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|Out Of The Blue
Publications Association, LLC
Henry Rollins on why he doubts he'll return as a musician, his mistakes and
achievements, his relationship with people as a service commodity and more
Written, Interview By NEIL SHUMATE Published October 9, 2012
Introduced to many in the early 80s as the aggressive, hardcore, well-built
frontman of Los Angeles' band Black Flag, Henry Rollins has continued to
keep busy since the legendary DIY punk band called it quits in 1986--as lyrics
from Black Flag's studio debut Damaged suggest: "Gimme, gimme, gimmie/I
want some more..."
Rollins has appeared in more than 20 movies and many television shows,
toured as the Rollins Band, wrote books and columns, campaigned for equal
rights, supported the West Memphis Three, toured with the United Service
Organizations for troops overseas, toured as a spoken word artist and believe
it or not, much more; many of which the 51-year-old still actively pursues and
In this Out Of The Blue exclusive, the outspoken Henry Rollins discusses his
commercialized relationship with people, why he stepped away from music
and if he'll return, his greatest career achievements, his biggest mistakes,
being an independent artist, politics and more.
What is the one thing that pisses you off the most about America?
The inequality that good people are born into that work really hard and a guy
like one of the Koch brothers just screws them. These politicians get lobbied
into deregulating this and that and all the factories putting all their toxic waste
into your local water supply that goes into the ground water and goes right
across the state line and it can infect and contaminate soil and groundwater in
another state--and the lobbied try to get that deregulated and they do it. And
they tell you they’re job creators and that regulation is cutting down on jobs.
You want to see what total deregulation looks like, what these guys want? Go
to Somalia, that’s what it looks like. Go to the part of India I’ve seen where you
breathe in you realize you just took like four minutes off your life. That’s what
makes me mad. These people know what they’re doing, they’re a lot of things.
Stupid’s not one of them. A lot of people are getting gamed in this country,
they’re getting so rolled up and screwed. You know all the drugs, all that stuff
to me is just there to infect you. All the bad food, the cheap calories, fast food,
that’s just to get you fat, mediocre of aspiration, keeps you good and
homophobic and racist and misogynist. All that stuff, it’s all distractions to
keep you away from looking at who’s screwing you. They’ll give you racism so
you can hate the Korean guy and get drunk--they’ll allow you to have that
'cause all you’re gonna do is fill up one of their corporate made prisons and
that’s why America has so many people in prison, its profitable.
How do you feel about relationships between religion and politics?
I have no problem with religion until the guy tells me I was born in a Christian
nation and the Constitution’s a Christian document... and then he and I are
gonna argue. I’m never gonna see it his way 'cause it’s not right and he’s
never gonna see it my way because he’s got skin in a different game. And
ultimately, he’ll tell you that gays are bad and all of that. It always leads to that,
it always finds itself to homophobia and “let’s get those Muslims.” Always.
What would you advise people is the best way to make a decision when
weighing options to dig through propaganda to find the truth on local,
state and national levels?
If it were me, I would tell someone to cross-reference things and always go for
the numbers. Ultimately, all these politicians are money people and a lot of
them are lawyers. Look at the house bill, check out the senate bill, find the
actual stats. See what the CBO [Congressional Budget Office] is telling you—
these non-partisan fact and numbers gathering agencies. There’s a whole lot
of easy to get info if you do that. Newspapers need column space filled and
there’s 24/7 news, which at this point is kind of like watching ESPN. It’s 24/7
information so people get paid to run their mouths, some of them run them
quite well and some of them just run them. So you have to be able to separate
the weak from the chaff. Also, you have to check your gut. Politicians, they tell
me everything about themselves just by the way they walk up to the podium. I
meet a lot of people. I meet more people than any politician meets, people are
like bread and butter. I meet them every night. I do more talking shows than
any president does speeches. I know people pretty well. Like any detective,
they’re looking at how you move your hands, they’re looking at how you stutter
or what you’re doing with your eyes. Politicians tell me so much about
themselves by just how they’re talking to me. I’m a good audience member, I
can look at the performer and be like “nope!” I use my gut. In Shakespeare,
with all the stuff in a Shakespeare play: greed, power, deceit, passion, love,
hate. And that’s why we all watch politics to a certain degree because there’s
a certain amount of that in it. There’s a lot of pure power grab. You also have
to look at your American history, from 1865 to now, post Civil War to now, you
got a problem. You got a problem with a lack of equality. You got a lot of
freedom, but not a lot of equality.
