Demons Are Real
by Kevin J. Elliott

Living in a double-wide trailer in Columbia, South Carolina in the ’80s, for Duane Warr, metal wasn’t just a hobby. It was an all encompassing lifestyle. In Warr’s mind, Dwarr, his one-man hard-rock monolith, was poised to take over the world. For a variety of reasons—heavy drinking, drug abuse, near-death experiences, nervous breakdowns, dabbles with the occult, or the less glamorous, lack of interest by a non-existent metal scene in the South—the power Dwarr displayed on 1984’s Starting Over and 1986’s Animals, never took hold. However, while Warr spent the intervening years recovering from those dashed dreams, intermittently recording while dealing with real life, his duo of private-pressed duds were fetching hundreds of dollars in record collecting circles, unbeknownst to the man who spent much less to produce them.

In the last two years, Chicago mainstay Drag City has thankfully taken on a campaign to revive the visions of this unknown legend. And for good reason: both Animals and the just reissued Starting Over sound like missing links in the evolution of modern metal. Though they were inspired by black-lit ’70s dinosaurs like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, the homespun fidelity and maniacal attention to infusing prog and theatrical excess give the sense that Dwarr was searching far and wide for something that hadn’t been done yet. Dwarr pre-dates the sludgy ooze of the Melvins, the rebirth of operatic doom, and has even been dubbed hypnagogic metal as its lumbering cretin-psych brings about an extremely warped dirt-weed high of nostalgia.

Reissued in reverse order, Starting Over was Dwarr’s first album, and I tend to prefer it, if only because Warr is going for broke. In comparison to the Boschian nightmare of Animals, the album is less primeval and more thoughtful in its flourishes and arrangements. Judging from the cover alone, which looks like it should be emblazoned on the side of a Chevy van, Starting Over is a fatalistic dystopian fantasy, with huge themes of good against evil. In talking with Warr, I discovered that the album was whittled down from 100 songs he’d been writing since 1980, so Starting Over’s epic feel is warranted. Obviously, the two albums are just the tip of the mountain. After about 45 minutes on the phone with Warr, who was calling from his Columbia home, I learned that there is so much more to the story.

What got you into playing guitar and recording music?

Duane Warr: When I was living in Jacksonville back in 1971, I started playing saxophone. I don’t know what made me do it, but I played saxophone in the seventh grade. I had a buddy who lived down the street and had a box guitar, and I started picking up some things from him by ear. That’s when I started listening to hard rock music, when I was 12 or 13. I remember my first concert was when I was 13 and I went to see Black Sabbath at the Jacksonville Auditorium. That was right when they came out with Paranoid. I remember they were dressed up just like the album cover. I was young, had a young girl with me, and there was this guy sitting next to us with the incense, and it was in all the seats around him. He was hitting up, and he asked us if we wanted to hit up. We were 13, so we said “no” and went to sit somewhere else. The first three albums that I bought were Masters of Reality, Deep Purple’s Machine Head, and Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus.

What led to forming Dwarr? You certainly seemed pretty clear on things like the logo, how you wanted to sound, and how you wanted the music to be perceived.

DW: What happened, bud, was I left home when I was 14 and I moved up to a room up here at my buddy’s cousin’s house. I eventually moved into a school bus and that was when I really started playing guitar. In 1980, I bought a tape deck. Then I bought a bass guitar, and I bought another tape deck and started ping-ponging multi-track recordings and writing songs. I was working four on, four off at the sweat factory back then so I had a lot of time. I’d get up in the morning and be in the studio all day. Sometimes, I’d write three or four songs in a day. In 1984, when I wanted to do an album for posterity, I had 100 songs that I had recorded. I went back and picked my 10 favorite songs and went down to the local studio that was just starting up. They told me it would be about $1000 to record those 10 songs. I got done with the first song and they told me it would be $349. I plead with them to give me a break and they wouldn’t. They kept my $100 deposit and wouldn’t let me have the tape of “Starting Over,” which was the first song I did. It’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me because what I did was go buy an eight-track Tascam for $2200. I rented a big mixing board, which I didn’t know nothing about. The Starting Over album was recorded, if you can believe it, in 10 days.

