At 40, Renaissance animal man Henry Rollins sounds off on his band, his acting career, his changing priorities and his new spoken word disc, A Rollins in the Wry
by Eric Layton
“You think I’m doing any of this against my will?” fires back Henry Rollins, when asked how voluntarily he carries on his multi-hyphenated existence.
It’s a telling exchange. Indeed, there is just no stopping this guy. While everyone in life plays at least a few roles — employee, spouse, friend, addict, etc. — Rollins has totally upped the ante in regard to an individual’s possibilities for nearly 20 years. He’s been the singer of Black Flag, a spoken word artist, the leader of two incarnations of his namesake, post-punk band, an author, a publisher, a voice-over talent, an actor, and all along, a vein-popping weight lifter. You can also add TV host to that resume, as Rollins will be pulling a Rod Serling and emceeing the Fox horror series Night Visions, which premieres in May.
Rollins’ situation when he pauses for an interview reinforces his Renaissance man-dom. He was in the midst of recording the next Rollins Band album, about to do a spoken word tour behind his new talking CD A Rollins in the Wry (taped during his two-month residency in 1999 at the now-defunct L.A. club Luna Park) and recently filmed parts in three movies. The day after his 40th birthday, the garrulous icon, who will talk at the El Rey Theatre April 11 and 12, unleashed his tongue on Wry, why Clinton beats Bush, the upcoming Rollins Band record and his changing priorities.
Entertainment Today: Was it difficult to go through all the tapes of your Luna Park gigs?
Henry Rollins: Yeah. I hate doing it. Every two years I do a talking record, and it’s an excruciating task, sitting and listening to myself, and I never look forward to it. I always try and palm it off on my manager. Most of the time he’ll go, “Look, I heard these shows and I think this was good and this was good,” and I’ll listen to them and say, “Yeah, I think you’re right.” And that’s kind of what we did on this new one — he listened, I listened… I actually listened more than he did. But it was 18 hours of stuff, and I did not listen to all 18 hours. I kinda made notes after every show, like, “OK, that was cool, that was fun, that idea kinda fell on its face, we can leave that out.” So I consulted my notes, and it helped me cut some corners.
ET: What you wrote in the liner notes suggests that you were sort of coerced into doing the Luna Park residency. True?
HR: No, no, I was just having fun writing that. It’s just that I do a lot of shows and a lot of work. And my manager oftentimes knows better than to waste my time asking me if I want to go do a tour or something. He just says “Yes.” And then he’ll call me up and say, “Alright, you’re going to Australia for a month and you’re leaving in 10 days.” And I’ll go, “Cool.” And so his nickname is Richard “he’ll do it” Bishop. It was just a joke. I was in the studio mixing the new record and Carol from the book company called up and goes, “We need a paragraph of liner notes for the In the Wry CD right now, like in the next 20 minutes, or we’re going to miss the deadline.” I said, “OK, I’ll hit you with an e-mail in the next 20 minutes.” And I sat and wrote it right after hanging up the phone — one draft, one take, in seven minutes. I thought it was funny. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought that went into it.
ET: Positive audience response aside, what qualities do you feel constitute a good talking show?
HR: That I made the points I wanted to make, that I didn’t ramble too much and that I kept it going.
ET: What do you like the most about doing spoken word?
HR: The free range. You know, not having to [worry] about blowing the chorus or keeping in time. I enjoy that discipline as well, I just also like having no leash.
ET: What’s more exhausting, spoken word shows or band shows?
HR: Physically exhausting? Band shows. But they’re also physical like a work out — it’s an exhaustion you can deal with. The mental exhaustion of a talking show, six weeks [into a tour], becomes a heavy bear to wrestle.
ET: You express admiration for Bill Clinton on the new CD. Do you have any comment on the Bush presidency thus far?
HR: He hasn’t had a chance to do much yet, but he’ll fuck up — it’s coming. On a serious note, I liked Clinton in that I liked his people skills. On the global level, I liked that he cared about people or seemed to. He knew everyone’s name, and he seemed to be concerned with the bigger picture. I don’t see George W. being the same way. I see plot loss and failed arrogance that will slowly become unveiled as the four years go on. As the ignorance gets called out more, the arrogance will rise up.
