Catching Up With... Henry Rollins
Henry Rollins speaks not in drops and dribbles. When he opens his month, torrents of declarations spill out that condemn and praise in turns, ventriloquizing voices to buoy as well as others to deride.
From 1981 to 1986, Rollins fronted California punk band Black Flag.
Since then, he's continued in music with the Henry Rollins Band, but has
focused much of his energy in different sorts of endeavors, including
spoken word tours (he's on one currently), TV programs, radio shows and film roles. And Rollins recently filmed five (that's right, five) documentaries. Investigations into the failures of government to clean up the Lower Ninth Ward after Katrina, lingering racism in South Africa and continuing religiously motivated violence in Ireland were produced for the Independent Film Channel, while two others—one on Burma and the other, shot in Thailand, about worldwide hunger and famine—round out the list.
When Paste had the chance to pick the man's brain recently, Rollins was full to bursting with commentary, giving background on not only his upcoming documentaries, but also the dangers he sees in abject anger, how America must realize the role arts play in culture and why music is doing well, even if nobody can expect it to save us from ourselves.
Paste: What's the story behind these documentaries? Why these, now?
Rollins: They're all pretty eye-opening. When you see the devastation that people are living in the Lower Ninth Ward 100 billion dollars later, you kind of start wondering where the hell did all that money go? Which leads to the bigger conversation of, well, it's the failure of government. Well, the failure of the Bush government, which is, in some people's opinion, a purposeful failure... And so all of these things lead to bigger conversations, of course, and that's hopefully what the documentaries do. They start the conversation.
In Northern Ireland it was intense when you learn that the troubles from the '70s haven't really cooled down much. It's still very much a part of daily life there. So we tried to get a bit of that into the documentary by interviewing people from Sinn Féin, people from the IRA, people from the Unionist Separatists, Catholics, Protestants. And the conversation is still very vigorous there. It's not a sweeping topic. It's very much alive. People there are very, very passionate on either side. And we went in there extremely neutral. That's what we did.
Paste: I was watching some of the "Letters from Henry" videos that you do on The Henry Rollins Show, and there seems to be this note of incredulity there, a shift from a more 1980s-era punk answer that was more angry than incredulous.
Rollins: I try to approach the thing and leave some room for others to think about it. I'm not necessarily angry, but I'm looking for answers. With nothing but sheer anger, you cut off a lot of options. I'm not saying that anger isn't useful. I'm a pretty angry person. But anger that closes doors, well, there you are with your arms cut off. You don't have recourse. So a lot of those letters are basically a "what the fuck moment" for me... And you can be quite insightful and quite biting when you don't pull out your blades, when you let your opponent fall on his own sword by leading him to it. And I don't really want to do something like what I did in the '80s because I know more now. I wouldn't want to be regressive or want to be mad for the sake of it. Because that's just flailing around. That's how you get marginalized very quickly.
Paste: So if your goal is to no longer be thrashing around and angry all the time, is there a role that you think music is playing now that's different than in the 1980s? I heard, for instance, that you're a fan of Deerhoof.
Rollins: I heard the new album, Offend Maggie, over the weekend. Maggie sent it to me a few days ago. And I like it a lot. Some of the drum sounds I still have to listen to and understand. I called her to ask if I could play some of it on my radio show, and she agreed, so I think I'm going to play "Buck and Judy." ... They do what a band should do. They do a thing and they keep reinventing the thing. You scratch your head and wonder "How did they pull that off?" Sonically, it's interesting, one of the cool little gems of a find if you're a music fan. I try and listen to a fairly wide spectrum. There's a lot out there. You know, when people say that music is boring or whatever, that's not right. Music is so happening right now, you have to kind of run to keep up with it.
Paste: Have there been any other bands you've gotten excited about recently?
Rollins: I'm a big fan of the American Tapes label. But that's very hard to keep a grip on that because you blink your eyes and they've released three records, all of which are limited edition, all sold at one show. So you have to follow in drips and drops on eBay, which I do. I listen to a lot of Wolf Eyes, Dead Machines, other bands like Yellow Swans, Hair Police, I pay attention to all that stuff, which is really interesting. The new Mae Shi record, which I've had for a while, basically [HLLYH] is Hell Yeah, it's a great record. And I have To Hit Armor Class Zero, Terrorbird, the one they did with Rapider Than Horsepower. I really like them. There's a lot of good music. I champion labels like Kill Rock Stars and 5RC and Dischord; these are labels that are doing really great stuff, really innovative stuff. They're keeping the flame of integrity and music alive, where the majors are...The Pussycat Dolls or something? It's nothing that's ever going to draw me, you know. Avril Lavigne? Long may she wave, I'm just not in that camp. But music is doing fine—that's the nice thing you find out. There's so much good stuff happening, you have to do all that you can to keep up.
Paste: You sound pretty optimistic about the state of music and the effect that your work can have on things.
Rollins: I don't know if I'm optimistic. I'm confrontationalist. In that, I hope to do some good. I don't know if music has ever achieved anything past appealing to the people that it appeals to. If a song could stop a war, then Bob Marley and Bob Dylan songs would have stopped one or two. So great anthems of peace and freedom and emancipation have already come down the way, and here we are in Iraq. Here we are pushing into Iran, into the Caspian region. So I don't know. Bruce Springsteen went out on behalf of John Kerry last [election], and look who won. I don't know what music really does. That doesn't mean you don't do it. I just don't think that we over-inflate the role that it plays. Perhaps in its absence we would see the real damage. And America is trying to kill off the arts as quickly as it can. The arts in america exist in spite of America, not because of America. Where in Europe, people know damn well that if you kill the culture, you kill the civilization. And so the arts is like a default. Two guys arguing over politics in a bar and then you put on the Stravinsky and everyone goes "Ah, the Stravinsky." And everyone raises their glass. Look at the biggest snob and the lowliest dude on the street, and they open a museum, and everyone's shoulder to shoulder in the new exhibit. Because everyone knows without that you don't have shit.
And in America, everyone goes, "Oh, what?! You drop a crucifix in a jar of urine?" And that's the only art that's ever been created. It was piss-Christ, and that was it. That was end of the NEA [National Endowment of the Arts]. Because you give 'em money and that's what they'll do: they'll piss in a jar and drop a crucifix in it. So fuck 'em. And so the arts have to exist in spite of all that. So arts and entertainment, at a certain level past watching ER, is just in an iron lung. It's these heroic labels, and these cool bands. Guys like Vice Cooler from XBXRX, the guy puts out a record a week. He's just absolutely motivated, but who's his support? He's got me. I'll play his music. But who's going to aid him really? The guy starves month to month trying to get this stuff out, I'm sure. And so the arts have been on the ropes for quite a while, maybe since the McCarthy era. It doesn't make me optimistic. It makes me a kind of an ally in the trenches, keeping things going. Like Woodie Guthrie, on his guitar, at least in one picture, it said "This Machine Kills Fascists." You have to keep mowing them down. It's not going to be one song, one guy, one band after which everyone can afford to be "Ahhhh." You have to kind of vigilantly protect the arts as you do democracy, but optimism is kind of like hope for me. It's a passive state.