Interview with Henry Rollins

Henry Rollins is not only a musician, most known for being the front man of Black Flag in the 80’s, but he also owns a record label and publishing company, 2.13.61. Rollins has his own talk show featuring his spoken word concerning politics and social commentary, and he has hosted quite a few a radio shows such as his current show “The Harmony in my Head” where he plays his favorite hand-picked songs. Rollins is also an activist, actor and stand-up comedian. Rollins’ intense personality captured crowds in the 80’s and hasn’t dimmed a bit, but remains equally as enrapturing. Rollins has evolved into a confident, well-rounded, well-informed individual to say the least, delivering an energetic and healthy mixture of fact and opinion to his listeners daily. I had the chance to speak with Rollins yesterday, preceding his upcoming show here at WCU. Rollins will bring his “Recountdown” tour here on Wednesday October 1 at 7:30 pm, hosted in The Fine and Performing Arts building. Tickets are available at The Fine and Performing Arts Center box office, or (828) 227-2479. Tickets are $20 for the general public, $10 for WCU faculty and staff, $10 for senior citizens and $5 for students.

Jennifer Toledo: Can you tell me about a normal day in the life of Henry Rollins? Henry Rollins: When I’m off tour, during the week, I try to get up between 4 and 4:40 in the morning and be at my desk between 5 and 6 and start the days work, which is editing, grabbing stuff off the internet, news items and whatever, before my staff comes in at nine and starts telling me what to do. So, I work in the office most of the day and that’s press stuff and book related work, writing and editing – it’s a little book company and doing boring office stuff, and then I go home, work out in my garage, eat some food. And then I do basically the second shift, writing, reading, more editing, or whatever else, then try and get my head down as early as possible. I have a radio show, so at night I usually work on a broadcast or an upcoming broadcast because they usually take a while to put together. On the road, since there’s a gig every night pretty much, and it sits over my head like a Damoclidian obligation, I try and get all the press and workout stuff done before sound check, I try to go to the gym for or five days a week. I try to get some book editing done because there’s always proof reading to do. Then I start concentrating on the show because that’s the most important part of the thing. For about an hour I try to start zeroing in on what I’m going to talk about if there’s something new I want to put on stage I try to get my head around it. If it’s statistics I start trying to memorize them and understand why I need to know them so it’s a natural fact, not something I need to ransack my random access memory for. Then I go on stage and do the show.

JT: Sounds intense.

HR: Well, its just kind of a drill, you know, you just do your thing, and then you meet all the people by the bus, get on the bus, and try and unwind, which is very difficult, and that’s it. The weekends off the road are just catching up on sleep and reading. I like to do a lot of reading as much as I can, and I like to do a lot of listening to music, new music that I’m not too familiar with so I can learn a thing or two. I basically work about seven days a week one way or the other, and don’t really do vacations. I travel, but I don’t just sit on the beach. I have, but it was an interesting beach.

JT: What music have you been listening to lately and what books have you been reading lately?

