Henry Rollins doesn’t stay still for long. He’s best known for his bruising, intense vocals on punk and proto-metal over the last two-plus decades, but he’s also been extremely busy as an actor, television host, record label head, publisher, and all-around provocateur. And then there’s his ongoing spoken-word tour, the current leg of which is taking him from Canada to the East Coast and out to California. Here, he talks about the biggest problems facing the United States, the water crisis and the future of his music career and The Henry Rollins Show on IFC.
Are there any differences between preparing for a band performance and spoken word?
It’s harder. There’s nothing to hide behind in case you make a mistake, and the song’s the song — you’ve got not many words to handle. There’s lots of noise on stage, so if you screw up, you can always duck behind the snare drum. When I’m on stage by myself, that’s all I’ve got.
You’ve got the naked lightbulb.
Just you and your truth up there, without anything to hide behind. There’s a lot of concentration that goes on; it’s not as physically demanding as a band show, but it’s demanding in a lot of other ways. It’s way more challenging.
Are there any differences in audience interaction and how it affects you?
People laugh and cheer and clap during the talking shows, but it’s not like they are singing along, and if you’ve got the one drunk who feels like talking while you’re talking it can be really hard to get through the night.
Have you had to deal with any nasty hecklers?
It’s usually just the drunk guy who just agrees with you all the time. "Yeah! All right!" You beg him. "Look, pal, everyone around you paid $30 to be sitting around you, and they are ready to club you to death like a baby seal, so you might want to take that into consideration." And everyone cheers and the guy usually shuts up. But it’s not like I’m trying to exacerbate the audience or pick fights. I don’t think I say anything that egregious.
What inspires you?
Everything. Just going out into the world. It’s not so much what inspires me as much as what makes me angry, and what I see around me makes me go. In the last few years the main inspiration for me has been all the travel I’ve been doing outside of America and seeing how the rest of the world works, and coming back and syncing that up to see how America works, what globalization really looks like when you go to point B. Those things get me off the couch.
Based on your travels what’s the biggest problem facing our nation?
I think there’s a few. Our economy is an immediate problem. I think some of the nagging problems are what to do about Iraq, what to do about Afghanistan, what to do about our basic standing in the world, and also what to do about our environment. Because the environment ties into economy, ties into your oil, ties into your bank account. It all kinda works together. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this stuff, and the more I’ve been reading, the more that keeps coming back. The food is tied into the water, which is tied into oil, which is tied into the climate change, the rising seas, the desertification of some areas — many rivers no longer running back to the sea like they used to due to dams and diversion. That all kinda ties in.
It’s perhaps a stretch to convince Americans that they have to start thinking globally to start assessing their domestic situation, but I think that’s going to be more and more evident as years go on and resources begin to noticeably dwindle. When your price of water starts going up noticeably, you’ll start to see that.
Basically water’s free, as it’s priced today.
Yeah, but it’s not, in that it comes at a great cost, when you see how many liters of water it takes to make a pound of beef or a gallon of biodiesel. We’re now tapping a lot of aquifers; we’re drilling down like we do for oil, drilling for water. This is not just in parts of Africa. This is in Australia, in Europe, in places like Switzerland, where they are having to go below levels to get drinkable water. With melting ice caps and all of that, people in South America depend on the run-off from the Andes, and they are not able to depend on that water as much as they used to. So things are changing.
I think America immediately is freaking about Wall Street, the upcoming election, and to a certain degree what’s going on in Iraq, or what’s not going on Iraq. But if you want an American awake, myself included, start talking about my wallet, where I live. "It’s the economy, stupid," as they say. So I think as far as polling goes, that seems to be on America’s mind as we draw closer to this election. McCain’s been throwing all this stuff at the Barack campaign, William Ayers, he’s a socialist, et cetera. And no one’s really buying it. They are just going "Uh huh, uh huh. I’m broke. And I’m scared. And I don’t care about William Ayers, and you called him a washed-up terrorist during the debate the other day and we don’t care either, so talk to me about my life and my bank."
So America has a lot of challenges coming up presently and in the future, and I think we will rise to the challenge, but I think we will have a very rough road ahead.
Changing gears a bit from the political discussion, what’s the last movie role you turned down?
The last one I got?
The last one you turned down.
Turned down? Oh, I don’t get many, so I usually don’t turn them down. I can’t honestly remember the last time I said no to a film. Like I said, I don’t get many offers. I think I turned down one just because I couldn’t make it. I was on tour and we kept trying to move things around for this director, and he kept saying he needed a six-week window for one week of work. I said no one asks for that! I talked to him later and he said, "Yeah, I’m sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing and just needed the latitude." I just couldn’t give it to him when I’m booked solid touring. So that’s probably the last thing I turned down. But like I said, not much comes my way, and it usually comes at a time when I’m not doing something else, so I’m grateful for it.
What’s been your favorite film to work on?
Either The Chase, the Charlie Sheen film, basically because it’s a comedy and it was a very easygoing atmosphere, or Lost Highway, the David Lynch film, because you got to hang around with David Lynch all day and he’s a nice guy, and Patricia Arquette was really wonderful and Bill Pullman’s a nice man. I just finished a film last year that was really cool. It was hard work but it was a lot of fun because the people were all great. I think it’s going to be called Ice 44. I got to work a lot of scenes with Cuba Gooding, which was fun because he’s a very switched-on, very intense, focused actor. He makes you better because he’s so into it and so sharp. You look a little better because you are in a scene with him.
