The first time I interviewed GWAR, I screwed up — and man, did I pay for it.
Instead of asking to speak to Oderus Urungus, lead singer and master of the gory heavy metal flesh circus that is GWAR, I insisted on interviewing Dave.
“Dave is not here,” thundered the Antarctic space god. “You will only address me as Oderus, as I am here to crush and to dominate you!”
After I corrected my mistake, the interview improveed immensely, as Oderus (and certainly not Dave Brockie, Urungus’ the alter-ego and founding member of Richmond, Virginia’s GWAR) regaled me with tales of glory and sodomy, often in the same repulsive breath.
This time around, I’m smart enough to ask for Oderus Urungus — and therefore granted a reprieve from the abuse that’s commonplace with talking to an immortal being that’s more monster than man. The lack of abuse is relieving, although also a tad disappointing.
Relieving, because getting yelled at on the phone — whether by human or immortal space alien — is uncomfortable. Disappointing because pure, theatrical abuse is, after all, what makes GWAR so damn much fun.
Formed in 1984 from the wreckage of a shock-rock punk band and a gaggle of sci-fi film freaks, GWAR became a crossover thrash metal underground cult sensation, renowned for their live show theatrics. They’re synonymous with spilling guts and spewing gore all over their audiences, and they’re famous for onstage mutilations of celebrities that range from George W. Bush to Paris Hilton.
If you’re willing to forgo skepticism and the cynicism that comes with maturity, it’s brilliant.
On the surface, GWAR is a monstrous, comedic opera of filth that has more in common with professional wrestling than the more serious posturing associated with proper fantasy metal.
The live show is clearly the thing — but even better, many of the albums released by the costumed gaggle — most notably Scumdogs of the Universe and America Must Be Destroyed — are immensely listenable, with loud guitars and a powerful bottom end thrashing against abrasive vocals. With twelve full-length albums and countless live shows to their credit over the span of their nearly thirty years, GWAR have changed the face of heavy metal, becoming a legion unto themselves.
According to Urungus, another full-length assault will be forthcoming in the near future.
“We’ve already written 12 or 13 songs for the new album,” says Urungus. “We already have everything all sorted out around the interstellar travel, with bringing in another guitar player from a different planet. As soon as we get back from this tour we’re going to be jumping right into recording, and hopefully we’ll have the new album out by summertime.”
The band’s last album, 2010’s Bloody Pit of Horror, was a horrifically pounding collection of buzzsaw riffs and squeals that took a cue from pretty much everything GWAR had done previously.
Not that that’s a bad thing. GWAR are known for doing what they do really well — things like spraying a bloody substance that stains both shirts and skin alike all over their fans. The songs may change, says Urungus, but the tried-and-true formula isn’t going anywhere.
“It’s going to be pretty hard to reinvent the wheel at this point in our careers,” he says. “We have twelve albums out, and basically we’ve just been trying to reformulate our sound after losing such a major part of it. I think the music is going to stay in the thrash metal idiom, although we do experiment with all kinds of styles and genres — but this is the one that works best for us.
“We’d certainly look pretty ridiculous playing accordions, so I think we’re going to stick with electric guitars and large drums.”
When Urungus mentions “losing such a major part” of GWAR’s sound, the human side of the band, so rarely seen, becomes painfully apparent: last year, longtime member Cory Smoot, the guitarist who portrayed Flattus Maximus, passed away suddenly and tragically.
On Nov. 3, 2011, the band had just finished playing a show in Minneapolis and was about to cross the border into Manitoba when Smoot’s body had been discovered. A report from a medical examiner later concluded that Smoot had died from "Coronary artery thrombosis brought about by his pre-existing coronary artery disease.”
Despite the huge loss, Brockie (it just seems inappropriate to call him Urungus at this particular point) and his bandmates decided to finish the tour. While there was some question as to whether or not GWAR would continue, Brockie later announced that the character of Flattus Maximus would be retired, and that the group was searching for a new guitarist.
