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Dreaming Of A Telekinetic Connection: Henry Rollins Interviewed
Harry Sword , December 8th, 2015 09:51

Henry Rollins talks to Harry Sword about listening to The Stooges in Antarctica, his love for Joy Division and why he'd never appear in a reformed Black Flag

Henry Rollins is a force of nature. Known for an austere and disciplined approach to life and art that demands unbridled focus, unflinching self analysis and a borderline maniacal commitment to the cause; a true fanatic - those who listen regularly to his essential weekly KCRW show will know what I’m talking about here - he has steadfastly avoided every bloated rock & roll cliche you care to name, and remains driven by a hunger for constant discovery.

His work with hardcore pioneers Black Flag was as raw and loose - as bloody and deranged - as punk rock ever got, the interplay between Rollins' brilliantly observed and frequently funny lyrics alongside Greg Ginn’s rawkus, atonal jazz influenced guitar work a killer combination. The twisted hard funk of Rollins Band, meanwhile, drew on some seriously precise chops and produced much loved albums such as Weight and Come In And Burn. However, the years he spent in both bands - touring constantly, touring brutally - were only ever part of a far wider story.

Over the past three decades Henry Rollins has put the same energy that fuelled the ceaseless, grinding work ethic of both bands into acting (he recently appeared in HBO biker saga Sons Of Anarchy playing a racist gang leader and has performed in well over 20 feature films - not least David Lynch’s deranged quantum physics headfuck Lost Highway and Michael Mann’s epic American crime odyssey Heat) written extensively (his tour diaries Black Coffee Blues parts 1, 2 and 3 are rightfully considered classics), runs his own publishing house and label 2.13.61 and has continued to perform countless spoken word shows around the world.

Indeed, the past decade has seen Rollins embrace a new relationship with travelling. A keen photographer, his Occupants collection - encompassing photographs from his travels in Mali, Iraq, Afghanistan and Thailand and more - was published in 2011. He is essentially never off the road: ten months touring spoken word a year and the rest of the time spent going to difficult destinations as a traveller. Walking for miles with nothing but a notepad and camera. Iran, North Korea, Kenya, Kazakstan. When we speak he has literally just got back from Antarctica where he achieved his very own - and very Rollins - ‘Antarctic first’ (more on that later).

This month also sees the release of his new movie He Never Died - a horror movie starring Rollins as Jack, a man who, well, let’s allow Henry to explain….

Henry, I understand the role of Jack was written with you in mind. Please could you tell us about him?

Henry Rollins: Jack is a man who - for reasons I shall not divulge because it spoils the fun - has been alive for centuries. He sustains himself on human flesh and blood, but the director - Jason Krawczyk -and I have decided solidly that Jack is not a vampire. He is certainly a monster, but one of the downsides of eternity - one of the many bitches of eternity, Harry - is that boredom sets in. That is why I loved the script. As I read it I was sitting in a backstage area and I was just laughing - it’s such a funny script. The idea of waking up and just thinking, ‘Ah, another day.' Y’know, I really don’t wanna die today. I’ve got stuff scheduled; I haven’t had breakfast yet; there is loads of stuff to do; I’ve got a week of Dinosaur Jr shows I’m looking forward to seeing in New York. So, I’m not looking forward to dying. You and I might have an anti-death thing going on but what if mortality could be taken off the table? What then?

You know I’ve made a bucket list: Places To Go Before You Die. [adopts shocked voice] ’What, you’re gonna die?!’ ‘Oh yeah, I’m gonna die. Which is why I wanna go see Hanoi before I die.’ Because there is a use by date on your life. Oh yeah there is! And that’s why you’d better walk up and introduce yourself, because life is short.

And how does Jack deal with his (long) existence?

HR: From Jacks point of view, it sucks. Jack tries to get through eternity with the lowest possible emission. And he has it down to a science. 15 hours of sleep; lives in his underwear; lives alone; watches crap TV; eats a vegetarian meal at the same diner every night; plays bingo. He can take the human interaction with a bunch of old people because they’re not that interesting to eat - because the flesh is old and the blood tastes like shit - so he can sit with old people and not wanna, like, turn around and tear an arm off (LAUGHS).

So, he sustains himself on bags of blood that he buys from interns at the local hospital. He doesn’t have to kill anyone. And from his previous job as a day trader he has draws full of hundred dollar bills and he can just do this until the money runs out and he has to find out what to do in the next 100 years. And that’s Jack. Somebody could pull a gun on him and he can just say, ‘Oh, a gun. That gun has been pulled on me five hundred and seventy two times before.' Everything is boring. He is the most blasé, existentially up to here with it, bad guy monster, you’ve ever seen. And it’s really funny. If you watch the trailer, we really play to those comedic beats.

