Back in 2009, I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my all-time heroes, Henry Rollins when he performed a spoken word show at the LCR in Norwich. Rollins is a powerhouse, and I remember feeling a mixture of excitement and fear at actually meeting him. Anyone who’s watched footage of the intense interviews that he gave while in Black Flag back in mid-’80s will understand why. But, my fears were unfounded. Henry was an absolute gent. Friendly, erudite and generous with his time, he was the perfect interviewee.
A very truncated version of this interview appeared in a local ‘zine I was writing for back in the day, but this is the first time the unedited transcript has been published. Enjoy!
How’ve you been finding the tour so far?
It’s cool. Tonight is the seventh show out of many… it’s always new material, so it’s a matter of finding the truth and the story inside the story. The first few nights… it’s not like those people get a bad show but they get this chunk of information. Over the next few nights you’re able to find moments where you go “oh, I can pause there for a second, I can put racing stripes on that part”. The truth of the stories doesn’t change but they evolve. The part that you initially thought wasn’t a big deal becomes more important. The show is primarily where I’ve been and what I’ve done since the last time I was here. The last time I was in the UK was a big tour in January two years ago. Since then I’ve been pretty far and wide, America has a new President… there’s lots of things to talk about. How to combine that into a cohesive couple of hours that doesn’t drive people crazy with a desire to run out of the place, that’s my job. So far it’s been fine. It’s in the last three nights that the thing has really… it’s feeling sleek and graceful whereas the first couple of nights it’s like I’m hauling a big sack of something. It’s gonna be fine. You’re kind of married to the stories that came into your life in the several months before and that’s your gear. It’s a table full of stuff that you make into a sculpture. Sometimes you have to keep making it into a tale to tell. You do it, hopefully you get good stuff to talk about… I think I got it.
Your touring schedule is relentless as always…
It’s what I like to do. The older I get… I’m basically 49… the older I get, the more I like to do this. I’ve been touring since I was twenty. Being on the road, it’s kind of what I know. There’s all these déjà-vu moments of… I’m sitting on the bus, I’m writing in the front lounge, I’m gonna make a cup of coffee… it becomes my living room. When I’m on tour, it feels more natural to me than when I’m home, because home… when I’m in my house off the road… it’s always a countdown. You’re off the road and you’ll be back on in seven days, 20 days whatever it is. In that time I often get a little softened up. When one is off the road, you have the conveniences of your place. There’s my books, my records, the food I like to eat is down the street in the grocery store. Out here, it’s about approximating that. I’d rather not be in the mindset of approximating home. I’d rather be out here in the real moment dealing with “how could I make this place fine”… this place is fine, because I’m in it and at the end of the day, that’s all you’ve got. I’d rather be in that than off the road the older I get. When I was younger, 20-something, I’d have a girl friend and I’d be counting down the days to see her and it’d be agony. Now time is a more fluid concept, like with sleep. I’ll get a few hours later, it doesn’t really matter what time zone I’m in. I just run off to the next thing. I’ve been travelling now since mid October, did a TV show in America, wrapped out of it in late September and a few weeks later I left for a few weeks travel with just me and two backpacks. I started in Jordan and ended up in Beijing China with all these points in-between, came back to America, took a couple of days off to repack, went off to Africa for two weeks and came here to start the tour. That’s been me for months now. The tour goes until about September.
In past spoken word performances, you’ve stated you don’t like staying in one place for too long…
It’s true. I get this idea that life is passing me by. It’s just an idea that gets in your head. All of a sudden you change your mind and it’s a new idea. But I am used to metabolism. It’s like someone who’s been in the military for years. They come home and at 0600 it’s time for breakfast and you think “easy chief it’s Christmas vacation”. They can’t get out of it. I’m used to this life that goes quickly with a lot of touring, itineraries etc, etc. So when I’m off the road, I do a lot of stuff at my office every day. But this is what I know. I don’t take any days off on the road. If we do, it’s because the drive is so long and there’s nothing in between. We’ll take a day off just to give the driver a rest. We could be way up in Northern Canada one day and in the middle of America the next. That is a good 12/1300 miles. Not to be mean to Tim the driver we’ll give him a day to do it. We’ll go for 12 hours and take a break at an arbitrary location. We’ll pull over and that will be our day off. You could be in the middle of Dakota. There’s a shopping mall, there’s a Laundromat, that’s your day off. That’s why I tour relentlessly. It’s what I like to do. I like to get out there and engage with people. I like being on stage. It’s never a drag to do a show. Every night by 7.30 I’m excited to go out there, I can’t wait. Last night was a blast and I can’t wait for tonight. When I’m home, I don’t wake up with anticipation like that. I wake up, go to the office and might go and see the girl later on. That’s the difficult thing with being at home. I go out with a woman, which is really weird for me. Not that I’m used to dating men or zebras, but a semi-secure, long standing relationship is a new thing for me. I go out with this woman who is very serious, has her own company, kicks ass and has employees. When I’m in town I see her and then I go out on these epic journeys. It’s interesting loading that idea into all of this. We’ve been going out for several months now. And this is the first tour she’ll have to deal with it. We’ll see how we both deal with it, cos I’m not gonna stop. We’ll see how we go. This is the way I’ve been living for a long time. It’s very unconventional.
