Hardcore hero turned spoken word performer Henry Rollins speaks to Cormac Duffy about serving his audience, working with National Geographic, and why he’s not returning to music anytime soon
In his thirty-year career, Henry Rollins has earned the reputation of a renaissance man, a pop-cultural polymath. Rising to fame as the frontman of hardcore punk legends Black Flag in the early eighties, his work on their seminal, canonical records such as Damaged and My War, not to mention his subsequent nineties work with The Rollins Band, have made him a core protagonist in the continuing history of punk and alternative rock. Since then he has written extensively, established his own publishing house, appeared as a neo-Nazi enforcer in the TV series Sons of Anarchy and even hosted his own chat show. Above all else, he has become a traveller of the world, making documentaries, photography books and taking part in charity work. Known, perhaps unjustly, as an uncooperative, stubborn interviewee to many, Otwo instead encounter a man who is happy to talk about his many exploits in depth.
As he speaks to Otwo, he has just completed the first night of his ‘The Long March’ spoken word tour, which hits Dublin this Sunday. His approach to spoken word walks the same thin line between indignant, acerbic wit and vitriol-laden social commentary once frequented by late greats such as George Carlin and Bill Hicks, mixed with a globetrotting raconteur’s tales. “All my tours are basically the same … I basically go into a city and go onstage and talk about what I saw and where I’ve been since the last time I was there.” This tour has been promoted as centering on his recent travels to Africa and Asia, as well as world political change, and he gives a special mention to “these very hilarious people attempting to become president” in his native America.
Among his latest excursions was a trip to Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan with water charity Drop in the Bucket, a journey during which he took the time to meet those who had been affected by the area’s devastating history of conflict. “We met some people who’d been abducted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, and they talked about how they were forced to commit atrocities,” Rollins gravely outlines. “We’re talking about fourteen-year-old kids made to hack other people into pieces.” Drawing attention to the areas left in the aftermath of war and disaster has been a cornerstone of Rollins’ recent career. In 2008 he was commissioned by his then-employer, the Independent Film Channel (IFC), to make Henry Rollins: Uncut, a four-part documentary that saw him using interviews with politicians and people on the ground to examine life in post-apartheid South Africa and post-Katrina New Orleans, amongst others.
But when Rollins works such solemn issues into his spoken word, as he commonly does, has he moved beyond entertaining his audience and into educating them? “In my mind, I’m not looking to entertain them, because that word just doesn’t sit right with me. It’s kind of disrespectful to some of the material or some of the people that I’m trying to talk about,” Rollins bluntly replies. “I’m not taking myself seriously, but if I’m telling about people who’ve suffered twenty-two years of conflict in Southern Sudan, I don’t know if I want to put that soldier who I might be talking about who saw all his friends die … in a routine light to you, that would be kind of making fun of him.”
His recent travels have inspired another addition to his already herculean resume; 2011’s Occupants, a book of photography taken in big cities, slums and villages around the world. “I started work on the book about five years ago, when I started planning trips that were [based around] being outside all day with a camera in my hand,” Rollins explains. His approach continued to expand, trading up gear and seeking to improve. “I started working on technique, trying to get a handle on getting images that were more emotive of what I was feeling at the time. Almost trying to translate your emotions into aperture.” One photo humorously depicts an Indonesian saleswoman wearing a Black Flag t-shirt, a coincidental cross-cultural encounter Rollins stumbled upon that shows how widely the band’s influence has subtly spread.
Despite the devotion Rollins has to bringing untold stories to the audience, he is incredibly modest about the motivation behind it. “Because I’m curious, and I want there to be a by-product of that. It’s not like I’m some great teacher or anything. I’m just a high school graduate; there’s nothing I can really teach you.” This notion of a by-product is something selfless that can be brought to fans. “It may sound kind of weird, but one of the main motivations for me … is an idea of servitude.” In this category, he lumps everything from talking to fanzines to how he sees himself as a “faithful correspondent” to his audiences. “That’s kind of my mind set, and it allows me to work very, very hard, and to remain humble and to try and remain open-minded,” as well as making sure that it does not go to his head.
