Henry Rollins: Around The World In An Hour With Henry Rollins
Everyone knows who Henry Rollins is in one way, shape or form. Be that the fan of his musical groups the Rollins Band or Black Flag, or if you're a film buff, literature enthusiast, a patron of spoken-word performances, radio show listener, or viewer of nighttime cable programming.
Having just worked on a new film in June of this year, Rollins is also currently revving up for a new tour with The Rollins Band whilst maintaining his new hit talk show on the IFC (Independent Film Channel). The Henry Rollins Show an in your face, no-holds-barred interview show with some of the top names in the entertainment industry. And all this while still managing to run his own publishing and record companies.
During a blatantly frank, albeit funny, conversation with Rollins, journalist Sass asked him just how many clones of himself he's managed to make.
"All I have is me. Over-worked, under-appreciated, middle-aged, and shriveled up," says Rollins in jest, of course. If there's one thing you can count on regarding a conversation with Rollins, it's his off-the-wall humor. Another thing is how easy he is to talk to, and willing to expound on well, everything.
"I just work, to the exclusion of most other things. I rarely work in a frenzied manner, just kind of if you take the beater that whips the icing or the eggs into shape on the upper end of medium speed, that's kind of how I am about seven days a week. If I'm off the road I'll come here [to the office] and really wail on office-y type stuff during the day and do a long writing jag at night. During the day I get it done and then I go home and kind of take my work home with me on one of those little one-gigabyte key fob hard drives, and I eat over some steaming pot just so I don't have to clean a bowl because I'm lazy. And I work out, then I go back to work, then I go to bed. So it's kind of boring, the girls here at the office say I'm just shallow and self-interested, and don't get out much because I'm afraid of real commitments."
"And is that true?" Sass interjected.
"It probably is, yeah, if it's awful it's probably true. But I am very ambitious in a way, in that I'm not trying to be the richest guy or whatever. I just really like my work. And so a weekend for me, when other people want to go out waterskiing and why shouldn't they? I'd rather work on my radio show, which no one hears but I put about eight hours of programming and writing into it for those 30 people who do tune in."
So how does someone juggling all these different careers manage to schedule everything he's got going on in his life?
"The movie that I'm starting in June, that just kind of came up a few weeks ago and June was relatively free. I do have some dates in Europe I have to go do in the middle of the movie, and there is the TV show, so I'll be kind of in and out of Vancouver , Los Angeles for some days and London for some others. But then I'll do the movie and when I'm not doing the movie, day off or a weekend off in the hotel room for some reason it's a five-day week on that film, I don't know how they think they're going to make any money but I'll stay in Vancouver and I'll work. I'll get writing done, and so I'm always just kind of percolating and getting it going."
But Rollins insists that this kind of work(aholic) schedule doesn't really put him out.
"I don't have a lot else going on. I don't have a wife, I don't have any kids, I don't have any addictions that keep me drooling on the couch, and I'm kind of target oriented. I'm gearing up for a tour in August with the band so I'm working out five days a week and keeping a journal of every bite of food that goes into my mouth. I've got a book on deadline for the autumn, and the radio show. It's about 25-songs you get to do in two hours, so I try and annotate and add five songs a day to my week. I've got my little chores that I do, but I don't have many friends so the phone doesn't ring and no one's asking me to go out and go dancing with them."
"Or waterskiing for that matter," added Sass.
"Or waterskiing," said Rollins, "I tried that once it didn't work out too well for me."
"And so I just kind of get it done and at the point most of the people that I deal with are the staff here at the office, [my] road manager, band members, crew, and what ever local promoter I happen to run into year after year. But past that I talk to agents every once in awhile, most of the time they talk to manager-boy, I see manager-boy like every few weeks, and he'll usually come down to the TV show if there's some guest he really wants to meet or we're serving lunch. But most of the time I live alone, I work alone, I just do it."
So why doesn't the charismatic, witty, and keenly intellectual Henry Rollins have many real friends?
