Fantastic Fest: Scumdogs of Eternity in This Is Gwar
New documentary gets under the latex of the monster metalers
Blood jets. Pummeling riffs. Decapitations. Grammy nominations. Monsters that split into three. Lyrics built around social satire. The dreaded Cuddlefish. For 37 years, deranged performance art/goreshow metal heads GWAR have shocked, baffled, and drenched audiences, part Grand Guignol horror show, part kaiju suit mayhem, part unbelievably tight thrash/punk/classic metal warriors. Not bad for something that FX artist/co-lead vocalist Matt Maguire (aka Sawborg Destructo) said "started out as this fun project that a bunch of graduated/college kids have come up with."
As the longest-standing member, rhythm guitarist Mike Derks (Balsac the Jaws of Death) has been through most of that history, even if that was never the plan. "I told my mom I was going to take a semester off, join this band, and tour the United States. She was like, 'Sure, OK, just go back to school in six months,' and now it's – I've lost count, over 30 years later – and I still haven't gone back to school, and I can't imagine anything I'd rather do than this.
Finally, the insane tale of life in latex is told in This Is GWAR, the new music documentary making its world premiere at Fantastic Fest. What's weirdest is how long it took for GWAR to make it to the movies. The costumes were originally conceived of by co-founder Hunter Jackson (Techno Destructo) for characters in an unmade film (a constant point of tension between Jackson and band leader Dave Brockie, better known as Oderus Urungus), and the band pioneered longform music videos. It was Texas-based director Scott Barber that finally assembled all the footage, every available current and former band member, and a rogues' gallery of superfans who reflect the unique position of GWAR as influences on music (as attested by "Weird Al" Yankovic), horror (Hatchet director Adam Green), comedy (Thomas Lennon), and general cultural transgression (Alex Winter). Barber's also no stranger to goo and gloop, having recently directed The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story. For Derks, the experience has allowed some contemplation. "It all happens in small bites, and you don't really notice it over the years. Then you look back over at the decades of your career, and you say, 'Oh, OK, I guess we kind of made some things.'"
As anyone who has seen GWAR live (then washed out blood, jizz, and unknown alien body fluids) can attest, they put the show into stage show. Think a sound check is tough? Imagine having to sound check, but at the same time the FX crew is connecting hoses to water systems. "You're not putting on a regular rock show," Maguire explained, "You're putting on theatre." They even have a handbook of venues, packed with load-in information so they can get everything through the door in time, whether it's a 300-capacity club or a 3,000 seater venue. This is rock & roll as touring spectacular. "We have a full blood delivery system, which we truncate to fit it on planes to go overseas, to make sure we can squirt blood as far as we possibly can, and that's not a pitfall that other bands have to deal with."
What about playing a show staring through a jagged slot in a mask that covers your entire head? Not as hard as it sounds, Derks noted ("most professional musicians, you have bright lights shining in your face and you have to play your guitar without seeing"), plus it comes with the perk of anonymity. It's the costume that's famous, not the musician underneath. "The rock star gets put in the back of the truck, and we the road crew just get on the back of the bus and go from town-to-town."
It may sound insane, but that's the point. "We never wanted to make GWAR serious," said Maguire, "because GWAR is making fun of that."
Yet they've definitely dealt with serious issues: a roiling lineup that has seen maybe 100 members, bitter rifts, music industry politics. Many thought their conquest of the universe would end in 2014, with the death of chief maniac/visionary Brockie. In spite of it all, GWAR are still touring, still recording, and with their most stable lineup ever, a mix of long-standing members (Derks, 33 of your pathetic Earth years and counting) and artists like Maguire who left and returned. Maybe that's because they're not a band, in the constricting way that term is used. They're more than that, and what they are could continue until their inevitable rendezvous with Ragnarok. Maguire said, "There's this idea that you just pass it on to people. Get some twentysomethings in here, slap some costumes on, and keep going. Let's see if this band can keep going for a couple of hundred years."
This Is GWAR screens on Friday, Sept. 24 at 6:20pm at the Alamo South Lamar.