There's nothing quite like Henry Rollins. On stage performing 'spoken word', Rollins is one of the most entertaining, energetic and captivating storytellers. Rollins' stories are like a roller coaster of words that wind, loop and somehow return to the start leaving you ready to ride them again. Now, Henry Rollins' latest piece Shock and Awe comes to DVD. We had an opportunity to sit down with Henry Rollins and talk about his new DVD, the tour and all the projects he's working on. We had no idea what we were in for when we brought up the subject of music, a topic Rollins is incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about.
I saw the Shock and Awe tour when you stopped in Portland, and it was about a three hour concert. How did you go through and filter it down to an hour and a half?
Henry Rollins: Well, some of those stories take quite a long time to do. So if you edit out one or two of those epic length tales then you have your show.
Of all the stories you tell, do you have a favorite?
HR: I dispense of all the stuff after the tour. Once the tour is over, it's all new material. I don't even remember stuff from two tours ago. If someone brings it up, I'll remember it but I try to really keep it current. Last year I talked about all that stuff that's on the Shock and Awe DVD. For shows at the end of this year there will hopefully be enough interesting experiences happen in the next several months to re-up the set list of material. That's why I don't repeat material. It's like going to see a first run film and realizing it's a film you've seen before, it's no what you pay for. If I was an audience member having spent hard earned money on a ticket I don't want to hear last year's stories - that's not the thing. So I try and keep the new material coming and there are different ways of achieving that: you have to be inventive and you have to live in a manor that will generate something of interest. So that keeps me moving, definitely.
Do you ever go back and watch your own DVDs?
HR: No! I couldn't stand it. It's hard enough just being there for the final edit. I don't like watching myself. I'd rather just do it, and then do the next thing.
Do you have DVDs you like to watch?
HR: I watch DVDs all the time, sure. Just not of me. I watch a lot of films, some of which I've watched many times. Something like The Godfather and Dr. Strangelove - I don't know how many time's I've watched Dr. Strangelove.
How did Henry's Film Corner on IFC come about?
HR: There was a company, Swift River, who are the producers, and they approached my manager and I about the idea. I have to think that they probably had a list of people they wanted, and I don't know where I was on that list. I can't think that I was the first person on their list. I had heard they were also looking at Denis Leary, who is amazing. They asked if I was interested, I looked over the treatment and said 'yeah that looks like something I could do, so yeah - turn me lose on that'. And they did, and so I did it. We did the promo: a little twelve minute version, shopped it around and the Independent Film Channel said 'here's a bigger budget, make a full length one' and we did, and then they said 'OK now make a season's worth'. That took about a year and some months, meanwhile I'm on tour and I was just going here and there.
With the TV show, DVDs, spoken word tours, and your radio show, how do manage it all?
HR: It's all I do. I work seven days a week, about twelve months a year. I was here in the office on Christmas day and I was here New Years day. I'm not bragging, I'm just saying to do all of that, it takes a lot of commitment. Last year was 90 speaking dates, 2 movies, 3 USO tours - I was in Iraq and Kuwait and Afghanistan and in all kind of places. Did the radio show, the TV show and put out a book - but that's kind of how I work.
What's your experience like been out on the USO tours?
HR: Well, it was an eye opener. The first one I did was in December of 2003, and I went to Afghanistan and Kurdistan and Kitar. It was different than a lot of places I'd ever been. The closest that I'd ever seen to Afghanistan was maybe Morocco or Egypt. So after I finished the first one I said, 'well can I do another one?' and they said, 'OK', and I said, 'can I go to Iraq' and they said 'well, we'll work on it'. So it finally came through in may of last year. Then I went to Kuwait and Iraq. It was hugely interesting to me, and while I can't really support the Bush administration, I have no real problem with the troops. They don't dictate policy, they just kind of go where they're told. So I don't have a beef with the troops in Iraq, I have a beef with the fact that we're in Iraq. Then after that I said 'can I go somewhere else' and then I ended up going to Honduras to the Sodo Cono Base near Te Gusie Galpa, and this last December they put me in Afghanistan, Kurdistan and Abo Dabi. I've asked for another trip and I think in February or March I'm going to go visit troops at Walter Reed Hospital, and apparently it's pretty traumatic - a lot of really horrific injuries. They asked if I would go and I said, 'yeah'. After that the next USO tour they said it might be Guantanamo Base in Cuba, it might be Kosovo in Bosnia, it's just depends on what they need and when they need it.