Did you draw on the groundhog day existence of touring for the movie? Because you really get to the heart of that in Black Coffee Blues Parts 1 and 2 - the endless tour, the endless dressing rooms…

HR: Yeah, I’ve met a lot of people. In the entertainment business I’ve met more people than any President, y’know. Because I’m not kept away from people like a President. So for the past 35 years I’ve been shaking hands and saying, ‘Hey, what’s happening?’ or whatever and that really helped inform the character. Jack has dealt with everyone from the Napoleonic Wars right up to what is happening right now and he is not exactly a people person. But he has had centuries of interaction and it affects him because there is nothing that you can say to him that Cleopatra didn’t say to him or that Jack the Ripper didn’t say. Hell, maybe he is Jack The Ripper? Which leads us hopefully to a TV series… [LAUGHS]

But the thing that really helped me more than anything - touring and people meeting obviously - but having had a profound lack of the fear of death informed my character more than anything. And having nearly been killed a few times. As had happened to me, sadly, more than once. That was definitely the key element to how I formed the character. When I read that part I thought, ‘A guy that doesn’t care about dying. Well, I can be that guy. I’m that guy everyday.'

And why don’t you care about dying, Henry?

HR: Because my reaction from coming really close to it was, ‘Oh. Huh. Well, that’s a bitch isn’t it?' I mean, I was scared, but when you’re in the moment of it, it feels like ‘What? really? This? Oh come on, man! So it comes to this?!' That moment of standing quite still and going, ‘Damn. Here it is.' It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna die!’

And which moment are you thinking of throughout your life where this happened?

HR: In 1992 I had a gun put to my head and heard a gunshot that tragically killed my best friend [Joe Cole] who was standing next to me and I thought, ‘You know - I’m not getting out of this.' I’m not a tough guy - nor am I especially brave - but it was a very calm, almost ambient moment when I thought, ‘Ok, I’m gonna die.’ I didn’t see my life flash in front of my eyes or anything like that. I just thought, ‘This is so stupid.' The guy saw me on MTV and must have thought I had money. But I didn’t. I was at that little part of the rock star life when you’re famous but broke - you don’t really have anything to show for your relative popularity. So you’re in that moment and it was very much... you’re about to get shot and you’re not talking you’re way out of this. What was evident for me at the time was, ‘This is going to happen.' It wasn’t hysterical but it was kinda solemn and then - very luckily - I got out but I’ve had a quarter century to dwell on that. Some of it went into this film.

I’m interested in your life as a traveller. Not just as a touring performer, but an anonymous traveller. Could you tell me a little about this? You’ve been to many countries that a majority of Westerners do not get to see: Iran, Pakistan, North Korea.

HR: I was in Islamabad during a major political assassination. That was crazy. You look out of the window and the city is on fire - that was pretty wild. But I just don’t have any fear in these situations which isn’t good. It’s kinda like Novocaine - the numbing - or filling your ears partially with oatmeal and having things muffled so that you’re not exactly without hearing but the ability to hear has been rounded off.

My sensitivity to danger has been worn away. It’s not that I’m looking to get into a fight with someone because I don’t wanna get beat up. Thankfully I understand that if I get put in a ring with a boxer I’m gonna get beat up in about half a second; even if that boxer is about 15 years old, that 15 year old is going to kick my arse. But in addition to that I have a good idea of physics. I don’t jump in front of moving trains; I don’t pick fights.

When I went to North Korea I was told that if they found out that I’ve done books and records then they might wanna question me and that might take six months in a North Korean holding facility. That is a realistic proposition. Anyone who goes to North Korea or Iran, by signing the Visa you waive your right to rescue. They said to me - with all seriousness - ‘Do not let anyone find out who you are. Do you still wanna go?’ and I said ‘Yes’. And they also said that in North Korea things can go south on you, very quickly. But I just wanted to see what it was like out there. Regardless of whether there might be some static or not. Whether or not I get to go back on the day that I’m supposed to, the one on the plane ticket. But I just felt, well, ok. I’ll deal with that.

And what happened in the end? Were you recognised?

HR: What you have to be most careful of are not North Koreans but fellow travellers who want to get in your face for a photo. You have to bullshit your way out of it. Because I had two tour guides with me. Most people go in a group and they only get one guide. But they were hugely suspicious of the fact that I was travelling alone. They thought, ‘Why are you alone, why are you not one of the busloads of Norwegians?’ So they assigned two people to me; one who spoke to me and one who just took notes all the time. The one who spoke to me was called Kim and he was 26 years old. He was asking, ‘Henry, where are you from?’ And then some British man gets up in my grill and says ‘Henry!’ like he knows me. And I just had to say under my breath real intense, ‘You must walk away from me right now. You must walk away from me this instant’ just to get this guy away from me.

