The Last Word: Henry Rollins

The punk iconoclast speaks candidly about moving past being in a band, taking the lead in He Never Died, and an undying love of radio ahead of his first UK spoken word shows in four years

Feature by Joe Goggins | 08 Jan 2016
  • Henry Rollins

Henry Rollins isn’t quite 55 yet, even if he claims as such during the course of this interview. It’s revealing that he thinks in such terms; he always looks forward, and seldom back. His drive, determination and relentless work ethic is awe-inspiring, and the scope of his current work is so broad that it’s difficult to know where to start a conversation with the man, to a daunting degree.

The one thing he isn’t, anymore, is a musician. Rollins remains best known as the frontman of Black Flag during their incendiary 80s peak and then as leader of his own Rollins Band, but he disbanded the latter in 2003 and – save for a brief reunion in 2006 – has focused on other endeavours since. He remains a furiously engaging public speaker, and will bring his first spoken word shows since 2012 – a long while, in Rollins’ world – to the UK this January on his Charmingly Obstinate tour, which will see a whole new raft of targets on the receiving end of his legendary ire. He continues to work on radio shows and podcasts, the former for KCRW in Santa Monica and the latter with Heidi May, his long-time assistant, with whom he swaps stories from their two decades together.

There are few countries that Rollins, an avid traveller, hasn’t visited. He’s just returned from Antarctica as he speaks to us, reporting on the environmental situation there in his LA Weekly column; he has presented a slew of different series on National Geographic and History Channel, too. He’s in the thick of promoting his first lead film role, in the upcoming comedy horror He Never Died; he’s been acting for years, with a notable appearance in Sons of Anarchy’s second season. Gutterdämmerung, a conceptual rock and roll film that he helped write, is shortly to be released after five years in the making. We could go on, but Rollins’ story is best coming from the horse’s mouth; he is a gripping conversationalist and doesn’t want for an opinion on anything.

On what keeps drawing him back to spoken word...

The information is different every time; it’s a story that keeps unravelling. It’s not like I have to go up and do the first two tracks from the first album just so that people feel like they’ve had their money’s worth. It allows me to keep things interesting, rather than just step into the way-back machine. That’s why it’s compelling to me, it can kind of go at the speed of my own life.

On whether he feels the need to perform in front of an audience...

Not necessarily. I do a lot of work alone – I write a lot, which is a solitary thing, and I do a lot of travelling by myself, too. I like the engagement with the audience, but I could probably survive without it. I don’t need people to tell me I’m OK. It’s just something I’ve been doing for years, and the truth is, I like these people. Weird as it might be, I do have some sort of relationship with them. They talk to me, and I talk back – they write to me, and I write back. Some of them tell me they’ve been seeing me, in one form or another, for thirty years, and it’s 'damn, man, that’s incredible.' It’s got more to it than just me showing up, doing the show and leaving. I think if it became that, if it became that cold and that mercenary, it really wouldn’t hold much interest for me.

On the new generation of fans turning up to gigs...

That’s something that continues to fascinate me. You know, I’m 55, basically, I’m not young, and I’ve been on stage since my late teens; I’ve been at this whole thing a while. At this point, people bring their kids, telling me that they’ve seen me a bunch of times and now their 15-year-old son’s coming down, too. There’s teachers bringing their students, and students bringing their teachers. I look out into the audience and see a true multi-generational thing going on, and that’s pretty cool.

On the difference between touring and travelling...

Show days are kind of limited, in that it’s only ever about the gig, so wherever I am in the world on a show day, it’s the same routine. I wake up and do the press, and then the road manager hands me the map to the local gym, which he’s already tracked down, and I hit the gym for a couple of hours. I’ll get back, eat, shower, and get my afternoon work done, because I usually have some writing to do. Soon enough, it’s 4pm, time for soundcheck, and then I can get my head down briefly before the show starts at 7:30 or eight o’clock. So, often in those environments, I don’t see a damn thing, except for on the walk to the gym or maybe the occasional record store. It’s a misnomer in some ways, because I’d be lying if I said when I was touring I was seeing much. It’s very mission-specific, as corny as that sounds. I’ve got a show to do, and that matters more to me than anything else. If I’ve got a day off in an interesting place, then sure, I’m out trying to make the most of it, but those two hours on stage – they require a different setup.

On preparing for a tour...