With you traveling in many different countries and having experiences,
is there a country or a place that you personally believe you could find
the most solace in?
Put it this way, if they kick me out of America and said pack your bag and go,
you gotta think of another place to live... I could live in Australia, I could live in
Germany. Countries that you can speak English or have enough English
people. A western country where I can kind of understand the comings and
goings and the subway system and all of that. I’ve spent a lot of time in those
countries doing shows, so I like those just fine. I think I could probably handle
Scotland. But as far as living in Thailand or living in Japan, where the language
would be a steep climb to understand it, especially at my age, you become
kind of less permeable for language as you get older. It’d have to be a western
country, but you know, being a human, you kind of adapt to almost anything.
You seem to kind of bury yourself in work and you’ve said before that
you’re not really interested in an extended life with a wife and kids and
the mainstream family portrait. Being so independent, how do you
explain that to people who attempt to get closer to you in your personal
life? Is that a challenge for you?
Oh, well I don’t really have many close personal relationships with people. I
mean there’s my assistant Heidi. She’s been at my office for 15 years. She
probably knows me better than anybody, just 'cause we’re in each other’s
faces all day. And she’s an amazing person. She knows me very well… poor
thing. My friend Ian MacKaye, he and I grew up together, been best friends
since he was 11 and I was 12. I see Ian very infrequently, because he lives in
D.C. and I live in L.A. and I’m always touring. And the guy who engineers my
radio show, we’ve been working together for about nine years. He and I are
good pals. On the weekends I don’t really go hang out with anybody. I’m kind of
into the work, or when I’m not working I’m kind of into just sitting alone and
listening to a record. I have a very odd relationship with people in that they
know me as the guy on the record, I’m the guy on the stage, I’m the guy from
the book. And after the show, you can talk to “it,” “it” will take a photo with you.
Like Santa Clause at the department store, I’m a service item, I’m like one of
those big coffee makers, one of those utilitarian coffee makers that’s kind of
commercial grade where you’re really surprised the day it stops working, like
“that thing broke?” And when it breaks, you can slam the coffee tray into it
really hard and kind of haphazardly turn it on and it just kind of keeps eeking
out coffee and the day it breaks you kind of have contempt for it… like you
throw it away hard. That’s kind of how I see myself with people. They like me
and I like them too, but I’m on the service side, I’m not really in their thoughts
on anything besides 8 to 10 p.m. on a stage... and that’s okay. But, I really
think that’s where it’s kind of at. And if I do a bad show, they’ll want their money
back. If I’m late getting on stage, they’ll be like “really, what’s that about, pal?
Get on schedule.” So, the relationship will turn very, very quickly. I don’t have
any contempt with any of that, I just really think it’s a life of service. When the
shift is over, I kind of just sit down and catch my breath. On a personal level,
humans really don’t have much to do with my life. That’s kind of weird, but
that’s how I’ve ended up. I don’t know many people.
You’ve accomplished a list of things in your life. Constantly setting
goals and achieving them. Like you mentioned, a lot of service work.
What would you say has been your most significant accomplishment or
contribution to society as a whole in your career?
To society, perhaps some of the charitable stuff I’ve done, where it helps
someone that’s just not me. Money I’ve donated to different agencies, benefit
shows I’ve done. I like the work I did with the West Memphis Three, those
three fellas who were in prison. The benefit album, the benefit tour and
basically ten years of donating money and getting the word out and hoping
those guys get out. That was a long thing, it’s not as long as sitting in a cage
for 18 years, but it was long to keep putting yourself into it. In my opinion, it
was obviously the thing to do and there wasn’t any hesitation. So, things like
that I think were good things. I don’t drive any sense of pride from anything I do
that’s not an emotion I really deal with. Beyond that, perhaps the fact that I’m
still around functioning out in the world, doing things, maybe that is pretty cool.
And a lot of my peers have not—they’re either dead or inactive or ineffective.
Or living in their past, playing their greatest hits every night on stage. I’m still
kind of out in my own way, breaking new ground.
Have you connected with the West Memphis Three since the release?