"I'm not looking. I don't hate people not remotely other than they make you crazy in traffic, but as I get older I kind of see more and more why people do what they do. I'm not a conservative or a republican but I know that there's conservative republicans who I probably vigorously disagree with but I also am smart enough, or something enough, to understand that they really think that they're right, and they're looking at me like I'm crazy. Like I'm looking at Sean Hannity like he's crazy, and he doesn't like me I'm sure if he met me, and I don't like him just talking to you right now. But I'm sure he thinks he's right and that his plan is the one, and thinks people like me are the problem. I think the exact same thing about him. So at the end of the day we'll both tell you we're the good guy, neither will say, Oh, we're Satan! We want to fuck you up!' So like I said, I don't hate people, I do prioritize. I'd rather have my phone not ring unless it's, 'Time for you to go here,' 'Here's your in-coming interview,' rather than, Hey, I just called to say hi!' I'm usually busy if you call me at the house, I get about four phone calls there a year - I'm usually running around the house with a pen in my mouth holding onto something, folding it, or doing something to it, and it's always a bad time."
And it's that kind of work ethic that has contributed to the success of Rollins' TV show.
"The producers, Swift River [Productions] came to my manager a couple of years ago and said, We like Henry for this film review show.' I was not their first choice they will not admit that but I was not their first choice. I heard it was Denis Leary who would have been perfect for it because that guy can do anything I'm convinced; I think he's very talented. Like he needs Swift River he's got Denis Leary. I wish I had ten-percent of Denis Leary," Rollins chuckles.
"So they came to me and said, You're in movies every once in awhile, you've got a big mouth, you're pretty funny what about a film review show?' And said, Okay, that sounds interesting.' And so took that meeting and made a 12-minute version of the show. Pitched it around and pitching yourself is just you'll never get that slime layer off no matter how much heroine you do trust me. It's awful to go in with TV people and go, Here's why this will work!' And they're looking at their watches, looking at their assistants with that cringing look like, Why'd you let these people in here?' And it's excruciating, never again until the next time."
"Entertainment's hard on the ego. I see why actors are so psycho now. Because there's so much we don't want you' going on in acting. Even big people get rejected but the smaller people they really get rejected. Trust me I know."
Rollins continues, "Everyone said We love Henry, we love Henry, get out of the office. IFC said, Wow, this is cool, we've always liked Henry here's some money, can you make a half-hour version of the show?' Well wow, there's a foot in the door. We did that, brought it back, they took some time to think about it and said, Okay, can you make a season?' Wow, we have a TV show. And that was last year and that was 10-months, 10 shows - Henry's Film Corner."
"This year they came back for season two, 'We'd like to make it weekly not monthly, we'd like to give Henry more breathing room so forget it being a film show, it can just be his show let him do whatever the hell he wants. We'd love it if he had live bands on,' which you don't have to twist my arm. And so I've been given more work, more leash, and well they gave me complete leash last time in that they've never told me, 'You can't, you really shouldn't.' Never once, too cool. In fact there's not one person there at IFC that I've met who rubs me the wrong way. And believe me, I'll tell ya, I'd name names. But IFC is really cool, and they seem to get me so it's been really, really cool. I get along a lot better with them than I get along day to day with the producers of the show. But we're working forehead to forehead all the time and you're going to have disagreements. It's not that they suck, it's just that when you corroborate you have to give other people room and I'm just getting used to that. I'm not an egomaniac nor am I a control freak but having to shoulder the weight of calling the show The Henry Rollins Show when they pitch and idea at me and I go, Uhhh ' The fact that they thought bringing so-and-so on the show would be a great idea and I find it abhorrent, it makes me a little nervous that that's the way they're thinking. Or if something happens, my name being on the show, I get the hate mail. No one thinks to write the producers and go, 'What was that about?' I'm the nose that you swing at, for better for worse, and so that has been interesting because usually in my small world I'm the big fish in my pond, which I own. My label, my book company, I do what I want. When you work with other people, and I've even done that, say like in a movie it's not my movie. I get a paycheck, I do the thing and if the movie sucks it's not my fault. I was happy for the work, it's not like I'm starring in it. I'm just the guy who gets killed two weeks into the movie and I'm never seen again, and that's cool - I just want the work."
