Inside the cult of GWAR: “We might be weirdos, but there are a bunch of other weirdos out there, too…”

Severed heads. Geysers of bodily-fluid. A ‘cuttlefish’ doubling as an alien penis. For 36 years, GWAR have thrived as oddball outsiders, blurring the line between shock rock and absurdist theatre. To celebrate documentary This Is GWAR, we find out why The Scumdogs Of The Universe – and their fanbase of ‘Bohabs’ – keep coming back for more…

Inside the cult of GWAR: “We might be weirdos, but there are a bunch of other weirdos out there, too…”
Sam Law

Bob Gorman is not your average, everyday guy in a band. He can’t drum. He doesn’t play guitar. For years, he didn’t even dare to scream along. Still, as assistant executioner Bonesnapper The Cave Troll, he’s very much one of GWAR’s main men – utterly vital to their blood-drenched business.

“I chop off heads, I rip off arms, I do a little stand-up comedy…” Bob smiles, warmly, as we meet amongst the bustle of the Virginian schlock-rockers’ 2,000-square-foot Slave Pit workshop in downtown Richmond to mark the release of excellent, career-spanning rockumentary This Is GWAR. “For years, my role was just ‘Art Slave’: fabricator, occasional monster, and victim. Eventually I was promoted to being one of the main members. A lot of people aren’t sure how exactly GWAR works. I explain that we’re more like a theatre troupe than a traditional touring band. As with Monty Python, there might be five dudes onstage, but we’re playing 100 roles.”

From mad scientists and Nazi punks to lumbering dinosaurs and mutant penguins, there’re no shortage of parts to fill in GWAR’s outlandish mythos of alien savages banished to earth. Oversized latex costumes and painted on abs are the order of the day – plus anything that oozes. More than just a face in the gore-spewing collective, though, Bob was also one of GWAR’s earliest fans.

“The thing I liked about punk rock – even if I didn’t always like the music – was the interactivity, the ability to be involved,” he explains, pinpointing the project’s appeal. “GWAR thrives on producing the stuff that other people have told us isn’t any good, the stuff they’ve told us we shouldn’t be doing, but the stuff we love. We might be weirdos – but there are a bunch of other weirdos out there, too!”

Indeed, when aspiring director Hunter Jackson (later, arch-villain Techno Destructo) agreed to lend costumes he’d designed for planned sci-fi production Scumdogs Of The Universe to local Death Piggy frontman Dave Brockie (aka Oderus Urungus) in March of 1985, the pair didn’t just kickstart the band – they sparked a musical revolution which would spread from the outsider art and punk rock scenes around their city’s prestigious Virginia Commonwealth University and right around the world. GWAR’s troupe of grotesque interplanetary warriors had arrived; not just to wreak havoc on their earthly enemies, but to shake up the old-fashioned ideas about performance art and to splash a little colour across the bare-bones hardcore punk scene from which they were spawned.

Not every fan handed themselves over quite as enthusiastically as Bob, of course. Joining as an “intern” in 1988, before dropping out of school to commit full-time a couple of years later, our man was unapologetically all-in. “One of my older friends graduated and started working in a frame shop,” he explains. “I was like, ‘I already have a job where I can travel the world and get paid!’” But even those happy to just, er, soak up the show were attracted by the same attributes.

The members’ own fandom was key. Wrestling. Dungeons & Dragons. The illustrations of Jack Kirby and Robert Williams. The hot rod designs of Big Daddy Roth. Nerdy rock bands like Devo and KISS. Their abundance of weird, wonderful and uncool provided endless shared inspiration. Beyond his chaotic charisma, too, Dave was a keen pragmatist, understanding the delicate balance to be struck between artistic integrity, mass digestibility and financial sustainability. In short: rock’n’roll sells, but art doesn’t. “You can’t put on a play and have a bunch of kids pay $5 to get in to make rent for that month,” Bob expands, “but you can get up on a stage and make a couple of hundred dollars with a rock band. The mashing of those things together was really genius.”

Even with those foundations, it took miraculous levels of time and effort to keep things moving without running out of steam. Instead of burning out, they went from strength to strength. Signing to the legendary Metal Blade Records unlocked untold resources. Hooky hits like Sick Of You, Slaughterama and The Road Behind rubbished rumours that GWAR was an acronym for ‘God, What an Awful Racket’. They even managed to agitate the musical mainstream, landing GRAMMY nominations for Phallus In Wonderland (Best Long Form Video, 1993) and S.F.W. (Best Metal Performance, 1996) – brilliantly being removed from the red carpet their first time at the awards.

