that kinda prepared us for what’s going to
happen next year, so what we decided to do was install full
rear-screen video projection during the show that doesn’t just provide cool logos and cool animation, but actually has plot elements – you know, characters speaking from the screen – that advance the story.
All these bands, like Dethclock and the Gorillas, are kinda animation bands. They’re doing amazing things with their live shows and Gwar wanted to get on that. Actually, we went and saw the Blue Man Group about a year ago and we were hanging out with those guys and we borrowed one of their roadies and their light-designer and we just picked their brains to death for any kernel of knowledge we could use.
We really feel like the show we’re doing this year, of anything we’ve ever done to date, it definitely is the most over-the-top, insane Gwar show that we’ve ever put out and the fans are absolutely loving it.
Adding the video was the last thing we could do to make Gwar even more spectacular. Adding the video totally put it over the top,
… The whole reason Gwar came to be, in a lot of ways, was a direct reaction against a very controlling, very limited form of expression that they were trying to force on people.
… It’s a pretty limited message, you know? And Gwar is taking colors from everybody’s paint-box and mushing it all together.
Gwar’s arguably the greatest show in rock ‘n’ roll. And we have not
yet begun to fight.