Gwar guitarist Balsac the Jaws of Death. Image: Shudder
Gross, gleefully offensive and soaked in various bodily fluids, Gwar has spent almost four decades as an intergalactic heatseeking missile exploding the pearl-clutchers of planet Earth. In foam rubber costumes worthy of horror-movie monsters, the metal band/art project has terrorised Joan Rivers, taken on Jerry Springer, tickled Beavis and Butt-Head, been arrested for “disseminating obscenity”… and along the way been nominated for a Grammy. They’re equal parts freedom fighter and messy toddler.
But in the first comprehensive documentary of their extraordinary story, they’re revealed to also be a creative family, driven by a burning passion for their art and… perhaps more surprisingly, by a deep love for one another. Behind the masks and complex sci-fi storylines, This is Gwar finds a complicated bunch of humans who have faced triumph and tragedy together.
Birthed from a 1980s artists’ squat in Richmond, Virginia, Gwar was the bizarre lovechild of two projects smashed together – Dave Brockie’s punk band Death Piggy, combined with Hunter Jackson’s idea for a movie called Scumdogs of the Universe. The pair would go on to be the competitive nucleus of Gwar, eventually falling out in fractious circumstances when Jackson left the band in 2000.
The only stable member of a band that has featured a rotating cast of more than 40 people throughout the years, Brockie died of a heroin overdose in 2014. Gwar and their fans were heartbroken. In a move that was both beautiful and ridiculous, the film shows them celebrate his life with a full-on Viking funeral. Brockie’s death didn’t soften Jackson’s anger towards his former friend, however, as we see in a coruscating interview that’s one of the most difficult-to-watch moments in the whole movie.
Yet that moment is, perhaps, the exception that proves the rule, because the thing that’s most notable about This is Gwar is the tenderness of these oddball bunch of provocateurs. They pull together to get through the loss of Brockie, as well as the 2011 death of guitarist Cory Smoot while the band was on tour. When one member is shot in a hit and run mugging, his friend bravely stays at the scene to hold his hand. Gwar sprays audiences with fake blood, urine and semen, but the tears are real.
As the movie comes out on home release, The Big Issue finds Gwar members Brad Roberts and Matt Maguire on tour in Pensacola, Florida, in their civvies but ready to “destroy” a local club. Since 1989, Roberts has appeared on stage as a monstrous dog called Jizmak Da Gusha – Gwar’s drummer. Maguire joined the crew in 1991 as Jackson’s protégé, working in the ‘Slave Pit’ art department of the band, which creates the many props and costumes that go into a Gwar show. He’s now an onstage presence as cyborg Sawborg Destructo.
They remain committed to life as the scumdogs of the universe.
The Big Issue: When did you first see This is Gwar? Did you watch it together as a band?
Brad Roberts: We didn’t see it together, but we did do a few premieres when [horror movie streaming service] Shudder released it: one close to our hometown and then one in New York. By the second time, it became apparent that it was a little bit tough to watch your life unfold on the screen. I was begging management not to make us do a third.
I did wonder about that. The film is a real rollercoaster of emotion.
Matt Maguire: What we do inherently puts you in a lot of different crazy extreme situations.
Roberts: We are the real Spinal Tap.
Ha! It is a warts-and-all representation of the band. There’s some tough stuff said in the film, particularly by Hunter Jackson. He was pretty brutal talking about his fellow Gwar founder Dave Brockie. How did the filmmakers get you to be so honest?
Roberts: I’m gonna attribute that to Scott Barber, the director. He’s such a lovable, nice guy. He took a lot of time to do the interviews. I mean, this took years to make. He’d interview us at different points, on tour and off tour, and we just felt really comfortable with them. We knew that he was going to tell the story the right way and not just make it about, you know, our singer passing or, you know, all the hard stuff. Because Gwar was still gonna move on. So we trusted him.
Maguire: The way he did it, you felt like you’re just having a conversation with a good friend. I think that’s why everybody spoke from the heart.
At the end when you saw the cut, did you feel happy about how much you’d given of yourselves?
Roberts: No, I told him to re-do it immediately. Ha!
Maguire: Hahaha… Yeah… Edit! Edit! Too much crying!
Roberts: I can’t speak for everybody but I just remember thinking, going into it… if there’s a few little things, be it politically or whatever, that we might want to add or change we would suggest it – but ultimately we would just let him make the call.
I was really happy that he got the chronology of the career right. So I thought that was really a good arc and a way to tell that story.
There are at least 42 people who’ve been part of Gwar. What is it that makes someone a Gwar person?
Maguire: Creative, talented, willing to do a lot of work for what they believe in. I mean, it’s a unique cut of a person that can stick around.
Roberts: It’s the most work you’ll ever do, trying not to have a job.
At one point you could nearly have gone a more mainstream route with major label backing. [Gwar snagged a major label deal in the ’90s, but were dropped before releasing anything, when Brockie turned in their lewdest album yet.] Are there any things that you regret or that you wish you hadn’t done or had done?
