Grunt Work: Dave Brockie
Nearly 30 years after GWAR's inception, Dave Brockie is still executing presidents, slaying aliens, and putting on the freakiest show in metal. Learn how the scumdogs of the universe were born and see why this show is getting stronger and better with time.
It started with a simple question—what’s the best way for a motley crew of punk rock kids to force the music scene to take itself less seriously? The answer was obvious: make the biggest, baddest monster costumes imaginable, throw in some stage antics that would make Ron Jeremy blush, and rock the faces off of anyone and everyone down for some stone-cold, intergalactic mayhem.
Twenty-eight years after a group of Virginia Commonwealth University art students first put on rubber masks and picked up guitars, the musical warriors of GWAR are still on a blood-soaked mission to rid Earth of its human parasites and leave a trail of weary metal fans in their wake. Currently on tour and working on their upcoming album slated to be released next year, the group has spent almost three decades evolving their craft and their viciously ambitious stage show thanks, in no small part, to their “Slave Pit” team of artists, costume designers, stage techs, and everyone else who makes GWAR’s freak magic happen night after night.
Dave Brockie sits at the helm of that team. One of the band’s founding members and its current lead singer, Oderus Urungus, Brockie has masterminded the shock rock group’s many visual and theatrical iterations. Plus, he’s the go-to guy if you need to know which brand of fake blood looks best spewing from the neck of a decapitated celebrity. The behind-the-scenes secrets that make GWAR’s stage show possible are almost as fascinating and bizarre as the performers themselves.
Get In Media: How did the aesthetic end of GWAR get started?
Dave Brockie: … I had a band called Death Piggy. We were known for wearing stupid costumes and doing ridiculous skits. It was right in the middle of the hardcore scene. Hardcore was just starting out, and we thought everyone was taking themselves way too seriously, so we decided to go out of our way to make fun and have fun any way we could. I ended up meeting an artist named Hunter Jackson, who was working on all these amazing props and costumes for a movie he wanted to make called Scumdogs of the Universe. Kind of together, we hit on the idea of starting a new band using my band, Death Piggy, and putting these barbarian costumes on them and bringing the visual element into it even more strongly. Death Piggy always had kind of a little theatrical thing going on, but nowhere near as elaborate as it became after we added Hunter’s costumers. Originally, the band was called GRWARRRR. It didn’t even have a name. It was just a bunch of grunts. Eventually what ended up happening was, we would open up for Death Piggy, and people would stay for the GWAR part of the set, then they would bail when Death Piggy came out. GWAR literally ate Death Piggy whole. It consumed that entire band and then went on with its own business. Quite by accident, we created this colossus that, at the time, we had absolutely no idea would basically obsess the rest of our lives.
GIM: At this point, how big is the GWAR team?
DB: … When you add all the players in, the drivers, the merch person, all the extra slaves and artists, we probably have a road crew of about 12, but the GWAR team stretches coast to coast from our manager in New York to our agent in Philly to our label out in LA … When we’re doing tours in Europe and America and releasing albums worldwide, on any given day, you might have 12 full-time GWAR employees and up to 100 other people in different agencies all just doing different things for GWAR all over the freaking world … .
GIM: The band members still are very involved with your stage show, from beginning to end, right?
DB: Oh yeah, we do it all. We’ve got a totally dedicated art department who works very closely with the musicians … . Constantly, you’re balancing how cool you can make the costume, because we want them to look really big. We want the characters to look gigantic, but how much stuff you can pile up on these poor musicians and have them still be able to play the very technical kind of metal that we play? … It’s always a challenge to be able to do that.
GIM: How has your stage show evolved as the band’s evolved?
DB: We really used to go all the way out. We thought nothing about having three decap[itation]s in the first song … 8,000 extra characters, stuff exploding and just like, after a while we were like, “You know, we’ve got to chill … out because we’re never going to last if we just keep doing this.” We were just cramming so much stuff into our shows and taking so many people on tour with us that, basically, we would go out on tour for three months and play tons of shows and make tons of money, and we’d come home, and we’d be broke because we’d poured it all into this gigantic flaming pit in the middle of the floor that says GWAR on it. GWAR runs on money … Around the year 2000, we kind of cut back on a lot of the extra characters, streamlined GWAR down. We almost took a page from our critics, listened to them and said, “OK, let’s really concentrate on the music. We know that we can make rubber monster suits and chop off presidents’ heads all … week and people are going to love it. Let’s really listen to our critics and super-concentrate on making our music and our just general production smoother.” So that’s what we did, and we had a lot of success with that, and we’re still having a lot of success with that. I’d say that the old GWAR of everything in the world happening at once was awesome, and that was totally the way that we needed to go in order to make our reputation, but then, to make it a little more wieldy of a weapon, that was the critical adjustment that we made that has led to GWAR being able to last all of these years.