But - North Korea aside - in general do you get to roam pretty free out there?

HR: I spent a blissful four weeks in central Asia. Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan just wondering about. The freedom is refreshing.

Is it ever possible for you to leave the house in LA without anybody recognising you?

HR: I mean, I never get followed by paparazzi or something because I’ve never had a 14-year-old girlfriend or lost my job because of intravenous drug abuse [LAUGHS], so when it comes to those guys nobody wants me, but do I get talked to by people? Absolutely and constantly. I get waved at in the traffic at an intersection, somebody will look over from their car and wave and I wave back. Somebody will always come over and say something and I’ll give them some kind of human response. So rarely do I go outside in the Western world and have some kind of interaction that is not derived from recognition.

We’ve talked about dangerous situations on your travels. Recently we’ve had a certain amount of discourse surrounding the Paris attacks a couple of weeks ago - there has been a lot of discussion in the media regarding bands cancelling shows. Have you ever found yourself in a position with Black Flag or the Rollins Band where you’ve been told, ‘OK, this show is not safe; you’ve gotta cancel’?

HR: Black Flag played clubs that got cancelled due to riots; due to skinheads beating people up and somebody calling the cops; due to stabbings while we were playing. Obviously you have to stop because there’s some guy lying on the ground bleeding and they have to scoop the guy up. There was one time in Holland when we were told rival skinhead gangs were converging on our show to beat each other up and we kind of went, ‘Uh, huh, Dutch skinheads, that’s ok. Whatever.’ There was no part of that that perturbed us. The show went ahead so they came and beat the living hell out of each other and we were just the soundtrack. That happened, but it didn’t bother us.

But with regards to bomb alerts and stuff? We’ve never had anything cancelled due to bomb alerts or anything like that. When we first played Northern Ireland in 92 they swept our buses for bombs and kept guards outside our bus and the Chili Peppers' bus just to make sure that there was nothing happening but I’ve never had a bad experience there - although the security was often cranked up.

I’m interested in your spoken word show Henry. So many people describe spoken word as the single most terrifying kind of performance because it is so naked. You’ve been doing it for decades - how did you initially get into it?

HR: Well, the initial impetus to go on stage alone was a financial one. I was offered ten bucks in about 1983 to go on stage and talk for ten minutes. And I thought about what I could buy with that 10 bucks - ‘Boy, the food I could eat with that money. The food that I could buy!’ That stripped any fear. I’ve always felt at home on stage. Talking shows for me? I don’t get nervous, I get eager. I love being on stage with the audience; I love them. But in 1983, I was at this show watching all these bands and the promoter would put people on stage for like 10 minutes at a time. And he could put 15 people on stage in one night and it could be like Mike Watt from the Minutemen speaking or somebody playing the harmonica badly. If it was somebody playing the harmonica badly then you applaud even harder, right? So, sometimes Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag bass player) would go up with his little doomsday notebook and his weird apocalyptic visions (laughs). And we’d be like, ‘Hooray, it’s Chuck.'

So, I’d go with him and after a while the promoter said to me ‘Hey, you’ve got a big mouth. Why don’t you go up there and do something…there’s ten bucks in it’. And I said ‘I’m in!’ And then people came up to me and said, ‘When’s your next show?’ And I said, ‘What, you mean with Flag?’ And they said, ‘No, the show you’ve just done - the show where you talk?’ And I said ‘Well, never. I was just asked for tonight’ and they said, ‘No, you’re really good at that.' Well, I knew I really liked it anyhow. So the promoter said he knew a lot of poets and that next week he’d like me to do 15 minutes and this time I’d get 25 bucks. That turned, by 1985, into a coast to coast speaking tour. By 1986 I was in Europe and 1989 in Australia and New Zealand and then into the 90’s Israel, South Africa. It just kind of happened.

How much of your show is improvised?

HR: Practically none of it is improvised. Weeks and weeks go into preparation. I will find a quiet space. There's a neighbourhood in Los Angeles called the Valley - you may have heard of it. You may even have seen that whole stucco fronted tastelessness. But I go over there to the Valley. In the evening there are blocks of stores that close at 7pm where there is nobody about - not even a bar is open. By 8pm it’s a ghost town. So I’ll park my car in the car park of the Starbucks near Studio City and I will walk from that Starbucks about a mile up and a mile back with joggers and dog walkers going by, telling these stories out loud to myself on my own.

