GWAR: Extended Interview with Mike Bishop, the Man Behind the Blothar

Most of the time, when you shout interview questions across the bleak Antarctic waste, the voices that come back are far from comforting.  Silly, maybe.  Over the top, sure.  Aggressive, too.  Far from reassuring.  Sometimes Beefcake speaks.  Sometimes it’s Blothar.  Sometimes it’s one of the other five filthy alien outcasts who shrieks back into your unworthy ears.  It’s rare you hear the human voice behind all the theater.

Which makes our recent conversation with Mike Bishop, the meaty puppetmaster behind Blothar’s mighty frame, all the more special.  He willingly broke character for a lengthy transcontinental phone conversation after having just spent hours wrapped up in the Blothar persona (and cumbersome costume) for an in-store comic book signing event in celebration of the release of their new comic, Orgasmageddon.  Some people might be grumpy or dismissive in such circumstances, but talking with Bishop was relaxed and extremely enjoyable.  His point of view on GWAR is informed equally by his deep history with the band (having played Beefcake long before Blothar sprouted his first penile cluster) and his break from the band to pursue – shall we say – more subtle activities.

Much of our chat can be found in the pages of this month’s issue (#157, November 2017, Cannibal Corpse cover), but since people don’t speak in word counts, here’s what didn’t make it to print.  Be sure to check out the release of The Blood of Gods on Metal Blade later this month, so you can knowingly bang your head while you dodge questionable fluids at the GWAR show that is undoubtedly headed your way soon.

So, you just finished with an event for Orgasmageddon?

Yeah, we had a comic book signing…  The GWAR comic has come out and we’ve been doing these signing events in big, cool comic book shops in big cities.  We’ve been signing the books and taking pictures with people.  We did that today at Meltdown [Comics in Los Angeles].

How long was the event?

Too long!  [Laughs]  Sitting around in those costumes is a pain in the ass, man.  We started at 6pm and I got out of costume at 8:30.  It was kind of a lot to do.  It was fun.  There were a lot of people there.  The comic’s doing really well, so we’re having a good time with it.

What do you think of the comic?

I like it!  Mike Derks, who plays the role of Balsac, helped with getting the backstory of it right, and they really did a good job of that.  GWAR has this mythos [that came from] playing Dungeons & Dragons and smoking weed and riding down the road in a school bus, telling each other stories.  That’s how the mythos built up, so “It has a lot of inconsistencies” would be an understatement.  We had to sew that into something that looked like it kind of belonged in the Marvel universe.  Mike helped with that, Matt [Maguire, Sawborg Destructo] got some really good writers to work on it, and Matt contributes to the writing and we got some good artists working on it.

One thing I’m really excited about, too, is that GWAR has always been about comics.  GWAR really owes a tremendous debt to underground comics.  I’m talking about S. Clay Wilson and Weirdo and all the old stuff like that.  The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Peter Bagge and all that shit.  That stuff really shaped what we were doing, especially S. Clay Wilson, the Checkered Demon guy.  Early on, my first exposure to the members of GWAR was a comic that would come out that was written by Hunter Jackson [ex-Techno Destructo], one of the founders of the band, and then Brockie would do comics too, and they would have these underground comics, and it was always just really funny.

This is definitely a slicker, more professional look, but we’ve gotten the older artists to contribute stories to it.  So, Chuck Varga, who was the Sexecutioner, has a story and an issue.  Hunter Jackson did some stuff for an issue.  Don Drakulich did some stuff for an issue.

What was going on when you left GWAR all those years ago?

 I was a younger guy, and I had started another band, and I was working on that a lot.  For a while, I was doing Kepone and GWAR at the same time.  I was having fun in GWAR, [but] it did get to a point where it felt like it was getting hard for me to do both things at the same time.  On top of that, I was having some health issues, so I just wound up pulling out of it.  In hindsight, I regret it, because I actually think that I could have stayed in… I don’t really regret it, I mean, my life would be very different, but I probably could have done both at the same time, is the point I’m making, but I wound up trying to push my band forward and leaving to do that.  I did Kepone for a while, we did a few records and traveled around and had some success.  It was never paying the bills like GWAR or anything, but we did alright.  And then I went back to school and got a PhD and all that shit, but I couldn’t leave the music alone.  I’m a musicologist, ethnomusicology with a music history/pop music focus.

