|If you’re a fan of heavy music, Henry Rollins shouldn’t need an introduction. The perpetually pissed-off vocalist more than made a name for himself during his time fronting hardcore punk band Black Flag throughout the ‘80s. Chances are you already grew up listening to albums like Damaged and My War. If his Black Flag output somehow escaped you, you’ve most definitely heard him with Rollins Band or, hell, maybe even guesting on William Shatner’s 2004 opus, Has Been. If you somehow missed all that, movies like He Never Died, Wrong Turn 2, and Heat also feature the angry punk rocker in roles of various sizes.|
However you know Rollins, suffice it to say that the man keeps busy. Between his musical output, his various written works, podcasts, radio shows, movie roles, and spoken word art, the man has led one hell of a fascinating life. That the man has done more interesting things in one lifetime than most people could do with ten makes it a natural fit that he would turn his life story into a series of spoken word performances, and has been doing so for decades. I caught up with Rollins recently to discuss returning to touring and life as one of America’s angriest citizens.
First off, how’s the tour been going? How’s it been to get back on the road again? As a fan, it’s been incredibly relieving to have shows return. I can’t imagine how energizing it must be for you to be back in front of live audiences!
Henry: It’s been great after so many letdowns. Being about to leave and then told in one email the entire tour is canceled was hard to take over and over. It’s great to be with an audience again. I have a multi-decade affection for them and have missed them a lot.
With this first tour of the COVID era, what has your goal been for these shows? What has the audience reaction been like to finally being able to go out to a show again?
Henry: The goal doesn’t change. It’s always been about being prepared and delivering with all the exactitude I can. I can’t tell if the audience is relived to be back at shows, or at my show but they seem very into it, which of course is great. I’ve been touring with the same crew for almost fifteen years. Once we were out on the road, things fell into place and felt like we had never left. I didn’t know how it was going to be but that’s how it is with me, at least.
When did you first discover you have a talent for spoken word performance and what has kept you doing it all these years? When you put together a show, how do you decide what stories to tell on tour? Do you ever tweak it as the tour goes along?
Henry: I started doing shows on my own in 1983. I read things I had written but soon left that for the format I use now. What keeps me coming back is I really like what I’m doing and it’s amazing to find that there are small groups in cities all over the world who actually want to come to the show. That part, while grateful for, I’ve never been able to figure out. I decide what the best stories are, how compelling an audience will (hopefully) find them and start to work on them. The show is in constant edit. Tonight will be slightly different than last night.
You’ve made a living harnessing your anger into productive channels. Obviously there’s a lot of misplaced anger out there right now toward various marginalized groups and that’s anything but healthy, but I think anger can also be fantastic in getting people off their ass to make change happen if you use that anger productively. Have you always been an angry guy? To you, what’s the proper way to use anger to make a difference? I’ve always been of the mind that if you aren’t angry, you probably aren’t paying enough attention.
Henry: I’ve been angry as long as I can remember. I think anger is a tricky quantity and you have to be careful. If you misuse it, that’s a huge downside. For me, the guardrail is to always be punching up, never down. I’m not angry at the homeless for being homeless. I’m angry at homelessness. These people deserve better. With the way things are in the USA, if you think all is well, I’m at odds with you. It’s not interesting for me to argue with anyone, I’ll just do something constructive and they’ll do whatever you’ll do. I don’t have to have anything to do with a person like that. I can get things done and be nowhere near him.
You’ve traveled the world over and over and talked with people from all walks of life. Right now it feels like things are more dire and more divisive than ever. What’s your take on where we are right now as a people? Do you see hope for a brighter future and what do you think we need to do to get there?
Henry: I think humans are quite adaptable and while that’s a good thing of course, there’s also a downside to that. If things get worse environmentally, some people will be okay but there will be vast swatches of humanity who’ll live in severe food and water insecurity and some will simply die off. Our species picks winners and losers. No matter what, there will be some of this. A lot of what you see now is a reaction to western countries starting to experience limits. In the USA, we’re not used to hearing no, or to use a little less. I’m optimistic that younger people will embrace science and community more than the adults of this generation. I think science and information is the way forward.