I just feel that I’m really lucky that I still like doing this… a lot of people at my age who started off doing music or whatever it was… you kinda get your fill of it, you burn out and you do it because of the cash or you don’t know what else to do. Whenever I look at UK magazines they have all these ads for bands on tour in the back and you see bands that when I was sixteen… bands like Bad Company… they’re still out there with these fractured line-ups… two guys and a backline of men dutifully banging out the songs and I wonder “you really want to go out there and sing those songs again tonight man?”. You see the Rolling Stones and its Satisfaction every night, Honky Tonk Women for the millionth time. I don’t know why Rod Stewart would sing Maggie May again… I’m not putting the guy down, he’s a good artist. It’s just that I’m trying to do new stuff. The talking shows allow me to be in the present. With my passport I’m able to go to countries where I’m interested in things. I travel mainly from a socio-political, socio-economic and socio-ecological point of view. I don’t travel somewhere to get a tan, I go to see a polluted river or to see where some multi-national corporation is dumping, or go to a third world country or developing nation. I want to get my western eyes and western mindset around, say Bangladesh, which is something else. For someone like me who comes from America where everyone has a fat layer and ten toilet flushes a day, to see people who are really living a different lifestyle… it’s great for my writing, for my thinking, for what I bring to the stage, and this is how I’m trying keep things different and keep myself a little off balance as I hurtle toward 50. If I went out and did the music at this point it’d be “wow, don’t you have anything else to do?” Playing in front of an ever shrinking crowd, playing music that’s half your life time ago… I can’t justify making that buck.
You’ve released a lot of your material through 2.13.61 which is your label.
Yeah, I own it, I’ve got full control
That versus working major label, you prefer the independence?
I worked with major labels for ten years. The last time was with Dreamworks. It was a two album deal, we did the two albums, they said thank you very much… they didn’t make much money off me. What I did for maybe a moment was major label. All those indie bands a long time ago, we all had our major label moment. Bands like Dinosaur Jr…all of a sudden we were the flavour and I’m happy to lump myself in with that bunch of other bands from the clubs who got a moment. Right around Lolapalooza… It certainly made a lot of major labels go “hmmm… there’s certainly money in the farm teams”. It’s what major labels do. I don’t make any bones about it. They make money. When they see money in anywhere they go after it. It’s what they do, they find it. The first band I knew who got taken upstairs was Husker-Du. Right off of SST records when I was in Black Flag. They were the most pop band on SST. I was all “go get ‘em man”. We were nothing but hopeful for them. Then, in the early ‘90s, Dinosaur Jr start… the whole Seattle scene explodes. We got to go up into these major labels. All of a sudden you have some clout. It was great. For a hard working band, you’ve got a whole promo team beating up radio, all of a sudden there’s ads. We’d do what we call ‘secret tours’ and any indie band will tell you about it. You’re at the record store, a kid comes up and says “dude what are you doing in town” and that’s a bad sign. He knows who you are but he doesn’t know why you’re in town. “We have a show tonight”. “Really?!?Where?!?”. No one knows that you’re here. Me and Chris Haskett the guitar player look at each other and go ‘secret show’ and laugh at it. What are you going to do? You’re on in three hours. Smile and play in front of squat.
With a major label, it’s in the weeklies, the dailies, the monthlies and on the radio. You have a killer team. If you were going to play 130 nights a year man, it was the best. You had someone screaming “hey!!!”. But with that corporate world, that want of money turns into something where, unless you are that way, unless you are Britney Spears and you want to do the meetings and those people are your people… if you want to sit down and make a record with strategists who want you to get a market by doing a particular type of song… Some people will go “yeah” I can do that… “We don’t like your drummer, can you lose the drummer?”, “Yeah, sure”, tell him go home. You can’t do that with my band members. Around the time the last major label thing happens, they were cool but they said “can you make another song like Liar?” and I’m like “no, I can’t…c’mon”. I don’t write like that. I can’t be told… that was the most alien instruction I’ve ever been given. So knowing what I knew about the indie world, I decided I’d start doing my records on my label. I quadrupled royalty rates just because I don’t take some huge… I’m not going through all the cooks in the kitchen. There’s publishing deals for my band members and everyone’s getting paid. I’ve done a bunch of my own records, dvds, cds and books on my label and every year since about 1990-something the company turns a profit every year. I’m not trying to impress you, I’m just saying the little guy can make it work without all these desks full of people…who knows what they do all day, but they get a salary. Big companies are turning lights off and whole floors are… they’re just laying off.