Have you worked primarily on music, or on art for GWAR too?

I have ideas for stories and for character development and plot lines and things like that, and all the musicians contribute to that and always have, but as far as actually making the stuff that you see on stage, that’s a small group of artists that do that.  That’s a big difference between me and Dave.  Dave was a unique person.  He drove the visual side of the band and he was the only musician to do that.  He was really [one of] the only musicians who made props and costumes.  Casey Orr did, when he was in the band, because he was also a visual artist.  I never have, and for the most part, the musicians never have.  The one way that GWAR’s unique, unlike Slipknot or even Kiss, [in those bands] we don’t know who’s the person that makes the costumes.  In GWAR, those people are in the band.  It’s very different, in that way.

GWAR has had different approaches to music over the years.  Where does The Blood of Gods fall in that range?

GWAR has always sort of been in this weird… I might see this different than other people, but when we started the band, GWAR at first was a band that was parodying metal.  We had what we thought were really dumb songs with lyrics like “AEIOU – these are Satan’s vowels!”  We were making fun of the attitude that metal had, which was really all about machismo and the big hair, and we tried to do something that was sort of a parody of metal, but the problem was we were all punk musicians and what we wound up doing was something that was kind of punk, and we found our way to metal over the years, to kind of doing it more seriously.  It seemed like that’s where the band fit.  That’s where the storyline and the songs made sense.  Over the years, ever since the album Violence Has Arrived, they moved further down that road of being sort of a death metal band.

This record is definitely not that.  It’s more of a rock and roll record.  It has songs that are more like the stuff we were doing on the fourth album, where we were trying to do some different stuff, some stuff that has kind of some roots in punk rock, some roots in rock and roll, but also some stuff that really plays with different styles.  GWAR never really made songs that had an Alice Cooper ballad feel to it, but we have a song like that, “Phantom Limb,” on this record.  It doesn’t sound like Alice Cooper, but it’s always hard to explain to people how, when you listen to something, how that comes out the other end of that sausage machine.  It’s its own thing, but what I was listening to when we made it was [Alice Cooper’s] “Dwight Fry” and those kinds of songs.  Just the idea of doing a ballad that was also kind of sinister and not maudlin.

How long have you been working on this new music?

We had three-and-a-half years to make it, but we didn’t spend all that time working on the music.  There was some stuff that had been around for a couple years that we sort of refined, but a lot of it was done sort of quickly… We wrote and recorded the record in six months.  I had some material, Brent had a lot of songs, and we had to find a way… It was essentially a new band.  It was a group of musicians that hadn’t played, even though I’d played with Brad [Roberts, Jizmak Da Gusha] and played with Mike [Derks, Balsac the Jaws of Death] for many years, I hadn’t played with Jamison [Land, Beefcake the Mighty] or Brent [Purgason, Pustulus Maximus].  Some of the time was spent just figuring out how that was going to work.  Once we had an understanding, once we found a way to work, we produced some material pretty quickly.

A lot of people participated in the making of the record.  Everybody helped write the lyrics.  It was definitely a communal effort.  The artists, as always, had some influence on the material and what the songs were about.  It was kind of an old-school GWAR record in that way.  GWAR used to have records that would come out with a few different singers on the record – Sexecutioner would sing a song, and Granbo and the Morality Squad, songs like that where we would have our enemies sing and stuff like that.  There’s a little bit of that on the record.

Was recording straightforward or more complicated?