A few months later, GWAR brought in Cannabis Corpse guitarist Brent Purgason, who would be dubbed “Pustulus Maximus” by his new bandmates.
“Pustulus Maximus is the cousin of Flattus Maximus, and he’s come to join his GWAR brothers — and gosh darn it if he isn’t a shredder,” says Urungus. “He came at a time when we really needed him and he grabbed this thing by the horns and gave it a good wrastlin,’ and it sounds fucking great.
“Gwar is back from the Valley of Death with our trademark blistering double guitar attack.”
While the character of Flattus Maximus had been portrayed by several other musicians, Smoot had joined the band in 2002 and had been the longest-serving “Flattus.”
He was only 34 years old at the time of his death.
“I think everyone will always miss Flattus very much,” says Urungus, in a brief moment of breaking character. “But Pustulus is putting a new spin on the GWAR attack. He’s full of piss and vinegar and stumbles around a lot on stage — maybe a bit too much, because he’s constantly running into me from behind. It’s given a new energy to the band. After a very difficult period, I’m very happy to say that GWAR are back at full shred.”
Pustulus Maximus will obviously be the lead guitarist on the band’s forthcoming album, but really, GWAR could likely go on indefinitely without ever recording again — because it’s the insanity of their live show that draws in their legions of hysterical fans. Blasting sound samples that very well could’ve come from any modern war through the PA system, a GWAR concert is like stepping into a savage fantasy, replete with cartoon violence.
In fact, the group has even dabbled in filmmaking, with several movies under their collective space belts, including Phallus in Wonderland (which, hilariously enough, was nominated for a Grammy in 1993).
But Urungus says that GWAR will never stop writing songs: they’re an art project, sure, and a theatre of the insane, definitely — but at their core, they remain a band. No matter how unbelievable it seems that someone can play guitar while covered in what looks like 80 pounds of foam, GWAR are niche songwriters who take their music very seriously.
“So many players make the same album over and over until they die — and in some ways so do we, except we’re never going to die,” he says. “Hopefully our music won’t suck along the way — the songs for this next album are the strongest yet, and Pustulus is a great songwriter.
“We’re going to put a lot of effort into this next album, because a lot of people are going to be listening and wondering where the sound is going to go after losing Flattus. So we’re going to be on the hot seat and we’re going to have to respond to the challenge — and I have no doubt that we’re not going to be anything less than fucking magnificent.”
But enough seriousness about human tragedy and songwriting skills — the point about GWAR has always been their untouchably entertaining live show. During those shows, the band routinely incorporates pop culture icons, although probably not in ways that make said icons pleased. Like the one time I saw them, when the group brought out then-US presidential candidates G.W. Bush and John Kerry — and killed them both. (I got blood splatter in my eye.)
In light of recent political developments in America, Urungus says that fans can look forward to a more timely barbarism.
“I’m sure Obama’s challenger is sad and depressed and lonely right now, and he deserves the miserable death that GWAR will give him,” he says. “And President Obama will try and rub his face in it, and we will kill him as well. This is about as much of a political statement as we will ever make: GWAR beheads presidents. Statement made.”
That’s all well and good for Americans, but what about us Canadians who’d like to see our own leaders quashed in a hail of gore?
“Well, if we meet your leader, rest assured that we’ll kill him too,” promises Urungus.
It’s nice to know they’re thinking of us — and in fact, Ungurus says that GWAR actually loves Canada: apparently, the band gets more support from those of us north of the border than our counterparts in the States.
“I don’t know what it is. Canada is one of the first places that we started to blow up,” he says. “We used to play with Dayglo Abortions back in the day, and we used to share a roadie too. We love those guys. Or at least as much as we can love a bunch of human crusty punk rockers.
“Canada also reminds us of Antarctica. It’s cold as hell and it’s snowy and everyone is wasted all the time. We love it.”