Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
In a TEDx talk, Michael Bishop, human slave of Blöthar, explains his band’s relationship with Richmond, Virginia.
Without an abandoned dairy plant in 1980s Richmond, Virginia, there would be no GWAR.
In a recent TEDx talk, Michael Bishop—lead singer of the band and human slave of Blöthar—explains how Richmond’s Confederate past and post World War II decline help explain the origins of the musical group of grotesque, blood-spewing intergalactic barbarians.
Once known as the “Harlem of the South,” Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood suffered greatly from regional sprawl and an ill-planned elevated highway that tore through the neighborhood after the war. Its quirkiest building, the Richmond Dairy building, closed in the early ‘70s.
The former milk-bottling plant, anchored by three corners that resemble giant milk bottles, soon became a haven for artists looking for studio space and cheap rent. Much like Baltimore’s Copycat Building today, the Richmond Dairy turned into a center for the local underground arts community.
In the mid-‘80s, one tenant (Hunter Jackson) was working on a low-budget movie about aliens who try to conquer earth, only to get distracted and form a rock band. Another tenant (Dave Brockie) was in an actual rock band. In 1984, they formed GWAR. “It would not have happened if Richmond didn’t have urban decay, if it weren’t a blighted city,” notes Bishop in the talk.
Bishop, who has a Ph.D. in music from the University of Virginia, also compares the role of slavery in GWAR’s imaginary world to Richmond’s:
An example of how GWAR reflects and reminds Richmond of its history is this idea of slavery and GWAR slaves. But the idea also kind of betrays privilege, it betrays GWAR’s identity in that our narrative, slavery is an option. Just like it was option for us to live and work in Jackson Ward, and it might not have been that way for the other people who live there. That dynamic speaks to the identity of the city.
Richmond’s institutionalized embrace of slavery and of the tobacco industry has influenced its very real history of death and destruction—something GWAR’s fictional slavery and schlock-rock staged acts of extreme violence don’t claim to come close to.
“In that context,” Bishop concludes, “GWAR looks like the safest thing to ever come from this city.”