Fake Blood & Booze: Drinking at GWARbar

The legendary thrash metal band, Gwar, has taken their brand of (fake) blood-soaked rock behind the bar. Sarah Baird visits the band's Virginia watering hole—GWARbar—to chat tiki and what it's like to run their own gruesome version of Graceland.

For the most revered musicians, there seems to be a designated spot where fans can gather to celebrate their musical legacy. For Elvis devotees, there’s nothing quite like a trip to Graceland, where a person can loll about in the Jungle Room like an overzealous teenybopper. For diehard lovers of The Doors, a pilgrimage to Jim Morrison’s grave is almost a hard and fast requirement. Now, for followers of the legendary thrash metal band Gwar, there’s a definitive, boozy mecca worth the pilgrimage: GWARbar.

For the uninitiated, Gwar (aka Gwar: Our Lords and Masters) can be more than a little intimidating. For 30 years, the band has been spouting their satirical, (fake) blood-soaked, “intergalactic space barbarian” brand of music to the hungry masses, ushering in a new era of shock rock and gruesome onstage performances. Joan Rivers once (lovingly) said their costumes looked like “the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on LSD.” The band had a politically charged cameo in the 1990s cult classic Empire Records and became well known as the preferred band of Beavis and Butthead, who frequently spotlighted Gwar’s gnarly 1990s music videos. No topic or public figure has ever been too taboo for Gwar to skewer—both literally and figuratively. (The band is known for decapitating replicas of celebrities like Lady Gaga on stage and mocking government policy in song.)

Located in the band’s home base of Richmond, Virginia, GWARbar the realized dream of lead guitarist Michael Derks, better known as Balsac The Jaws of Death. Derks’ onstage persona is notorious for its heavy-duty armor and imposing mask fashioned to resemble a bear trap, but in real life there’s a sense of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at play. Soft spoken with a gentle, tittering laugh, Derks is passionate about making GWARbar a success.


“[GWARbar] has been something that I’ve personally dreamed about for a long time because, being a musician, one of the few jobs I’ve been able to hold down is restaurant work,” said Derks. “I talked to Dave Brockie—who was our singer—a while back about it, and got him excited about the idea, too. We tossed it around for years, but finally found the right space and got to work.”

Unfortunately, Brockie died unexpectedly in March of last year before being able to see the vision come to fruition. But Derks was determined to keep a promise to Brockie that GWARbar would—come hell or high water—open in 2014.

“It was New Years Eve, and we had eight hours left to get the bar open and didn’t have our liquor license yet,” said Derks. “We were able to get the word in the right guy’s ear, and they brought us our license that day. We immediately ran out to the liquor store, bought whatever liquor we could fit in the back of my truck and opened with, like, four hours to spare on the very last day of 2014.”

With Derks responsible for creating the majority of cocktails and the band deeply involved in that bar’s day-to-day operations, the bar has quickly become the national hub for all things Gwar.

“We want a smoke bomb to go off or a light show when someone orders a drink in the tiki mug,” said Roberts. “Maybe the smoke could come out of a dragon’s mouth, or maybe there could be a gong. We’re Gwar—it needs to be an event when the drink is presented to you.”

“People have been driving from all over just to visit—some are even sleeping in their cars,” said bartender Hunter Gibson. “For the first week, we had a line around the block every night full of guys in their Gwar hats and Gwar shoelaces. A couple drove all the way from Texas to celebrate their anniversary here.”

Walking into GWARbar is like descending into the band’s secret lair. A long, craggy marble bar anchors the room, and on the night during my visit Twin Peaks: Firewalk with Me played surreally on a television set all night. Glowing blue and green eyeballs attached to iron wings hover above the heads of drinkers and diners, while an imposing sword hangs as a focal point in the middle of the room. For all the aesthetic tightrope walking between gore and glitz, there are a few key places where the profane tends to take over. Floors are splattered with streams of fake blood, and the bathrooms feel as if they could belong to a rural rest stop, their barebones accommodations tattooed with slanted Sharpie graffiti. Walls are dappled with concert photos, gold records, posters and trinkets from the band’s three-decade career in the music business, while the soundtrack is a continuous loop of (what else?) Gwar.

True to their trailblazing ways, the band might just have singlehandedly founded a new genre of blood-spatter-meets-Bacardi drinking: thrash metal tiki.

“I got into tiki stuff quite a while ago, in the mid-1990s, before it was really trending,” said Brad Roberts, Gwar’s longtime drummer, better known as Jizmak Da Gusha, the terror-inducing wolf monster with hulking, thrashing teeth and a trail of spikes down his spine. “The art of the tiki mug and drinks really spoke to me as an artist and I wanted to make sure we got some of the good tiki stuff into GWARbar.” Gwar boasts a serious commitment to their own interpretation of the genre, serving all tiki drinks in signature mugs (think ominous, gargoyle-like totem pole with eyeballs stacked atop skulls) that were created specifically for GWARbar through a collaboration with Tiki Farm.

The most potent of the bar’s tiki concoctions is the Bonesnapper, which mingles rum, fruit-flavored schnapps and a “bloody drizzle” of grenadine into an elixir just waiting to assume its place in rock folklore. The non-tiki drinks—the majority of which were created by Derks—stay true to Gwar’s extraterrestrial, larger-than-life roots, from the “spew” shot (cherry vodka, orange liqueur and Kool-Aid) to the Sleazy P. cocktail, which arrives in a “white powder” rimmed glass.

The roster of Gwar-influenced drinks and the already legendary signature mug are merely appetizers to the band’s grander plans for the GWARbar experience.

“We want a smoke bomb to go off or a light show when someone orders a drink in the tiki mug,” said Roberts. “Maybe the smoke could come out of a dragon’s mouth, or maybe there could be a gong. We’re Gwar—it needs to be an event when the drink is presented to you.”

A sandy-haired man on a bar stool next to us piped up enthusiastically. “Maybe, the gong could decapitate the dragon with every drink order!” The three of us chuckled.

While the flying evil eye balls and sconces shaped like wolverine dentures ensure that GWARbar is nothing short of a bastion for the Gwar mythos, the real beauty comes from how tangible and human the bar is able to make these metal legends. In fact, GWARbar is perhaps the only place in the country where super fans and their musical heroes—or, in this case, their Lords and Masters—can sit side-by-side, sipping blood-colored drinks and swapping advice.

[Inline photo: Flickr/swimfinfan]