When the opportunity to interview punk rock legend and renaissance man Henry Rollins presented itself, I disregarded the fact that I had one day to prepare and answered the offer with a confident, “I’d love to!” This is a man who has seen and done more in his 45 years than most people will see or do in a lifetime. He took over vocals for Black Flag at age 20, started his own production company on which he’s published freight-loads of books and albums (his own and for other artists), successfully tours doing spoken word shows where thousands show up just to hear him speak, acted in countless films, hosts a radio show, hosts a talk show for the Independent Film Channel, and can pretty much talk anyone into the ground on a variety of subjects. Throwing all sneaking feelings of intimidation out of my mind, I punched in Henry’s number…
Since the beginning of your career in the public eye, you’ve been an extreme workaholic. Do you ever get overwhelmed by all that you’ve taken on?
Every once in a while – when I’m doing my work, and then other people pile on. For instance, I’m on deadline for a book, so I’m working away at that. The band comes into town in a few days for final days of band practice which will be very intense and very long, like 5-6 hours a day, and then the Independent Film Channel press people call me and say “we need like 3 hours of phone interviews on Friday,” and I say “well, I’ve got band practice and I’m happy to get up at 6 in the morning and do it for you, but I’m trying to please everybody and now you’re starting to make me a little crazy. The show’s over, with taping, for the year and now you have to start, kind of, leaving me alone. You know we stopped taping weeks ago and you can’t keep knocking on the door because I’ve got my head down the lion’s mouth with this other project.” So that’s when the schedule gets a little off, and it gets to be a bit much.
Do you ever just take a day off to do nothing?
No! Absolutely not.
You always have to be productive?
Yeah, I’m at this point – what is it, Friday today? Oh goodie, I’m going to be working through the entire weekend, like a madman. I’ll be up today until about 4 o’clock this morning, writing stuff that I have to do, and editing stuff that I’m obligated to do. It’s my book, who’s gonna do it, ya know. There’s this stuff that I signed on for and I must complete the mission. So, no, a day off… I would panic. I would realize… I would do a half day, but that would probably turn into a whole day. And that’s just because I’m, in a way, very ambitious. I just try to get a lot done, and it necessitates all the time I can give it.
A lot of this stuff is artistically bent in that the muse, or whatever it is, it wants all of you. It’s why marriages fail, it’s why people in bands – I don’t understand why they get married. Writers, I don’t know why they get married, unless it’s to other writers and it’s like “oh, I’ll see you next year. I’ll be down the hall. I’ll see you at dinner in nine weeks. I’m writing, I can’t see anybody.” And, ya know, why would you have kids? “Hi, I’m your dad, I’m a writer, I’ll see you in about 4 years, I’m having some problems with this manuscript.” “Dad, Dad! We’re gonna graduate from high school.” “Uh, uh, uh- deadline, gotta go.” And so that’s how I live and so I make sure there’s no one who has to feel the lash of that but me. So right now I’m in the middle of a lot of work, so taking time off would make me panic.
Do you ever at least take a moment to look back on all that you’ve accomplished and experienced?
No, not really. The only time I do that, in a way, is every time I finish something I have a file on my computer called ‘The List.’ It’s every record, every book, every movie – all of that. As I finish a movie, like I finished a movie a couple of days ago, I scroll down to the end of the movie list and I type in the new title. And I do notice that those lists are all quite long. And I look at it and my reaction is – and this may sound kind of weird – my joints ache. When I look at it, my knees hurt and my shoulders kind of tense up and I feel really tired. So then I close the file and I keep jamming, ‘cause it is a lot of stuff.
You’re just kind of working, completing, kind of tossing the CD or the tour or the book or the movie behind you – over your shoulder. Like I never see the movies I do, probably good advice for anyone, I just buy the DVD on Amazon and then I shelve it. Unwatched, still shrink wrapped – I’ll probably never watch them. My albums I listen to once to make sure the mastering is what I wanted, and then I get my copy and I shelve it. I just go on to the next thing. One day I looked at all the CDs that I have done or I’m on, like movie soundtracks or whatever, and it takes up a shelf that’s like 6 feet long. Because there’s a lot of compilations and stuff you end up being on – and I’m sure that’s true for a lot of bands. It’s like you look at it and go “how many talking records is that? Damn!” It’s just been kind of decades now – two and a half decades of furious work and kind of just chucking it behind you. Including any money I make, the accountant just puts it in the bank. I don’t really pay attention to it, all I know is that I’m eating and I’m sleeping under a roof that appears to be mine. I’m not saying I’m the dumb artist, I hate that pose, but I don’t really clock the finances. It’s not like I’m trying to get rich here, I’m just working. Working away, that’s what I do. And I enjoy the work, sometimes though in order to make the work good, it hurts. Like really writing, hurts. To write a real lyric it’s gonna hurt ya, it can’t all be fun. And to put that song out every night, and to mean it, you have to give yourself to that pain. You have to be honest and suffer that part of it that’s just awful.
You’re obviously well-traveled, and well read, and probably more informed than most of our current politicians. Why have you never taken on a role in government?