His reports often seem pointed to cover areas that the media may neglect otherwise, mainly on behalf of US citizens detached from the world as a result of their media’s failings. Rollins hurls particular scorn on the corporate culture that dominates stateside media. “At the end of the day, it’s servicing General Electric, and it’s serving the petroleum-based bottom line. It’s not always telling the truth because the truth might not be serving that bottom line.” Rollins tries to tell the truth straight to his audience and underline the realities he discovers in his travels as a means of undermining this restrictive orthodoxy. “I’m trying to do my part as basically a one-man op-ed machine onstage.”
Having left IFC several years ago, Rollins has found himself in a most unexpected profession for an aging hardcore icon; a regular contributor to the National Geographic channel. His first project with the network was hosting The Warrior Gene; a show exploring the relationship between genetic characteristics and behavioural predilection for violence. He attributes his willingness to take part to the fact that “the topic was interesting because it leads to a very interesting discussion of nature versus nurture, which has got my interest from a very early age, me being the product of not the happiest household, and a city, Washington D.C., that was extremely racially tense when I was living in it.” Between his tough image and the unbolted aggression that defines his spoken word and musical persona, there is scarce room to argue that anyone else would suit the job better.
Rollins’ next project for the channel was Snake Underworld, which explored the relationship between humans and snakes, from collectors and academics to black market traders. Rollins’ involvement came from his long time interest in snakes – he is a former snake owner; an experience which enabled him to find his own interview subjects, an allowance he had not been granted with The Warrior Gene. It gave Rollins the chance to interview herpetologist and Slayer shredder Kerry King, as well as to showcase his friend Tim Freedy’s developed immunity to venom by watching him survive a lethal dose injection of Black Mamba venom.
Snake Underworld proved a hit with viewers and network executives, leading to Rollins’ signing on for a soon to be released three-part series, Animal Underworld. This time he has travelled India, Vietnam and around the US to look at how mankind uses and abuses exotic species, and has taken a more hands-on involvement in the show. “I had a great deal of input into those as well in that it’s my hands; I’m the one picking up the cobras, I’m the one eating the snakes, I’m the one eating the rats and I’m the one jumping on the backs of alligators, not the film crew.”
If you’ve ever heard the radio show Rollins hosts on LA’s KCRW or read his music column for LA Weekly, it’s plain to see that music is still hugely important to him. With such an attachment to it, does he miss making music himself? “Yes, a little,” he concedes, “because, every once in a while I will do it, I’ll do some benefit show, get up with somebody and sing a song.” These are the moments when Rollins rediscovers his own talent. “At the risk of sounding really self-gratifying, I realise I still have it. I still have something I can offer where I could probably still kick a lot of ass.”
But such performance would need new material to back it up. “For me to be able to do that and justify it, I would have to be able to write and record new music, because what I’m not going to do is go onstage and sing a bunch of old material, because it’s artistically lazy and it’s not taking a risk.” The roots of this principle come from how he takes his artistic cues from the ever forward-moving jazz musicians he admires, and even from his old Black Flag band-mate and SST Records boss, Greg Ginn. In the days of Black Flag, Ginn would refuse to play the hits and built the set on the latest record. “And people would say ‘Why don’t you play ‘Six Pack’?’”, referencing one of the many iconic crowd-pleasers from Damaged. “It was never my decision and we got quite a bit of flak for that.” He explains all this, building up to his reasons for not writing any new material. “I literally just do not think lyrically anymore. Nothing occurs to me to write a song about, I just don’t think that way.” The process of writing, recording and touring is one he devoted much of his life too, and is one he does not feel any desire to relive. “At this point, I’m looking to do things that are new to me and so I left music in an effort to not repeat old patterns.” Rollins, above all else, is an artist who refuses to rest on any laurels. “Some of my peers, they kind of rely on their past, and I never want to do that.”
Henry Rollins plays Vicar Street on January 22nd. Tickets priced at €24.90.