The world of heavy metal is no stranger to bombastic stage shows, elaborate costumes and eardrum-bursting volume. It’s one of the genre’s most beloved traits. But nobody does it quite like GWAR, who have been violating the planet on video, record and the stage for over thirty years in uniquely grotesque fashion.
Filmmaker Scott Barber’s new documentary “This Is GWAR” – set to release exclusively on Shudder July 21 – takes a journey from the group’s early days as a college art-collective-turned-metal-band through the many highs and lows the group has faced over the years.
Not all documentaries of this variety manage to find a way to appeal to audiences that aren’t the group’s existing fanbase. But for a band who rarely break character from their alien alter-egos, “This Is GWAR” is a genuinely vulnerable and meaningful reflection on the artists behind the gross-out gags and thrashing riffs.
Ahead of the documentary’s release, we had the pleasure of chatting with Brad Roberts, who has performed with GWAR as their drummer JiZMak Da Gusha since 1989.
You guys are pretty busy at the moment. You’ve just wrapped up the U.S. leg of your tour, right?
Brad: Yeah, we just finished the tour in the States. Really successful tour. It seems like people are ready to come out and have some fun and see some live music again, after all this COVID stuff. Within a week and a half, we’ll be flying to Europe and it’s the same thing all over.
So you’ve wrapped up a U.S. tour, a brand-new album and now the release of “This is GWAR”. You guys are insanely busy, all the time. The fact that there’s always some new kind of GWAR project really emphasizes the fact that you’re not just a band, but a creative collective.
Brad: GWAR is definitely not the typical band. GWAR started off as a college art project. It started way before I was even in it, and I’ve been in it 30 plus years now. It speaks a lot to the people that have been involved in GWAR in the past and in the present that we’ve always kept this machine rolling, and we always have art and music to make to support the idea. It’s an art idea.
The documentary is going to explain how we did that and what the pitfalls are of doing that; the sacrifice and the tragedy and the joys of doing it. Being able to make something that’s totally unique to the world that most bands don’t really get to do.
I feel very fortunate. I got in pretty early, as GWAR was shifting from their school art film project as their thesis into a real band that was going to make records and tour. I fell right on that point where they started to take off and be more of a rock band. I think the original idea was this movie for school, called “The Scumdogs of the Universe”. A big “Star Wars” kind of space production.
Our past singer – Dave Brockie – he had a band and he saw that the stage was the format where we could really connect with a lot of people and deliver the most impact. That’s where it launched, and here’s where we are.
It’s testament to that spirit that GWAR has changed forms so many times, from countless line-up changes to your sound as a band changing over the decades. But the core idea of GWAR has never truly gone away, no matter how difficult maintaining that might become.
Brad: It’s hard to speak to some of that stuff, because you lived it, you know? GWAR is such a big animal, and everyone has so many cool ideas. There’re more ideas than you can ever possibly make happen. But all the time, we’re trying to make all the ideas that we think are good ones happen.
Then it turns into a band, and that turns into a business, and then it turns into a brand, and that turns into us selling that band. It’s really interesting. You just don’t want to give up on being a kid, like “oh, I got this great idea! Let’s make a song!” or “let’s make a film!”.
There’s never an “oh, it’s over” idea to it. There’s always something that GWAR could do. There’re a million ideas that we’ve never done, and there’s going to be a million more. It seems like the animal of GWAR owns us now – we’re slaves to it. The sum’s bigger than the parts, and it’s great to be a part of, man. There’s great guys and amazing players and amazing artists and amazing writers. It’s really fun.
I’ve been in other bands – not very long, because I’ve been in this one the most – but sometimes that stuff peters out. But this one just never does.
That’s something I’ve always enjoyed the most about GWAR: the ever-changing nature of it. New costumes, new stage shows, new sounds.
Brad: I always say it’s the most work you’ll ever do trying not to have a job. I wish I had a job; I’d work a lot less! But you can’t stop doing it.
It must be quite surreal to have been in this group for so long that there’s this full feature-length documentary about it all. From an art school film project to getting nominated for Grammys to world tours – when you joined the band, did you have any sense that things could kick off in the way they have?