It must be mind blowing finding yourself in these places in the world
HR: Absolutely! It's one of the reasons I go. I'm curious about places I've never been. I want to go see these places so I go. I learn a whole lot that I'm not going to find out on the news. It also makes for a pretty compelling stories.
Of all the places you've been to, where do you most want to go back?
HR: I'd like to go back to Egypt, just because one week isn't really enough. It's so fascinating seeing all those big ruins. I'd like to spend more time in Russia. I've been there a bunch of times, but never with the time I want. I want to spend more time in St. Petersberg, and I plan on doing that. In May I have a tour of Australia and after the tour is over I'm going to send my luggage back and go up to Cambodia and Vietnam, because it's a very short flight and I've never been to those places before. I've been to the region. I've been to Thailand and Singapore and places like that, but I've never been to Cambodia and Vietnam. Hopeful there will be something left of those countries, I don't know how hard hit they were by the Tsunami. I've been curious about Vietnam for many years and somewhat Cambodia. They're a couple of war museums in Panam Peng I'd like to go visit.
In your spoken word, you often speak about interesting people you've met. Is there anyone you haven't met that you'd really like to?
HR: On the fan side of things I wouldn't mind meeting Gladys Knight, I always thought she was really cool. I'd like to meet David Jo Hansen, the guy from The Dolls, I've always been a fan of his. As far as non-musician types, I've exchanged letters with Mark Crispen Miller, the political writer - he's a professor at NYU, I'd like to talk to him face to face. I'm sure I'll meet him at some point. I'd love to meet Mohammed Ali, that's probably number one on my list. He's a huge hero to me. I'd love to meet Kofi Annan. Past that... I'm a fan of a lot of people, but I don't know what I'd do necessarily if I met them. I'd love to meet Warner Hertzog - the director, I think he's extraordinary, those films are just mad. I'd love to meet Wim Wenders.
Taking the other side of that, what's the experience like meeting people who are huge fans of you?
HR: It's always made me curious. I've never really gotten used to it. Putting out stuff, there's going to be someone who like it. I've been signing autographs for twenty five years. If you go to the airport, you're going to meet some people, if you go to the shopping mall or movie theater, you're going to meet some people, or to a restaurant you're going to meet some people. I've kind of grown used to the idea that your personal space is only the space that they're letting you have at any given time of day, unless I'm alone at my house. And that's OK. That's kind of part of the deal. It is interesting, sometimes when people who I am a big fan of come up to me and tell me they're a big fan of mine. You just don't think that David Bowie is going to be able to quote you from interviews you've done. Or Brian May is going to say 'huge fan' .... OK...... It's stuff like that, it's interesting. It's cool, but it's nice when just somebody walks up to you and says 'hey I really liked your last book'. Or you get into conversation in the line at the grocery store like I did yesterday and they tell you that they like my radio show. It's all very cool, very nice.
I really enjoyed your radio show. I liked how you just played stuff you like with some context, no hype.
HR: That's all it ever was. I stopped doing the show at the end of last year, I just don't really have time right now. I did that show for about thirty weeks, and it was fun really fun. I would come up with a playlist and played some cool eclectic different stuff and got a huge response - lots of really nice letters. The farther out I took the playlist, like I'd play Sun Ra and Albert Ayler . I didn't think people would be into it, and they were REALLY into it. I'd play Ornette Coleman and I'd get all these letters. I was expecting letters to be like 'what the fuck is this!' but instead they were like 'that was so cool you played Ornett!'
Do you have an album that you most want to 'share with the world'? One that if you could just sit people down and play, you would?
HR: Yeah sure. I think every young person should listen to 'Funhouse' once - the second Stooges album, I think it's the greatest rock 'n roll album I've ever heard.
Have you heard anything in the modern space of music that has touched you in the same way as some of the classics?
