Let There be GWAR!

You may know GWAR primarily as the cartoonishly grotesque metal band whose live stage show involves dousing the audience in all manner of pseudo-gore. But “Let There Be GWAR!,” an exhibition on view through September 28 at the Gallery at Black Iris Music in Richmond, Virginia, turns a more critical eye on the musical art project, which was founded by a collective of local artists working under the moniker of the Slave Pit three decades ago. I caught up with curator Benjamin Thorp to go further into about drug-induced drawings, Christian fan mail, and crucifixes in urine. 

Can you talk a bit about some misconceptions people have about GWAR, and a few things about the group’s origins that might not be common knowledge?
Well, GWAR is a production of Slave Pit Inc. The Slave Pit is an amazing collective of talented artists and musicians who approach their public performances with measured doses of intellect, story telling, satire, incredible craftsmanship and, of course, irreverent chaos. GWAR’s roots are in Richmond, only an hour away from D.C., and I think it’s really important to understand the socio/political context that birthed the band. The D.C. hardcore scene had a certain politics, an organized strictness to it that resulted in a particular sound, image and style. GWAR wanted no part of that, and Richmond was a creative playground. In the early 80’s you could do whatever you wanted here. That freedom allowed the members to dream, to take chances and express themselves in ways that were un-proscribed. They were having fun, making art and shaping their future on their own terms. One thing that’s so great about the members of the Slave Pit is they are really down to earth and understand and utilize humor brilliantly. Everyone is in on the joke. 
The exhibition includes archival material–including letters and arrest reports–as well as what are termed ‘genital molds.’ There are over 400 pieces in the show, but what are a few of the more salacious, controversial, or downright shocking inclusions?
There are a lot of small details in this exhibit that illustrate the complexities and challenges of creating something as monolithic and enduring as “Let There Be GWAR!” One of the aspects of the group that I think a lot of people miss is their impact on community. We have one display composed entirely of materials (letters, drawings, paper dolls, poems) from fans. What ends up being shocking (in an unexpected way) is the overwhelmingly positive impact that GWAR has on people, especially youth. There’s one letter from a 15 year old girl that concludes with her saying, “…I just wanted you to know that you have at least one church going, straight-A student who really appreciates what you’re doing.” People see through the media propaganda that surrounds GWAR and understand the art and theater of it all. 
Can you tell me a bit about the ‘acid drawings’ that will be on view?
The “acid drawings” involve obsessive mark-making, executed in a style associated with drug-induced visions. When you’re looking at a floating head (in the work Anton The Art Critic by Dave Brockie) that consists of thousands of meticulously placed marks that read as a beautifully disgusting, textured face, it’s pretty easy for your mind to start wandering, twisting and engaging in a thought process that’s pretty weird. It’s an aesthetic phrase, really.
What’s the strangest experience you’ve ever personally had at a GWAR concert?
So much great theater is dependent on the performers being able to generate the conditions necessary for the audience to suspend disbelief. GWAR are masters at this. The catharsis that happens at a GWAR concert is magical in this respect. How strange is it to watch thousands of people witnessing Presidents, celebrities and Queens being dismembered, soaked in body fluids with 115 decibels worth of intergalactic metal coursing through you? The strangest part of a GWAR performance is after the show is over, watching the audience leave smiling and happy with a sense of having experienced something truly one of a kind.
On September 19 you’ll have Sarah Cunningham, a former Director of Arts Education at the NEA, as a guest speaker in conjunction with the exhibition. Which do you think the American public would find more objectionable: Andreas Serrano’s Piss Christ photograph that was made using NEA funding (and featured a crucifix submerged in urine), or the "Let There Be GWAR!" exhibition?
First off, Serrano’s photographs are absolutely gorgeous! I think the title Piss Christ is what really got people twisted. The photograph in question was made in 1987 and it shocked people; we’ve come a long way since then. Similarly it seems first reactions to GWAR’s performances and work is completely reactionary. We’re encouraging a second (or more complete) look at the Slave Pit’s practice.  