"It being called The Henry Rollins Show I beg these guys to consider the weight of that on me. And knowing my audience holds me, to a certain degree, of accountability. Believe me, if someone doesn't like what's on the show they know what my email address is. They let me know, in no uncertain terms that I suck and they no longer will be buying that t-shirt."
Rollins, however, isn't too concerned with his critics.
"I think there are a lot of opinions out there. You can find your favorite record or movie and there's a bad review of it somewhere. Someone took The Godfather II and shredded it. Someone said Citizen Cane, come on! Dr. Strangelove Well, I didn't laugh.' There are conservatives who say, [Stephen] Colbert he wasn't funny at the [White House] Correspondence Dinner, no one laughed.' Uh, wait a minute, I saw a lot of people laugh he was funny. What balls! There's always someone who's going to jump up and go, I don't like you, go away.' But that's what happens when you stick your chin out. So, you know, suck it up and smile."
Yet on the grander scheme of things, what does Rollins believe is the problem behind society's misinformed views?
"I think in our day and age, in America currently, we suffer. We suffer because we don't read enough into situations, we'd rather listen to a Sean Hannity-sized bumper sticker-length bit of propaganda. Not all of us but some people, certainly. Americans it's an embarrassing percentage of how many of us own passports 14, 15-percent. So a lot of us, you say some country and it's just a place on a map or a report on CNN. That's why a guy like Bill O'Reilly can say, Send me your address and we'll send you a BOYCOT FRANCE sticker.' Well I bet he's never been to France . I bet I have, I love France , and that guy can kiss my ass."
"So in the current day and age I'm not a fan of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but I also don't think he represents Iran . Not the people, certainly, and when you see John Bolton just making up stuff, Well, this resistance to negotiations is very obvious he's hiding his ever ambitious ballistic missal program.' And when they ask him, What do you know?' He says, I'm not in the defense business.' Then why are you saying that stuff if you're not trying to build up to war-talk part two? We fell for it last time, we'll fall for it again I'm sure. And so, I wish we as a people read more, questioned more, and liberals and democrats they should get questioned too when they do bad stuff. I don't think we challenge enough. Where in other cultures, like in England , people who voted for Tony Blair get in his grill; his own party gets in his grill. I think in other countries in the west they question way more. You want a hard afternoon? Do three or four interviews with British journalists."
Nowhere near as tough as the British media, Sass then questions Rollins about being an enigma of sorts. How does one balance the hard-ass rocker persona with that of a writer willing to expose his tender underbelly with words, along with also being a candid speaker when at times sharing tales of such topics as masturbating into a sink?
"It's telling the truth. I think anyone that just comes from one direction, I think they're working an angle, I think they're working an image for their bankbook. Like, Oh, here comes the guy he's always RAWR!'" Rollins growls. "Then you talk with him after the show, Hey, Mr. Rawr-guy, that was a good show.' Oh, thanks!'" Rollins mimics a much softer voice, "Um, we had a really great year this year and we're going to do RAWR next year
' Wait a minute, you're nothing like the guy on stage.' And he says, Oh come on, please!' It's just an act. And so I don't want to do the act in that I'm not going to just put out one angle of my nature. That to me is not the truth. I think you have to put the whole package out there, at least for me I'm not going to tell someone else what to do. But that's what I think is the thing to do. So sometimes some material is funny or lighthearted, sometimes it's very emotional and intense, and you know, overloaded. But to just do one thing, I think you paint yourself into a corner. I'm not trying to be enigmatic or elusive, ever; I'm trying to be confrontational and direct. If I lack directness then I only have myself to blame because I lack the skills to make my point clear. When you go on stage with a talking show some stuff is funny, sometimes it's not funny, and sometimes somehow I'll be telling a story about some fellow I met at Walter Reed who lost his arm but the audience laughs when I tell them how he picked it up and what he told me about that. And it is funny it's insane but it was funny. I mean I laughed right in front of him, he laughed too. So sometimes there's humor in these stories and sometimes things aren't funny."