Brad: Two-time Grammy losers [laughs]. I always think that we were shooting for the moon the whole time. “Let’s make the “Star Wars” version of GWAR!”. The Ramones thought they were going to be the biggest thing ever, but they just wanted to do it by doing their music. They wanted to be mainstream, but I knew GWAR was never really going to be mainstream. It was too counter-culture, too crazy for the mainstream to really grab onto.
But the great thing about cultures all over, in your country and ours, is there’s always these pockets of people that like weird stuff. They love horror films, they love comics, they love Dungeons & Dragons and wrestling. That’s the stuff we were into, and we thought we could do it on stage. We tried, and we have done it.
GWAR came here to New Zealand in around 2010 or so, and it was a killer show with a great crowd. I can absolutely believe that there’d be just as many (if not more) people who would love to see a live show like that, especially with the pandemic having put off so much. The level of audience interaction at a GWAR show is like nothing else.
Brad: Yeah, we’d love to get back to Australia. I’m sure there are plans for it next year now that our new record is out, “The New Dark Ages”. We love playing out there and in the far east as well. Anywhere we can play, we’re itching to play, like all bands are. The fans are sick of sitting in their houses, too. They’re not worried about COVID as much and they really just want to come rock. It’s really nice to back at that kind of thing. I think it’s really important as human beings that we interact that way. And as GWAR, we just appreciate the kills.
Do you feel that there’s been a renewed sense of energy at your recent live shows because of that?
Brad: The tours have been really successful and really well-attended, because people have been starving for two years to really see concerts. GWAR shows have been going quite well as I imagine other acts in any kind of genre of music are going quite well.
I imagine you’re planning to keep on touring with this new material for quite some time, because GWAR play a lot of shows on each tour. I was recently reading a mini-interview with you online where you’d estimated you’d have played at least a thousand shows with GWAR.
Brad: Yeah, I’ve been in the band since ’89. Given the members shifting around – and I’ve been the drummer since then – I’ve probably played the majority if not most of all of the GWAR shows.
The stuff before that, when GWAR got to be a serious touring band, they were just the art collective that did some shows here and there. It wasn’t heavy touring schedules like the music industry really requires you to do. I’m going to ask one of my guys in the group, Bob – he’s the GWAR archivist, as we call him. He can figure out how many shows I’ve played, but I’ve got to say it’s pushing 2,500, maybe 3,000. I’m going to check that, though. That’s a good point. I want to see.
The fact that you could crunch those numbers is impressive.
Brad: Yeah, right? There’re records on everything now.
With the new record, you’ve done the classic GWAR thing in releasing it as a multimedia project with the graphic novel tie-in. You’re really not far from the art collective days, are you?
Brad: We really don’t consider ourselves just a band at all. Absolutely not. There’s an entire art department of guys who do so much work. We sit around and script ideas and we all talk about songs. We all talk about plot line. We all talk about comics. What’s the next GWAR we’re going to give to the world? We do that all together.
We have these Zoom meetings during COVID to do just that. It was a little slower a process doing stuff from far away for a minute, but we managed to get a lot done. The graphic novel is coupled with the album and they both support each other, along with the concept and the plot lines. The live show will mirror or emulate a part of that, or maybe the show coming up for this new album might be an extension of where the comic stops, and the show will take it to its conclusion.
I’m looking forward to digging into all of it, because the first time I ever heard GWAR was on a compilation CD somewhere between 2005-2007, maybe with Chaos in the name? (editor’s note: it was the “Hot Topic Presents: Sound of the Underground U.S./Canadian Summer 2007 Tour CD/DVD”!)
I remember thinking “woah, this is super different to what I’m usually listening to,” and then discovering all the intricate lore and albums and merchandise way beyond what I’d seen from any group before.
Brad: That tour was wild. It was pretty sick. I’m surprised you survived to talk to me today, actually.
Me too. There’s a picture of me somewhere with my contact lenses filled up with fake blood.
Brad: Looked like you were summoned by demons or something. When you got home, you were covered in blood. Of course!
Looked like an extra in a Troma film. Thankful to have that memory.
Brad: Well, don’t worry. We’ll kill you next time.
THIS IS GWAR premieres exclusively to Shudder on July 21.