I think you’d just find yourself mired in red tape and politics where the other side comes back at you. Not that anyone would ever vote for me anyway, and I don’t have a college education, and I just don’t think it’s how you can really – at this point, in this version of America that we’re living in – that you could really effect any real change. I think that a lot of change, and a lot of good, can be done by private citizens who are activated. Like with the Katrina disaster – it’s not like FEMA really did much, it’s not like the government really pitched in, it’s not like even New Orleans really pitched in, or Louisiana. Who pitched in? America did. You know, $3.2 billion from our pockets, we donated. I’m sure you donated, I know I did. Every band did a benefit, every radio station did a fund drive. And a lot of good people in Texas opened their doors for these homeless people, and people in Missouri and all of America said, “Come on in.” We took up these people, and so that just shows ya how kick-ass Americans are. Like when you call upon us to rise to the occasion, we do and then some.
So I’d rather be on that angle of it. I’d rather go to a benefit towards the West Memphis Three and hand them $17,000 and say, “Here, go test that DNA that the state of Arkansas refuses to finance, here – we financed it.” That to me, ya know, we didn’t change the world but we changed the world of three guys in prison whom we believe are innocent. And so we’ve effected some change. Every time I do a benefit down the street from where my office is, I know I’ve affected the lives of the kids inside that orphanage. I don’t know that you could really do that as a Senator, or as a local politician. And I don’t want a desk job. I sit behind this desk I’m sitting behind right now all day anyway, why would I want to do it with a bunch of suck-ups and politicians. Because any politician has to play both sides against the middle, ‘cause if you’re gonna be really honest there are gonna be some people that hate your guts. I’d rather be hated, and be honest.
Getting onto the topic of music, if you had to start all over with Black Flag today, how would you do things differently having the internet as a tool?
I would take advantage of the internet immediately – get the music to the fans. But if Black Flag started right now I don’t think Black Flag would sound like Black Flag did. The times were different, things were different, equipment was different, the needs of that band were different, America was different – and the state of California was different so I don’t know that you would have had that same band with that same kind of explosiveness about it. But say we’re on our fifth tour, five years into the band in 2006 – I’d be using the internet. I’d be doing what bands do now, ya know, MySpace, websites with free downloads. Ya know, get you to someone who might like you.
Back in those days we just kind of played every town, hoping people would show up. Hoping that the gig flyer would be some kind of honeyed bait for the bee. We would just play everywhere and go, “Please show up – we’re good!” And you’d hope the promoter put up more than 4 flyers, and most of the time they didn’t. Then you’d play in front of nobody and then 800 people in the years after all swore that they saw that show. It’s like “no, you didn’t, because I remember how many people were at that show. I met them all after the show, it took 4 minutes.”
So where music was then, as far as accessibility – how you can download a song, copy a CD, all that, where it was then and where it is now is relative to stone age to last year. It’s come so far in the 25 years since I joined Black Flag. It’s a whole different thing, it’s a different sport entirely. Labels are different, radio’s different, access to music is different, bands’ access to audiences and vice versa is completely different. We were kind of in a wilderness, where now it’s kind of a well-maintained, corporate four-lane highway with sanctioned hot spots everywhere and Starbucks. Thanks to Clear Channel, and MTV, it’s become Pro Tooled now. It all sounds a bit like Nickelback… but thankfully there is a vibrant music scene that’s independent, where people do make dangerously creative records where the bands know they’ll sell like 40 copies and they don’t care. They’re going for the music and they know they’re never gonna leave their day job playing music that way. They know that, and that’s cool. There are bands who if MTV said, “Hey, we like you!” they’d run away going, “No, n-n-o! You’ll ruin everything!” And so there are bands who do whole tours of basements and people’s houses, living rooms – from people they’ve met on the internet – where they play for beer, affection, dinner, a shower, and ya know, maybe a dance with one of the gals in town. And all that’s really cool to me cause it says “Sorry, we’re going for the music and your fake aphrodisiac of money means nothing to me, and what you call fame and success – it doesn’t register with us.” And there are tons of band like that, and I have those records and they’re great! There’ll always be that element of people going, “sorry, I’m too smart to fall into that trap. I don’t want to play with a Bud Light logo behind me. Thank you, though, for the offer, but – ehh.”
Are you still collecting live recordings?
Oh, sure, yeah! Rabidly.
Your archive must be pretty huge.
It’s not so bad. A lot of people contribute.
Do those just go on the shelf, too, or do you listen to those?
Oh, no, no, no!!! I listen to as much of that as I can. There’s one buddy of mine in Ohio, Joel. Joel overwhelms me, he will send me like 25 Clash shows at once. I’m like, “Ok, Joel, you maniac! There goes my weekend.” So I’m woefully behind on the bombs that Joel delivers me – these CD books full of cd-rs of, like, 13 Fall shows, 4 Clash shows, 5 Ramones shows – he knows what I like, and he just keeps finding stuff and bangs it out for me and send ‘em. And I’m like, “I can’t pay you back, I don’t have the time!” He’s “don’t worry about it. We’ll figure it out, in the end.” And so I try and keep up, but I’m always behind on reading and listening just because I buy by the pound, and I read by the pound. I try to just cram it all in.