It’s probably better that you never went into a studio because I think the home-recorded albums have a sound all their own. Did you do anything intentionally in the recording to get those truly disturbing tones?

DW: I think that sound just comes from me—that’s who I am. My ex would never go into the recording room because she said it was haunted. I always had the weird lights going on, and I had a stack of amps so high the roof actually sagged in my trailer back next to the woods. I used to play so loud that I would be in there with the headphones recording and my ex would complain that it was so loud she couldn’t hear the TV. I’ve got definite ear damage now. I was experimenting with all kinds of stuff. I took the Marshall and set it up in the laundry room and surrounded it with three mics and I’d have the drums set up in the back bedroom with wires running all over the house. I was basically using every room in that double-wide trailer except for the master bedroom. The darkness and all, that is just who I was. Back then I wouldn’t even play the guitar for you if there was any white light in the room.

Did you have big ambitions for those albums when you pressed and released them? What was the response like in Columbia, South Carolina?

DW: The response was bad man. It was Columbia, South Carolina—the South! My people, my friends, maybe five or 10 people liked what I was doing, but everyone else did not have a good response at all. It was like putting your heart on a plate and giving them the knife; they just chopped me up. I didn’t realize it back then, but I could’ve put my name on a Black Sabbath album, or any other hard rock album, and they would’ve said the same thing. They just didn’t like that music. I took it personal and I was real hurt. I really did have dreams back then that I could tour with a good hard rock band and go out and do it. I never had that opportunity, though. I never had a record label. I did mail some stuff out, but never got any response at all.

What happened after that disappointment? Did you realize eventually people were paying insane amounts of money for your records?

DW: I did, but you know the story, man. I had done Starting Over in 1984 and the Animals album in 1986, and I got divorced in 1988. After that I really thought I was going to get my life together. They got that pyramid of self-realization that they teach in psychology. At one time, I was up there at the top. I thought in 1988 that I was going to chase my dreams, but suddenly jumped to the bottom of the pyramid and wasn’t providing my basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing. You got to get all that together before you get back up there. It basically took me about five years after my divorce to get back on target. I was working on a new album, Crying Souls, and started making my first video. I was probably about 75% done with the album, and I was showing that video to everyone I knew. I was even writing a movie script, but God started talking to me. It looked like it was my time. In the spiritual realm, the devil and the demon and God were all working on me. Of course, the devil, or the demon, was cranking it up on me in my house, but when I left the house God was talking to me. There was one time I was driving to the bar and a lightning bolt hit about 15 feet from my car. I looked over and I actually saw Jesus looking me in the eye. I never was a devil worshipper, but I was always searching for the power. The devil wasn’t in my house, but there was definitely a demonic force in there somewhere.

Well, there have been a lot of stories attached to what you did back then, and a lot has been made about the recording of those records: you recorded late at night after working at a factory; you were almost stabbed, and you became addicted to drugs, went crazy, burned you masters and found God. Are you alright with people attaching that folklore to the records? Is it all true or is any of it embellished for effect?

DW: That’s not true. I never burned any masters. I burned some records, but I never burned the masters. Actually, earlier this year I went back to finish Crying Souls. I was working on a song called “Songbird of Death,” and when I was working on that song, everything in my life was going wrong. I basically came to a realization at church one day that everything was going off course and I had to stop it. Will I ever finish it? I don’t know. At this point in my life, I had to just leave it alone because that project was so dark that it was just having a super-negative influence on me. All of that other stuff is true, and there’s so much more that nobody knows. Back when Ron, who helped me on those records, first started working on Animals with me, I played him some of the recordings one night, because he hadn’t heard anything yet. I had a copy of “Job’s Revenge,” plugged it in and played it. I had the red light and the blue light on and a candle lit. By that time, we’d been up all night and had a pretty good buzz on. As soon as I played it, all the lights went off. Ron was kind of freaking out. Then the lights went out again and Ron was getting pretty weird. All of the sudden, the stereo shut off. So we were sitting there in the darkness with candles burning, the stereo came back on and when the song ends, the lights came back on. I was pretty crazy back then. I had women over all the time and a lot of them left screaming, seeing stuff and freaking out. You don’t know me from the man on the moon, but I’m a straight-up honest guy. That was just the way it was.