Even as the shows grew bigger and mandatory barricades began to prevent bands and fans colliding in the flesh, both sides found ways to keep their special connection. Bob remembers artefacts as bizarre as chicken embryos and dead fish being chucked at them during shows at Germany in those transformative years. In Minneapolis, someone managed to hit him with a stuffed armadillo. In return, signing sessions would become even odder than before, with Dave writing names like Gene Simmons’ or simply breaking the items presented to him.

It was the advent of pressurised jets for their assorted bodily fluids that best enabled them to bridge the gap, however. “My favourite thing when I get my head cut off onstage is to just aim the spray at one person and watch them get broken down,” Bob grins. “I’ll do things like look for the girl with the bleached hair, steer the flow right at her, and ruin it. When you have someone looking back up to you onstage, like, ‘Get me next!’ it can be meaningful in a strange sort of way.”

Thus began the rise of the ‘Bohabs’.

Just like the KISS Army and Slipknot’s maggots, GWAR’s superfans flocked en masse to their larger-than-life masked heroes under a vibrant shared banner. Rather than any sort of corporate branding or mainstream acknowledgement, though, this organic movement revels in its underground status. The band’s Total Slavery official fan club may be on ice, but the Bohabs take care of themselves.

“The term these days is ‘Punisher’,” Bob teases, with tongue only partially in cheek. “Our fans were super-punishers. Our term back in the day was ‘Bohab’ and once the fans found out about it, they embraced it, like, ‘Yeah, we’re guys who love GWAR so much that we just want to abuse them with questions and autograph requests.’ If we didn’t have such a dedicated fanbase, we would not be here. And those guys really understand the effort it takes to be GWAR.”

Tellingly, that’s exactly the sentiment echoed by the self-confessed Bohabs we spoke to.

“GWAR puts in 1,000 per cent effort every night and you feel that energy in the crowd,” enthuses New Jersey native Dillion Jackson. “It's wild they are some of the best musicians in the world, but they're playing in 40lbs of rubber and football gear – and they still sound better than anyone else!”

London’s Lani Hernandez-David continues: “The thing that first grabbed me about GWAR was, of course, the outrageously amazing costumes… but the main aspect keeping me [hooked] is the sheer quantity of material available: the movies, the comics, the videos on YouTube. Even without the costumes, they can [so colourfully tell] a story about barbaric aliens destroying Earth and causing havoc across the galaxy. They are non-stop content creators – which I love!”

“There's depth and devotion in everything GWAR does,” adds fellow UK Bohab Rob Alderman. “They play incredible, well thought-out music in a way that only a band of monsters could possibly manage, and I almost always have one of their tunes stuck in my head!”

GWAR have more than a few famous fans, too. In one especially on-brand association, Bob recalls Dexter star Michael C. Hall being taken aback to meet the men behind the monsters when they crossed paths backstage at a Comic Con. Dave Grohl was onboard from the late-’80s, reportedly even turning down the chance to join up. Late comedian Joan Rivers admitted to Dave Brockie and then-bassist Michael Bishop (Beefcake The Mighty) that she was a fan when they appeared on her talkshow in 1990. The Daily Show host Jon Stewart was indoctrinated while working as a bartender at a New Jersey nightclub in the late-’80s. Weird Al Yankovic even crops up in This Is GWAR, reflecting on how they proved that having a sense of humour does not preclude a band from rocking out.

No celebrity Bohab speaks with more thought and enthusiasm than Lamb Of God frontman Randy Blythe, though. “What hooked me on them?” their fellow Virginian grins. “Well, I was on three hits of high-quality blotter acid the first time I saw them, so in short: drugs. Their vicious, rapier-sharp wit really sets them apart. There is no band on earth or any other planet more caustically funny than GWAR. Those dudes are like our big brothers – they took us out on our first real tour ever and gave us a shot when no-one really knew about us. It’s more than just being a fan of their music or show, they are family to us!”

