Rising to prominence as the frontman for legendary hardcore act Black Flag, Henry Rollins has since become an alternative icon. Initially striking due to his muscled and tattooed physique and emotionally intense performances, Rollins soon became well-regarded for his intelligence, wit and legendary work ethic.
He founded a publishing company, 2.13.61, in his mid-twenties, publishing poetry, short fiction and non-fiction, much of it his own. His encyclopaedic knowledge of music has meant appearances in many rock documentaries and he has also dabbled in acting, recently completing his first leading role in He Never Dies. Outside of music however, Rollins is probably best known for his spoken word performances, a bravura mix of stand up comedy, motivational speaking and story-telling.
Ahead of his appearance in Vicar Street this Sunday (January 17), he talks to HeadStuff about his motivation, nostalgia and why the upcoming American election is “pathetic”.
ADAM DUKE: It seems as though every week last year brought news about a streaming service of some kind or another, and we constantly hear about how music is being devalued. Smaller artists are finding it increasingly hard to make a living from music, while more established artists are constantly bemoaning smaller incomes from record sales. Do you feel as though streaming is harming music or do you think that it’s forcing out all but those who are truly passionate about making music?
HENRY ROLLINS: I think it has changed how people get their music and by doing so, somewhat changed its value. When you stream it, there is not a cost idea built in. It just comes out of your device and you spend little or no time wondering if the artist gets paid. They must be; after all, the music is coming from your machine, it must all be on the up and up. You find out that is not always the case. The smaller artists have always had a hard time making a living off of their music. If I were young and doing music, I would do it like I did it. I would own my own label and put out the music, thus cutting out the middleman.
You recently gave an intense performance at Dinosaur Jr.’s 30th anniversary gig. Is music something you’d ever think about seriously getting back into?
No. I did a lot of music and there is nothing new about it for me, so I would rather do other things.
What do you miss the most about performing?
I don’t miss anything about it.
I got very much into punk rock from 70s and 80s acts; The Clash, Fugazi, The Buzzcocks, Hüsker Dü and so on, in my mid-teens, as did a lot of people I know. Is there something inherent about that music that makes it perfect for that age or do we have a weird nostalgia problem?
You can’t have nostalgia for something you were not there for. Nostalgia for all that would be for me to have, as I saw all those bands you listed. I don’t have nostalgic feelings towards anything. However, all those bands, and many others from that time period are amazing. I think that’s the reason the songs last. I listen to mostly, almost entirely, new music.
I do listen to old music as well. I do not dwell on it nor do I insist that “It was better back in my day,” or try to enshrine the past. There were great bands back then and there are great bands now. Selfishly, perhaps, I do think there are some records a young person should hear just once; Damned, Stooges, Velvet Underground, Television, Suicide, Dolls, Thunders, MC5—stuff like that.
If you could pick one cultural artefact from 2015 (book, record, movie, etc) what would it be?
I think the new Fuzz album – Fuzz II – is really great.
It’s been a few years since you’ve toured Europe. Is there any particular motivation behind this tour?
No. I have been busy with film, television, voiceover, writing, traveling, etc. and now I am going to be out for a year or so on stage. I don’t have a new album or anything, it’s just time to go.
Is there anywhere your particularly motivated about going on this tour?
I just go onto the stage every night. London, New York… once you’re up there, you’re doing the thing, so where you are is a building. It all looks the same. This being the case, the motivation must be to do a good show anywhere you are. So, my motivation isn’t a where, it’s a what. The what is to hit every show with everything I have.
From the perspective of a complete outsider, the American presidential race is completely fascinating, given that it could be Bernie Sanders vs Donald Trump, who seem like polar opposites ideologically. What’s your take on the election?
It’s pathetic. America is coming apart, finally. It took a long time for the citizens to tear the food item apart and drag the pieces away but they have done it. The rich are richer and the poor are more plentiful. Anyone who didn’t see this coming a long time ago is a sucker. The problem is that America says it’s one thing but is quite another. Land of the free, etc. The picture of the item is nothing remotely what you ordered.
It is the collective hubris of the citizens that makes them blind to their own takedown. Only in a country full of overfed, fed up, poorly educated, untraveled people could a man like Trump get any traction. I think Sanders is a good man but am not convinced he can get the votes to win the primary. On the other side, I have no idea which of those idiots will out-stupid the other.
2015 proved to be a breakthrough year for LGBT rights in both Ireland and the United States. Is there any cause of group in particular that you’d like a similar breakthrough for in 2016?
I think one needs to keep one’s hands on the wheel with what has come forward. Anything that remotely resembles equality for LGBT people can be lost easily. No one’s mind has been changed. It would be great to see women not be so dictated to by men on almost every damn thing.
Did the reaction to your column about Robin Williams’ death make you feel out of touch with a younger generation?
Out of touch with a younger generation? No. Do you think your peer group’s infatuation with social media keeps you out of touch with the real world? I do.
Finally, are there any specific projects that you’re particularly looking forward to this year?
I want to get the shows started.