HR: Right now, reading-wise, as we normally do – I’m sure you’re the same way – you have more than one book that you have your nose in. I’m reading a book by Paul Roberts called “The End of Food.” Its about how food systems work, its about starvation and famine in the world, its about NAFTA, and there’s a lot to know. Basically Malthusian theory. Malthus said basically that humans are going to starve to death at some point, and he keeps almost proving himself to be right. I’m reading that, it’s a downer, but it’s good stuff to know. I’m reading “A Small Corner of Hell” by Anna Politkovskaya, who was the Russian journalist who was recently assassinated. She was one of the journalists in Russia bringing truth to power, a very heroic journalist, and she did a lot of writing about Chechnya so I’m reading her reportage of Chechnya. Also, “The Age of Anxiety” which is about McCarthyism and how it relates to modern day propaganda in this age of terror, by Haynes Johnson. Interesting book, I never knew much about McCarthyism, so I’m learning. There’s not a lot to like about Joe McCarthy. So, that’s what I’ve got out with me. Also “The Blue Covenant” about water, and water systems, and lack of water and the upcoming water crisis that we’re starting to see signs of now. That’s what I’ve got for reading, and I’m sure I’ll be done with those books pretty quick and I’ll be searching for something else. Music wise, I’ve been listening to a lot of noise music. Wolf Eyes, Yellow Swans, Hair Police, Vicky, a lot of jazz – Archie Stepp, a lot of Sun Ra; nothing new about those artists, but they’re still real good. The noise stuff is kind of new to me, even though these bands have been around for a while. Oh, I’ve been listening to this Japanese guitar player; Keiji Haino. He’s been with Fushitusha. Its all new music to me. The engineer on my radio show said ‘buy this record and listen to it,’ so I bought the record, I liked it, bought the rest, and I’m listening to that. So, I’m trying to keep the listening varied and trying to teach myself something. I don’t read a good deal of fiction – oh, I do have “East of Eden” out with me as well. Last weekend, I hung out for about an hour with John Steinbeck’s son, Tom Steinbeck, it was a fascinating conversation. He remembers his father very well. We had a lot to talk about – he’s a very interesting guy, an activist.

JT: Imagine its November 2008. You hear an announcement that John McCain has been elected the new president of the United States. How do you feel?

HR: I would say ‘I told you so,’ because that’s what I’ve been saying since 2006, even it was Juliani, and Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, and Mitt Romney and everyone else. I said ‘he will emerge as the front runner and he will be the next president of the United States,’ and I’ll say to the rest of America, ‘Those of you who voted for him, when you become dissatisfied with what you voted for, have enough back-bone to admit it, and for the rest of you – good luck, sucker.’

JT: Why do you think the American people are so receptive to Sarah Palin?

HR: Well, I disagree with the premise of your question: ‘so many people.’ I think some are, but I don’t think its many, I don’t think its over half. I think she had momentary appeal because I think she spoke very well at the RNC, really well, all her jokes, she had a lot of confidence. She’s got a lot of balls, basically, and she spoke very well. I was in Scotland when she did it and I listened to it on the internet, and I went ‘yea, okay, you pulled it off,’ and she’s good-looking. She has a great jaw line, so she looks great for camera and she looks like she has been there and done that, you know as far as getting on stage and walking around and basically bringing it, so I think that has momentary appeal, and then inevitably the rubber has to meet the road. You find out that she has no game whatsoever, and the fact that a vice presidential candidate goes into the UN, and the press is not allowed to hear any of it, are you kidding me? If Barack Obama had brought in some junior as his V.P. fox news would be hounding him about that, it would be brutal. If Barack Obama’s daughters were of age, or near of age, and one of them got pregnant, do you think the party line by Fox and everyone else would be ‘It’s a private family matter’? The fact that we didn’t get to hear anything that Sarah Palin said to maybe Hamed Karzai or someone like that is off limits? It’s because she’s no game. I mean, when she doesn’t even know what the Bush Doctrine is, that just shows you, she doesn’t have it, and its why the presidential debates were postponed for tomorrow. There’s no reason why John McCain couldn’t be at the Clinton Global initiative yesterday, and doing the debates today. He could have been in the senate today and done the debates tonight. So, basically, I think it’s a bunch of bull, and so I think her appeal was not a bump, it was a bounce, and when you bounce up you also go back down again. She’s actually losing traction in the polls, and once Joe Biden gets a hold of her in the debates all you’ll see is, ‘oh, he was mean,’ when he just comes back real hard with his replies. So, maybe the gloves will come off, I don’t know, but I think Sarah Palin’s appeal is momentary.

JT: With the upcoming election in mind, what, in your opinion, is the most dangerous threat to the freedom of American citizens?

