Just putting in the request to interview Henry Rollins gave me anxiety. Sure it was a great idea. I would interview Henry about why he’s interviewing Dinosaur Jr. onstage at their upcoming show. No one will have that story except me. And I was right. But how does one layman beckon the busiest, most motivated man on the planet to talk about the absurd and perhaps most insignificant undertaking in recent years. His agent thought it would be impossible to get a hold of him. He was in Africa, India and far expanses of the globe filming for the upcoming National Geographic show Animal Underworld. But I got the call. Just one day before the proposed interview time, I had a lot of work to do compiling questions. Where does one start?
I wanted to know about Black Flag and things buried so far in the past he might immediately get bored. So I strategized—and part of that strategy was for me myself to stay away from the bars and the booze the night before the interview. Henry was always on-point and I wanted to be the same, as much as I could at least. I woke up and got an early start on the day, hoping to come up with some last minute questions. I called Henry at noon, 9am his time, mind you. We talked for an hour, which I would have never thought possible given his schedule. I asked him about how he stays so motivated, if he misses music. I asked how the Dinosaur Jr. onstage interview shows came to be. I asked him his thoughts on reunion tours and if Black Flag ever gets asked to reform. We talked about what scares him and what he does for relaxation. We talked about his travels to all ends of the earth– mostly godforsaken places no one would want to see. He talked about his upcoming travel photo book and his new show on National Geographic. As always, he was on. And being a talker by trade, the interview did not disappoint. It was inspiring. It was informative. It was entertaining. Below is the unedited interview posted for the first time. The Metro Newspaper printed an excruciatingly curtailed version for print. Here is that and all the rest, as well as exclusive photos taken at the Paradise Rock Club where Mr. Rollins interviewed Dinosaur Jr. onstage.
Often called a Renaissance Man, Henry Rollins prefers to classify himself more modestly as a “jackass-of-all-trades”. First gaining notoriety as the fourth and most famous singer in the hardcore band, Black Flag, Rollins is now a performer of spoken word, an author with his own publishing company, an actor, commentator, and a relentless mouthpiece for hardnosed opinions. He writes a music column for the LA Weekly and deejays a weekly radio show at KCRW in Santa Monica. This fall Rollins will release a documentary-styled travel photo book, Occupants, and host National Geographic’s new series, Animal Underworld. Despite all of that, Rollins takes on of his strangest roles tonight—interviewing Dinosaur Jr. onstage before their set. The following is a criminally short excerpt of an extremely inspired interview with the always-motivated Henry Rollins.
NG: What do you accredit to going from being an underground punk rock musician to someone whose opinion is accepted by the common public? There was a stretch where every documentary I saw had commentary from you. It was either you, Bono, or both.
HR: Well, I say yes to things. People ask if I want to be in a documentary that I find interesting and I say “Yeah.” I do get listened to when people ask questions, especially in documentaries. Without being self-agrandising, I can come from some degree of authority and have become some sort of go-to person. Ultimately with documentaries, they need to get it done and they need to fill up minutes and if you can finish a sentence and be somewhat articulate on a topic, well then you might be on someone’s Rolodex. Over the years, me doing a lot of speaking in public, I try and formulate points of view by knowing about the places. For example, if I talk about a country, I usually only mention it because I went there. That doesn’t make me an expert, but it’s not just me regurgitating something I heard on the news or something I read in a book. If I talk about Iran, I will talk about the time I was in Iran. It doesn’t make me an expert on Iran, but I can come from a certain degree of honesty and talk about what it was like when I was there. I travel very far and very wide to be able to bring those kinds of view. And it’s a lot of work for me to get to these kinds of destinations. A lot of times they don’t want you to go and they make it prohibited. A lot of times I take that respect and give it back by trying to have a handle on what I am talking about it. You could get a guy that tries to have an ego about these sorts of things, but that’s not where I’m coming from at all.
NG: How do you maintain your energy? No one ever sees a sluggish Henry Rollins onstage or on camera.
