[Editor's note: Dwarr was set to play The Pinhook in Durham tonight, Wednesday, March 16. His entire tour has been canceled.]
ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT, Durham bar The Pinhook will host the fourth and final gig of South Carolina outsider-metal outfit Dwarr’s first-ever tour. More than 25 years in the making, this show might never have happened without divine intervention.
Duane Warr, the band’s mastermind and sole consistent member, has maintained an on-and-off relationship with his musical alter ego for a quarter century. He self-produced two albums, 1984’s Starting Over and 1986’s Animals, and released them himself in small batches of about 1,100 and 2,200, respectively. Dwarr’s third album, 1993’s Crying Souls, was never released.
Two more albums, Holy One and Times of Terror, followed in 2000 and 2003. Drag City Records, the Chicago-based indie stalwart, reissued Animals in 2010 and Starting Over last year. With their urging, Warr had to decide whether or not to resurrect his music and take it on the road for the first time.
It wasn’t an easy decision: Touring brings significant expenses, including gas, merchandise, lodging and musicians’ pay, which relatively unknown bands booked in small rooms might or might not recoup. And Warr’s not the same man he was in the mid-’80s, when he’d jam Jimi Hendrix tunes at parties at the height of his wild-oats youth. Now, he’s a Lexington, S.C.-based real estate agent who, when asked his age, only says he’s “44 percent of what I want to live.” He’s also a born-again Christian.
“I fasted about this for 21 days at the beginning of the year, because I wasn’t sure about it,” Warr says. “I think it was around the seventh or eighth day, at a men’s meeting at church, another man was talking, and I heard the voice of God telling me to go.”
Even then, with the encouragement of the Almighty, Warr was reluctant at first. Finally, he decided to go for it. “I was like, ‘Whoa, the Lord told you to go, man. You need to make the best of this.’”
DUANE WARR RECORDED his first collection of warped, Sabbath-informed psychedelic rock Starting Over, in 1984. Using his Tascam 8-track was a laborious process, requiring Warr to record each track in full, over and over again until he got it right—or close enough. Drummer Ron Sparks would come in after the songs were otherwise fully recorded and play along. The album’s lo-fi production and its cut-and-paste technique offer a subtle weirdness that only serves to highlight their dark, cautionary horror tales and heavy-psych riff-work.
But upon its release—in an era before lo-fi had become a valid aesthetic choice, and before heavy metal had been defanged in the collective consciousness—Warr found his acquaintances to be less than receptive to his artistic vision. Songs like “Screams of Terror” didn’t resonate the way Warr hoped they would.
“When I did that record, I was just stupid enough to ask people what they thought,” he laughs, 28 years later. “It was like handing ‘em my heart on a plate and giving ‘em the knife.” In hindsight, he realizes they’d probably have reacted the same to any hard-rock album. At the time, though, he took it personally.
Those feelings drove him to make an even heavier follow-up. Many of the songs on 1986’s Animals were written concurrently with Starting Over, but when it came time to record, Warr amped up the intensity, arming his Sabbath-style riffs with thicker guitar tones, and adding bigger percussion arrangements. The Columbia High School Band actually loaned Warr a timpani, chimes, gong and other percussion instruments for a weekend. Meanwhile, a surreal mix of Judeo-Christian imagery and fire-and-brimstone warnings bubbled vigorously to the surface.
“I had a fire about Animals,” Warr says. “I was just on a mission to not give a hoot what anybody thought and rock as hard as I could, and do what I wanted to do.”
That could have been a motto for Warr’s life, too: While he’s sure to note that he always held down a job and paid his bills, Warr left home at 14, attracted to the allure of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. “Back when I was young and I was jumping out there blowing people’s brains, I was messed up pretty good, and I don’t do that anymore,” he says.
Warr’s grandfather had been a friend and a confidant to the young man. When he passed away in 1993, it hit hard. It kicked off a chain of events that would ultimately lead to his conversion to Christianity that year: “I was going out to a club one night, I mean, I wasn’t drunk yet, man, I went around a curve and lightning bolts probably hit 15 feet from my car, man, just right to my left-front, like, Pow! Right there, man. And I look over and I actually saw—and you can say it’s crazy, I don’t care if anyone believes me or not—but Jesus was in the seat. I actually looked back in front and looked over again, and then, of course, he was gone.”
Spiritually, Warr was at war. “God was working on me, but it was like God wouldn’t come in my house,” he says.
“There was some dark forces at work in my house. I wasn’t a devil worshipper or anything, but I think I did seek power, and there was power, man, there was all kinds of weird things that happened in the music studio that were not normal. So God was working on me outside of my house, and of course the Devil was working on me inside my house—or, whatever, it wasn’t the Devil, ain’t nobody that important to get a personal visit from him, I don’t think—but there were some dark forces inside of my house, man.”
At the behest of a previously unknown half-brother who was a devout Christian, Warr began to give his life to the Lord. He started by giving up the trappings of his rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Warr collected the remaining copies of his albums, a stage banner he’d made for himself, various drug paraphernalia and other items.
“It seemed like it took forever to get it lit,” he recalls. “And of course I had some tears in my eyes, you know, it was a very deep experience for me. And there was a ton of black soot going everywhere, but I burned all that stuff.”
All of it, that is, except the master tapes.
NEAR THE END of 1999, Warr got the musical urge again. He mentioned to a co-worker at the factory where he worked nights that he was planning to make a hard-rock album for God. The co-worker was flabbergasted, maybe even offended, by the idea. God didn’t mind, though.
“About 4 a.m. in the morning, the Lord spoke to me just as clear as I’m talking to you,” Warr says. “And he said, ‘Duane, the people that are offended with this project are offended already, and you haven’t even played a note. You can’t worry about them, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.’”
Dwarr was back: In 2000, Warr self-released Holy One. Times of Terror followed in 2003.
With their potent combination of scarcity, outsider obscurity and their compelling off-kilter take on proto-metal, Dwarr’s first two albums had also become bait for collectors, commanding upwards of $200 a pop during the decade-plus hiatus. Warr’s quickly placed short-run CDs of all four albums in sleeves he and some friends assembled on his back porch, “just for the salvation of the music.”
By now, Warr had concluded the albums were something worth saving. “I really believed that they are a very real part of who I am, and they’re part of how I got to where I am now, and they’re part of my story,” he says.
They continue to be. In preparing a setlist for this tour, Warr picked his favorite songs from all four Dwarr albums, plus one from the unreleased Crying Souls. He even added a new song called “Home To You.” He’s hoping to record and videotape the performances to compile a live album. While there aren’t any definitive plans for releasing it yet, one suspects it’ll work its way into the world one way or another.
“I really believe God’s got some plans for my life,” Warr says. “After I decided to do this thing, I guess about a month or so after, at worship at the church, I really heard the Lord say, ‘Duane, you don’t know who you are. I have great plans for you.’ Whatever that means, I don’t know, but I know my next step is to do this tour.”