Yeah, I was talking to Damien’s [Echols] wife yesterday and I’ll be doing two
different things when I’m in New York in November. I’ll be interviewing Damien
at the New York library and then a day later, Damien, myself and Amy Berg,
who directed a documentary on them, will be doing one of those actor studio
things at some university in the city or some studio.
On the other side of things, what would you say has been your biggest
mistake and why would you say that?
That’s a good question. I don’t have much regret, only because I don’t think I
should allow myself regret. I think I should just take the punishment, let it hurt
and learn from it. I’d rather just say “yeah, you’re right about that” when you
call me a bad name I go, “yeah, I’m probably that and worse.” Mistakes?
"On a personal level, humans really don’t
have much to do with my life. That’s kind of
weird, but that’s how I’ve ended up. I don’t
know many people."
"I have a very odd relationship with people in
that they know me as the guy on the record,
I’m the guy on the stage, I’m the guy from the
book. And after the show, you can talk to 'it,'
'it' will take a photo with you."
"When I’m not working I’m kind of into just
sitting alone and listening to a record."
"I don’t drive any sense of pride from anything
I do, that’s not an emotion I really deal with."
Probably going back to a major label. I did five years on a major label, then the label went away. Instead of just going back to the independent music
world, I went back to another label. I did five years with Dreamworks, and that was probably not a good idea. In the major label world there was a
moment where it was good for me and my bandmates, but then it wasn’t and I kind of stuck with it thinking, “well this is what you do.” And my
manager at the time said "well let’s go with it.” And I’m like, “okay.” Probably another mistake was not getting rid of management probably about 10
years before I did. I don’t have a manager now, I just kind of call my own shots, I know where I’m going. He’s a really good guy, but I just don’t wanna
be managed. I got this. So, I told him that I’m out and that was after 20 some years. He’s a good guy, but it was just over. Those are two things
where I think I made a mistake. And I’m sure there’s myriad mistakes I’ve made. I’m sure there’s a whole lot of them.
Being independent now, do you feel that it’s more of a challenge to not have that so-called “machine” behind you? For you, having a
name developed it’s probably less of a challenge at this point in your career, but for people starting out, how would you say that being
independent would be beneficial, or do you think that machine is still necessary?
I think these days if you have talent, or that is to say if you have something that you can give, you know, if you got a band that’s happening.. you’ve
got all kinds of avenues where you can have the same wall up as a Warner Bros. PR person. You’ve got Facebook, you have Twitter, you have a
website, you have Bandcamp, you have Soundcloud, with songs off your new album. Just turn them loose for free or let the people listen to the
whole album, boy that’s super effective. A gal I kind of know, she has a label in Oregon and I really like what she puts out, it’s really up my street.
She sent me links to these bands that have their own Soundcloud. I played two new records she’s putting out later this year and I wrote and said,
“I’ll play all of that on my radio show, when you’re ready, let me know." I’m so happy to be able to help and have new records to listen to. And I’m
really looking forward to getting those bands on my radio show to help her and to help these bands. I got into them because she said here’s some
sites and I clicked on them and I sat in a hotel room on a night off and played both albums all the way through. I was like, “hell yeah!” There’s ways
that you can connect and communicate with hopefully your own tribe. Without doing some bulky mail-out you can just hit your Twitter page and all
18 hundred of your people know. And you tell them “hey, help us out, tell a friend.” And you can get it going and then that’s when all those money-
grabbing labels will come sniffing around. And you can say yes or no. I think there’s a lot of power in the independent music world, if you’re
innovative. But, ultimately you gotta make good music, you have to have something. You can’t just be artifices, you can’t be a load of crap, it’s gotta
be something good. Ultimately, it’s gotta rock in its own way. If you go to Hollywood and look at all those people trying to get these jobs, movies, TV,
there’s a lot of talented people out there. There’s a lot of good bands out there. People go, “music sucks now.” I go, “ehh, I don’t think so pal, you
might wanna recheck that.” In my opinion there’s not enough time to listen to all the good music that’s out right now.
Out of all the entertainment mediums, Hollywood involved--music, radio, television, movies, writing books--what has been the most
challenging and which would say is the most profitable?
