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Henry Rollins: ‘I Like Stress. It Keeps Me Rockin”
Punk rock icon Henry Rollins was interviewed on the December 21-23 edition of Full Metal Jackie‘s nationally syndicated radio show.
To see a full list of stations carrying the program and when it airs, go to FullMetalJackieRadio.com.
Full Metal Jackie: You are a man of many talents — actor, author, musician, activist, journalist, TV host. Is there anything that you don’t do?
Rollins: Sleep or enjoy moments of solitude and tranquility. I’m not exactly ambitious as much as I have a very good realization of what I am and what I am capable of. I come from the minimum-wage working world of the late ’70s, early 80s and I have a high-school diploma — so it’s not like you’re asking me to split an atom or get to the moon quickly. I am a crass opportunist as much as anything else — in that when someone says, “Hey you want to be in my movie?” I’m, like, “Yeah, I can’t act so I’m definitely showing up.” I just do stuff and realizing guys like me — I would probably had a life of flipping burgers had I not been very lucky, so I remain grateful and kind of running at it at the balls of my feet even 30 years in.
Full Metal Jackie: Henry Rollins today is more sophisticated than the 20 year old kid who joined BLACK FLAG in 1981. How has maturity affected the way you’re inspired by heavy music?
Rollins: Well, I’ve always liked heavy music because it was as angry and as passionate as I was. That’s why a lot of us like metal music and heavy music because your heart beats heavy, you have big feelings and big emotions, so you take things hard. You win and lose at love and life, and you need some kind of soundtrack that hits as hard as you’re hitting life and life is hitting you, hence 80,000 people at the Wacken festival every year, hence the success of all these metal bands and why metal and heavy music is never, ever going to die. It’s never going to be old — not to me at least and not to millions of other people, because we live life in a very full-contact way. And so that aspect of my life hasn’t changed at all — things still hurt and you try your best and you fail, so you put on a HIGH ON FIRE record and life gets better. I like music that’s not breaking walls down as well; you have to be eclectic and there’s lots of good music out there — Bob Dylan with an acoustic guitar also works. I’ve become more mature in the years just because I’m 51, not 20, and I’ve had a lot of laughs from the trek, seen a lot of people die and been to a lot of countries and seen a lot of ups and downs . That kind of exposure to the world, it broadens you — especially all the loss in life, the defeat. If you’re smart enough to learn from it, good lessons and it has made me a more humble person.
Full Metal Jackie: In addition to a lot of the stuff you’re known for, you’re an actor, you’ve written books, you write music columns and you’ve been on television — more recently broadcast media, publishing and spoken word are your means of expression more so than music. What makes them more and less communicative art forms than music?
Rollins: I wouldn’t put one over the other. I stopped doing music a few years ago, I stopped thinking lyrically. Literally, if you asked me to write a lyric, I guess I could, but I’d have to go into some kind of way back machine. Obviously, I’m not putting down the medium at all — I just no longer think in that way. Say I have something on my mind, when I was 25, it would be a lyric, now it would be like an angry op-ed or some kind of snarky essay. I think more analytically than lyrically. Both are fine and I admire those who can still do both — I can only serve one master. So many years ago the music left me because I’m not much of a musician. I mean, I can pick up your gear and carry it but I can’t play any of it. I was an angry guy they gave a microphone to and so I’m still an angry guy with a microphone in his hand — 188 shows I did this year mostly without music. As far as communication, me on my own onstage, that communicates very directly. There’s nothing else to listen to except your own breath, your heart beating in your chest and me at one of those shows and that is the only damn thing coming through the PA. The communication is about as direct as getting hit by a bus, and so I appreciate that. The music is also a great way to communicate, it’s ultimate, but as far as its effectiveness — I can communicate just fine on my own. I have found later in my life that talking shows correspond more closely to how I’m living. I travel all over the world, all over the African continents, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, South America, all over the world, literally… North Korea, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran — wherever you want to think, I get there sooner or later. So I can go onstage and tell you about it, sometimes I do slideshows at the National Geographic theater or wherever and I can show you where I’ve been. These talking shows, me without a band, is very much where I’m at in 2012 leaning into 2013.
Full Metal Jackie: Pretty much everything you do artistically, to some degree, reflects your sense of activism. In the unlikely scenario of a perfect world, what would you write, speak or sing about?