You’ve been friends with X since the early days, how did this upcoming tour with them come to be?
I think that we both had the same agent, and they had their tour in place and we went to the agent and said we’d like to tour this summer, do you have anything available? He said, “Well, what about a tour with X?” I said, “I’ll take that!” And I think managements got together, and conference calls, and then everyone kind of went “sure.” It had nothing to do with me, I just said, “Yes, that will work, we’ll go on that.” And X, I guess, said okay. And so here we are.
You’re calling that tour As the World Burns, whose idea was that?
John Doe (of X) came up with that one, and I said, “Sure, whatever.”’ I never have a good name for a tour, hence the name of my last tour – 25 Years of Bullshit. That was my idea. And the tours before – Won’t Sleep, Won’t Shut Up, that was another one of mine. Because if I had my way, I’d just call it Tour 2006 and say let’s go. I don’t care. “But we need something for the t-shirt!” I don’t care, let’s go. And I don’t care what city it’s in, or what the stage looks like – like a lot of bands, I just want to get out there and do it. So when John Doe said, “Hey, we’ll call it this!” I was like, “Fine! You’ve got an idea for what you wanna call it – it’s your tour. You’re the man.”
Since that is the title for the tour… On that topic, how do you see our planet’s immediate future?
I think we’re gonna be ok. I think, at the end of the day, cooler heads eventually prevail and progress will somehow wrest itself away from those that who oppress and want things to stay the same so that they can keep their market share. So I think, eventually, good outweighs bad. Good just crushes rock, paper, and scissors. And the good ideas win. So eventually, even the staunchest Carlyle advocate – ya know, your Rush Limbaughs or your Halliburtons – will have to go “it’s about time we look for alternatives to petroleum. Let’s now have the conversation about switch grass and sugarcane, now that we’ve bought up enough land to where we can get a comfortable chunk of the money from it.” That’s the only pause, I think, in all of that. It’s why Brazil is on Ethanol E-850 and we’re not. It’s not that we can’t grow sugarcane. Trust me, anything Brazil can do we can do ten times better 20 years ago. Believe me, it’s Brazil. Nice place, but we’re America and we are the best and, ya know, and the fact that we didn’t beat’em to Ethanol is because we didn’t wanna. It’s not like (fake ignorant voice) “sugarcane, huh?” We probably invented it 50 years ago, that was probably on the board before you were born. They were like “wh-wh-wh-whoa! No!” I mean, who killed the electic car? Not me.
But there will come a time when even those guys will have to go “O-K!” I do hope that it happens sooner than later because I do think we’re doing irreparable harm to the planet – which would get me tarred and feathered by Laura Ingram and Rush Limbaugh and all those people, to even say that. They call him (Al Gore) Gore the Bore. But, ya know, I just think the guy means well and he’s trying to point something out, but a lot of the conservatives have never had time for science because it kind of gets in the way and it takes time and these are all burly men of action, of course. So, yeah, I think we’ll be ok… eventually, but we do have to get on it.
So what’s on your agenda, after the tour?
Good question. I’m trying to figure out what September holds and after. I know that I have travel I want to do, I just have to see where and when. I have a travel article, a magazine article, that takes me either to Indonesia or Africa. I’ve got some speaking dates I’d like to do that take me to Europe and Africa. If the talking tour has me finish in either Johannesburg or Capetown, I was kind of hoping to get up to Zimbabwe from there to check out Harare. There’s also talk of getting back to Israel for some shows on my own, which I said, “Please, please, please – can I get back to Tel Aviv?” So, hopefully, that might happen. And then, in December, I’m definitely going into Russia and China on the Trans Mongolian Express. Last year I did the Trans Siberian Express, this year I’m doing the Trans Mongolian – in the dead of winter. It’s the only way to do it.
Lastly, if you had to choose a current band of the last decade or so that will stand the test of time and inspire future artists, who would you choose?
Uh… inspire future artists? Maybe Jane’s Addiction. Good band, and Perry Farrell with Lollapalooza, he helped change – or at least contribute to – a substantial and unarguable amount of musical culture and history in America. [At this point one of the girls in Henry’s office calls out to him about another appointment he’s apparently late for – our interview, by the way, was an hour late due to his other interviews running long – to which Henry returns to our conversation seeming unrushed and only says, “See how badly I’m screwing up the press today.”]… Anyway, Jane’s Addiction changed my life by putting me on Lollapalooza. They changed my band’s course- all of the sudden we were in front of 8,000 people a night instead of 500. And that really broke my band open because the following year we put out the End of Silence record and a lot of people had heard of that band the summer before. And thanks to Perry and Lollapalooza, they went “oh yeah! They were cool,” and they came to see us. And I think Lollapalooza had a lot to do with the band’s next phase of development as far as getting out there and reaching people. Also that was just one of the best damn bands I’ve ever seen onstage. You wouldn’t dare go on after that band. I felt humbly grateful to open for them.
Well, thank you very much for your time.
You’re very welcome and if I was late, I do apologize because I hate when people are late for me. So I hope that I did not inconvenience you.
It’s totally cool. I look forward to seeing you when you guys play Orlando.
Ok, see you soon.
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