HR: Well, I think it’s the slow amelioration of our civil liberties. In the last 7 ½ years you’ve seen quite a decrease in what you’re allowed to do and quite an increase in the government’s hold on you, and, for the party of small government, it sure seems like the government is looming larger than ever, in this kind of Orwellian, Stalinesque fashion, and so I think the greatest threat to our civil liberties is big business and unchecked power and a congress that doesn’t seem to want to stand up and an American people who seem to be okay with that. Basically, the most dangerous thing to American liberty is Americans, not standing up and saying ‘you bastards, how dare you.’ I’m not advocating the storming of the Bastille, but I do think Americans on either side of the aisle have to say ‘enough already.’ So, here we are. Here’s what you get when you don’t stand up and there’s so many people in America who think democracy is this thing written in stone, this immovable object, and I disagree. I think it’s quite fragile, and it needs to be protected and guarded vigilantly. So, here we are. And, like I said before, if you voted for Bush twice, I hope you’re happy with what you got with your broke ass, and now that you’re being foreclosed upon, all you have is some guy on MSNBC saying ‘sorry, sucker, you shouldn’t have taken the loan,’ and so here we are. And things will get better. I think perhaps if you’ve heard the legend of the cocaine addict who has to go through two million dollars of cocaine to find out that cocaine is a dead end, I think that a lot of Americans have to hit the ground very hard for them to go “OW!” We need the collective “OW!” because maybe it’s a reset button. I think we’ll have more foreclosures before the thing gets better, the housing market is going to slump until at least 2011. You’re going to have more boys and girls coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan either dead or in less-than-good shape before there’s real troop withdrawal, before there’s any kind of progress, and you’ll have more wasting of natural resources before there’s innovation and science and technology to lead us to a cleaner, greener future. We have a little bit more storm to go through before we get calmer waters. It’s just a matter of more Americans reading more, traveling more, waking up more and seeing their future – what really is the inevitability of big trucks, leaving your lights on all night long. I travel all over the world. Africa, Asia, South-east Asia, South America, Central America, and it doesn’t make me an expert on anything, but I do get quite a good, vivid picture of how the rest of the world is, quite often. I come back knowing that a lot of people don’t get enough to eat. A lot of people work all day, basically for their food alone, and that’s it, there are no vacations. There’s no leaving town, there’s no motor boats, there’s no hugs, no free beer. There’s a rice patty, and you’re bent over it for 14 hours a day. That’s Vietnam, that’s Burma, that’s Laos, that’s Cambodia, that’s a lot of countries, where you work, you eat as much as you can and then you pass out, because the work starts again in six hours. So, here, we have so much and we seem to abuse it. When you look at obesity rates, when you go inside the infrastructure of Burma or some place like that, trying to find the obese people, there are no fat people. There’s not enough food.

JT: Do you think America is partially responsible for all of this poverty?

HR: Well, when you have one country that takes up 25% of the world’s energy, that could leave a deficit in other countries. When you talk about free trade, it doesn’t seem to be all that free, and it doesn’t seem to be all that fair, from what I’ve been learning from this book I’m reading, and from going on the internet, and a documentary I just did on famine, it just seems like the game is rigged in favor of America, and all other countries seem to have to scramble pretty hard. NAFTA didn’t seem to do a lot of countries a very big favor, and so I think we’re definitely part of it, but Europe is also. Now that southeastern Asia and China are adopting more Western food models – all of a sudden the Chinese want beef, southeast Asia wants meat. They want more beef, they want hamburgers, which means that now they’re going to be devoting tons of acreage to something that eats seven pounds of grain only to produce one pound of beef. All of a sudden, their food model is going to get turned on its head, and we’re part of it, certainly, but we can also be the solution. It just depends on how much you feel like giving a damn about people you’ll never meet in a country that your president can’t find on a map. Basically you just have to care. It starts there.

JT: How do you feel about the current condition of the music industry, especially with regard to electronic media such as MP3’s?