I don’t use a lot of spontaneity on stage, in that I don’t want to work it out on your time. The main thing, when I’m back home, is walking around the streets. I live in Los Angeles, and long stretches of the San Fernando Valley, by 7pm, are like a ghost town - just joggers and dog walkers. I’ll go out and say these stories out loud and physically walk through them, and listen to my voice, say the words and go, 'OK, you’re not getting to the point.' I’ll go back home and keep talking through them, just working through these stories and ideas – it’s like band practice, but on my own. The idea is to basically try to find the weak points and kind of go after my own material with gentle contempt, in an effort to make it better, so by the time I make it to the stage, the material is pretty well-vetted, and the better, stronger ideas are the ones that make it.

On the evolution of his material...

I walk on stage with three or four hours of working material, but within two weeks, it becomes more like six hours. That’s just because one thing leads to another; something happens in the world that I can connect to something else in the set, or whatever. That’s one of the things that getting a little older has been helpful with – with more experience, you can make those links more easily, and understand how things feed into each other. A good recent example is that attack in Mali recently, at the hotel in Bamako. I’ve stayed at that hotel four times, and it made what happened there occur to me in a different way; not personally, necessarily, because I wasn’t in any immediate danger, but it gives me a different grip on the situation.

I’ve been to that country and spent a lot of time there, and that place is really odd – there’s a Radisson hotel in the middle of this really tough neighbourhood. That kind of thing helps you to understand what you’re doing on stage, because you have a story that you maybe think is about one thing the first night you try it, and then a couple of weeks later, realise it's actually about the little details, not whoever or whatever you thought was at the forefront of it. You’re turning over rocks, and the story keeps evolving. It’s never static. The shows never get boring, and music never got boring either, because of the way that I always ploughed into the songs, but this material has more opportunity for divergent sea change.

On his recent Henry & Heidi podcasts and distaste for nostalgia...

They were Heidi’s idea one day; she said, 'I’ve been working with you for 19 years, and there’s all these stories that you’ve told me that you’ve never told on stage.' It’s been an eventful life, you know, and I was happy to tell some of them on the podcast. We bought some new gear to be able to run two microphones, Heidi would come in with a list of topics, and I wouldn’t know what she was going to ask about. They seem to have gone over great, whether it’s letters coming in from long distance truckers who download them to their phones, or commuters listening on the subway, or whatever. I don’t think they’re at odds with me not wanting to revisit other parts of my career. I don’t want to be 22 any more. I mean, there’s people I miss, who died young for no good reason, but I don’t want it to be 1980 again. 2016 suits me just fine.

On his KCRW radio show and keeping up with new music...

It takes a lot of work. I assign as much time as possible to meaningful listening, where I sit and go “OK, tonight, it’s going to be these five records.” I buy one to three records a day, just to always have music coming in, so that’s a lot of mail order – whenever I get back from tour, there’s always these long lines of mailers at the office. I got back from Antarctica yesterday, and there were a ton of records waiting for me. It’s like I’m giving myself homework; when it’s quiet in the office, we’ll put some albums on, and I’ll try to make notes, and then in the evenings, I try to set myself five records and five singles to listen to, so that they’re being digested as they’re coming in. Then, at weekends, if I’m off the road, I go on listening marathons, and that’s my favourite thing to do. I sit down with a cup of coffee and a notepad, and that’s me on a weekend, usually.

On the resurgence of 'curated' radio...

I do an analog radio show in the digital world. I’ve been doing them between two different stations for eleven years now, and it’s a lot of work, especially with a tour schedule. I’m usually working on shows at least a month in advance, just to keep them in the pipeline, and it probably takes between three to five hours to make a two hour show. I don’t just throw songs together; I need them to make some sense together texturally. It’s fun to create a situation where someone tunes in for two hours, and you’re communing with people who like the same kind of music. That’s why I listen to the radio, because I want the person presenting to take me somewhere, when they’re really invested in the material. The kind of radio that’s curated like that – not the corporate thing where you have to play the new Beyoncé single – that’s really cool, seeing people geek out together like that for two hours at a time.

On his first starring film part, in He Never Died...