HR: Well, I am motivated. I’m on the move. I have plans. I have an itinerary. Everything I do goes toward realizing those goals. Everything from nutrition, to fitness to sleep patterns goes to prioritizing those goals. I’m not getting high. I’m not smoking. I’m in the gym five days a week. I’m trying to get restorative sleep. I’m trying to be well prepared. I’m handing things in before deadline, just so I can get the damn things off my desk. It’s my life and when you do some things you give up others. So what I don’t have is an amazing social life. My phone does not ring on the weekends. I’m not hanging out, I’m not going to the bar, and there aren’t a bunch of scantily clad women running around my house. I live alone. And at this point, at age 50, my priority is just to work and nothing else really.
NG: With that being said, people always say music is a release. Now that you aren’t doing music, what is your release? How does Henry Rollins relax?
HR: Well, for me it was the gym. It’s nothing new. I’ve been training since I was young. But without that opportunity to have that massive caloric expenditure that you have on tour with a band, I have to get all of those ya-ya’s out at the gym on the treadmill. I miss music, but I know that I wouldn’t be able to do anything with it that would be any good. I don’t want to do old material and I don’t think anything I write that would be new would be worth it. I don’t think lyrically anymore. I’ve been around music quite a bit and I’ve heard a few records in my time, and I think I have a pretty good radar of when a band isn’t really “dialing it in”, but don’t exactly remember what the thing is about and can still emulate the form. You hear people make records. They just put them out there. There are songs, but there’s nothing in there. There are no calories in the song. A lot of bands do that these days. Bands have been around for a long time and they have nothing really going on. And I loathe picking on bands. I mean, who am I? But you can pick on a band that doesn’t care—like the Rolling Stones. When was the last really meaningful Stones album? For me it was Tattoo You. But they still go out and do it. In my LA Weekly article coming out this week, I talk about Dinosaur Jr. and how they are still making really good music and really good songs. But then I look at Mick Jagger and him singing “Satisfaction”… great band, amazing singer, great song, but when he’s singing out there in front of 50,000 people singing that he, “ can’t get no… satisfaction”, I have to come to the conclusion that he’s either lying, or not that bright. How can you be in the Rolling Stones for 40-plus years and not get no satisfaction? Then if they play something from their new record everyone gets up to buy a beer. So I just don’t want to be in that situation where you’re going to do an entire tour where you’re putting paint in between the little circles on the page. It’s easy for a band to do that. You can stop being in the moment with songs and still play them. If you watch the band X, Billy Zoom will be the first person to tell you he’s not interested in playing the songs that he goes out every summer to play for the money. I’ve actually watched him literally talk to his guitar tech while on stage playing the songs. He’s that good. If you listen it sounds amazing. But if you watch him, he actually has his side to the audience. It’s so rude to me. I saw that and I’m a really big fan of the band. But I don’t want to be that guy. When I’m doing spoken word, I’m up there talking. And if I’m not talking there is no show. You can’t dial that stuff in, even if I wanted to—which I don’t. So I think being onstage talking is the best format for me. With the music, if I was to be in a band, it would be like being in the fifth year at the university—shouldn’t you be moving on? That’s why I stopped music years ago.
HR: Well, you’d have to ask the band. It wasn’t my idea. They contacted me and asked “hey, do you want to do this”? And me being such a huge Dinosaur Jr. fan, the upside for me is that I get to see the band play 8 times in 8 nights… and I’m going to watch all 8 shows. The downside is… well I can’t find the downside. So I said I would do it. I don’t know who started this. I have no idea. All I know is their manager Brian wrote me. The thing about Dinosaur Jr. is I’m just a fan. I really don’t know them. I don’t really go out of my way to meet bands. I buy the record and go to the show. I don’t need the guest list– I don’t need to go back stage. I really don’t.
NG: So you never played with them back in the day?
HR: No, but I used to go see them. I was aware of them right after their first record back in 1985 or so, when they were on Homestead Records. Then they were on SST and I started seeing them in 86 and became a fan. I mean, what is there not to like.
NG: It seems especially strange because J. is so socially awkward that you two seem like complete opposites. I’d be afraid if I were him.
HR: He’s a man of few words. He lets the music do the talking. He’s not an unfriendly person. He lets his music do the talking to a very great degree. He’s a nice guy and he’s funny too. He has good taste is music and is very low-key.