I know a lot of good people in the record industry or in the entertainment business in L.A… they’re good people and they’re working their asses off. They’re losing their jobs, or they’re scared they’re gonna. So the major label world was interesting but I found myself back where I started in the indie thing where everything is far more realistic. You’re gonna press up this many records so you’re not sitting on too many, cos we’re loading them all into this room down the hall from my office in my building. It keeps you humble, hardworking and very aware of the numbers. “I don’t know how many I’m selling, I’m just drinking champagne and hitting women”; that’s not how I’m wired. You wanna go long in this business, like me, I wanna be doing shows until I drop and you’re not like Ozzy Osbourne who everything he touches turns platinum… I’m not putting him down, he’s a good friend of mine and he’s a wonderful guy, but he’s rare and he’s lucky. I’m not one of those people. I have to be careful not make too many or charge too much… which I wouldn’t want to do anyway. I do every interview, answer every email and letter. I keep showing up, I don’t take too many days off and don’t stray away from the machine, I have to mind the store. That way I can be near 50 and I still have an audience, which I just… the biggest show I’ve ever done was just talking in London just the other night. I made my record with 2500 people… which is pretty insane.
You’ve previously talked in your spoken word performances about channelling your anger into something positive. At nearly 49, do you feel that you’ve moderated your anger? Is it this sense of anger that sustains your contemporary output?
Yeah, anger is my main fuel, but over the years it’s found new places to plug in. As a young man I was mad because the guy gave me a bad review or I couldn’t meet the chicks. The older I get, I’m still extremely angry, but my anger is more of a civic anger. I’m angry at the man. I’m mad at eight years of a President who started a fake war and killed a whole bunch of people. When you say whole bunch of people no one over talks about the dead Iraqis, they talk about the Americans or the coalition. A whole lot of really good people died in Iraq for no reason. Bakers, plumbers, dads, moms, people who should not have been blown up. My President did that, my country did that. To be anything less than furious about that, anything less than damn near riotous to the point of losing control, I think, is not doing the job. Over the years, the more I see, the more of these places I go to all over the world… that fuels and sustains my anger and makes me do good things. I do a benefit, I align myself with organisations that are doing things. I was the keynote speaker last year with an organisation called Dropping the Bucket that drills water wells in Uganda, “hey, can you do 20 mins on water?” Yeah, I can talk about water, I’ve studied the water problems, I’ve got kind of a grip on it. I’m honoured. We raised $70,000 dollars that night and I’m hopefully going to Darfur and Uganda with that organisation later this year if I have time.
This is the kind of thing I’ve been doing. There’s a great organisation called the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, iava.org, and it’s ex-military who are working on the problem of men and women coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq after four or five rotations having seen their friends blown up. Their heads are screwed up with post traumatic stress disorder, and the Veteran’s Administration has no benefits for them because “they’re just complaining”. No, these are very real problems and there’s no government agency to take care of them. These soldiers are in need of everything from tickets to a baseball game to get them out of the house to a place where they can sit around in a circle of folding chairs and vent to each other. I’m a member of IAVA. I work for them, I do voice overs, I write stuff. I’m mad about this, but I don’t kick holes in walls, I don’t drink myself into a stupor, I don’t hit anybody, I get out there. As Tom Hartman says “activism starts with you, Tag you’re it”. That’s what I think punk rock should look like when it nears 50. You stand up for the voiceless. I’m not trying to impress you or wear my heart on my sleeve, I just see this stuff and think you bastards, you get away with too much shit man. And you get away with this stuff because people are busy. They’ve got two kids, they’re trying to get it together, they don’t have time to stand up and go “what’s up with that”. They might see it and go “yeah, this sucks, but I’ve gotta go to work, the kid is crying, he wants some food”. I don’t have any kids, I have the time and I have a budget that allows me to pick a country I want to visit, book a trip and go there for two weeks. That’s what I’m doing with my paycheck. It keeps me very interested in things.