The recording was really straightforward for me.  I think it was different than what the other guys had been doing for a while.  When I stopped doing Kepone and essentially stopped doing records, I hadn’t made a record in the digital age.  I never recorded a record that was not recorded to tape.  [Laughs]  The way people write and record records has change dramatically.  The person we got to record this album was the absolute perfect person to do this record.  Ronan Murphy is a top notch producer, and it just so happens that he is our friend who had a space in The Dairy, which is the building where GWAR got started.  He’s a person we’ve known for a really long time and who understood the band as musicians.  He understood all of us as players, in particular me, Mike and Brad.  He understood what we could do, and he knew our musical histories.  And he knew the musical history of GWAR.  He really helped a lot.  GWAR had kind of started doing records where they had recorded them themselves and this was a different experience.  We had a producer who was a real quality producer who listened to the material and helped us make decisions about the material, set us up to succeed.  The first thing he did was pick how many songs we were going to record.  We’d been trying to get ready 27 songs, not knowing which ones were going to make it, and he focused our efforts.

The recording part was the easiest.  We went to a good studio in Virginia, threw up some microphones, got great drum sounds, and for me it was kind of like old times.  It was recorded the way we used to do things.  We went back and did the overdubs and all that, but there weren’t really any surprises, other than the fact that the material… If I had to say that there were surprises, it would be that the record turned out to be different than what we thought it was going to be.  Because we had all those other songs, we thought it was going to have this kind of epic tinge that was a little more dramatic, a little more musical drama mixed with metal, and it wound up taking this left turn into being a rock record.  That was a surprise, but we went with it.  That’s what it wanted to be, so that’s what it is.

Have you been playing any of these songs live?

We’ve been playing one song, “Fuck This Place.”  It’s kind of weird because we did the Warped Tour and we had to do a bunch of old tunes, because the record’s not out yet.  But it’s in the can, so we were like, ‘Damn, I want to play new stuff!’  But the one song that we did get to play, “Fuck This Place,” people really loved it.  And it was a song that met with resistance, too.  I’ll go ahead and confess:  Mike Derks was like, “No, you’ve got these three words:  Fuck This Place!  I’m telling you, it’s gonna work!”  And I was like, “Eh, I don’t know.”  But Derks was right all along.  You asked about the extra tunes – those are all going to get turned into songs, most of them.  I think we’ll probably develop those while we’re rehearsing for the next tour.  Nothing gets thrown away.

How much of Blothar’s creation was related to replacing Oderus?

There was nothing about Oderus, except maybe the shape, the profile onstage, that went into making Blothar.  That wasn’t really a part of it, as far as the character goes.  Even the visual look… Dave had always made his costume, but what we were doing… Part of my thinking was going back to the idea of Beowulf, because it seemed to fit.  There’s the later story, where Beowulf is an old man and literary scholars say that probably what that means is that he was forty.  He had managed to not die in his twenties.  So they call on him one more time to pick up the sword.  The hero’s call.  That had something to do with the direction that we took the character.

Has the current cultural/political climate impacted your show?

It’s weird.  It’s like, ‘Man, what are we going to do?’  The world has gotten so fucking sick and so crazy, that what are we going to do that surprises people?  Especially this particular cultural moment in the United States, with President Trump and all that stuff.  We’re trying to work it into the show, it’s definitely on the album.  You want to give the people what they want, and what it seems like the people want is just to be slaves to money and be reckless and have no regard for human life.  It’s weird… The whole Trump thing.  We started killing Trump onstage, of course.  That’s one of the things that happened.  The person who was playing Trump, he started holding onto the handshake a little too long, like Trump would always do.  Then it grew into this bit, like, ‘Don’t shake his hand!  Oh, no!  He’s got you!’  Like, once you shake his hand, you’re doomed, he’s just going to shake it to death.  And we gutted him like a fish.  It works.  GWAR can get away with that kind of stuff.  But this isn’t Propagandhi.  GWAR is a big group of people and we have diverse political opinions.

In Dave’s absence, what role have you taken on?