NG: How serious are you going to be when it comes to asking him questions?
HR: Damn serious. The conclusion I came to the other day is that I’m 50 and I don’t think the Dinosaur Jr. people are that far behind me. So when those records came out, when “Bug” came out in 1988, the audience that will be at these shows probably wouldn’t have been 20-something when it came out. They may have been 5. So the questions I want to ask will be so the audience can get some sort of context of where the band was when they were recording “Bug”. Who was on tour? What records were you buying? This was a time with a major change in college radio. Did the way you recorded “Bug” have a different feel than when you were recording your first two records– because playing-wise, it’s a much different record. Not to put the other two records down, but it was a much better record. It’s more evolved in a really good way… really good choruses. The rhythm section goes from a bass and drummer to a rhythm section. You can see the evolution. And J. is a real songwriter, which is hard to find these days. But he could do it and he still does. His new solo record is evidence. I want to get into what bands they were touring with. What bands were they aware of? Did you see any kind of shift? When that record came out, music was just starting to change and indie really came to the fore. Dinosaur Jr. was at the ground floor when these changes started to happen. It wasn’t always this way. Everything blew open a few years later with albums like Nevermind, but Dinosaur Jr. was there before that. And if you were to ask Nirvana about Dinosaur Jr., they would say “oh of course… Alumni” The Melvins would say “oh sure”. They were all part of that and that’s what I want to get out of them, and by me, I mean I want to give the audience context so 20 minutes later, when the audience hears the album live they might consider the songs slightly differently. And that’s why I think doing this would be relevant and really make it interesting. I don’t think the interview should be like “Boxers or briefs?” I don’t care about any of that. This isn’t a normal set by Dinosaur. They’re doing a historic record and I think the questions should stick to the spirit of what they’re doing onstage that night.
NG: Dinosaur Jr., as with many other bands around the same time as Black Flag, reunited. And everyone seems to have gotten the reunion bug. What are your thoughts on restarting extinct bands and do people often approach you about rehashing Black Flag?
HR: There are a lot of ironies in life and there are a lot of ironies in rock music. One of the many ironies is when you get older you are actually able to play the songs you wrote 20 years ago, but play them better. You actually have the chops to articulate the idea that you had 20 years ago. And so, it might sound as good or better than when you did it when you were 22. And sometimes it takes the world a while to catch up. Yeah that guy who is now 48 is really cool, but where were you when he was starving miserably when that record came out. Well maybe they were 5. Ok, fair enough. Or, I was his age, but I don’t know. Sometimes culture needs to catch up. When the Sex Pistols released their first album they were hated by the press. Now that record is a multi-platinum, tried and true rock classic. And by the standards of punk rock, today it was nothing that would even raise your eyebrows. You know what I mean? Now the Sex Pistols go out and play in front of thousands of people. Before they would get hit in the head with bottles. So, some bands reform because the world has caught up. They’ll get a call from some promoter guy who gives them an offer. “I know you guys hate each other, but how about this. How about 6 weeks in America and each person will walk home with this much money”. These people have mortgages, they have kids and they say, “ok, I’m in”. Sometimes people just want to get together and do those songs because they miss it. They don’t feel old. They want to get out and do it. One of the ironies is, while you might be able to pull the songs off well, you might look really ridiculous doing it. Rock music, unfortunately, has a ‘use by:’ date compared to other musics. When you see the grey-haired jazz guy you think, “well he must know what he’s doing”. But when you see the grey-haired guitar person you think, “oh man”. Just because you have grey hair doesn’t mean you don’t play your guitar very, very well, but there is a perception of that. And so I thin bands reform for all kinds of reasons. The first is financial. They didn’t get what they probably should have gotten the first time around. With a band like Black Flag, like so many other bands, we were severely underpaid. It was a small scene. You didn’t do it for the money; there was no money. It was quite obvious. You could have come out on tour with us for a week at any time and it would be obvious—there is no money in this. All you get out of this is you get to play and you get the glory. You get to meet the chicks and you are in the band. You know you are good; you know you’re really good. But it’s never going to be a big deal. But it doesn’t mean you can’t rock those 300 people a night. All you got out of it was knowing you are one good live band. If Black Flag was to reform now, in any formation, you could probably get that thing to several audiences around the world one time. It would sound awful, but people would show up because they wouldn’t know what a crappy bill it would truly be. We could walk away with a substantial amount of cash—I mean maybe, who knows—but there have been more than one promoter type that has contacted me thinking that it’s my band. It was never my band, pal. I was just the fourth singer. You want to talk to Greg Ginn. It’s his machine. I was in his band for five years. But that offer has come to me a few times, so no doubt it has come to Greg Ginn and all the other Black Flag members countless times over the years. There would be a buck in it, but I can’t think of any configuration of the many people who were in that band, that could put it together and have it sound good. I think you’d come out of there feeling insulted and ripped off, like you have been cheated. And that’s not worth any dollar amount to me.