Anger is a huge energy for me, but I think I do good things with it. It’s not bitterness. It makes me smile. Let’s go get ‘em. I love the hate mail I get. “You fucking communist”… whatever, you can’t even spell it. I stand up for gay rights. In my country, there’s people who protest gay marriage as if it’s going to change their lives if two guys move in together two houses down. They think their world’s going to come to an end. If Paul wants to marry Steve, what’s your problem? “Uh, you’re into gay marriage”… yeah, I’m into equality… ain’t that weird? It’s very interesting living in this way because there’s a reason to get up every day and maybe you’re doing some good… trying at least.
You’ve got access to a large number of people. Do you feel a responsibility to informing them through what you do?
In a way. It’s not like I’m the teacher and they’re the students or I have some big knowledge, ‘cos that’s a bit presumptuous and I’m a high school graduate. I can provide perspective, I can perhaps be a catalyst or an inspiration or a point of view that sparks some great argument on the way home from the gig, but it is my duty on stage, I reckon, to tell the truth and to bring material to the stage. It is my idea, at least, that I must go very far and wide to see things that I have never seen before ,that put me through something that will render a story or insight or point of view, that is worth me having the audacity to tell you to give me your money and sit down, laugh and clap at the appropriate times. and leave. By commanding your attention for two hours every two and a half years, I get the funds to go to Iraq, Pakistan, Sri-Lanka or wherever it is I go and walk through deserts, slums and rainforest hauling one shoulder of bug spray and a sleeping bag to find this stuff out. That way when I go on stage I’ve got something for your ass, I’ve got something to tell you. Not like “aren’t dogs funny when they do that thing and my girlfriend’s a bitch”. That’s what some comedians are really good at, and hell, I’ll go and see that, but I’m not that guy, so that’s why I do what I do. That’s what I can give. It only comes from earning it. I earn the story, I earn your respect, I earn your ass in that seat. It’s not for money, I’m kind of an idealist. I want things to be better and I love getting in front of people and going “here’s some possibilities”. You can call me naive or having visions of utopian whatever, but I’m sick of war. I think it’s a bad idea. I’m sick of homophobia and I’m sick of racism.
I grew up in Washington D.C where there’s some really tough neighbourhoods. D.C’s a tough town. The nice parts are nice, the bad parts are living hell. It’s a racially tense town. I remember hippies rolling cars in the streets and the smell of tear gas in the air during the Vietnam War. I was seven. When I go back there now, all these places are still bad, scary neighbourhoods. In America, we have a wrecked healthcare system, we don’t value life. We need work. War should be obsolete. It should be “a long time ago when they put leeches on their faces, they had wars”, “oh yeah, they used to burn witches too”… “how barbaric, but we don’t do war anymore. We negotiate, we share, we value life.” If I can get in front of a bunch of people and try and show some ways in which it’s possible… maybe by the time we have the next Republican President, which will probably be in around three or four years, and he wants to start a war because it’s good for the economy, maybe there’ll be a nation of people going “not this time man. Been through one of those a while back and didn’t do very well for me. Lost my kid… and fuck you”. Maybe I might not get it in my life time, but not to push towards it, I can’t see the bad part of pushing for that. This is, in my mind, what punk rock should be doing when it’s 50. I would hope that Thomas Jefferson and Joe Strummer, if they were sitting at the table now, would go “that holds water, keep going with that”. Those are two people I greatly admire. One of them I met, one of them I read about. But that’s the why and the wherefore, that’s why I do what I do.
Tonight I’m going to talk about going to Bhopal for the 25th anniversary of the great gas leak in 1984 that killed 8-10,000 people almost immediately. I went over to Bhopal to see what it’s like on the anniversary of that thing. I broke into Union Carbide. I crawled through the bushes and went behind the guards’ backs and to look at a bunch of rusting metal. There’s nothing to do there but see a factory, but I hauled my ass all the way to central India to get a story that isn’t in a book. What do you know about Bhopal? I know what it looked like when these boots were in it six weeks ago, I can tell you that. Here’s my photo of the place, not the one on Wikipedia. With the passport and the desire to go I can actualise a lot of things and go “here’s the fish I caught, you can touch it”. The thrill of travelling is as cool now as the first time I did it. I’d never been to Africa, so I booked a trip to Kenya and Madagascar. I try to go to Africa once a year. I’ve been nine times now. It’s the big book, it’s where the lessons are. You see stuff there you don’t see anywhere else. This is what I think is worth my while and, most importantly worth the while of an audience. Like I said, I’ve got to go out there every night and justify my existence. It keeps me going. Why do I come and see you? Every gig answers that question, hopefully.