GIM: How long does it take you guys to put together a new stage show from beginning to end?
DB: If we go really hardcore on it and the ideas pile up pretty fast, we can probably build the whole thing from conception to final costuming and rehearsal in four months. We can do it sooner. We can knock a half-ass show together in a week if we had to, but to do a really, really good job and rehearse it … three to four months.
GIM: What are the logistics of moving a stage show like yours?
DB: It’s really not that hard. Basically, you just put everything in big boxes. It took us a while to figure that out, that road cases are probably the best investment you can make as a band. When you’re starting, you’re buying all this equipment, and then you realize that it just takes a few tours putting those cabinets and putting your equipment in the back of your van to realize that [stuff] is going get torn up unless you’ve got a case for it. The same thing is true for our costumes. Back in the day, we used to just take them off and throw them in the back of an old school bus. Now, we have very special custom-made rolling cases, and it’s all just about how you plan and how you break down the logistics. Somehow they freaking figure out how to get … Barnum and Bailey’s circus across the entire … world, you know, we can figure out how to get GWAR down the road a couple hundred miles at a time … .
GIM: How long does it take to make a major costume or a major prop for your show?
DB: It depends whether you’re doing a full disembowelment of a recognizable political figure or whether you’re just building a new helmet for one of the Scumdogs, but, generally speaking, if you wanted to do an entire character from head to toe, totally outfitting him, build the molds, do the sculptures, make the molds, do the casts … it can be one or two months easily.
GIM: What secrets have you picked up over the years in terms of the makeup and the costuming and the stage show work?
DB: We’ve got all kinds of kooky things … One thing about special effects artists especially, they all have their own special way of doing things, and they’re all convinced that their way is the best … I don’t know the individual secrets of the various slaves we have in the slave pit. A lot of baby oil, that’s one. Before I put on that Oderus costume every night, I’m basically slathered in baby oil so that I can squeeze into it like a little guppy.
GIM: Anything else?
DB: … We use kind of crazy stuff for blood called sea emollient. It’s also called carrageenan. It’s made from a seaweed extract, and they use it in dairy products a lot to thicken food. It’s basically just an organic vegetable gel that you [mix] with some water and some food coloring, and it makes absolutely the greatest blood. It’ll stick to anything, but it’s not sticky because it doesn’t have any sugar … The most wonderful thing about it is that it coagulates just like real blood. It darkens and dries, just like real blood. It turns that reddish brown, and it dries and flakes away. You don’t have to clean anything at all. It just kind of evaporates and flakes off, because it’s its own paste … I still see all the time at Halloween stores, these fake bloods that are made out of like karo syrup and all this other junk. That stuff is disgusting. I wouldn’t get anywhere near that stuff.
GIM: Do you alter the props and costumes that you use for stage shows at all when you do film or television?
DB: No, not really. I pretty much use the exact same suit … I’ve been in a lot more really nice studios. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff in very professional facilities, and I’ve been noticing that when I bring my costume with me, I get a lot of remarks about how bad it smells, so I’m thinking I’m going to build another one that’s basically just for production, just for TV and video. That way, maybe, I can hang out in more of these green rooms. They actually kicked us out of the Sirius green room in New York last time we were there, because we smelled so bad.
GIM: The costumes have got to be heavy and sweaty. How do you guys deal with that on stage?
DB: … Anyone who belongs up there is going to tell you that they feed off the energy of the audience, and that’s very true. When you go out on stage, and you’re confronted by that screaming GWAR crowd, they’re not about to let you let them down … . It’s like [how] athletes talk about the home-field advantage. When you’re playing in GWAR, everywhere you have the home-field advantage because those people who paid to see you … no matter what, they want you to have a good show, and I just feed off the power … . Honestly, I’m 48 years old. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, and I’m way better at it now than I ever was in my 20s and 30s. I was really ragged out, exhausted, messed up; now, honestly I’m so used to it, nothing phases me on stage anymore. I don’t care how hot it is, don’t care how nasty it is, I don’t care how much the barricade is collapsing, and there’s just a giant pile of writhing bodies on the floor and how many cops are pulling up outside. I’ve seen it all, I’ve participated in it, and I’ve come through unscarred, and I can say that’s true for pretty much everyone in this band. We’re definitely veteran warriors at this point. We’ve never been better at what we do than we are right now, and honestly, unlike so many other bands in production, I think GWAR is getting stronger and stronger all the time. I really do think that the biggest and brightest days for GWAR are still ahead of us.
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