NG: Moving on, tell me about this National Geographic show that you host. Was that your idea?
HR: No, they came to me and asked if I’d like to be on Nat Geo and I said yes. I grew up near the building in Washington DC, and I’m a documentary nut. It took a few years for the woman who championed me to convince her bosses upstairs that me at their place would be a good idea. For many years Nat Geo was a guy with a magnifying glass looking at a butterfly. Times have changed and you need a little bit more of an edge in some of these presenters and last year they saw it her way and said, ‘we like Henry and we think he might be a good way to give the station some variety”. So I got a shot. We’ve shot some documentaries—we just finished shooting docs 3, 4 and 5. They will come out at the end of the year. We just came back from Vietnam and India, shooting a bunch of crazy footage over there.
NG: What was one of the crazier things you saw?
HR: Well, it’s more the crazy things I did. Basically what I saw was myself doing a bunch of stuff in front of a camera. Let’s see: eating rats, cooked rats in southern India—that was a couple of days ago. Jumping on the back of an alligator in Florida and wrestling it. That was intense. Eating a beating snake heart in Vietnam the other day. Drink snake blood. Drinking cow urine in India. Yeah, they’re putting me through my paces.
NG: So if you’re not afraid of those things, what is Henry Rollins afraid of?
HR: Intimacy. I’m making a joke. I’m not a tough guy and I’m not that brave, but there are certain things that get to me. Oooh, guts! That kind of thing doesn’t really make me lose my mind. I’m sure there are lots of things that I find fairly unendurable– maybe a long flight next to a screaming child. Things don’t get to me, so in situations like that where people say, “pick up that snake”, I’m like “yeah that’s a cobra”. I’m not afraid. Not that I’m not afraid, but I know what I’m dealing with.
NG: And then there’s this travel photo book coming out…
HR: Yeah, it’s my first photo book. It comes out in October. It’s called “Occupants” and it’s photos from 2004 to 2010. It’s from everywhere from Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, North Korea, Sudan, Uganda, wherever else. It’s just photos I’ve been taking. I drag a lot of photo gear with me and sometimes I just do months at a time by myself in the world taking photos. Literally 100 days, 15 countries, just going around the world and doing it.
NG: Did being in a touring band bring on that sense of the wide-eyed wonder of traveling?
HR: Definitely to a certain degree, My mom took me traveling when I was young. By the time I was in 5th grade I had already been to Europe, Turkey, Jamaica. It was back when they issued a green passport before the blue one. I had one of those and I was always interested in travel because I was raised doing it. When you’re in music you travel and you always spend a lot of time living in a moving vehicle, or a hotel if you’re lucky, or sleeping in a folding chair backstage. You get used to living out of a backpack. When I got older, I was afforded an opportunity to travel, and not for tour. Back in the late 90’s, I still had never been to Africa and I realized I better do that. Then I started going to Africa once a year since 1998. And I go 1-3 times a year—different countries, different parts.
NG: Where haven’t you been that remains on your dwindling list of destinations that you want to visit?
HR: I want to get to Congo and Western Sudan like Darfur. I want to get to Palestine and the area around the Caspian Sea. I want to get to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. I’ve been to Azerbaijan, but not for very long. I want to go back to Syria, northern Syria. I’ve spent some time in North Korea last year. I’d like to get back there and see some more. They don’t let you see very much.
NG: Do you have a favorite or least favorite place?
