By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
THIS IS GWAR, the new Shudder Exclusive documentary from filmmaker Scott Barber is not the story of the misfit Scumdogs of the Universe, exiled to conquer an insignificant rock called Earth. It’s also not really the story of the Grammy Award-nominated shock rockers that became a ’90s phenomena thanks to Beavis and Butthead and their controversial blood and semen-soaked live shows. At its core, THIS IS GWAR is about friendship, tragedy and perseverance in the face of tragedy. THIS IS GWAR is a heartfelt film that follows the band from its humble origins as the pseudo-opening act for Richmond, Virginia, punk band Death Piggy and underground art collective through its ascendency to pop culture infamy and the tragic deaths of guitarist Cory Smoot (Flattus Maximus) and founding member and frontman Dave Brockie (Oderus Urungus) to its current status as an enduring cult phenomenon.
Having first donned the armor as the original Beefcake the Mighty, GWAR’s spike-helmeted bassist in 1987, musician Michael Bishop took a two-decade sabbatical from the band during which he earned a Ph.D. in music from the University of Virginia, where he would go on to teach American music history and writing. Following Dave Brockie’s 2014 death from a heroin overdose, Bishop took on the mantle of GWAR’s new lead howler, the Berserker Blothar. Now in his eighth year fronting the universe’s most dangerous metal band, Bishop recently removed Blothar’s moon moose antlers to chat with Rue Morgue about the new film and reflect on GWAR’s ongoing quest to crush everyone and everything in its way.
First of all, is it Mike, Blothar or Dr. Bishop?
[Laughs] You can call me Mike … I smell a lot better than Blothar. I’m nicer, too.
How did THIS IS GWAR come about? Did you have any concerns or reservations about how the band would be represented in the film?
Well, I did, but not the concerns that I think you might expect. We’d been approached by a number of people to do documentaries, but Scott Barber just had the right attitude about the band, and he addressed that issue that you’re talking about right away because it could have gone either way. He seemed like somebody who could take it seriously and treat the subject compassionately and with interest in us as people. That’s really what we were looking for because it’s an interesting story to tell.
I wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be like hagiography, right? The idea of us doing a documentary was kicked around, and I was like, “I don’t like that.” I don’t like the lack of objectivity that you would get with that. So it was nice to be able to have somebody who had a good eye and could sort of assemble a narrative out of our story, but [do] so treating the band and the people in it like what they are, which is something that’s exceptional.
It’s a weird thing. I can’t find anything else like [GWAR]. I looked. I quit the band for a while. I went out and looked … Where is something like this? Another group of artists and musicians that are cooperating. I couldn’t find it. So I think we made the right decision with Scott. He just did such a good job. We’re very happy with it.
Having been in the band as Beefcake the Mighty in the band’s early days, leaving for two decades and later taking on duties as GWAR’s lead singer after Dave Brockie’s passing, you must have a unique perspective on the film. What were your thoughts about the documentary after seeing it for the first time?
Well, the first time that I saw it, I wasn’t sure. I could tell just by the questions [Scott] asked that it was going to be good – that it was going to be fair – but I didn’t expect it to be so emotional. The first time that I watched it, I was surprised by that. It’s touching, and it’s moving for me to see people that I care about be moved emotionally in the course of the film. That was my first reaction. And I also just loved it right away. I was like, “Wow!” Even the earliest cut that I saw. I could tell because, like I said, it’s a good story – the story, not of GWAR on stage, but of GWAR off stage.
Are there any moments in the film that you found surprising? Did you learn anything about the band that you weren’t aware of despite being in it for so long?
I found that surprising how sort of uniformly – this is kind of abstract – but how uniformly these people [had] dedication to one another. Everybody bought into it, and it’s something that I knew, but had never seen articulated before.
I also was a little surprised at how [Scott Garber] kept showing me like I had pulled all these people together to do this thing. I guess I never thought of that. I never realized that. I mean, I had been sort of the liaison to get people to join the band. I only really realized that I when watched it. Like, “Oh, wow. Okay. I really didn’t have some to do with it.” [Laughs]
One of the more serious themes in THIS IS GWAR is the friction between founding members Dave Brockie and Hunter Jackson (Techno Destructo). Do you feel that the film presents their relationship fairly and accurately?
I think it gets at it very accurately. And speaking of something surprising, that was surprising to me. I really wish that we had Brockie’s version of events. I don’t know if it would have softened that at all, though. It was interesting to me that Hunter is still so upset. I did find that was especially surprising because I watched it again after Hunter had come out with us. You asked me if it’s accurate. It is accurate, but it’s very difficult to explain all of the levels of complication in that relationship. It kind of gets flattened out in the act of representation, but the truth of the matter is that they had a complex relationship that was about maybe not liking one another but respecting one another. That part, I felt like maybe didn’t make it in as much as I would have liked.
From your perspective, is there a villain in their story?