HR: I think its fine, because I don’t shop at the Avril Lavine Hanna Montana shop. You can look at aspects and say ‘music sucks now.’ Not on my show, not at my house it doesn’t. Music is just fine, in fact I’m spoiled for choice, there’s so many good bands, so many good records coming out – innovative, really brave, awesome, smart music, all the time. It just depends on where you want to look. As far as MP3’s and downloads, I really like that it shook up the major label companies. It was a sadly needed reset. If some of them go out of business or have to cut some employees loose, I’m sorry about that, but I think its for the better. That’s why I champion all the MySpaces and all the YouTubes, so some guy with no money can make his band on his Macintosh. I think that’s very liberating.

JT: Do you feel like discomfort – anger, oppression, dissatisfaction – nurtures creativity?

HR: In a way, yeah, in a way it can also make you real miserable and want to die, but I think that too much comfort leads to laziness or just too much satisfaction. In my life, I don’t necessarily strive for discomfort, but I’m always trying to stay clear and keep seeing the ‘big it.’ I want to keep sticking it to the man and, in spite of success, remain vital and relevant, and keep pushing at something, and so it’s not a matter of fooling yourself, it’s a matter of just keeping your priorities straight and realizing why you do what you do and not letting the fact that a lot of people like that what you do interfere with what you do. There’s nothing like a little success to screw up everything. I go for vigor, basically. I look at my schedule, and any day off I see as a problem unless I can be in the studio doing something. I try and have a vigorous work schedule that keeps me honest and keeps me running, like – ‘I’m late for this, gotta go, gotta go, gotta go,’ and that keeps me running towards the next thing rather than taking the leisurely route, which I think would not be good for me. That’s basically my attempt to keep things going.

JT: So, what’s your underlying goal, your motivation for all of this?

HR: My underlying goal is about wanting to know. My curiosity is my propellant, my anger and my curiosity. My anger fuels my curiosity, and my curiosity informs what I do onstage, what I write about and what visa gets slapped into my passport. For instance, George W. Bush keeps rattling the sabers at Iran, so I go to Iran to check it out for myself, knowing full well he’ll never go, so I’d better go for him, so he can get the presidential daily briefing and if he ever needs me as a source, I can tell him what it was like to actually walk on the streets of Tehran. So, when he says ‘ahh, I don’t like Syria,’ I say, well, I’d better go to Syria. So, I went to Syria. It doesn’t make me an expert, but I bet I’ve spent more time in Damascus than he ever will. I hate when countries and people and cultures are just written off. ‘They’re all a bunch of barbarians,” – really? I’ll bet that culture might have invented language, so why don’t you shut up? It’s that, which makes me want to go out there and see things and write about it, photograph it, do documentaries sometimes in these places, and want to know more. People say ‘its really great in America.’ Is it great because we’re really great, or is it great because we’re taking from other countries, because other countries are having consistently awful days? Starving children, people who know famine and genocidal tribal conflict, etc., and as a responsible part of the human race, don’t you want to push back at all that? This is what fuels me, gets me up, as a 47-year-old guy with the option to not to a damn thing. I can also do nothing. I can just sit around and eat carbohydrates and watch “The Sopranos,” but that’s not interesting to me. It’s also not very brave. I’m trying to be brave in this life and so this is what propels me. That is my chief motivation. It’s not money, it’s not fame. It’s because I want to know. You’ve only got a few laps around the track in this life, and a lot of people, they find their mate, they breed, they come home and watch the news. That’s cool, but it’s not for me.

JT: You’re accomplished at so many different skills. You’re a musician, a poet, a writer, you have your own talk show and more. Which mode of expression do you consider the most cathartic for yourself?

HR: Well, it was the music that was always the most cathartic-it’s loud, it’s physical, it’s very intense, so it would be the music. The funnest is the radio show, because its low impact and its just playing records and having fun. The most challenging is the talk shows, because there’s no one up there but me. If I stop talking there’s no show, so it’s a mental workout. I’m grateful for the opportunity to do it but it’s never easy.