Rollins: I don’t think you’ll ever have a perfect world, because we humans are prone to error, and so we’re always in search of an upgrade. There’s always a leveling of the playing field that is happening. Nietzsche would tell you that crime was society trying to regulate itself, trying to level the playing field — rich guy gets ripped off by the poor guy. Well, the poor guy was just hungry, but he just wanted the car and everything in the house as well. Basically people want stuff, but people want a meal and they want to get by and so these days you have about eight people with all the money and everyone else being told to pound sand. When that happens, you have turbulence, everything from riots to rock and roll yet as things seek to regulate or get normal or basically self-medicate and so if humans are going to be running the show, you’re always going to have a need of an upgrade. If it was the mere perfect cruelty of Mother Nature, the Serengeti and drought and all the animals die — it looks mean, but that’s just Mother Nature doing her thing, it’s not a catastrophe, that’s a human evaluation, Mother Nature just does her thing. As long as there’s going to be people around, we will be in need of an upgrade, better ideas and more progress. No matter how many good thinkers will come along, you’re always going to have war, because money’s still going to spend really well and people always want to have a whole lot, if not all of it. There’s always going to be a need for activism, there’s always going to be a need for you and me doing the right thing, being very Lincoln-sonsian in looking out for each other. That’s what punk rock and Abraham Lincoln taught me, that’s what metal teaches me, that’s what music taught me — look out for the other person, be cool, it is a community. Why am I doing your interview? Because you asked me to, Jackie. I would probably do many things you asked me to because I’m always here to help and we’re pals. You and I know each other through the world of music, that’s what brought us together and that, to me, is what it’s all about. Music, to me, is mankind’s greatest possible achievement because look at all the good it does.
Full Metal Jackie: I’m curious about what you feel is the biggest misconception about yourself that you actually wouldn’t want to change?
Rollins: That’s funny. That’s a really good question. I’d rather give and get respect in that I’ll respect you as a default in that I’ve never met that person, you’re going to get my respect and you’ll go in with 100 points — all you can do is lose. Start a relationship with me and a man on the street and that person will get 100 percent of my respect. All that guy can do is lose, in that he can maintain the level of respect by respecting me and if I can’t get his respect, if he doesn’t seek my respect by giving me his well then he can have some fear instead. So when you are getting walked on or good-natured and just being trotted upon, maybe you should have brought a little more fear to the table, pal. So let me give you a starter course in fear and here’s a teaspoon that you know have coursing through your system when you see my face and there’s a lot more we can bring. If you want to go back to respect, I’d much rather comport this relationship in that way and so when someone says, “You’re a pretty scary guy,” I know that I’m not, and you know that I’m not, but I’ll let that ride [laughs] until we can shut that application down because you truly have nothing to fear from me. I’ll be the first in line to help. When someone comes to one of my shows and afterwards they’re visibly nervous and say, “I’m really nervous to meet you.” “Well, don’t be. What’s your name?” “I don’t know, I’m scared of you.” “You don’t want to be scared of me. Let’s both admit that I’m shorter in person.” I don’t want any youth being afraid of me, but that would be a misconception that someone would think I’m scary because I’m so buying my own groceries and so going to the hardware store to buy a thing. I’m so not this guy to be scared of. Past that, I think some people a long time ago before I got better PR, some people thought I was really stupid. They’re like, “Oh, he’s a musician,” and a lot of people look at metal people, music people, like they’re a bunch of idiots. Are you kidding? Some of the most switched on, intellectual people I’ve ever met in my life are music fans and the musicians, certainly, but the music fans. You get into book conversations with some guy with a braided beard and nine piercings in his face and he’s into, like, three-dimensional chess. So you can’t judge that book by its cover.
Full Metal Jackie: What can we expect from Henry Rollins in 2013?
Rollins: It’s the end of 2012 right now so I’m off the road after about 11 months and I’m going to start working on books. I have a publishing company and I’ve written about 27, 28 books, so I have about five books in different versions of completion. Minimum two will come out next year. I’m hoping for three, just to get them out of the way so I can get all the other stuff coming in ready. So it will be a couple of books on music and a travel book from the years of 2009 and 2010 where I went everywhere from North Korea to Tibet, and I’m working on my next photo book; the first one came out last year. I’ve got some acting work lined up for next year. I do a lot of voiceover, and so there will be a lot of voiceover that I’m doing now that will bleed into 2013. I’m the voice for some car company called Infinity and I do work at places like Nickelodeon, so you’ll hear my voice on TV and radio doing all kind of stuff. In 2013 — some shows, but mainly acting, editing, traveling to extreme places so I can have cool stories for the big 2014 tour. I tour every other year so the odd years, I go out and gather stories and I try and find a job and so I better get employed because, like a lot of people, I really enjoy eating every single day. Food is fantastic. I’m one of those food types. Next year, books for sure, re-pressing some of my old band stuff on heavy vinyl, getting that back into print and a lot of travel — countries I haven’t figured out yet, probably back to Uganda and Sudan, into Darfur and once you’re on the African continent you might as well go to other places. I’ll probably go to Chad, Zimbabwe because it’s such a hall to get out to Africa, when you’re there you might as well stay and see some other stuff. Basically a vigorous, very stressful 2013. I like stress; it keeps me rockin’.
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