Honestly, there’s kind of two villains in that story. I think THIS IS GWAR does a really good job of looking at these two guys and saying, here are the really wonderful things about them, and then, here are the things that complicate that. But [Brockie] is not there. So he kind of gets a pass, right? But you can watch Hunter’s behavior, and you come away thinking to yourself that he does seem to be the villain, and I’ll be honest with you, that’s probably the only thing about the film that I wish were different, but I wonder if I just wish that were different in life.
What was it like having Hunter back on stage for GWAR’s 30th-anniversary tour?
See, that’s the thing. That’s why it’s so complicated. Hunter is really so gifted, and just having him back, just having him there. raises the level of performance of this band. It was like having an older brother back that really knows everything. He’s got such a mind for practical effects. He’s such a good live performer. His own standards are so high for just acting on stage – his sensitivity to the story that we’re telling, all of that stuff. It was great having him back and not only that, but you forget how funny somebody is and how much you liked them as a person, and I think that’s actually kind of crucial.
Hunter would laugh at Dave, and Dave would laugh at Hunter. I think that they had a respect that went both ways. It’s impossible to sort of convey the depth of that relationship, but they do a damn good job of showing the main dynamics. But yeah, it is kind of two villains now, just a lot of ego and a lot of in some ways, almost like a brokeness about being in the world.
Being in GWAR is cool, but taking care of each other, that’s something that we have to constantly remind ourselves of. Yet, it’s stayed together for so long. That level of commitment, it wouldn’t have existed without Hunter driving that ethos into everybody, and Brockie was a willing participant in that.
Johnny Ramone once said something to the effect of, “Being in a band is a pretty good job, but it’s still a job, and all jobs suck.” Does that sentiment apply to you and your experience in GWAR?
Well, that’s exactly my experience with GWAR. I think that probably GWAR sucks more than most musical jobs, right? I mean, the minute that I joined other bands and went on tour, I was like, “Wow, this is, this is what you do? You just ride around and walk on stage with the clothes that you’re wearing and play your show? And then everybody knows who you are and talks to you?” None of those things happen in GWAR. GWAR is definitely not a glory game. There’s a lot of getting dressed in the back of semi-trucks. I don’t think that’ll ever change. It’s very different than what goes on on stage. That’s part of what we did; We broke the frame, so we live with that out on the road. But, you know, it’s still fun, and I still get to ride around with people that I care about and enjoy being around.
You’ve been at center stage as Blothar for a while now. Are fans getting used to not seeing Oderus up there?
I don’t think they’re ever going to. I mean, there are a lot of people who don’t know the band, and if our plans go correctly, then there’ll be a lot more coming in who didn’t really know the band with Oderus to begin with. So there is that aspect. Certain longtime fans – and I wouldn’t say it’s mostly longtime fans – but for certain people, it’s never going to be the same without Oderus. That’s not shocking. Of course, it’s not going to be the same, right? People are shocked when they go see a show, and they come away being like, “Oh, wow. That was a GWAR show.” Of course, it is. That’s because one of the downsides of Brockie’s drive was that people do tend to look at [GWAR] and say, “Okay, this guy is responsible for this. This guy did this.” And he didn’t. He couldn’t have, you know? So that’s why the band is able to continue on. It was never just him. It was always all of us, and we all knew that, but the audiences don’t know that. By and large, I think people enjoy Blothar and accept who he is. And certainly, the fans that we’re looking to get, which are new GWAR fans, they experience it that way.
The thesis of the documentary is the world needs GWAR. Why does the world need GWAR and more specifically, why does Mike Bishop need GWAR?
Well, I think that GWAR is something that exists that is special in the world. It definitely does the thing that art is supposed to do. It shows people things about the world. It teaches things about the world. It represents our view of the world. I think that the world needs art. GWAR is really unique art.
For me, what I need and what I really enjoy are the people – the people that are involved. I enjoy the challenge of keeping it together, I enjoy the challenge of pushing it further. How far can we push this thing? I just like spending time with those people, so that is why I need it. It’s kind of like asking me why I need music. I need it. I need to say something. I need to express myself in the way that all artists do. GWAR is just a great vehicle for that; It’s a great vehicle for performance and making meaning.
I also think that the transgressiveness of GWAR might be something that the world needs. [The world] needs acceptance. There’s this sense that you aren’t going to be judged by GWAR. We’re not going to look at anybody and say, “You’re not as good as us.” Also, it’s not serious, right? It’s light-hearted and funny while at the same time being meaningful. A sense of humor, the world needs that. Heavy metal needs that. Art needs that. One thing that GWAR always did was take apart art and take apart the notions of art that make it suck – that turn it into museum culture. GWAR doesn’t belong in a museum. We’ve been there, but we want to be live and doing what we do out in the world for real people who we need to reach.
Watch THIS IS GWAR on Shudder. Do it, Scumdogs!