Maguire: It’s hard to say that after the fact, right? When you’re living it, you’re just doing what you think’s best. Gwar has always been a freedom of expression. If somebody would come in and go, “Well, you can’t really do this. You can’t really do that.” I personally – and I know a lot of our bandmates are the same way – would say, “Fuck you! No way man! We’re gonna do exactly what we want to do.”
Roberts: The difference, I think, between most bands and Gwar is that we’re doing it for the sake of the art. We’re not in a band to be famous or meet girls or stuff like that. We made the art we wanted and it just turned out that there was a lot of subculture freaks out there like us that loved all that stuff. It’s living proof: people love horror, dinosaurs, Dungeons and Dragons.
I know Dungeons and Dragons was quite a big deal for you as a band. In the movie we see Brockie leading games while you’re travelling the country on the tourbus. How did you feel seeing it having another big cultural moment through Stranger Things?
Maguire: I don’t think Gwar would be as cool without some of those influences, so that it is nice to see new generations of nerdy kids going, “Oh, let’s play Dungeons and Dragons” and “Let’s play Warhammer” and all that.
We have to talk about Dave Brockie because he’s such a massive part of your history, as well as being the band’s lead singer for many years. Was it a hard decision to keep going after you lost him?
Maguire: It was a big decision. I mean, it took a while for us to understand what we needed to do or what we were going to even try to do. We had a bunch of discussions. At certain points we were talking about folding it in, but [that changed] once we all started to centre on the idea of getting Mike Bishop [their new frontman] to take over. That is, in my opinion, the only way it could have worked.
Roberts: He’s the original bass player, he’s the guy who called me to audition for Gwar. So, that made sense to us. I think we really did it the right way and with Bishop’s help, we did it the only way that the fans would have respected it. And we still get to enjoy making art and music together. Gwar made a lot of mistakes in its career, like not going mainstream, but that one we got right.
You must miss him though. There’s a real sense in the film of love between you all. And I know you also lost Cory Smoot. Did you have to come together to pull each other through those times?
Maguire: Most definitely, I think that’s the only reason we’re still doing it together. You know, just like any other band, you’re gonna have static and problems with each other. But at the end of the day, we’re all pretty much a family at this point.
Roberts: I usually think about those guys, in terms of: “Man, Dave, would love this. He’s totally missing it!” Like those guys should be here. Man, Dave should have been here for this.
Maguire: Yeah, totally. That’s the tough part.
Do you think he would have enjoyed the film?
Roberts: No! He’s not in it. So he would HATE it!
Actually, you touched on it earlier, but Hunter Jackson in the film… you know, you don’t have Dave to be the counter on the experience that Hunter is talking about between those two. We don’t know [what happened], because we didn’t live it – the two of them did.
To Hunter’s credit, he was like, “No, it’s time, I’m gonna mend fences and come back.” So he’s slowly working his way back and we did some anniversary touring with him for Scumdogs [of the Universe, their second album] last year. He’s really changed his tune, probably, even from the film. But I would say he would stand behind anything he says. He’s that guy.
Maguire: That’s the part you have to respect about it. He spoke his mind. Even though, yeah, it seems harsh. That’s how he felt and he’s truthful enough to not sugarcoat it.
Matt, you and Hunter were pretty close. You joined Gwar as his protégé. But then you fell out pretty badly…
Maguire: I mean, there was a good like, 16, 17 years of time where he out-and-out hated me, and hated us, and just didn’t want to deal with us, period. Now he’s making the effort and it’s great because it’s nice to be able to talk to him and kind of pick up where we left off.
Being in Gwar gives you this bond with each other. There’s times where you don’t talk to somebody or you’re mad at somebody, but it’s still there. We all care about each other.
So, do you think, overall, the film is a positive story to tell? We tend to think of male musicians and particularly metal blokes as being a little emotionally stunted… sorry to be rude.
Maguire: No, no… That’s pretty accurate.
It’s been a long road. During the early days, we were all bunch of kids. We didn’t know how to handle our emotions or whatever. And so yeah, of course, me and Brockie got into fistfights and stuff. We all did a bunch of dumb stuff that we didn’t handle correctly. Later, we started to learn and figure out like, hey, we need to do this a little bit better. Use our words! Don’t puff up and throw tables, you know? Let’s chill out a little bit. I feel that we as people communicate a little bit better now.
I’m really glad to hear that. As you’re getting ready to do it all again tonight, does it still feel exciting to strap on those outfits and get out on stage and chuck blood all over everybody?
Maguire: How can it not? That hour and a half, when you’re up there you’re just this character and you get to do pretty much whatever you want. I eat, breathe, drink Gwar!
This is GWAR is out on digital, Blu-ray and DVD now.
Your local vendor is at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis this Winter. Prices of energy and food are rising rapidly. As is the cost of rent. All at their highest rate in 40 years. Vendors are amongst the most vulnerable people affected. Support our vendors to earn as much as they can and give them a fighting chance this Winter.