Really?!

HR: Oh yeah. Full voice! Just so I can hear my voice say them. And I do my edits of everything on the notepads in my mind, I have some kind of strange ability to keep all that together. I make a lot of paper notes but mainly I take the metaphorical dog out and I walk it. I take the idea out and I road test it, solo. I demo it where I walk it. I use walking; the physicality of steps. And I listen to my own voice telling me the story and I take notes and I go for drives. I mean, I live in LA where it takes half the damn day just to get groceries. Like today, I’m jet-lagging and I’ve been talking to myself out loud now, just an hour before I started doing phone press - warming my mind up and getting the gears going. I was in a cabin on a ship in the Antarctic recently and I was talking to myself there too.

Can you tell us a bit about the Antarctic?

HR: It was overwhelming; it was one of the most mind blowing periods of my life and it wrapped up yesterday in Buenos Aries.

What were you doing out there?

HR: Looking at Penguins; looking at a lot of ice; learning about ice flow; weather systems; Gentoo Penguins; Adelie penguins, Humboldt penguins; how they’re all different. They all smell the same though; they crap when they stand. When you get on an island with penguins, you're like, ‘Jesus, it’s pungent.’ [LAUGHS]

I camped out next to them one night. You know what? I think that Quietus readers might well appreciate this. I had to have an Antarctic ‘first’. You know what I did? In four layers of clothing - and a scientifically engineered sleeping bag - I listened to Raw Power in it’s entirety. There is no way that someone has sat in Antarctica and listened to Raw Power in sequence. I did that and the next morning I rang Iggy Pop’s manager and said, ‘Will you please tell the band - if you choose to do so - that Raw Power was heard at the bottom of a sleeping bag in Antarctica. Gentoo Penguins in my right channel and a glacier in front of me.' And he wrote back and said, ‘I will pass that onto the band.’ [LAUGHS] So that was 40 minutes of the trip but the rest of the time I was there with my notepad out taking lessons from scientists and learning about penguins and taking boat trips around.

It’s interesting hearing you talk about Raw Power. It’s good to have anchor points in music. You’re radio show has many of them. The Fall; The Beastie Boys…

HR: And Ty Segall! I play Ty Segall every week. Why? I think he is an artist who is doing everything right. He makes great records; he makes them often; he is humble to an alarming degree and when he plays live he rips it to shreds. But there are a lot of bands and a lot of labels; mainly labels actually; I champion labels. There are a handful of labels both in America, Europe, South America that I love and that I want you to love too. I am in their wheelhouse; I am in the tank for them; I shamelessly promote and propagandise their music. I want you - the listener - to buy every single record on Dischord; every record on Castle Face; every record on Ritual Productions; there are many many more.

I want you to have all of these records; I want you to keep these artists in Pot Noodles; I want you to keep them on the road. And that is the main reason that I do the radio show. I’m doing three weeks in January for BBC Radio 6 Music, I did that in London just the other day and that’s all done. And one of my main things is to get a young person to expand their record collection. To get a 16 year old to understand that bebop jazz is every bit as punk rock as anything that Joe Strummer ever did; that Miles Davis was a total punk rock visionary; that bebop music is total revolutionary rebel music as much as rock & roll. You want to weigh up stuff? Well yes, let’s do that and play records. And you know what - it might not be the remix; because Sun Ra can match any remix. He came from Saturn and thankfully he left us with a lot of records before he went back. I’ll incarcerate you in a record store and say to you ‘Cheer up! You’re in a record store! And you’re NEVER getting out so you might as well play ALL of it.’

I know you love Joy Division Henry. They’ve been another anchor point. Can you tell me about that please?

HR: There are a lot of artists - from Joy Division to Fela Kuti who I hold in very big esteem. If you saw my record collection - it takes up a lot of space, y’know - it would take about a day to go through. There are six stereos in this building - a lot of music; a lot of it isn’t punk rock - but Joy Division? When someone finally writes the book on rock & roll - the one that gets it right - that gets this thing that we’re doing right? Well, Joy Division will - in my opinion - be right there with The Beatles and Miles Davis and Led Zeppelin and David Bowie because what you wanna mention - as far as staggering genius - you will not be able to have that conversation without including Joy Division. You’ll be lost without Joy Division. They were that good. And it’s not just Ian Curtis. If you really deconstruct the music of Joy Division, that is a band where if you remove any element it ain’t the same. Like Joy Division without Ian Curtis? It’s a cool post punk band with ridiculously great components but once you add him to the mix you’re aware of great composition but when you put them all together and it’s Joy Division? Holy shit man, it’s like, ‘What - are you guys psychic? how did you do that?’