GWAR Covers Kansas and It Is Pretty Great

It’s the middle of the week, there’s a presidential debate on tonight, the weather’s crappy and sometimes you just need something big and dumb and goofy to get you through the rest of the morning. And it’s perfect timing, because the AV Club chose codpiece-wearing, guttural noisemaking alien-shock rock group GWAR as the final band in their “Undercovers” series. And GWAR performs Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son.

And what compelled the theatrical metal gods to choose this, of all songs? As lead singer Oderus Urungus (the one who looks like a devil-boar) explains, “I hadn’t even heard it until they played it for me the other day. I was convinced that they’d written it. And I was like, what are you guys doing writing that derivative, ‘70s crap, crap, crap?”

He goes on: “Kansas was a big part of a time in music when bands named themselves after geographical locations, and let’s hope that never happens again. Quite frankly, those bands suck.”

What’s surprising is that despite the band having a golden opportunity to go ham and spray bodily fluids everywhere and just gurgle through the lyrics, they stay fairly close to the original. Urungus gives his best power-ballad wail for the opening, but forgets the words, later ad-libbing some new (and well-fitting) lines about being unemployed and getting a job amid quick shredding from new guitarist Pustulus Maximus. Good times, good times.

GWAR covers Kansas 

19 Bands We Miss from the 1990s

From pump sneakers to hypercolor clothes to sexual predators in AOL chatrooms, the 90s had it all. But many of the decade’s self-indulgent fads have been lost to history, much like many of the era’s formerly memorable musical acts. Some were really good, some were so bad they were good, and some were bad enough that it’s good they’re gone. There are many ways for a band to die, but dead or not, a few still hold a special place in our memory and/or playlist.

(‘DiggThis’)image1. Beastie Boys – What other band on earth could get away with a line like “I want to stir fry you in my wok” and not sound insane, pathetic, or both? The Beastie Boys helped define rap for the white kids of the 90s, paving the way for Eminem and the like. We miss the Beastie Boys, but at least this band had a good reason for dipping out of the pop scene: Rapper MCA had a difficult bout of cancer. Since he’s alive and well, we think the band needs to breathe the same life back into their careers and put out another album. image2. Soul Asylum – Many people think Soul Asylum was a one-hit wonder. This is totally false. They had two good songs: “Runaway Train” and “Black Gold!” And we’d like to hear more of those two songs on the radio. Where did that runaway train end up, anyway?

image3. Better Than Ezra – This was the perfect middle-of-the-road 90s band. They were not too edgy, not too bold, not too flamboyant, and not too flashy. That may be the reason they fell into obscurity. We may never know, but what’s clear is that “it was good living with you,” Better Than Ezra. It was damn good.
image4. Soundgarden – Soundgarden helped create the grunge rock scene, but they always seem to get overlooked. Nirvana and Pearl Jam somehow managed to squeeze Chris Cornell and the boys out of the limelight. For years we’ve longed for the day when Soundgarden would darken our sky once more with a “Black Hole Sun.” And with a reunion plan in the works, it looks like our pathetic little prayers may have been answered.

image5. Nine Inch Nails – While Nine Inch Nails didn’t completely disappear, Trent Reznor and the gang sure seem to have been in hiding over the past decade. Perhaps his pale skin keeps him from coming out into the open. Sure, he used to spend a great deal of time on social networking sites like Twitter, but he swore off them in mid-2009 after having one too many run-ins with a group of internet trolls. From the looks of it, he may have sworn off getting his music on the radio as well. image6. Björk – Björk is actually still around, but she’s not doing anything notable. In our opinion, the world needs more music videos with cute rocker chicks dancing on moving semi trucks. While Björk wasn’t the biggest hit of the 90s, she certainly made her mark. She’s by far our favorite 90s rocker to come out of Iceland anyway.
image7. Smashing Pumpkins – The world needs more old-school Smashing Pumpkins. We’re not just talking about the band. We should all go out and smash some more pumpkins. The radio of the 90s was dominated by the swill of watered-down ska and pseudo-big bands. Luckily, the Pumpkins were there to cut through the crap. They broke up in 2000 and have since reunited, but it’s just not the same. Oh well, despite all my rage, yada yada yada.