Well, lets stick with profitable. The most difficult would be acting because I’m not an actor, but when I get acting work I take it, 'cause I work for a
living. That’s been a steep climb trying to hold my own. I’ve gotten better, I’ve had quite a bit of time to figure it out now, so I’m better at it than I was
when I started. And, I can audition with a bit of confidence and go to a set and not slow down production. I don’t know how many films I’ve been in
and how much TV I’ve done, but it’s been a learning experience. Writing continues to be challenging in a cool way. When you get better at it you
realize a little bit of ability with writing allows you to see how not good you are. So, you keep on applying yourself and trying to get better and realizing
that you need to get better. So, I enjoy that. The talking shows I’d like to think I’m getting better at them in that I’m trying to be clearer and have more
impact by choosing my words very carefully. As far as profitable, voiceovers. That’s a nice picture. When you’re on a commercial that airs and you
get a royalty off that, as they say in the jazz business, “that’s good work, if you can get it.”
In the entertainment world, some are not motivated by profit standards, it’s approached as more of a committed passion.
You have to make some money at some point though and that’s where you need to get a little bit of the rose tint out of your glasses and see that.
I’m not trying to issue you some kind of cautionary warning or stand you up. I’m just saying what a lot of people that go into it on the art thing, and
that’s as they should, but unfortunately it’s quite ugly, the commerce side of all of this. That’s always the test: how do you keep your integrity while
trying to make a buck. How do you do that? That’s the bitch, that’s the test of the thing. Leonard Cohen once said to me that’s the ultimate
challenge: balancing art and commerce. And he said that to me in like '88 or '89. I was like, “okay, that’s deep.” I learned it in Black Flag, in that we
had our own label. We had to pay for everything. Doing it DIY style, man, you’re always up against “okay, here’s how much money we got, here’s
how much money we need.” You’re always trying to figure out how to make a buck and how to keep the thing going. All independent labels rarely
have a great year. They’ll have a few great months at a time, but otherwise they’re always having to look at the bottom line. They’re a very small
business and money will make or break you. You can’t go to the record pressing plant with a smile and go, “hey, I’ll trade you two albums if you
make a thousand for me.” I watched Ian build Dischord Records on no money and he had to really be careful and savvy on how he was gonna do
things. I have a book company, a publishing company, and we do very well, but we do very well cause we work very, very carefully and we work
smart. As an American living in America, I’m always looking for a job, 'cause this country will cut you up. I’m not looking to starve in America, I’m
looking to survive it. I’m not only an American, but I’m an Americanist and I seek to prevail, and so I take that work.
Any chance of seeing you in a music recording studio or on stage with a live touring band again?
I doubt it. I stopped thinking lyrically many years ago. If I can’t make new music, I don’t wanna go out there and repeat old music. It feels like, I’m not
putting anyone down that’s an old bastard like me and still makes music, but for me personally, it just feels like it’s a younger person’s thing. Like a
lyric is like when a chick leaves and you get all pouty, and that makes you write a lyric—I don’t really feel any of that anymore. I get angry, certainly,
but it doesn’t find itself wanting to go into a lyric. It finds itself in an essay, it finds itself going to the stage, it finds itself writing in some op-ed to put
on my little website for all 18 people interested to read. It doesn’t occur to me to go into a bandroom and go, “okay, here’s a lyric.” It’s just not a form
that occurs to me anymore. I’m not putting it down, it’s just I’ve got nothing to put into it.
"...I don’t think I should allow myself regret.
I think I should just take the punishment, let it
hurt and learn from it."
"As an American living in America, I’m always
looking for a job, cause this country will cut
you up. I’m not looking to starve in America,
I’m looking to survive it."
"People go, “music sucks now.” I go,
“ehh, I don’t think so pal, you might wanna
"Leonard Cohen once said to me that’s the
ultimate challenge: balancing art and
commerce. And he said that to me in like '88
or '89. I was like, 'okay, that’s deep.' I learned
it in Black Flag, in that we had our own label.
We had to pay for everything."
"I get angry, certainly, but it doesn’t find itself
wanting to go into a lyric."
"With all the stuff in a Shakespeare play:
greed, power, deceit, passion, love, hate.
And that’s why we all watch politics to a
"And ultimately, he’ll tell you that gays are
bad and all of that. It always leads to that,
it always finds itself to homophobia and 'let’s
get those Muslims.' Always."