What if…? What if you and your weird friends actually followed through with every crazy, stoned idea that you ever came up with? Or at least a few of them? Make a campy sci-fi movie! Start a really loud band! Show up at the Grammys dressed as obnoxious aliens! Open your own bar with you as the theme!
The members of Gwar have managed to do all of these over the last 39 years, nicely punctuated by the “Hail Seitan” sandwich you order at the bar — no pickles, please.
The interior of the GwarBar, sited on an odd triangular street corner in Richmond, Virginia, is everything that the Hard Rock Cafe pretends to be and fails at. The stage props and guitars on the walls can come down whenever a band member wants to use one in a show or video. Actual musicians and hard-partying metal scene guys can be found knocking back whiskey and McDuckets (nuggets made with duck meat) after a late-night concert. Michael Derks, Gwar’s rhythm guitarist in the character of Balsac the Jaws of Death, can often be found behind the bar pouring drinks.
Derks can do pretty much whatever he wants here because it’s his bar. His and the other seven members of Gwar, which is arguably the weirdest metal band in the history of the genre, and that is saying an awful lot.
“I’ve been in Gwar for over 35 years now, and even before I was in the band, I worked in restaurants,” Derks said while sitting at his bar at the ungodly early hour of 2 p.m., which is like breakfast time for bartenders, musicians, and freelance writers who get off of work at 2 or 3 a.m. and then need a certain amount of “me time” before crashing.
“It’s always been like, I could work in a restaurant, take a month off to go on tour, and come back… A lot of musicians actually work in restaurants, bartenders, working in the kitchen and stuff like that… I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 14 years old. and we spend so much of our time as musicians in bars. What do you do when you’re not touring? Unless you’re huge, you know, even if you’re at the level that Gwar is, we have to have part-time jobs, you know. It’s like we can’t support ourselves on just music.”
A dirty little secret of the music industry is that a lot of the artists and bands that you love and see in concert and maybe even actually pay for an album aren’t able to survive on their income as artists. That guy on stage in front of a thousand people at a packed nightclub might be driving for Uber or slinging mojitos after the tour is over. He isn’t likely to mention this on his social media, but that is the reality of the modern music industry, where the $16 for a brand new CD of the late ‘90s has been replaced with a quarter of a cent or whatever quantum form of currency Spotify is now paying to musicians.
Gwar has taken control of the means of production, as it were. They own the actual bar and restaurant where they can pour drinks and flip burgers (called “beefcakes” here) if they so choose.
Taking control is kind of what Gwar does in general, even if Earth as whole has proven disturbingly resistant. The band originated when a different band, Death Piggy, was rehearsing in a cheap space in a dilapidated former Richmond dairy in 1984. In the room next door, Hunter Jackson and a few friends were hard at work making props and costumes for a sci-fi movie that Jackson planned to make about a bunch of alien barbarians who arrive on Earth ready to conquer but get distracted by things like new girlfriends and joining a band.
Dave Brockie, Death Piggy’s vocalist and Gwar’s founder, asked Hunter if he could borrow the costumes for a night to have the band open for themselves dressed up as what became Gwar. Jackson’s props, characters, and story were quickly subsumed by the conquering power that is Gwar; absorbed like the quivering flesh of their enemies. Death Piggy quietly died so that Gwar might live.
Along the way they turned into a truly tight, sharp-edged metal band with real instrumental prowess, challenged by the need to play technically difficult material while wearing many pounds of bulky foam and latex and whatever hidden contraptions squirt out the gallons of fake blood and other bodily fluids that tend to hose the audience in the face during a Gwar show.
Derks and Brockie started talking about the idea of a Gwar bar around 20 years ago. Of course it would have to be in Richmond, home of Gwar and of Virginia Commonwealth University, which boasts a large arts program that many of Gwar’s members are alumni of and which continues to provide a reliable stream of interesting weirdos that make Richmond arguably the funnest gritty American city after New Orleans. Of course it would have to be in the Jackson Ward neighborhood, where you wouldn’t have wanted to set foot 20 years ago but today you can hit up a trendy art gallery and still have full confidence that someone will at least try pulling on your car door handles.
There’s a homeless guy with impressive dreadlocks who pretty much lives in the alley behind the Gwar bar. Really nice dude. Begs for cash for art supplies and sells decent paintings.
At Gallery Five, on the other side of the block, a few months ago I saw the Embalmers, a surf rock instrumental band dressed in sharp suits and red fezes playing Cure covers while students and old metal guys bounced around, elbows and Doc Martens flying inches away from expensive art for sale. After the show, a bunch of them headed straight for the GwarBar.
It may have been started as a branded destination, the ultimate item on the merch table. But the GwarBar is a bona fide local institution. A rock and roll watering hole where kids in new bands hang out, where touring bands like Slayer like to stop in, and of course there are also folks who are there specifically for Gwar.
“We definitely get a lot of people from outta town that have come here,” Derks told me. “They’re visiting Richmond as their Gwar pilgrimage, you know, to see the GwarBar, to see the dairy where it all started, to go to Dave’s memorial in Hollywood Cemetery and see the Brockie murals all over the city. People do make this the Richmond pilgrimage, and this is kind of like the Mecca for Gwar fans.”
Dave Brockie died in 2014, and Derks has been pretty much the guy in charge ever since. It was Derks who finally started making moves on their old idea, partnering with an experienced restaurant owner to make the GwarBar a reality.
Since the GwarBar opened, Gwar has continued to metastasize. You can order a Gwar-themed beer, “Blood Geyser.” Their whiskey, “Ragnarök Rye,” goes for over a hundred bucks a bottle retail and has received extraordinarily high ratings. There’s a comic book, GWAR: In the Duoverse of Absurdity, written by Derks and fellow band-member Matt McGuire, aka Sawborg Destructo.
Now there’s also a documentary, This is Gwar, paid for by horror network Shudder, also available for a few bucks streaming on Amazon Prime. The band is playing European festivals this summer and there always seems to be a new video around the corner.
Gwar has always been powered by the work of an art collective, The Slave Pit, which builds and repairs the constant flow of new costumes and props. The Slave Pit has had their own gallery shows. A crew of bartenders and cooks (who look way cooler than you or I ever will) have now joined the ever-growing staff in service of the needs of all that is Gwar. Also the brewers and the whiskey makers and the guys who illustrated the comic book and the whole crew behind the documentary. Gwar is an industry, constantly expanding. They will never drive for Uber.
The GwarBar “keeps evolving and growing every year,” Derks said, gesturing towards a grotesque latex mask and a wall made to look like stone. “Margaret [Rolicki] just painted the walls, like the dungeon walls, over the pandemic and we just keep adding stuff and taking stuff down. So it’s kind of like a rotating curated museum.”
I meant to ask about a breakfast cereal but got distracted by all the stuff on the walls.