image8. Rage Against The Machine – Rage was just too angsty to stay together for a whole decade. It wasn’t that their music was dated or anything, but after Tibet was freed (right?) their mission as a band was accomplished, and they all decided to concentrate on other things. Recently, they did get together to play some of their old songs, but a complete reunion hasn’t happened. We want our Rage. image9. 311 – 311 had some serious hits, but we hardly ever hear them on the radio anymore. This is probably due to their name. Since it’s comprised only of numbers, it doesn’t show up on the alphabetical lists used by modern DJs. If they had been named AAB, we’d hear them all the time, and it would be awesome.

image10. The Pixies – When people think of the Pixies, they tend to imagine buildings crashing down while Edward Norton holds hands with Helena Bonham Carter. Considering the song used in Fight Club is one of their best, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, “Where Is My Mind” wasn’t their only good song. Maybe if today’s DJs would play more of their catalog the world would know that.
image11. Guns N’ Roses – Despite the recent release of Chinese Democracy, Guns N’ Roses has been under the radar for a while. All that’s left is Axl Rose and a bunch of people you don’t know. Slash and the rest moved on and currently play in Velvet Revolver with Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots. But we still have an appetite for destruction, and right now the world could use some G.N.R. image12. MC Hammer – Who could ever forget the pants that this man popularized? They were so big and flashy that the aeronautics industry tested them for parachute durability. Somehow, Hammer blew all the money he made off of songs like “Can’t Touch This” and “Hammer Time.” Luckily, later in life he found Jesus and made some of it back. Now maybe Jesus can get him back on the radio.

image13. Ace of Base – I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes to the fact that we haven’t heard from Ace of Base in more than ten years. It’s too bad. They made catchy girl music that didn’t pretend to be anything it wasn’t. We’re not trying to say that it was riveting, life-changing music, but we hummed along when it came on the radio, and so did you. Admit it! image14. Counting Crows – For many bands, there comes a point in time when dreadlocks just won’t carry the music any longer. The Counting Crows reached that point in the 90s, which explains why you don’t hear from them. Seriously though, we could all use a little more air time for “Mr. Jones.” And considering that the band is still touring, there’s always hope. image15. Crash Test Dummies – No one here is claiming that the Crash Test Dummies are any good. But you have to respect a band whose first hit has a refrain that’s simply humming: “Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm.” Bold move.

image16. Live – Live hit it big in 1994 with their breakthrough album Throwing Copper. Although they fell out of the spotlight soon afterwards, no one bothered to inform the band. Apparently they’ve been touring and recording music all this time. It was only in November of 2009 that guitarist Chad Taylor announced he was leaving the band.
image17. Oasis – Only the Beatles can claim to be bigger than Jesus and get away with it. Oasis learned this the hard way. But despite their self-indulgent tendencies, they were still a decent band. Unfortunately, no one remembers them beyond select singles (ahem, “Wonderwall”), so Jesus wins.

image18. House of Pain – Seriously though, couldn’t you go for a little “Jump Around” right now? Come on, it’s an easy song. The lyrics are the same as the title, and the only other words you have to remember are “I came to get down.” There’s something to be said for simplicity.

image19. Gwar – Are the days of massive costumes and crazy face-paint over? If so, that explains why we haven’t heard much from Gwar. Kids today just don’t want a sci-fi/horror spectacle when they listen to music. They’d rather listen to Adam Lambert while they watch Avatar. Pussies.