HR: No! No way! I'm a product of my time. I'm not saying everything now sucks, but a record that I think is as awesome as Exile on Mainstreet or Houses of The Holy? Noooo. I have a lot of records. Put it this way, I'm a fan of every record that I own. So I'd like to think I've got good taste in music, it's good enough for me. I have a lot of records from the last several years which I think are great, but not as good as Zeppelin IV, or the first Van Halen album or Rocks by Aerosmith or Kind of Blue or A Love Supreme. I don't think anything in my collection from the '90's comes close to that. I really thought that Janes Addiction was one of the finest live bands I've ever seen. Just unbelievable - what a tremendous live thing. As good as when I saw Led Zeppelin, I think. Minor Threat, that was a great live band. Bad Brains - foreget it, they like wrote the book pretty much, that was a great live band. Fugazi - great live band, Black Flag, all the SST bands: The Minute Men, I never saw them do a bad show. There's ton of bands like that where it was just a great night out. I could wear you out with all the great bands, so I'm not saying everything sucks, but a record that really moves me... Probably the last time I bough a record that was just brilliant all the way through was Nic Cave. His new collection is extraordinary, it blows the last album away. I wrote him a letter after I played it and said 'you and Dylan are like the only guys writing songs right now.' I think the last two Dylan records have just been incredible - Time out of Mind and Love and Theft. Those were just amazing.
How about movies (in addition to Godfather and Dr. Strangelove)?
HR: That whole are of movies are great, and I think there are lots of great comedies from that time too, like Animal House, Caddyshack, and all that stuff. I think there have been a lot of good films, I thought Sling Blade was just one of the finest films I've ever seen, I just have a thing for that film, I really like it. I think there's been some great stuff in films especially independent film. I thought the Assassination of Richard Nixon, that Sean Penn film, was just a mind blower. Music is just different for me than movies as far as you know... the classic movies are great like On the Waterfront and films like that, they're perfect. Godfather, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, you can't knock these films. I think there's been any great number of films since, stuff like what Jim Jarmuch does, David Lynch, Wim Wenders - who has been doing great stuff. I think Kirosawa was interesting all the way through. But with music, in the 90's something happened to the production where the Pro Tools started coming in, pitch correction started coming in - on rock music. All of a sudden it started sounded contained to me, quantized and contained, and that's just not really what I want from my rock and roll. Where you listen to an older record an you say 'yeah those are people in a room, really, really playing'.
You can hear the space
HR: Yeah and that's what I miss. I miss the space, I miss the sound of a guitar in a room where you can hear the air around it. Who makes records like that still? Tom Waits does, Bob Dylan does, a lot of bands do. There's a lot of fantastic labels doing all sorts of stuff. I really like that noise band Wolf Eyes, I think they're awesome, huge fan of them. A lot of DC Bands: Q and Not U, The Black Eyes, El Guapo - great DB Band. There's great music all the time everywhere, but as far as 'has there been a classic album?' Maybe for a twenty year old it might be the new album by whoever... maybe it's Jeff Buckley for someone who is like thirty three. I think it's a product of your time and place. If you went to see a Jane's Addiction show and you could look in the audience and see what those people are going through - that was their youth. That was that big summer. If you're a rock 'n roll kid, and you're a music person, and you're smart enough, lucky enough to be in a cool city, you have those great summers where you just went out to see way too many shows. Those are some of the best times you'll ever have. For me, those were some great times and for a bit of that I was actually on stage. So I was lucky enough to see bands like The Buzzcocks, Gang of Four, The Ramones when they were a club band, The Crapms when they were literally in 175 paid and you'd buy the single from the roadie on the way out for two bucks. I got to see a lot of shows like that. The Bad Brains, easily like less than ten shows in, is when I started seeing them. Playing in people's living rooms. So I can hold that stuff up where for someone else it might be Green Day, and I think it's just a time and place, at a certain age some stuff gets indelibly imprinted. I still listen to all that stuff. I still listen to The Buzzcoks, The UK Subs, The Adverts and Old Ted Nugent records and King Crimson - it all works for me. As does Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, there's lots of good bands.