HR: I don’t have a least favorite, but there are places I wouldn’t go back to because there’s nothing more I can get out of it. But Brunei, which is just a very gentle, very relaxed, easy-going place. After two days you’re bored to death. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s just not happening. It’s just sitting there. So I will never go back to Brunei. If I could, if I could get through and convince myself that I wouldn’t get abducted or killed I would go back to Afghanistan and I wish I could spend more time there. That country fascinates me. I’ve been there twice, but only with the USO, so I was surrounded by military and choppered around it and not walking around. But at this point I’m not quite sure if it wouldn’t potentially go south on me. I know westerners stay in Kabul. I’ve had people that give me good advice and phone numbers, and it can be okay if you use a sanctioned Afghan fixer—a guy who has been sanctioned by the local mafia types. If you walk around town with him, everyone knows you’ve paid him and he’s paid people. You are okay because you rented this guys face essentially. This guy I met last year in Mali said, “yeah, you can go, and you can go alone. Just don’t sit anywhere for longer than 20 minutes”. And that is just really dicey. I’m not looking for that kind of adventure. That seems a little too strong. Also, for someone who wants to take photos… if you raise your camera to the wrong person I think you will lose that camera pretty quick, and in a very convincing manner. Maybe with an AK in my face, losing a $7,000 camera and they probably will shoot me. It looks cool on paper—I don’t know if I can pull it off, but I would like to do more of that.
HR: No, I go somewhere to burn lean tissue. If it comes down to “I’m not going to do anything today”, that would be December for a few days when everything shuts down for Christmas vacation. I did that here at my house in Los Angeles. My assistant basically dared me to sit still. I wondered where I should go because I usually travel somewhere obscure for Christmas. And she said, “why don’t you just stay, play some music and do some reading’. I did it and it was amazing. I played so much music on my record player. I’d pick out a stack of records and read entire books. It was great and much needed. The battery-recharge factor was really great. But past that, whenever I want to go somewhere it’s that other thing. I wake up early in the morning with my backpack, water and camera gear and go out until I sweat through my clothes. Then I’d come back to the hotel at night, workout and eat. That’s my routine.
NG: With all of your projects, are there any ideas that have been rejected that you think are amazing?
HR: Well, I’ve pitched TV show ideas to Discovery and History Channels and they said no. Which is too bad because I think they are really good ideas. Beyond that me being a microcottage industry there’s really no one that can say no to me. If I want to do a book about this, I can. I own a publishing company so who is going to reject it? Certainly not me. So I get to do whatever I want. You can do whatever you want, as long as you keep it small. That way, if it doesn’t sell, and sometimes it doesn’t, you don’t end up eating so hard if it fails.
NG: It seems like you are prime for writing a motivational book based on your life and energy and accomplishments. What is your secret to life?
HR: Well, it’s simple to me. I am angry and I have my eye on the clock. Once you get a few laps around the track then your knees don’t work anymore. I’m 50. In ten years I’ll be 60. Have you ever seen what a 60 year old looks like? I mean, they can get it done, but you gotta watch your diet. You’re not going to kick some 16-year-old’s ass at the 7-11 so you better get your respect on and use it while you got it. I come from the working class world. I have no illusions. I’m really lucky. I’m probably the luckiest person you’ve ever talked to. That’s why I show up every day early with a smile. I know where I should be. I should be flipping burgers. I was lucky. I won the lottery. I got to be in Black Flag and to my own credit I took that to different places. Here I am now, 30 years after joining that band and doing pretty well. But only by being extremely tenacious and very hardworking. It’s not like I have some overwhelming degree of talent. And perhaps in that lies some inspiration. I am one of those stories where if this guy can do it…. I mean, I can’t make software work, I get lost in hotels… I’m that guy and I’m getting through so I think countless other people could do marvelously better than me. That’s my motivation, the fact that I probably shouldn’t be in half of the situations I am in. I just feel like someone will come along and say, “get this guy. You are an imposter. Put your apron on and get back to the grill.” And I’m not putting down that kind of work. That’s where I come from and it’s a discipline I know. I take that and use it to do what I do. I get up early, work real long and realize it’s going to be a long day.