Your last record was released in 2001. Is music over for you or is this just a hiatus?
I just don’t think about it much, in that I don’t see the point about going out again, writing 12 more songs and going out and servicing the record. I’m not putting it down, but I can tell you what it’s gonna be like. I’m gonna get in a room with a bunch of guys, we’re gonna make some noise. I’m gonna make my 30th record. I’m going to go play those places again, and sing those new songs, as well as 20-year-old songs, and it’s going to take nine to 14 months of my life to do that thing, where there will really be no surprises. And that to me is not artistically adventurous or brave at this point.
Whereas the talking shows, where it’s breaking information, breaking news all the time, it allows me to report back to you, the audience member, immediately back from where I came from. This year I was in Burma, and Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, South Africa, all over Europe and Australia and New Zealand. I’d much rather give you the 411 with just me and a microphone rather than write 12 more songs and go out and do the thing again. It doesn’t seem to me that I could do much new with it. But if I start hearing different sounds in my head, I will certainly pursue it.
I went out in 2006 with the band and did a bunch of shows that were well attended, very well received, and I came to the end of it and thought, "OK, that was a fun summer in the way-back machine," and it something I didn’t want to repeat.
So I guess that means no Black Flag reunion shows in the near future?
It’s not my band. The band belongs to Greg Ginn, so I would have no horse in that race.
Is your IFC show still on, or is that on hold?
Basically it is no more. What I’ve done for them this year is three live specials. They said, "We like you, we like your show, but good guests good ratings, mediocre guests mediocre ratings, and we get bigger bounce-back from your live specials, so let’s do more of those." And if I had my way I’d do both, but it’s not my money. So I said great, and we shot three of them this year. We shot one in South Africa, one in New Orleans, and one in Northern Ireland with a bunch of interviews and me going around different places, looking at this and that, interviewing people. It’s all pretty intense. I think those start rolling on IFC sometime next month. That’s what I did for them this year, which was very work-intensive. Documentary stuff is a lot of work, so we kinda came crawling out of the end of those work weeks. South Africa’s very hot, you’re scrambling around with a film crew between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Good work, but challenging.
Are those local-flavor things, or are you talking with famous residents of those areas?
No, in South Africa I was going to HIV clinics and townships, Robben Island and Nelson Mandela’s prison cell, trying to get an understanding of things there.
Who has been your favorite interviewee on your IFC show, and why?
Favorite guests would be Gore Vidal and Werner Herzog. They’re all great, but those two especially, because Herzog means so much to me as a director and a force in cinema, and Vidal as a great American intellect, to me a true American patriot, a guy who really questions authority and says, "Hey, wait a minute, let’s look at this." I thought that was really cool to be able to spend a moment with him. Because he’s not young, I don’t know how much time he has left, so the fact that he gave us a half afternoon of his life was really nice. So those two were very relevant and very good, Vidal being very spot-on. But there’s a lot of them I enjoy. The Larry Flynt interview was really interesting; he’s just an interesting guy.
On your latest radio show, which focused on Sleep and post-Sleep stuff like High on Fire and Om, you played the single, a 52-minute song called "Dopesmoker," which is a pretty brave selection for a radio show. What sort of feedback did you get from that?
I’ve got brave listeners. I got so much ecstatic mail about that from people who either love the album or had never heard it before and now they want to hear everything that Sleep has ever done. It’s nice when you get that kind of mail.
Your Neubauten tattoo is arguably one of the most famous in music; has Blixa or anyone else in the band ever commented on it?
Oh, yeah, it’s on one of their album covers, one of their records — I think it’s a retrospective — where they have everyone’s different Neubauten tattoos and mine’s one of them. I’ve known those guys since 1984. I go back with them quite a ways.
Do you have a similar vision between the excellent and now defunct Infinite Zero label, and for your 2.13.61 label?
I put out an old record now and then. Maybe once a year I’ll find an old record I like, do a licensing deal and put it out, but nothing on the scale of Infinite Zero. That was a nice advance check from Warner Brothers that gave us the latitude to do that. Doing it on my own steam I can move with a lot less speed.
You had some pretty awesome releases on that label, like the Monks, Matthew Shipp —
Devo, Gang of Four. What we did is basically dive into the Warner Brothers catalog and found stuff that they didn’t want to put out anymore or they didn’t care about, and we said, “Well, can we put it out?” And they said yeah, so basically we took the advance from Warner Brothers, walked it down the hall of Warner Brothers, and gave it to someone else in Warners. They kinda swished the mouthwash to the other cheek — the money never left the building. Basically, we were a special-products division for them. A few of the records were not on WB, but the majority were in this great catalog that they didn’t see fit to release at that time. We said we’ll put it out. Good for us, good for them, good for the fans. I think we did a good thing.
Kinda like going into their attic and taking out some treasures and making them available again.
There was no money in it for Rick or me. We didn’t take a salary; we just did it. The only person who got paid was our one-person staff.
What is the biggest misconception about you?
That I’m gay.
Would you beat Danzig in an arm-wrestling contest?
I don’t know.
Photo by Ben Swinnerton.