On one level, me coming back gave the audience, who had been GWAR fans for a long time, a sense that here’s a person who has a connection…  I mean, I’m the only musician in the band that was on the first record.  It’s getting somebody back who has a connection to the origins of GWAR, and in some ways I think I have credibility that would be hard to come by for other people.  I think that helps.  The other thing is, these guys have been living this life, but I’ve been living another life.  It’s kind of hard to work in a university environment and not witness political struggles.  Learning to survive in that environment and learning what people expect from one another in a professional environment.  In some ways, maybe I’ve been able to make suggestions that come from somebody who’s been following a career path that’s different than music.  It’s easy to get your blinders on when you’re doing something like this.

GWAR has developed a sort of cultural capital that is surprising to me.  In other words, there’s a lot of people from a lot of quarters who you might consider the art establishment, or even the business establishment in Richmond, where we’re from, who have been accepting of GWAR, looking at GWAR as kind of a treasure.  It’s weird.  When I was working as an academic, I was always waiting for the hammer to drop.  I’m taking classes with leading feminist theorists like Adrienne Rich, and I’m like, “When are these people going to see GWAR and say, wait a minute, you did this horrible thing,” and it never happened.  The complaints never came.  When I did talk to them about it, by and large, GWAR is so other, we go out there and we’re so weird and so alienated, so uncool, that these people look at it and they’re not threatened by it at all.  I’m talking about people who build a career out of taking down the Rolling Stones for “Under My Thumb.”  The difference in the negativity in “Under My Thumb” and the way that’s a sexist song and what GWAR does onstage is bananas.  You would think that they would have serious objections to this, but they don’t.  Because we’re also not acting like a bunch of cool guys like the fucking Rolling Stones.  These academics who are otherwise super politically motivated, they look at it and they don’t feel alienated by it.  They understand that what we’re doing is trying to offer a critique of those kinds of attitudes, and they get that.  They understand that.

Does the band function differently now that Dave’s not around?

A thousand percent, as our tour manager likes to say.  It works very differently.  Dave was a super creative guy with a lot of creative energy.  Unparalleled.  The band sounds different, musically.  Even the choices that we made on the album… Dave tended to sing a lot.  He had a lot of lyrics because he had a lot to say, and they were always very funny, but it didn’t leave a lot of room for the music.  I think that’s one thing that’s a very different thing about this record.  There is room in the songs.  With Dave not there, all of a sudden all of those creative people now have a little more room.  Their voices are able to be heard.  Mike Derks is able to write lyrics.

I’m conscious of saying something like that because it might sound like I’m being critical of Dave, but I’m really not.  He did what he did, and he did it great, and there’s not one single person in this band who doesn’t wish that guy was still alive, not anybody, and still doing this.  In a perfect world, I’d still be a college professor.  But that’s not what happened.  Change happens, and it’s the one constant thing, is that things always change.  Without that, we never would have known what a great lyricist Mike Derks is.  He was pressed into service.  This is a guy who knows the world of GWAR, he knows that universe, he knows the imagination, and he has the voice to write GWAR songs, and he and I together, with help from Jamison and from Brent, wrote lyrics that reflect that voice.  I’m super proud of this record mainly because, as diverse as it is, it is GWAR.

The main thing that GWAR has done since Dave died is survive.  It survived his death, and what that means, the reason that’s able to happen, is because it was always something different than what people imagined.  It was always a group effort, and now by necessity, with him not there, things are different, but we’re still able to put the show on and be the band that we’ve always been and make art and go out and ride tour buses and pretend like we’re rock stars.  GWAR is always pretending to be rock stars.  We’re never going to really be rock stars.  It’s always just summer camp rock stars.  Like, we’re not rock stars, but we play them on TV.

As we get out there, what we’re finding… It freaks me out.  There were so many kids there today, and there have been at all of these shows.  Little kids go bananas over GWAR.  Oh my god!  If I had seen GWAR when I was a 10- or 11-year-old kid, it would have just fucked my whole life up.  I would have done nothing but lived to be in that band.  You can see that it has that affect on some people.  We do see generations.  I don’t know how many times we get, ‘Will you sign my kid’s shirt?  This is his first show, I brought him to see GWAR.’  That happens again and again.  That’s really cool, too.  It has become a cultural force.

The Blood of Gods sees release on Metal Blade on Friday, October 20th.