You’re pretty well known for going anywhere and everywhere. What drives you to see so much of the world? What have you learned visiting so-called dangerous spots that people in the U.S. would be too scared to go to?
Henry: I used to be. I don’t know if the world will let me travel as I used to. I learned that the USA lives better than an incredibly large percentage of humans existing anywhere. There are varying degrees of dangerous. Alone in an African country is challenging, alone in Yemen, that’s up quite a few notches. I’ve found that in places like Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, North Korea, all these places I’ve been to on my own, people were friendly and just getting on with their lives. The times I’ve almost been killed have been in the USA.
What got you into punk and hardcore as a kid? How big of an outlet has music been for you throughout your life, both as a performer and as a fan? I’m far from alone in saying that, just as a fan, there are plenty of rough spots that a band or an album was able to get me through. Has it been like that for you and who are some of your go-to bands or albums when you need a pick-me-up or an energizing boost?
Henry: I listened to a lot of what you might call arena rock. It was great. Punk music was just much more exciting and fun and had lyrics I could relate to more. It was something I felt was happening at that moment that I could be a part of rather than a mere spectator/customer. I’ve leaned on records and bands very hard in my life. Music is always there for you, it’s a great ally. All of the bands I got into early on like the Damned, the UK Subs, the Lurkers, Buzzcocks, these are bands I still listen to with a lot of interest.
What’s your take on the current state of the music industry? There’s such an explosion of great bands across all kinds of genres but with streaming being the primary mode of listening, it kind of feels like it’s harder for bands to stay viable despite there being more avenues to get their music out to the people. What needs to happen for the industry to stay viable for bands?
Henry: I think independent music at least, is really good right now. It’s been at (its) peak for several years. A lot of bands have their own labels and are doing great work. As far as the industry, the major labels and the “big” music they put out has never been worse. It’s like processed food with a beat. Other bands have to do what they’ve had to do in the past. Work really hard, tour, miss meals and really love what they do. Being in a band on that level is not for the faint hearted.
Where do your music tastes run these days? Any newer bands you’ve been turned on to that you can recommend? We cover a lot of bands just starting out on the site. What’s your advice to young musicians starting out on how to make a band last?
Henry: I listen to a lot of independent/small label bands as I always have, a lot of avant/noise/drone stuff. A band from Australia called Romero I think is really good. The best way to save time as to what I’m listening to is to go to my site https://www.henryrollins.com, check out the show notes for my radio show and see all the bands I’m playing every week.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about “He Never Died.” I absolutely love that movie and your performance is fantastic in it. How did that come about? You have an incredibly meaty role there, was it a challenge for you and how do you feel about the cult following the movie has gained over the years?
Henry: The director wrote the part for me. I remember liking it as soon as I (read) it and committed to the role as soon as I could. It was very simple on that level. I was offered the part and said yes. The process to get to the character was a numbing of emotion and reaction. The guy has been dead for centuries, so you reckon he’s bored, cynical and probably depressed. I found all this to be funny and thought that was to play it, that immortality was a drag. I have no idea as to how people regard the film. I tend to move on to the next thing and not look back as to what the reaction was.
You’ve been in an eclectic collection of roles as an actor over the years. What draws you to a particular role and what is it about the challenge of acting that you enjoy?
Henry: I try to do things I can deliver on. I’m quite limited, so I just try to hit that very narrow lane I can work in. The part I like is that you can put yourself into it 100% and be totally intense.
Lastly, you’re a guy that always seems like he’s up for a new experience or challenge. What are some things that you’d like to do that you haven’t gotten a chance to yet? Do you have any personal goals you’re working on or bucket list items you’d still like to knock out?
Henry: Honestly, I can’t think of anything presently. COVID has forced me to sit on the bench for a long time, so I’m figuring out what I can do with the limitations of that along with increasing age. I’ll do my best to keep it as interesting as I can.
Photo credit: Ross Halfin