So is it easier to be angry-guy through the music than through a different medium?
"For me the music is not so much anger as much as it is of passion. And I've always associated that kind of intense emotional output with music just because the nature of the music that's attracted me as far as live. Just the visceral nature of hard rock music, the fact that you can have this sledge hammering sound and that you can hook a lyric up and a feeling up to something and make the lyric jump into this machine that crushes. That has always been really attractive to me, that kind of power. And that fluid velocity that you can have, that potential. Also there's great moments for subtlety Miles Davis, but not on my bandstand," Rollins laughs. "It's just not interesting to me, it doesn't mean I don't appreciate it, I'm just really not interested in three violins and the oboe player."
"As far as poetry, I don't know if I've ever written any. I've read a lot. I just write and it comes out in different forms and shapes. I don't know if I'm any good at it I just really go for it and I'm very prolific book wise only because I own the company. No one tells me no' around here. Actually they do a lot, the girls at the office do. They seem hell-bent on emasculating me and cutting me down to size at all times."
Sass chimes in: "And you love every minute of it."
"Oh yeah, they're the best. They're great and they've been here about a decade. They've been running things really well and given me very good womanly advice. I don't really have any women in my life, actually those two the women in my life are two married women who work at my office."
After giving praise to the women he so admires, Rollins switches back to the topic of his writing.
"I want to write a good book so I'm continually chasing after that one. I get closer to it. Some of the more recent books I read back and go, Okay, that's what I meant. I'm getting the hang of a sentence now. I'm able to string a few of them together and keep the train of thought.' Writing for me is very difficult. And a lot of my heroes are literary. So I'd love to meet Jimi Hendrix or John Coltrane in my life, but if I could meet Albert Camus, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Henry Miller I'd run further and harder to achieve that."
"So I'd like to be a better writer, but I have no dreams to direct or do a screenplay. And I'd love to have a big starring role in a movie because the paycheck would be bigger. That's the only reason I do films. I don't blow it off, when I'm there I'm not like, Okay, I'm only here for the money.' I'm there to do a really good job for the director and be great for the cast and all these people I'm working with. But I don't consider myself an actor, for me it's employment. Like the actor who's a waiter a lot, I'm an actor when I'm not on tour, in that that's a job I can do. Or I'm voiceover-guy, if they're holding auditions for something or if I get a call, Hey, you want to be a voice on Teen Titans or Batman Beyond?' Like, Yeah, I'm on my way!' I work for a living and so if they're handing out employment I'm not saying no because I'm one of those crazy people who is addicted to food everyday. And in this environment I don't say no to work because I'm saving for my adult-diapers. There's really no Social Security for me, so I'm building that nest egg now."
"But we know damn well you'll never going to retire," comments Sass.
"No, I'll do it for free before I'll retire. I do a lot of stuff for free anyway. Like a lot of people who you see who don't need money. Mick Jagger he needs money? He just likes to go sing Satisfaction every night. If I wrote that song I probably would do it too. And I'm not grossly paid, if I ever was set for life I'd probably still work as hard as I do. I enjoy what I do. Sometimes it makes you mad and it's frustrating, the work, because that's the nature of some of this stuff it comes slowly it comes hard. But I come from a minimum wage working world, as we all did for at least some part of our lives, and that is never out of my rearview. I've never forgotten how much your feet hurt after you've stood on them for like 12 hours. And how the drudgery of a job you hate craps on your entire life; how you treat other people, how you treat yourself, and it really was getting to me. And I got lucky, I got to be in Black Flag and I took it from there."