It wasn’t as big a shift as I was expecting. I approached it as I’ve approached anything I’ve ever done in the acting world; get the idea right, get the motivation together, and then go in and hit it. In this film, I was in every shot apart from maybe one or two, so there was no time at which I wasn’t engaged all day. I’m used to filming in a way where you get told to sit in your trailer for three hours, then come back and act for a while, and then maybe don’t come back again for another four days, maybe just for the afternoon. This movie was full-on, but I really enjoyed it. I read the script in November of 2012, and knew it was going to be great; a year later, we were in Toronto filming it. I loved the work we were doing. I hated having it come to an end.

On the drive to keep auditioning for new roles...

I like the competition. I like that you have to go and fight for your work. It satiates my anger, because I work out of vengeance. I like kicking ass. It’s the only reason I ever did music; I’m not an artist, I’m not a musician, I’ve never personally had a truly musical moment in my life. I only went on stage to smash it to pieces, and that’s why I like auditions. I enjoy getting in line with a bunch of other assholes, where we all have to go up like some schmuck and sign in and you’ll see that we’re all reading for the same character, like ‘Wesley the sniper’ or whatever.

There’s something about understanding that there’s these guys there with you who are all ten years younger, with perfect gym bodies and magnificent hair, and you’re standing there like some grey-haired jerk-off, and you go in and fight for it and sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t. I quite like driving into Warner Brothers, because I have no illusions that I should be in any of these places. I’m a guy from the minimum wage working world. I’m not an actor – I’m a punk rock insurgent. Whenever I get any of these parts, I’m like, 'Hey – if you say so!' And whenever I don’t, trust me – I don’t wonder why.

On why the same motivation no longer applies to music...

For me, music was a time and a place. I never really enjoyed being in a band. It was in me and it needed to come out, like a 25-year exorcism. One day, I woke up, and I didn’t have any more lyrics. I just had nothing to contribute to the form, and I was done with band practice and travelling in groups. I didn’t stop doing it out of any discontent – it’s like when you finish eating a good meal and go, 'Alright, I’m done.' I’m not eating any more, because I’m done. That was one of the clearest moments of my life, like, 'Wow – I’m done with music.' I called my manager at the time and said, 'Hey, man, are you ready for this?' And his knees must have buckled when I told him! Because, you know, that was his paycheck. He wanted me to take a year to do other things and then see if I wanted to try it again. That was 12 years ago. I’ve never really thought about it since.

On spoken word providing a better vehicle for his ideas...

That’s exactly what it is. If it’s just me up on stage, I can turn a topic around on a dime, and I don’t have to worry about what the drummer thinks. There’s a uniformity to music, in a way; we’d go out with the set, and with a bunch of songs to rotate in and out, different encores or whatever to keep everything sharp, but after six months of that, you kind of hit a wall. I got to a certain point in my life where I thought, 'Do I really want to spend another year doing this same thing with these same people?' Because nothing was changing. You get on a bus and you work with these people who are all very nice, and the music’s cool, but you get back home at the end of it and say, 'OK, I haven’t thought any new thoughts, really, and I haven’t been anywhere – just a bunch of parking lots, backstages and stages for nine months.' At some point, it lost its element of risk. It was no longer challenging. It was like going out and connecting the same dots every night, and I need there to be confrontation and challenge involved.

I see bands go out on stage and do the greatest hits, and I might even have paid to see a show like that, but I don’t see where the artistic satisfaction lies. It’s like you’re walking a tightrope four feet off the ground with a big cushion waiting to catch you. You play Brown Sugar, Satisfaction and Some Girls, and everybody goes 'Whooooooo!' But you didn’t have to reinvent anything. 'Oh, we added a conga player.' 'Oooooh! OK, then.' With the talking shows, damn, man, I erase the chalkboard. I start with nothing, so I have to put myself into it, go down to the bone marrow, rip it out and put it up on the board. It’s up to me to generate new material – I have no backup, no songwriter, no band practice to fall back on. I enjoy those challenges and with the band, those things had become rounded off – there was no edge. 

On the future for Henry Rollins...

As it is right now, I’ve got work until December – flat out – and then I have no idea what's beyond. That’s fine by me; I work best in that situation, where I’m being put to it. Not panicking, exactly, but also knowing, 'OK, I’ve got to get this right.' That’s when I’m at my best.

Henry Rollins plays Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on 12 Jan and Glasgow’s O2 Academy on 18 Jan. He fills in for Iggy Pop's BBC Radio 6 show at 7pm on Friday 8, 15 and 22 of January http://henryrollins.com