For me personally, Nirvana was a big part of growing up, going to college so I look back at that now
HR: Curt and that band arguably launched many careers, you can say the same about Fugazi or Dead Kennedys. Curt was one of those guys. He was for real,and those are real good records, and he was a good musician - talented and inspired and told the truth. He really let it hang out there and I think that's why those records stand up because the guy wasn't fucking around, he wasn't trying to be cute he was letting it hang out. A lot of times these days, that's the problem for me with a lot of these bands, it's like they came up with the look for the band before they came up with the music. Or the way their pants are is more important than the way the music sounds. They'll be happy to let the music be made by the A&R guy. Bands that actually think about a single, that's just hilarious to me. It's one thing if you're Madonna or Diana Ross or Janet Jackson where it is all about a single, but a rock band? Led Zeppelin never issued singles, they just said 'here's the album', the radio station would say 'what's the single' and they'd say 'we're fucking Led Zeppelin man - just play it...It's good enough for you', and those albums are and they never sucked up they'd say 'you play what you want, it's Led Zeppelin it's all good.' I agree, there's no bad Zeppelin records to me, some I might play more than others.
That's more album oriented rock verses the music culture of downloading a few songs from several albums
HR: I think the downloading thing is cool because it has made the major labels have to really freak out and get very scared - which I love. But it's also going to have some intense effects on the music industry as we know it. There's going to be quite a shake up I believe with the major labels, because so many bands are making records on their laptops now. It's no possible for the labels to make these guys 'chop cotton', a lot of the slaves are leaving the plantation now. You couldn't pay me enough money to go be on a major label now. I make my own records, I pay for them, I do the publishing deal, I own all off it. I own the photo session that's on the cover of the record. I license them out to different territories, they pay for themselves and go into the profit margin before the record comes out, and I own them. After five years all the licenses have to come back and we go back into negotiations then. If you're a major label and someone of the stature of Curt Cobain does that, then you're screwed, because he just goes to BMG distribution and says 'here's my records, distribute it' and they say 'OK' and it comes out on Curt Cobain Records and all of a sudden Geffen is going 'uh oh, we're destabilize'. So that's why the major labels have been screaming 'PIRACY YOU BASTARDS!' I love it. I encourage people. When people ask me 'what about people downloading your shit?' Go ahead do it, because people have always found a way to screw the artist. Go ahead, at least you're listening to me. I'd rather be listened to than paid.
Of all the things you've done, is there anything you haven't done which you aspire to do?
HR: I would like to write a good book. I think I have yet to do that. I would like to do a bit of travel to some places I haven't been to yet. But as far as - do I want to direct a film? Do I want to write the great screenplay? No. I would like to get better at that which I am struggling with now especially the book thing. Of all the stuff I've ever done, it's the hardest and off all the things I've ever done it's the thing I'd like to be the best at. If I could just be a writer, if I was good enough to write, that would be fine for me.
So you've avoided catching the Hollywood directing bug?
HR: I've been in a lot of movies, and I've been around a lot of really good directors. You find out very quickly that you don't have that kind of talent. You hang around with David Fincher or David Lynch or Michael Mann, people like that, you realize very quickly that you're really not batting in that range. It's a different way of thinking, and directors are some of the most brilliant people I've ever met. On one of the episodes of my movie show I hung out with David Fincher, who I've met before and he's a really good man. Listening to him speak about film and how he makes film it's just fascinating. He's one of the most articulate people I've been around. He's just riveting. And I just don't have that talent. I'm not all that talented, I'm just really determined.
Again, I'm excited about Shock and Awe coming to DVD. I saw the show when you were here in Portland, Oregon and just loved it
HR: It's pretty much the same set, the same basic chunk of ideas. I think those shows were within two nights of each other. The show came out good, it's a good looking DVD as far a like looking at it. It's shot in High Definition, it's looks good. I remember it being a good show. I walked off stage and said 'OK, that didn't suck'. For sixty thousand bucks you hope it doesn't.
So what's next for you?
HR: I have to finish off that tour. I didn't get to Europe and Australia, so I have to finish those dates, which I leave for this weekend. Then I'll start pulling together new material. A lot of new material I'll be flushing out on these upcoming European dates - stuff that's happened since April when the major chunk of the tour was over. I'd like nothing more than to have a whole bunch of new material and be on the road right now. Traditionally we start these tours in January, and this year I'll just be finishing last year's tour in January and maybe getting back out into America later this year. I've got a lot of work this summer I have to do. I have to finish a book, I'm working on a music album and I've got that TV show. I'm kind of got a lot of stuff on my plate right now.
- Geoffrey Kleinman
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