As Randy gushes during This Is GWAR, too: “It sounds like a really messy, mindless joke, but in reality it’s one of the greatest socia commentaries, ever…”

Often, that commentary has blurred the lines brilliantly between performance and reality in ways that left fans little choice but to be drawn in. Techno Destructo’s early power struggle with Oderus Urungus, for instance, reflected the very real creative clashes that come with life in a band. The inclusion of characters like Anton Reemcob – a disembodied head who floats onstage to critique GWAR’s show – were directly lampooning the art snobs who’d insisted this kind of work was a waste of time. Hell, at the same time they were satirising the PMRC-driven trend for music censorship on tour in September 1990, Dave was arrested on charges of disseminating obscenity following a show at Charlotte, North Carolina’s 4808 Club where local cops took exception to their shoving a ‘crucifix’ up the ass of a character dressed as a priest.

Naturally, that ostensibly serious situation descended into farce, with Oderus’ massive prosthetic penis – known as ‘The Cuttlefish of Cthulhu’ – being carted out in a five-gallon bucket as evidence, and the subsequent court case being overseen by a judge named Dick Boner (yes, really).

When it comes to higher-level commentary, mind, despite having disembowelled and despatched countless presidents and statesmen over the years – and even befriending fellow Scumdog President Trump – the band are careful to hand out hurt on all sides of the political spectrum.

“There are a ton of people who think that we’re conservative,” Bob shrugs. “But then there are a ton of others who think that we’re liberal. My main influence in dealing with that stuff is MAD Magazine. Everyone gets super-pompous when they’re in charge, so we need to stay in the middle and take them all down a notch or two. When Sarah Palin found out we were ‘killing’ her onstage for a couple of years, she got super mad and had Dave pulled off his [satirical] slot on Fox News. But we were killing Obama for eight years straight, too – and I voted for him! Those people get mad because they focus on little things rather than the big picture, but in four years time, we’ll be killing the guy on the other side. Ultimately, GWAR are from outer-space. They hate everyone.”

In fairness, GWAR being around for the last few election cycles was far from guaranteed.

With the death of guitarist Cory Smoot (Flattus Maximus V) on the band’s tour bus from a pre-existing heart condition in 2011, followed by the passing of Dave Brockie due to a heroin overdose in 2014, it could’ve been time to call it a day. It took the colossal fan response at the fifth annual GWAR-B-Q in August of that year (where they bade farewell to Dave’s Oderus costume in a gleefully OTT Viking funeral and welcomed Mike back into the fold to assume vocal responsibilities as Blöthar The Berserker) and at the following month’s Riot Fest to convince them to carry on.

“We needed to do right by the fans,” Bob reflects on the significance of bringing back one of their legacy members. “We needed their approval, because without that we wouldn’t be in business.”

As This Is GWAR revives widespread interest without suggesting their story is winding down, the band are cautiously optimistic for what lies ahead, with Bob acknowledging that “the future is bright but uncertain”. Having a fanbase so overwhelmingly on their side, and with over 40 members having come and go over the years, we wonder what it might take for GWAR to finally call it a day. Could they go on indefinitely, handing the costumes from one generation to the next?

The man behind Bonesnapper smiles, having evidently already considered the idea. GWAR’s combination of consistent concept and revolving cast, he nods, make them more comparable to an institution like Saturday Night Live than anything else in the rock world. In the end, though, he seems unsure. When considering how hard it might be for anyone else to pull off what the current collective manage, you need to ask why no-one else is already doing it. Ostensibly similar projects like Lordi, Rob Zombie and even Green Jellÿ deliver only a fraction of GWAR’s production and tend to be under the control of individual bandleaders rather than real collaborations. Californian freaks Ghoul are closer in spirit, and good friends of GWAR, but even they don’t manage anything like their forbears’ workload.

“It’s just too hard,” he signs-off, illustratively. “No-one else wants to put up with it. Before the internet and any written studies of us as a band, there were all of these rumours amongst fans that we were lawyers or doctors from MCV [Medical College of Virginia] and that GWAR was, like, our hobby, or that we were the recipients of some big art grant. No-one could figure out how we could do all of this stuff with no money. They’d always ask, ‘Why isn’t there another one?’ The answer really is as simple as that there’s just no-one else as masochistic as us!”

This Is GWAR is streaming now on Shudder. GWAR tour in the UK from August 8, including a set at Bloodstock on August 11.

Read this next:

Check out more:

Now read these

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?