ET: It is alarming that he hasn’t even been out of the country that many times.
HR: He’s only been to England — please! I was in England when I was 15. I mean, come on!
"Have you ever stood and watched a man’s body burn for 20 minutes? It was a new one on me! It was like, “OK, I’m definitely not in Cleveland.”
ET: On the CD, you really seemed taken with Israel. Is that the most impressive place you’ve been?
HR: As far as the most impressive place, that’s probably someplace in Africa that I’ve been. Israel is a mind-blowing place. As far as the biggest mind-blow I’ve ever had, it’s India, for sure. I walked out of there and went, “What the fuck was that?” But Israel was fascinating — a beautiful country, amazing people — I had an amazing time. I can’t wait to go back.
ET: What was it about India that stuck with you?
HR: So much stuff… it’s 180 degrees from what you know. It’s just… what a trip! The first time I’m there, I’m standing in a room with 12 dead bodies as they’re lined up to get burnt. I was like, “Hello!” That’s just an everyday thing. It’s how they’re kickin’ it. I’d never seen that before — it wasn’t gross, it was just different. Have you ever stood and watched a man’s body burn for 20 minutes? It was a new one on me! It was like, “OK, I’m definitely not in Cleveland.” I saw many things there that I’d not seen before, and it wasn’t just because of the poverty — I’ve been to quite a few Third World environments. This was just a different kind of poor. Hard to explain, but it’s someplace one should go in one’s life, because it’ll definitely make you see your own country differently.
ET: How is the new band album coming, and what can fans expect from it?
HR: So far, there’s 30 songs in the can and we’re about 10 days away from completion. They can expect a record that will run over them like four jeeps.
ET: You did 83 shows this past year with the new band in support of Get Some Go Again, but I imagine that’s less than some of the tours with the old band. Was that a purposeful slowing down?
HR: Oh no, that’s how the tour ended up, actually. It’s just because we didn’t do as much in America as we usually do. We all wanted to keep going, but I had to do a bunch of movie stuff that I’d signed on for and a TV show. I had stuff I had to do, so it was time to give it a break. But for me, 100 shows is usually my minimum. The year before, I did like 130 shows or something like that. This year should be in the 150 range.
ET: You’ve done a fair amount of acting — ever been offered a lead role?
HR: Yeah, in smaller films. When I did this indie film Past Tense, they turned around and offered me the lead in their next movie, but I was busy. I would have been interested, though.
ET: It seems as though you could produce your own film projects if you wanted to. Is that something you’d be interested in?
HR: No. I would never want to produce or direct. It’s a fucking nightmare. I see these guys running around like maniacs… I’ve got no interest there.
ET: Are you writing a book right now?
HR: I just put out one (Smile, You’re Traveling), and I’m editing two, actually. As far as writing, I’ve been mainly working on song lyrics, because we’re in the middle of a record. So that’s kind of been taxing my brain, but I’m about to gather some steam and start another book project
ET: You’re 40 now. In what ways have your priorities changed?
HR: I think over the years, the art — the work — has become more and more important. The ego not so important. The reputation not so important. What people think not so important. But the work itself, 100 percent important. I’ve never been all that vain, but I’ve definitely been self-conscious. I find that the older I get, the less time I have for that.
ET: How many Rollins Band tours do you think you have left in you?
HR: I think I’ve got a couple more laps around the track — a few more years.
ET: It seems that you could keep on doing spoken word, as opposed to the band, until you’re an old man. Is that something you could see yourself doing?
HR: Absolutely. I think I could potentially get better and better at the talking shows. You know, if I did it right I could end up like a Henry Miller or a Mark Twain — not on the level of talent, but in just being able to look at things with a wry, observing eye, seeing a lot of culture come and go. I think at 60, I may be way more insightful than at 40. I would definitely have an opinion that a 20-year-old should pause for an hour for.
Henry Rollins will perform spoken word shows at the El Rey Theatre April 11 and 12.