"But I often go visit the last straight job I had before I joined Black Flag. It was an ice cream store, now it's a pizza carryout place but I know the owner even though it's a different guy now. But he recognizes me and I just go in there and buy a bottle of water from him and I sit and look at, and dwell in, this place I left when I was 20-years old 25 years ago. I never want to forget where you can end up; I'm not saying it's a bad job. It's just that I think you'd be missing out on something if you ever forgot hard work, where it comes from, and how awful you're existence can be with a job you don't like."
"I don't like doing a third draft on a book and proofreading a damn manuscript for the third time, but I'm happy to do it. Way happier to do that for three weeks than go to McDonalds and do a five-hour shift. All I have is gratitude."
So are they any new trips planned for the widely traveled Rollins?
"I'm hoping for Burma in September, definitely doing Russia and China in December. I'm going to do the Trans-Mongolian Express, which dumps you off in Beijing . I was supposed to do it in February of this year but my shooting schedule changed. I did the Trans-Siberian last year and I'm doing the Trans-Mongolian this year, and the rules I set for myself is one train ride a year, and it has to be cold weather. So I'm doing the Trans-Mongolian, and the Trans-Manchurian in '07."
"Why does it have to be cold?" asks Sass.
"I don't know, it's the rules I've made for the three big train rides that start in Russia and end up in other places. I did the Trans-Siberian last February and it's brutal. Minus 40 [degrees] every day, it sucked. A week alone in a freezing metal box I loved it! And I said, Okay, I have to collect the entire set; I have to do all three of these train rides in bleak winter. And the only way I'm going to achieve winter in '06 is to basically go December 15 th or so."
"So you just like torturing yourself?" Sass laughs.
"Well, it's not like I'm putting pins under my fingernails or walking with rocks in my shoes to atone for something," replies Rollins.
"Your feet are going to be too cold to feel rocks in your shoes," kids Sass.
In the vast collection of all the places that Rollins has visited, where there any countries he's hated?
"No. There're some places that are more difficult or dangerous to navigate and I wouldn't look forward to going back. Like I'd much rather go back to Afghanistan - which fascinates me - quicker than I'd go back to spend a week walking around Nairobi, Kenya, which is a great and easy way to get yourself killed. I power-walked all over Cairo a few weeks ago at night. I've been to Egypt twice and it kind of struck me at one point how much I was kind of rolling the dice in the present climate. I was there with the USO and I went out there a few days early just to have some time to myself in Cairo before the tour started. I ended up staying down by the Cairo Museum and so most of Cairo looks like a bomb hit it as far as the residential neighborhoods. So I just went walking through the neighborhoods just to see how the locals are kicking it, and I've done this all over the world, Casablanca , Marrakesh , Calcutta , Bangkok , and it's always interesting. But when you do that kind of stuff in Africa it's always you're kind of rolling the dice. I did that a few years ago in Tunus and it was a wild time. Glad I did it."
"I think there are some countries that I've been to that I don't know if I'll get to go back just because of the political climate. I'd love to go back to Israel ; I just don't know how cool that's going to be. I'd go to Tel Aviv tomorrow if it was all good to go. I just hung out with one of the more extraordinary people I've ever met in my life. I just did a TV show in New York on Sunday called Into The Night. And they take two people who have never met and they pair them up, mic them up, and film them kind of on a predestined series of stops in a city at night. And they paired me up with a woman named Shirin Neshat. I encourage you to Google her and look at her photography, and you will be familiar with some of her photos. She is an advocate of women's right in the Middle East , she's Iranian, she's been exiled. A lot of her family is still there and she's probably never going to get to see her mother again who's 80. Her sister was coughing up blood the other day; she can't even get a phone line in to talk to her. And she's done a lot of photo books; she's been in every major art gallery in the world. She and I walked in to The Whitney or some place as part of the tour and they all knew her. Like, Oh my God, it's Sharin Neshat!' And hearing her talk about Iran and what she's been through and all that I went to school with a lot of Iranian kids and I just wanted to go and I've met a lot of Iranian people over the years and they say, You'd love Tehran. It's very beautiful and the people are wonderful.' And I don't doubt it. And she said, Yeah, I'd love to show you Tehran , I just don't think I'll ever go back.' She almost started crying it was really hard."
"But I've enjoyed, to a certain extent, any country I've been in, of course like Serbia and Croatia can be very restrictive and oppressive, and frustrating, but they're still very beautiful."
Another part of Rollins' travel adventures has come from his work with the USO.
"You want a list? Afghanistan twice, Kurdistan twice, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Honduras, North Korea, Japan, Kuwait, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey. Many hospital visits to Walter Reed Army Medical; a big gala ball where I gave out the Sailor of The Year award. I shared a greenroom with such luminaries as General Myers, Miss America , Wayne Newton, and Shaquille O'Neal. I thought I was back on acid. It was a very interesting evening. So yeah, I'm kind of one of the more frequent USO people out there."
We can imagine any of our soldiers stationed far away from home would be grateful to have Rollins visit their base, but what exactly does performing at the USO shows do for Rollins?
"Many things. One of the things in it's how I protest the war. Having a beef with the soldiers about the Iraq war is the equivalent, in my opinion, to getting into a beef about the law with a cop. He's really not the guy to send a letter to. And a guy with his boots on the ground is not Condoleezza Rice or Rumsfeld, or Cheney, or Wolfowitz, or whatever bastard is pushing the chess pieces around. Those people are in fact the chess pieces, so my beef isn't with them. It's nice to be able to cheer up or otherwise momentarily distract these guys from their hyper-real, very hostile, incredibly dangerous 9-5. And they are really in awful, awful environments if you value your life and your limbs because people try to kill them all the time all the time. It's nice to be able to it's one of the only credible things I've ever been able to do with like dubious notoriety. To make someone cheer up and it means so much to these guys and girls when you come visit them. I had no idea, they go, Man, this is unbelievable!' And you go, It's cool.' [They say,] No, you don't get it.' And you don't get it they can't stop telling you thank you. And I've met Viet Nam vets and Korea vets who go, Yeah, that was huge for us when we were out there and USO would come out, it was a big deal.' Didn't matter who it was, just the fact that someone got on an airplane and come all the way out there says a lot. So that's the upside that I can go to these hospitals and crack these guys up, do some good, is a good thing. That I know I'm doing something good for my country and my countrymen means a whole lot to me."
"Having traveled as widely as I have I really appreciate America for what we've got, which is considerable. We've got it so good here; a lot of the world is fucked. In fact, every place I've been to in Africa has a nice part, but you see the downside. Calcutta , parts of Central and South America , I've seen a lot of dead bodies and a lot of sad poverty and just obliteration. And you don't really see that here. Well, there's Katrina, but you can go through lots of Kurdistan and it looks like Katrina was just there but there's people living in it. There's a lot of good stuff about the USO well, so far there's nothing bad, I just wish I had more time to give to them. And also one of the upsides, it's an eye-widening experience. You get to see stuff, for better for worse that you're not going to see otherwise. And just have some very tricky moments. I mean I slept in Uday Hussein's bed that was just so strange. Went to Saddam's palace, was in a mortar attack crazy stuff. And like three days later you're back in traffic on Sunset Boulevard. It's all kind of behind you, which is kind of perfect for a guy like me because I can take that and turn it into quite the tale."
Rollins further agrees that even despite all of America 's flaws, this is still the best place in the world to live.
"I remember a few years ago you'd see a Hummer and go, Woah, there's one of those Hummer things,' and now you see three a day, or more. And I always kind of look at the drivers because someone who would literally buy one of those if you have the means to buy one them you're smart enough to know what they do to the environment, what the political ramifications of driving that are at this point, et cetera. They should just get BECAUSE I CAN' written on their license plates. That should be the official license plate of every Hummer JUST BECAUSE I CAN 1,' JUST BECAUSE I CAN 2.'"
The Henry Rollins show airs on Fridays on the IFC at 10 pm eastern time. And The Rollins Band will be on tour beginning the end of July, and rumbling into Chicago 's House of Blues on August 13.