They have a telekinetic connection - it’s like you or me or any Quietus reader has with music - we want to have that connection; we want to have that feeling where you hear that connection. For me they are one of those bands that is unimpeachably, freakishly good. Like The Stooges, where you go, ‘Ok, let’s do this again, lets pray in front of the altar now and again.' It doesn’t get better. I get that with Funhouse; I got that hard boiled truth as a youngster; and when you listen to Substance which is an amazing compilation of stuff not all of which was on the LPs; then you listen to Unknown Pleasures and then onto Closer, you just think what growth - what amazing art. And then you watch the documentary and hear the band members speak and they weren’t looking at things like, ‘Hey, this is gonna be great.' They all got in that cold room in Salford and just said, ‘Ok.' It was the same with the guys from Sabbath - like Geezer Butler or Bill Ward, if they’d ended up spending their days working in a factory you wouldn’t have been all that surprised, right? It was like that with Peter Hook. Ridiculously talented musicians that could so easily have gone the way of their parents. Blue collar roughnecks. Would you have been that surprised if they had? Ask them. They wouldn’t.

And Joy Division is what happens when every once in a while you find that place in the room - right time, right place - and you just have to look back and look at the way that those guys can just look back and think, ‘How did we do that? How did we come out with that?’

Do you have any records that you consider to be the apex of what you are, musically. For me, it is the Rollins Band and Come In And Burn. That is such a killer record. Do you rate it?

HR: I like it. It wasn’t fun making it though. It took a while - with a band that didn’t necessarily play all that well together and still had to find ways to make music.

But it sounds so tight! And it rolls and it has so much hard funk. It didn’t remotely sound like a band who didn’t play well together…

HR: We had the parts; we had Henry plus Melvin plus Sim plus Chris. But it was hard to get actual songs to jump onto the other side of that equals sign. It was an interesting time for the band. I’m not going to get long winded but we’d just come up from a very successful time - the 'Liar' single, the Weight album? For schmucks like us? Jeez, we never thought anything like that would happen to us. I was well aware of the Andy Warhol ’15 minutes of fame’ thing and I’d already signed autographs and stuff with Flag. So they got a moment of everybody going, ‘Wow - you guys!’ and not all of them handled it that well. They’re all amazing people but it made them self-conscious, artistically. Like, ‘We have to do this now!’ ‘No, you just have to start doing things and not thinking about it.’ And it turned into 9-5 band practice Monday to Friday in some expensive rehearsal studio that I was paying for that I really couldn’t afford. All to watch us kind of doodle around and talk about music instead of playing it. There’s a song on Come In And Burn that you might be familiar with called ‘Starve’?

Yes - love it.

HR: And you know that riff? That kind of repetitious riff, like if James Brown was born into King Crimson and had to write a song with Fripp? That might have come out. It has a funk. Almost a ‘Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved’ thing. And it repeats on itself. It's like James Brown in hell. So Melvin comes out with that, the band start following him with it and I get really excited and say, ‘Just double down on that, lets just riff on that for an hour.’

And Chris looks over at me and says, ‘Why? It’s so rock...’ and I said, ‘Wait a minute… is that a problem?’ And the rest of them go, ‘Well, y’know, rock?’ And that was why that record took so long to make. You had one guy in that band - me - who was going, ‘What... is that a problem?’ I was wanting to go up and get involved and get into it but that is the reason that the record took so long because there was a lot of people saying, ‘Ok, well I’ll do this but I’ll just do it for you.’ It was five people who love each other dearly on the verge of having arguments every day.

Will you ever get back with those guys again? What do you make of the Black Flag reunion?

HR: I have no interest in doing bands. I’ve fought, won and lost every physical battle. I’ve never done a song that I felt wasn’t a battle hymn. I didn’t go on tour - I went to war! And that’s why it offends me when Black Flag gets together again. It’s like, ‘What are you doing that for? For the hugs? For the clapping?’

We went to battle! We had stuff thrown at our heads and now you’re going out there to get cheered. Come on man! You’re nothing but a battle re-enactor! You’re an actor in a godamned costume! I don’t want to go out and repeat the past. If I can’t play as hard as I could 20 years ago then I don’t want to now. I don’t wanna be some weird old dude on stage wheezing through the hits.

Henry Rollins' Charmingly Obstinate UK and Ireland spoken word tour kicks off at St George's Hall, Bristol on January 10. All dates here

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