The Music Beat: GWAR’s Shock-Rock Singer Takes UVA Degree Onstage

February 29, 2024 By Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu Bryan McKenzie, bkm4s@virginia.edu

When Blöthar takes the stage beside the other “Scumdogs of the Universe,” the UVA alumnus somewhere inside the massive costume will bring with him all he learned while pursuing a doctorate degree in music at the University of Virginia.

For the uninitiated, GWAR is a punk-influenced, over-the-top art rock band that performs while clad in grotesque and bizarre costumes. Michael Bishop, as Blöthar, is the lead singer on his second pass through the band. The band’s backstory is that the members are an intergalactic special forces team that screwed up so badly their master exiled them to Earth.

Related Story

Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do
Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do

GWAR songs are often laced with social commentary and political satire behind a stage show not for the faint of heart. They have attracted a loyal fan base that has supported the band on several U.S. and European tours. GWAR even performed once on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series.

The self-proclaimed “lords of humanity” bring their Age of Befuddlement tour to Charlottesville’s Jefferson Theater on March 4, along with the bands Cancer Bats and X-Cops.

Formed in the heady days of Richmond’s lively punk rock scene in 1984, the band has featured a rotating roster of musicians and artisans and has released more than a dozen studio recordings. 

“I use that education every single day, there’s no question about it,” said Bishop, who has given TEDx talks sans costume about the band and its connection to Richmond. “It shows up in the care that we take with constructing our narratives. I’m able to talk about what we’re doing, to put it into the right words for others to better understand, and that’s definitely because of my experiences at UVA.”

Bishop said the fact that a man portraying Blöthar is a UVA graduate should shock no one.

Michael Bishop

Veteran punk rock bassist Michael Bishop told UVA Today his former professors might be surprised at their influence on him, because he didn’t exactly light it up in the classroom. But the lessons and concepts have served him well. (Contributed photo)

“UVA is a powerhouse school and there are chinks in the mortar of that old, curvy brick wall. There are people who do things that are interesting and who live interesting lives and there always have been,” Bishop said. “Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner and Breece D’J Pancake are just some examples of people who been outside of the norm.”

As unusual as GWAR is, Bishop was just as unusual a student. After years leading and writing for punk bands, including the creation of bass-playing GWAR character Beefcake the Mighty, he one day found himself with no projects and staring into the future.

“I had left GWAR and started my own band called Kepone. We put records out on Touch and Go Records from Chicago, and we rode around doing that for several years,” he said. “Then I got married and I was kind of like, ‘Well, I guess I gotta stop.’ 

“When I did, I realized I had never gone to school. I got into GWAR when I was in high school and had never gone to college.”

Bishop decided to make a change and enrolled in community college.

“I was driving for a living, and I was like, ‘This sucks, man.’ If there’s no promise of gigs to do and no rock ’n’ roll future, then just working becomes a real drudgery,” he recalled. “I could work a day job all day long if I knew I was working toward something else. I just kind of was like, ‘I gotta go back to school. I got to do something. I have to figure out what I’m good at.’”

At community college, Bishop discovered he enjoyed writing and could teach that art to other students. 

Live performance by Blothar

GWAR has been entertaining and rocking audiences around the state, the country and across the world since 1984. They will rock Charlottesville’s Jefferson Theater on Monday. Tickets are sold out. (Photo by Nikki Marie)

“At some point, I realized I had straight A’s in community college and I could transfer. I had read about the American studies program at the University of Virginia, then headed by professor emeritus Alan Howard, so I went and applied and did really well,” he recalled.

Bishop transferred to UVA as a non-traditional student in nearly every sense, a first-generation adult student in his 30s with a history of punk rock gigging.

It wasn’t a cakewalk. A longtime bass guitar player accustomed to the stage, adapting to classical music studies and upright bass was not easy.

“Professor Pete Spaar is amazing and he taught me a lot, but it was stand-up bass and I found I just didn’t have the patience,” Bishop admitted. “It’s funny that a bass player got a C in bass performance.”

Music theory, too, was a challenge. 

“I took three years of it, mostly with professor Fred Maus, and I use it. Fred might be surprised because I struggled with it,” Bishop recalled, noting that he was not enamored with analysis of composition through music theory.

“But it’s in my brain now. I find myself listening to music and thinking, ‘What is Bowie doing here?’ and I’ll try to figure it out. A lot of times I figure out what I’m doing, like, ‘Did I just use the Dorian mode? Well, look at that! I did! Why?’” he said. “You know, guitar players are usually the only ones in a band that know [theory]. It’s irritating because if you don’t know theory, you have to do it their way and guitar players are irritating anyway. It’s nice to be able to counteract that.”

Bishop’s doctorate is in critical and comparative studies. His dissertation on “A Socioesthetics of Punk: Theorizing Personal Narrative, History and Place,” took a deep dive into his personal history, how he became interested in punk music and made it into the Richmond music scene.

“Everybody has a conversion narrative for talking about how they became interested in something,” Bishop said. “The amazing thing to me is that when you look at punk rock, a lot of times the conversion narratives are similar.”

After receiving his music degree, Bishop taught for a while at UVA and then started looking for academic jobs. When GWAR’s front man, David Brockie, known on stage as Oderus Urungus, died in 2014, Bishop rejoined the band, switching from bass to lead singer. With his UVA education, he often acts as GWAR’s spokesman and advocate.

“GWAR has long been a band that has done things that cultural activists would attach themselves to, before I knew the language to explain it or knew what post-modernism was. Now I have a language for it. I have a way of processing and understanding it. It prepares me well for interviews and talking about what GWAR does and adding context to it in a way that’s useful so people can understand it,” he said.

“Basically, my experience is an argument that parents can make for the good old-fashioned liberal arts education,” Bishop said. “Because it will truly prepare you for anything. Even being an intergalactic rock star.”

Media Contact

Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications