With a new line up for his band and a new album, Get Some Go Again, alternative rock icon Henry Rollins is poised to continue his war on mediocrity.
Henry Rollins has been assaulting audiences with his brand of drill-sergeant vocal delivery for almost as long as many of his current fans been alive. He joined the hugely influential Los Angeles hardcore punk band Black Flag around 1980, and has never let his intensity flag in the 20 years since. When Flag guitarist Greg Ginn pink slipped the band in the mid-’80’s, Rollins reinvented himself as rock ‘n’ roll’s quintessential renaissance man. He still makes head-crushingly intense music (with his outfit the Rollins Band, recently reformed with a new lineup of musicians), and has become a widely respected author. His one-man shows virtually resuscitated the stagnating genre of spoken-word performance, and he enjoys a wild popularity as an orator. He tours relentlessly (both with the Rollins Band and by himself), and in his few spare moments, he runs 2.13.61, the publishing house/record label that releases revelatory classics by Nick Cave, Alan Vega, Iggy Pop, Exene Cervenkova and Michael Gira. Despite this workaholic regimen, he still manages to find time to provide other musicians and bands with guest vocals, to produce albums by bands he loves, e.g., the Mark of Cain, Die Cheerleader and Mother Superior, to do commercial voiceovers for companies like GMC and Merrill Lynch, and to act in the occasional movie (the roster of his film appearances includes David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Heat, Johnny Mnemonic and The Chase). How he maintains his level of energy and creativity through all of this activity may be his most startling attribute.
A personal note: This interview was a big deal for me. Like countless people my age and older, I’ve been a Rollins fan since early on in high school, when my friends and I chanced upon the Rollins Band album The End of Silence. That record destroyed me and rebuilt me into something much stronger. Rollins’s music and spoken word material has brought me and every one of my close associates through high times, low times and all the times in between. The man enjoys a loyal – even fanatic – fan base because he gives voice to emotions and experiences that a good many people go through, but can’t quite bring themselves to articulate. When your average adolescent or post-adolescent feels at his most alienated and put upon, he/she can probably be sure that Rollins has been stranded in that same emotional landscape. His work maps the path around the multitude of our inner life’s obstacles. I feel honored to have spent time talking with the man, and am inspired by his intelligence, drive and broad-mindedness. I hope Choler’s readers and Rollins’s fans will derive as much benefit from reading this as I did from doing it.
[Phone dials, Rollins answers, introductions commence]
Sean Flinn: Are you ready for our interview?
Henry Rollins : Oh, so ready.
That’s good to hear. OK, I’ll just ahead and fire into the questions then. The first set I have involve the new lineup of the Rollins Band. I noticed that in your newsletter and in your most recent press release, you mentioned that the new band is comprised of the guys from Mother Superior and yourself. I’m curious to know how you came to know of their work and came to become a fan of theirs, and then how you approached them initially.
OK, well, they’re a local L.A. band and they’re friends of mine. At one point they gave me a record of theirs. The guitar player worked at a record store I go into all the time and one day I was in there and he said “Hey would you listen to our record?” I said “Sure.” I took it home a played it, thought it was great, and I called them and said, “Anything I can do for you? If you want me to pass your record on to somebody or whatever, let me know.” And we kind of became friends like that, and started hanging out, and I produced a record after the one after that [first record]. Another record came out and I did the liner notes for it, and then another record called Deep came out, and I produced that one. And then I said to them, “Well, how about, um, we write some songs for me? Let’s see what happens…” They said “Great,” and so we went into the practice room and we started writing the songs. They just fell out of us…it was great.
So we just went into this practice room and started writing songs, because I was looking to do some more music and I thought, at best we’ll write some songs, at worst it’ll just turn into a jam and we’ll have some fun. But the first night we ended up writing, like, three songs that are all on the record. By the end of the week we’d written an album, and the week after we went in and recorded it in four days. It was just great, you know?
That sounds kind of like a departure from the old Rollins Band technique.
Yeah, where it takes 18 months of discussion. Which is not because anyone is bad or not a good writer, it’s just that we would get into overanalyzing music. And I wanted to go in the opposite direction where we use a Duke Ellington concept of “feels good, is good.” So, if we liked a song, the song was done. You know? Of course we worked on it and made sure it was sturdy, but if we all went “it feels good to play,” then that means it’s a good song. You know? We didn’t want to sit there and worry about it. It’s not to worry about, it’s just to play and let it rip. And so we took a break because I had to go off and do a bunch of gigs on my own, and we reconvened in the Winter and got together for like another week and a half and wrote another 13 songs and recorded all of those. I put some vocals on that I hadn’t finished before and we mixed it all and ended up with 24 songs, 13 of which are on the new album. It came together very quickly and very naturally. There are no more than two or three takes of anything on the record, and a lot of the vocals are from the actual take. We just went in and nailed it.
We’ve got Wayne Kramer from the Mc5 on a couple of songs. He co-wrote one song with us called “Hotter and Hotter,” and he guests on a jam we were doing. And Scott Gorham from Thin Lizzy plays with us on a Thin Lizzy cover that we did (because we’re all big fans of Thin Lizzy), and we made the song as a present to Phil Lynott’s mother, Philomena. We sent her a tape of the song, and she wrote me and said, “Oh, it’s so great,” and she really likes it and “thanks very much,” and she made us feel very good. She’s so great. I see her around when I’m in Dublin, she’s really cool.
I remember a spoken word piece that you did extolling the virtues of Thin Lizzy and Phil Lynott …
Yeah … he’s the man.
Is he still your “guardo camino?”
Yeah … I never go on the road with anything less than two or three hours of Phil. And I told the guys the other day, “Man when we do that Dublin show next year – and we will be in Dublin – we’re gonna put together the awesome Thin Lizzy encore, like, the 5 song mini-concert of Thin Lizzy songs.” And they’re like “Tell us when, man, we’re ready.” They’re so into it.
I would guess then that the different recording approach resulted in a different sound on this record.
Yeah, it’s really raw. Not raw unlistenable, it’s just like big guitars opened up – a lot of guitars. I produced the record, and I wanted a very sturdy thing that you could play loud and have stuff vibrate off the table and drive recklessly to, and I got it. I got the exact sound I wanted. So it’s hard rock, basically, not metal, it’s just hard rock. And the hasty approach just gives it more of an immediate feel. It feels less like a studio record. I’m quite happy with it. I played it the other day. I had George Marino master it, he’s a very, good mastering engineer. I think he’s the best for hard rock. He does all, like, Metallica…he did all the Hendrix stuff, all the reissues, Zeppelin reissues. Pretty much all the good hard rock that comes through the pike, you’ll see George Marino’s name on it at Sterling Sound. So I had George do it, and he really put the big touch on it, and it sounds nice. You can play it real loud and get your ya-ya’s out, which is exactly what I wanted. I wanted a real fun record, real up-tempo and really slammin’, and we got it.
Speaking of having a guy from Thin Lizzy come in and having Wayne Kramer come in, you also had George Clinton come in didn’t you?
Well, we…no. Yes, but no. We went on his record. So it’s me and the guys and Blackbird from Parliament playing with George, and it’s a song that me and George wrote and we did it and the guys…we all play on it. Me and George did the vocals the other night – that was really fun, playing with George. He’s a crazy cat, man. He has a mind like a steel trap, you know? He remembers all the different sessions, so you can kind of go through all your P-Funk queries with him, and he remembers. It’s pretty cool.
I was curious though, I’ve noticed in past interviews, you’ve mentioned that your lyric writing and sort of your musical side kind of comes up from a darker, more painful place.
Yeah, most of the time it does.
When you go into work with people like George Clinton or – I remember you telling a story at one of your spoken word shows about working with RuPaul on a cover of “Funkytown” – I was wondering if their upbeat, kind of “funky good times” vibe clashes at all with you touching on your dark places, and if so, how do you adjust to that?
No. I mean, I kind of can adapt to things around me. A lot of times, lyrically, stuff I do is a bit intense just because that’s where I go with music, you know, when something hurts. For me it’s the blues. No matter what it comes out sounding like, I’m always in that genre. I always consider myself a blues man. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be funny or have good times too. It’s just that it’s been harder for me to articulate that in song over the years, and when I do it comes across OK. Like that song “Liar.” It’s got a nice mix of tongue-in-cheek and kind of a nastiness to it that gives it a nice edge. But with George, it was his basic lyric. He wrote the verses, I wrote the chorus and the outro. So basically I was going off his vibe, and it came off well. I just sang on [Black Sabbath guitarist] Tony Iommi’s solo record and that was a lyric idea I’d had for a while. But Tony gave me a tape of, like, twelve instrumentals and I picked the song I wanted to do, and that lyric idea really fit the riff. So I hammered it out and sang it. It’s a way darker thing, because the riff is way more, you know, kind of…head crushing.
The songs are like a journal, you know? Woman leaves, well, you gotta write about that. Good times, bad times, they all kind of filter their way into the songs. Come In and Burn, lyrically, was pretty dark, but at that time I was pretty bummed out, living in Manhattan. All those songs – the lyrics were all written walking around Manhattan. Literally, just walking around with a notebook, sitting down in places, writing, coming up with ideas and just walking endlessly for miles all over Mahattan night to night.
Did living in Manhattan ultimately bum you out? Not to say that it wasn’t a valuable experience, but …
Oh, I think it’s really fun, but I could never live there full time. It’s just too many people, not enough room. To get some trees, you have to get on a bus and go see some wildlife. It’s fun though. I lived there for nine months as a full-time New Yorker and I had a blast. And I’ll be there next week, or week after next or whatever, for a show and a day off that I’ll be in the studio working on somebody else’s record. It’s fun, you know, but I could never be a New York resident. Not unless I had, like, Martin Scorcese’s money and I could live like fifty floors up …
Yeah, overlooking Central Park or something.
Yeah, I mean, Upper West Side? Uptown, like around 75th and West End? I could definitely deal with that. That’s nice up there, but it’s pricey and there’s just so much concrete. I mean, I’m not a big fan of L.A., but at least I’ve got access to water and parks and trails and hummingbirds, you know?
Yeah, you can hop in your car and pretty much within two hours you’re in a completely different environment.
Oh! Thirty minutes and you’re in Malibu and it’s just like, intense. It looks like the moon or something it’s so different. And that’s cool. I was raised in D.C., amongst many deciduous trees. I really miss that. I miss the smell of them and the crickets and all that. But I have frogs out here, so it’s kind of cool.
That is cool. I’ve noticed, just down in San Diego, I go running through a park right by my house and there’s kinds of wildlife that I haven’t seen, you know, having lived up in Davis for five years and D.C. for a couple of months. And you come down here, and next to your house there’s all kinds of squirrels and rabbits and all kinds of stuff.
And that’s a kick. Kind of back to some of the lyrical inspiration, really quick, and on “being a blues man.” I’ve noticed a lot of your fans, myself included, tend to listen to your music to pick them up, say, after the demise of a relationship or in their low moments. The End of Silence has really pulled me and some of my friends out of some really dark places.
That’s a heavy record.
Yeah, it is. Do you intend for the music to have that effect on your audience as well as yourself?
I can’t predict how you’re going to take in that information. I hope that it’s a positive and uplifting experience for you. I mean, I hope it’s a record you can put on as a shield and just go, “OK, things are bad, but I’ve got this record and, fuck … I’m getting through this.” That’s why I put on records. That’s why I put Al Green or whatever, is to get you through something or get you up for something. That’s why music is so great: because it gets you through. James Brown saves you. Iggy Pop saves you. Raw Power will get you through pretty much any situation, because it just forties you, you know?
I write those lyrics for myself to ease my own pain. In that, I think it might have an effect like that on other people in that I’m just a guy, and so I think the reaction I’m gonna have might be, well, not exactly universal by any means if you look at my record sales, but it would definitely appeal to some people who would maybe be on the same wave length.
Are you ever surprised by any of the reactions you get to some of your music or your performances?
I’m surprised I get anybody showing up at all. It’s all a surprise to me. I mean, every night I go and there’s anybody there? It’s like, “No way! They showed up again!” I mean, I sound like I’m being all “aw, shucks,” but you’d be surprised how many people are like that. Ozzy is like that. He can’t believe anyone shows up. It’s like, “Dude, it’s 16,000 people. It’s sold out.” “Really?” Well what did you think?
After all this time he’s still shocked by it.
Yeah, but you know what? I hear that from a lot of really established musicians. They’re like, incredibly amazed that anyone gives a fuck. You know, like, huge musicians, and they’re like, “Yeah…it’s weird. Hope it never stops, but I don’t know why.” I’ve never understood why.
I would imagine too that people aren’t too shocked to find out that you’re a big Black Sabbath fan. Some of your music has some similarities …
Overtones. Wait until you hear a song called “Brother Interior” on the new album. It could have been on Master of Reality, definitely.
Are people sometimes surprised to find out about some of your other tastes, like Coltrane and Sinatra and Johnny Cash, and stuff like that?
Oh yeah. Well, if you saw the record collection that I’m sitting in front of here at the office, there’s stuff in there that would surprise you a lot more than Frank Sinatra. I mean, I’m a big fan of people like Umm Kalthoum, you know the Lebenese diva, and Hamza El Din, the Nubian oud player – I like every record he’s ever done.
It’s so weird that you mentioned Umm Kalthoum, because I just saw a whole string of stuff about her on the Diamanda Galas mailing list. A whole bunch of people are getting into that stuff.
Yeah, well, it’s potent shit man! I just found this Kalthoum record in Finland last week that I’ve never seen before called The Light of the Desert or The Light of Egypt … where is it around here [sound of Rollins rummaging through cd’s]. Yeah, I listen to all kinds of different stuff. I have every Noh Theatre music — you know, the Japanese stuff — I have every one of those records I’ve ever seen. Lots of stuff from … Pygmy music. I dunno. Twenty, twenty-five Astor Piazzola records. Anything from Java. I have, I dunno, fifteen, twenty Javanese gamelan music cd’s, all kinds of stuff from Bali.
Balinese music is very cool.
Oh yeah. Yeah. I wanted to go to Java this year and go to Yogyakarta or Surakarta to hear the Court Gamelan Players, but they’re having some political upheaval there and they just hacked up some Australian surfer. So I was advised not to go, so I’ve got to wait until it cools out. I listen to a lot of different doo-wop. I’ve got a lot of doo-wop records, and of course the blues, jazz, rock’n’roll and R&B genres are thoroughly blitzed. And I’ve collected a lot of records too, rare tapes, for years. I’ve got a wall of rare cassettes of just, you know, whatever it is I’m interested in.
Do you find that people – fans, or maybe people outside the music business – expect you or other musicians to take a more jaded view of your peers and their work? And what exactly is it that pulls you toward or repels you away from a particular band or recording or style of music? Is there anything in common between, say, the Balinese gamelans and the John Coltrane and the Noh music?
Oh, absolutely, and that’s the thing that makes me interested in all of it, it’s only one thing: they’ve got soul. Johnny Cash, Bob Marley, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix – that’s one genre of music to me. That’s Soul Music. And that thing transcends musical genre. That’s why there’s great country/western. There’s great Polka music. You’ve just got to look. Everyone says, “Oh, there’s no good music anymore.” Well, you’re an asshole. There’s great music being played every day. You can go to Bakersfield and every single week they’re playing music there. We just saw Merle Haggard play the other night. That was cool.
Yeah, did you mention something about that in your newsletter?
Yeah, where we were taping the show and the drummer’s kid grabbed the mic and said “This is boring!” He didn’t like it. There’s all kinds of music going on, all the time, and the good stuff…there’s good avant. There’s good noise music, good techno, and then, unfortunately, there’s the pretenders to the throne. Not the band [The Pretenders], but the act, and that’s what repels me. On a lot of current records I hear pitched vocals, quantized drums, pitch corrected, beat corrected music that was kind of made in the studio by a producer for a band of guys or girls with nice cheek bones. And the music is trite, and it’s not really music. Music is Al Green. What a lot of these people are putting across are sounds on a hard drive, but it is not music to me.
Sort of like your Mutt Lange school of music production.
Well, Mutt Lange did some stuff that really rocks. Look at AC/DC. I’m talking about someone who comes in with a look rather than substance, and they go, “Well she looks great for MTV.” Well she doesn’t have a band. “Oh don’t worry we can take care of that.” Well she doesn’t have any talent. “Well we can take care of that. But she looks great and we’re gonna go to the bank.” And I think there’s a lot of music, to me, these days, that’s very … it’s like the May Fly. It’s gonna be around for two days and then it spawns and dies. It sells millions of copies, but the proof is in the pudding. A band will sell, like, 3 million of a record and then the next time they come around they sell half a million, and then the next time they come around they can’t even play the clubs. I mean, they are so over with. And I think that’s a lot of people hearing it and going, “You know what? This doesn’t hold me. This isn’t sticking to my ribs like a good bowl of oatmeal.” And then you put on a Creedence Clearwater Revival record and you go “God DAMN!” You know? The simplicity, and the beauty and the timelessness of it. Or like Zeppelin. Or Lynyrd Skynyrd. That’s a band that, at least they can play. I still play that stuff. It gets better with age. You know, you hear what’s on the radio now and, to me it’s so utterly trite and then you put on something like “Sweet Home Alabama,” and you’re like, “Well, you know? Those are some brawlin’ motherfuckers with soul.” They know how to play. Surprise.
That kind of answers my questions about how we can determine good music from bad music. I read a quote from you that “Mediocre music is worse than bad music.”
Yeah, bad music is fun! I have, in my record collection, a bad music section. Just for fun. Let’s see. Who’s in this? [More sounds of Rollins rummaging through his CD collection] I’ve got the Afghan Wigs…what’s that one with the space man on the cover? I’ve got Bullet Boys … Candlebox…Enuff Z’Nuff … the new Hole record … Nitro … Men Without Hats, (the underrated Pop Goes the World, the second album) … Princess Pang … the new Offspring record … the last Soul Asylum record … new Van Halen … all the Vanilla Ice records … all the Warrant records. That’s my bad music collection, and those records rock! Because they’re so bad!
I had a friend who hosted a radio show up in Davis on KDVS that was called “The Worst” and all he would play was…he would go through the stacks and find the absolute worst record in there and play that. You know, like, Fred Schnieder from the B-52’s solo record, him singing about Boonga the caveman from New Jersey or whatever. He would just play it until he couldn’t stand it any more, and people loved it.
Yeah, well, you wanna hear my version of the worst, just go to MTV’s Top 10, and that’s my version of it right there.
Do you think that, say, we, you, as fans of good music, have any duty to try and save the people who’ve been brainwashed by the bad music.
I tried and failed, so I don’t care anymore. I put out my own records, you know, I did a record label where I put out records of stuff I thought was really good [the Infinite Zero Archive label Rollins started with Rick Rubin]. No one bought them and I lost a ton of money. I love them dearly and I can’t afford to do it any more.
I was going to ask you about that too. I remember buying that Devo record that you released. I was happy finally to be able to get a domestic copy of New Traditionalists on CD.
Oh, yeah that stuff did OK. That’s Warner Brothers. We merely licensed it from them. So that was a no-risk. That was Warner Brothers’ money to license their own title. So that was like, their money, they lent it to us, they took it back. It was no impact on me. And those records sold. I mean, there’s a lot of spuds out there who were like, “Thank you!” Shit, man, over at the place the other day, me and my road manager, we were playing Duty Now … and yesterday, we were playing The Mongoloid Years, the one on RYKO, the live one which is just killing. The genius of that band is just staggering. But I’m talking about the Matthew Shipps and the Alan Vegas, and stuff like that, where they’re beautiful records…they’re amazing. And no one – no one – cares. It’s brutal.
And even Alan Vega is back out there a little bit again, working with Pan Sonic.
Oh man! Yeah, and all kinds of stuff. He’s got a new record called … God! He just e-mailed me … he’s really busy, he and his wife. They have a kid now so, he’s like Big Daddy Vega. So he’s busy being a dad to his kid Dante. But he just did a thing … I forget … it’s like Descend into a … somethingorother and I can’t wait to hear it. He put together a record he hasn’t released yet called Mutator, and there’s Mutator Versions I and II, and they’re different versions of the same song. They’re both totally insane and totally different; different mixes, different vocals. I have both of them on record and cd because he sends me everything. And the guy is at an all-time creative high, and I put out a beautiful record of his called Dujang Prang, which is godhead. It’s really good. I had Bob Ludwig master it, and it sounds beautiful. I still play it, so at least there’s one sold there. And no one cares. It’s so heartbreaking to put all this oomph into a record and get nothing back. I would have been happy just to break even for myself. I’d like to see the bands get paid, of course. But for me, I don’t mind putting the money out, but I can’t lose seven to fifteen thousand dollars every time I do a record. I’d love the luxury of being able to do that. I’d just put them out as a sheer act of defiance. Like an iron lung. Like “Oh, he can’t survive? I’ll make him survive, fuck you. This guy’ll make a record every year whether you want to see it or not.” I’d love to do that, but that’s for Eddie Vedder to do. You know, you need that kind of dough.
And sometimes you wish they would.
I can’t believe they don’t. That’s what bums me out.
I hear about people with hundreds of millions of dollars and I think, “If I had that kind of money, all the unsigned bands that I know, all these guys that I know that are musicians, I’d put their records out. I wouldn’t care if I made the money back on it, I’d just want to get their records out, you know?
Yeah, I wish I had more dough. If I had more dough…If you gave me a million bucks, my lifestyle would only change in that I’d be busier. But that’s what I would do. I would just sign two or three jazz artists who I’m really into to a lifetime contract and just go, “Look, just go in the studio, roll tape, freak out and we’ll find a way to put it out.”
You could prevent tragedies like when you recorded with some legendary jazz musicians for Eye Scream [actually the album is Everything and the musicians were be-bop multi-instrumentalist Rashied Ali and saxophonist Charles Gayle] and they’re worried about getting paid, and getting credit for the record, and things about which you can say, “Look, you’ll never have to worry about that again.”
Right. At the time, the deal I had with Charles Gayle … I talked with Charles yesterday … he recorded a bunch of stuff a while ago in the studio in New York and we’ve both been busy and I have a day off coming, like a week from this Friday. I have a day off in New York, and I’m coming down from Boston, and we’re gonna mix that session together over in this place in the Village. So we’re finally gonna get that stuff mixed. It’s like three hours of improv, and we’re just going to nail it down. Some good stuff. And we’ll figure out a CD out of it. We’ll put it out this year and it’ll sell 300 copies. No one cares. It’s just a gesture. I’ll print up 500, and we’ll put it out there, and those 300 people will be very happy. The other 200 will just kind of languish on my mail order shelves.
It’s a bitch, but that’s kind of what it’s down to, because the Barnes & Nobles and the Sony’s of the world have filled it with so much…kind of what I call dairy freeze music. It’s just on tap, and it’s this kind of sugary, tasteless stuff and they seem to have it on hand all the time. I just was over at the other side of the office going through the mail before you called, looking through the mail and listening to the radio that’s on. And I’m just hearing these songs, one after another with just kind of the apologetic vocals and that cute little acousticy guitar riff and “I really want to know you, but I don’t think I can…” and I’m like, “Aw, man!” Come on. When he left you, you were not feeling like that, so fuck off! Music has just gotten to me where I don’t buy many new records anymore. They don’t thrill me. But it’s been good for me because it’s made me learn more about Duke Ellington. It’s gotten me into Stan Kenton and Sun Ra and Hamza El Din or Umm Kalthoum. You’ve gotta find somewhere to go where it’s real. So I started going into different music sections, and as contemporary music got weaker and weaker, I got more eclectic. Because I need to buy records. I mean, I am born to listen to music. I have to go buy records. Any time I’ve got cash, I go to the record store. And so thank goodness for the Bear Family label and all these people who are putting out stuff, like Revenant, who just put out the Beefheart boxed set, which is pretty amazing. I like my bootlegs better, but it’s got some cool stuff.
Do you think the Internet is going to affect this at all? Especially with the development of MP3 technology?
Yeah, I hope it fucks the industry up. I hope you start getting radical motherfuckers ripping off big bands’ masters and putting them on the internet, with everyone downloading the next U2 record for free and not showing up to buy it when it comes out. I’m up for some mayhem. With people like Sony? I’d like to see them just like, bite it.
These companies — they’re such a bunch of murderous pricks anyway. Like, I was really in love with the DVD concept at first, because I figured now I can go buy movies all over the world. Which is great about CDs. You just go to Istanbul, you see a CD, you buy it, you play it in your Discman as you’re walking away from the music kiosk. With laser disc they couldn’t do it – well, they didn’t do it. But, with DVD, I said “Fine, they can do it.” And then, I look at DVDs and they have all these regional codings. Region 1 is North America. Then, the other day I was at a record store and I found a bootleg Sinatra DVD of all his TV appearances. And on the back, it has the globe logo, and it says “All regions.” I went, “Wait a minute…so they can do it.” I went into this store, they sell really high-end audio stuff, and I said, “Is there such a thing as an all region DVD player?” They said, “No.” I said, “Do you think they’ll ever make one,” and they said, “No.” I go, “Why? It’s one chip, it’d be so easy, and you know it.” They said, “Because Sony and Phillips and these guys are breaking the world into territories. They don’t want you to be able to buy this over there, they want you to buy their version of the software.” So there you go again. These guys are just finding new ways to fuck you, and it’d be really fun to find a way to fuck them too. Like, to take the music away from them and deprive them of twenty of the 520 million dollars they’re gonna make that quarter. I just think it’d be great.
It’s amazing to me too, because it doesn’t seem…I mean, unless you’re an artist that gets manufactured by one of these companies and gets a top 10 hit thrown on the radio, are you really making that much in royalties?
No one buys my records, so if anyone downloaded them off the Internet for free, hey. We’re already gonna put up two or three songs you can download for free, and we just put a whole concert on, fully-mixed, 24-track audio, three camera shoot from Chicago the other night. It’s on http://www.tunes.com. People have already been downloading it. I’ve been getting e-mail going like, “Fuck! Great concert! Thanks for the free gig.” We’ve already been giving away cassettes of three songs off the new record. So we’re kinda shooting ourselves in the knees, but you know? I’m up for that.
Well, you probably make a lot of your money off performing anyway.
I’ve only made my money off gigs. I mean, for my whole life. I make my money when I work. You know? I don’t have a record that sells millions, so the James Brown theory of “You don’t work, you don’t eat,” that’s me. Like a lot of bands, like a lot of country/western people. They go out and they grind it out. I’m happy to do that. That’s fine with me. I’ve never really made money off records. I get little royalty checks from Black Flag every once in a while, but it’s pretty minimal, because no one really buys those records at this point. They kind of just, I guess, trickle out. But it’s an old band. It’s never been an option for me. Back in the indie days, in the ’80’s when things weren’t as together as they are now, the most I ever got from a record company was, like, three copies or ten copies of the album. Royalty check? You didn’t even talk about it! Because no one was going to make money. I mean, the record company you were on was just kind of in this slow state of deterioration. It was like there was a slow leak in the boat, and we’re gonna be able to get a couple of records and a tour out of it before it sinks. And the record company will kind of be able to finesse their way through 18 months and rent and food before it all kind of collapses. And that was like Texas Hotel. It was never a royalty, there was ten records. You’d send one to your friend, put three on your own shelf, send one to your girlfriend who would leave you and take it with her or whatever. That’s all you ever got, and that’s all you ever expected. When the Black Flag records came out on CD, they didn’t send me any. I had to go buy all those. They didn’t even send me one. It was hilarious. I walked into Rhino and just bought them, and they mercifully gave me a discount. They went, “What are you buying these for?” I’m like, “Well, I’m on ’em, I kinda want ’em so I can say ‘Hey look, I was in a band once.'”
Indie labels: it’s like poor folk, you know? I never ask for an indie band’s record. I go, “Where can I buy it?” I always buy their records. They tell me, “Oh, we’ll put you on the guest list,” I go, “No no no no…I’ll pay. I know how you’re livin’. Let me pay.” The opening band on our tour [Simon Says, at least in San Diego], I wouldn’t even hardly let them give me a t-shirt. I said, “No no. Let me pay.” And they’re friends of mine. I’m in the big tour bus, they’re in the van. I know how it is.
Getting back to the tour and the new band: How did the guys in Mother Superior take to becoming the new Rollins Band?
They loved it. See, they’re like a local L.A. band. They play the Whiskey. They play these little clubs, and they’ve ventured out of their area code very seldom. I think they played Northern Cal. They played Tahiti once, as one of those sort of hired bands, three sets a night. They did that a couple years ago, and it was a weird time for them. Other than that, they just play, like, two gigs a month in a place the size of your living room to like 100 of the same people who keep coming to see them (because they’re just so good!). But they have their own little label, they make 1000 records, it takes all year to sell them. Every year they get nominated for “Best Band” and “Best Guitar Player,” “Best Record” in BAM Magazine. They never win, but they always get nominated. Critics love them, because they’re real thing. So, all of a sudden, they’re on a tour bus, they’re touring internationally, and within ten days of leaving, on the road, one night Motorhead is their opening band. They’re on the airplane with Lemmy. They night before, James Hetfield [from Metallica] comes up after their set and says, “Nice show,” and they’re standing there like, “What the fuck?!” You know, they’re playing in front of 30, 40,000 people opening for Metallica in Portugal. And so they’re kind of a little gobsmacked as they saying goes.
I imagine so.
And now, they’ve spent the weekend … I had had Bob Ezrin come in and listen to the music. He’s a friend. I don’t know if you know the name. He produced the major Kiss records, he concepted The Wall for Pink Floyd and produced it. He’s Bob Ezrin. He co-wrote “Beth,” “Detroit Rock City,” etc. He’s the man. And he’s a friend. He’s a friend of my manager’s, we met years ago and he’s a really cool guy. I called him, and he’s a Mother Superior fan. I’ve given him the records over the years and he loves them. So I said, “Bob, I’m in the studio with Mother Superior. Would you come in and advise, listen to the mixes?” He comes in, hangs out with everybody, he’s a wonderful guy and he goes, “Yeah. Do this, this and this.” Which we did, and the album is way better because of his advice. And he calls up the Mother Superior guys the other day said, “I want you to come to the studio over the weekend. I want you to work with Alice Cooper.” So they spent the whole weekend writing songs with Alice Cooper last weekend. So they’re having quite the time right now.
Oh yeah. They must be in seventh heaven.
Yeah. They’re kind of scratching their heads. For me, I think it’s great for them. It’s so deserved. They should be on an international tour and making a record that a lot of people are going to hear. I mean, when you hear the record and you see how these guys play, you’ll see what I mean. They’re really not something that should be kept for 100 people. And the reaction has been great. We’re going out and doing pretty much a new set, and it’s been cool. The only question we get after shows is “When is the album out?” It’s not like, “Where’s Melvin? [Gibbs, the former bass player for the Rollins Band]” You know? I thought people would be asking me daily, “Where are the other guys?” And it’s weird. Only one person asked me. I don’t know what that’s about at all. I have no idea. But it’s been cool.
That leads me right into another question that I have: I’ve noticed that, at some of the old Rollins Band gigs, you tended to focus on the new material that you guys had written, and not run through the “golden oldies.” I’m wondering it it’s going to be that way with the new guys. Is it just going to be all new material or …?
We have three or four old songs that we’re doing, because they kind of fit in with the songs we’re doing now. We’re doing “Hard,” we’re doing “What Have I Got?” we’re doing “Do It.” What else? That might be it. But when the album comes out and we’ll be touring all over the world, I’m gonna work up a few more of the old songs, just because I miss them. I really want to play them, and those guys can pretty much play anything. I’m just interested in doing the more kind of up, rockin’ old Rollins Band stuff like “You Didn’t Need” and “Tearing,” because those are kind of in the line of what we’re doing right now. It’s up-tempo hard rock, and those songs would fit in to what we’re doing. So I want to do that, but I have kind of lifted the embargo on doing old material.
A lot of bands, they do a lot of old material basically to crowd please. But I bet a lot of those bands would rather play the stuff they’ve just written. I wonder how much Black Sabbath or Ozzy gets off doing “Paranoid” every night. Literally, with Sabbath he does it and on his own tours he does it, and it’s a great song, but I just wonder. Maybe he loves doing it every night. I dunno. He and I have kind of had that discussion before. We had a guy interview the both of us at once, and he said “Henry, you don’t do old material. Ozzy you do your greatest hits all the time. Both of you, argue your case.” And Ozzy, he made a good point. He said, “People come to be entertained. They want the show. They want to hear ‘War Pigs,’ they want to hear ‘Paranoid,’ they want to hear ‘Crazy Train,’ and I want to give it to them.” And I can’t fuck with that. That’s cool. For me, I want to play what I want to play, and if some people go “Why didn’t you play the hits?” I’m like, “That’s why we make records, so you can go home and play that.” But, I do remember being a young man and going to see Zeppelin, and when they did not play “Black Dog,” I was personally offended. I was really disappointed … for like twenty minutes, and then I walked out of the gig and I was like, “Damn! They rocked!”
If the energy is there in the performer, then it really shouldn’t matter if they’re playing through the hits or not.
Well, it shouldn’t, but whenever I go see the band X play, I kind of hope they’re gonna do “White Girl” and “Devil Doll” and “Los Angeles,” “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” and all that. On some of those line ups, you know, with [Tony] Gilkyson, they would do the newer stuff and you’d go, “Well … that was cool…but if they’d done ‘Los Angeles’ or ‘Nausea,’ that would have been kind of cool…” So I want to do that. Luckily, I’ve laid off those songs for so many years, they feel like new songs. Like, “What Have I Got?” I haven’t done since ’89. So to do it again was just like, “Oh yeah! This is a blast!” And the guys in the band are like “Hey! This is a good song.” And I go, “Yeah, we wrote a few good ones in those days.” It’s been really fun doing “Hard.” That song is a thrill, and these guys play it like beastly motherfuckers.
They do it justice.
Oh yeah, they really destroy it. It’s good.
I just have a couple more questions before I let you go here. A couple of my staff members who are huge fans of yours gave me some questions to pass on to you. One of them is a visual artist, a painter. And as he was learning and developing his skills more (and another friend also, who right now is in art school) has drawn several portraits of you in various mediums. Do you get that a lot? Do you find that fans have drawn inspiration from you to the point that the inspiration boils over into a creative impulse of their own?
Yeah, a lot of people have said they started writing after they read my book, which I think is more like, “Oh…this is easy…look at this bullshit. Anyone can write.” But yeah, I get a lot of paintings and drawings done of me and sent to me. We used to have a big stack of ’em. There’s been a couple of different bars named after me. People send me graffiti they’ve done in honor of me, murals on walls of clubs with paintings of me. Stuff like that. The most intense though is when people get the stuff tattooed, when they get Black Flag bars or lyrics that you’ve written or your tattoos tattooed on them. Like, I’ve seen the entire back piece of mine done on a few people, full-sized. One guy I saw has all my tattoos, except for the sun on the back. He has all the ones on the arms, and it’s totally intense. I’ve seen my name tattooed on people, images from the songs, all kinds of stuff like that. All the time, like, I go to tattoo places and I see some of my stuff on the wall as regular stuff for sale. These guys tell me, “Every month, we do Black Flag tattoos to this day. It never stops. People bring in your stuff all the time and sometimes we just tell them, ‘No. Come up with your own design.'” It’s weird. That’s really intense, and I don’t know anybody in any band who has had that kind of thing happen around them.
No. Have you ever shown your Neubauten tattoo to, like, Blixa Bargeld or something like that?
Oh yeah, sure. They’ve seen me play. We’ve done gigs together, and my shirt is always off and they loved it. They think it’s really cool. Because, you know, I’m a fan? Also I think it’s a great graphic.
OK, completely different train of thought here. Another one of my friends who submitted a question has Attention Deficit Disorder. He has been on Ritalin and all kinds of experimental medications all of his life, and is now studying neuroscience up at UC Davis to try and get to the root of all his psychological problems and things that he’s had.
And he told me that at one point, you had been diagnosed with that.
Well, hyperactive, yeah.
And had been prescribed Ritalin.
Yeah, I had Ritalin for years, even back when they were still kind of figuring out the dosages. I was in a place called the National Research Center. My mom sent me in there. The tuition was like free, but they get to experiment on your hyperactive child. So we’d get yellow pills one week, and then orange pills one week. And then I saw later, my mom had this hard-bound book on this shelf, and in the book are pictures of me taken from behind the one-way mirror or two-way mirror playing with blocks and stuff. And they’ve analyzed the paintings I did, because there was me and all these other hyperactive kids and they were checking out Ritalin. So I was some kind of test case in ’65? ’66? And I was on Ritalin until about puberty.
What do you think of the growing popularity of ADD and ADHD diagnosis?
I wonder if there’s not something to that theory that, maybe there’s potentially not such a thing as Attention Deficit Disorder, maybe Johnny just isn’t interested in Mediterranean History. And if you got him something he was interested in … See, that was my thing. I bombed in math, because I did not give a fuck about numbers. But I had a 101 average all through grade school and high school, up to a 104 average (because you get the extra credit points) in English. Because I read books. I wanted to know about Shakespeare. I wanted to read Edgar Allen Poe. All the summer reading? I’d already read those books two years before. In sixth grade I was devouring Steinbeck. In sixth grade I read The Grapes of Wrath, got it and totally dug it, when they’re having us read Jonathan Livingston Seagull. In tenth grade they want you to read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I’d read that two summers before. I’m not saying I’m smart. I’m just saying I really dug books. Science didn’t hold anything for me. Chemistry and biology were always a struggle. But anything with language, vocabulary, the arts, anything eclectic like that…and the teachers would just go, “Henry, why can’t you do what you’re doing with English over here in Chemistry? Because obviously, you’re not dumb and you can concentrate when you want.”
They used to come into the library and there I’d be after school writing out the scientific names of every different North American snake. I’d memorized them. You know, to this day I can usually spiel off the Latin name of most North American snakes, because I was interested in snakes. And they were like, “What are you doing?” And I’d say, “Oh, I’m just writing this out just to see if I know twenty different kinds of rattlesnakes in Latin.” They’re like, “Holy shit man! Why can’t you do this in math?” I’m like, “I just don’t care.” And so it wasn’t necessarily Attention Deficit, it was I Don’t Give A Fuck. And I really didn’t. By fourteen I was like “OK, I can do without this, this and this.” And I took the information in and I regurgitated it for the tests and I got by. But I was not a good student. I was just into other stuff. I think there are perhaps different ways of teaching that makes people more involved and makes them maybe more interested. And perhaps maybe they’d want to hang on and learn better.
I was always very “literary” myself and I found that I didn’t start developing an interest in science of any sort until I started reading heavy post-modern literature. You know, like Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, where it’s really involved with, you know…rocket science, Gravity’s Rainbow dealing with rocket mechanics and Infinite Jest dealing with pharmacology. Now all of a sudden I want to learn about it. I had to approach it through literature.
It became interesting to you, and that’s the main thing. You can make almost anything interesting. You see a documentary on Uruguay, and before you saw the documentary, you did not really think about the place. Now you want to go. Or at least, that’s how I am. I’m a sucker for documentaries. I see a thing on Melville and I’ve got to read it all. I see a thing on some Indian tribe that they just dug up bones of in Peru and they found that they were cannibalizing and beating the shit out of each other in a totally hostile culture, I’ve gotta go down there and see it. I’m sold! I go out and I buy the book. I want to know. It’s not that all of a sudden I’m interested in ancient Indian civilizations of South America. I’m interested in that thing that turned me on. I bet you can do that with math, or whatever, to a young person, whose brain is just … overnight it’s metabolizing and uploading and learning about imagination and perception and concepting and stuff. You can turn people on. Also, you can shut them down as easily, and once you close the door, it’s a lot harder to get it open again. Once it’s open, it’s great just to blow it off its hinges so it remains open. Hence, a guy like John Cage who was a freak all his life and kept hearing weird shit until he died, and then there’s other people who make two good records and everything sucks and they don’t want to know any more.
Then there’s like Sun Ra, or Ellington, who was working feverishly until the end. If you listen to the last Duke records, he was just about to turn another corner. His last shit is really weird! Like, if you hear the Afro-Eurasian Eclipse record (it’s one of his last ever live shows), it sounds like the Arkestra. You’re like, “What are you doin’ Duke?” He’s one of the only guys from the old school who didn’t dismiss be-bop. Cab Calloway went into Downbeat magazine just dissing be-bop. Big time. And Duke went, “No no no no. There’s something going on here.” And he was open. I try and keep myself open in the face of really mediocre culture. You’ve just got to dig deeper. Music doesn’t suck. There’s just a lot more pretenders in the pool now, and you’ve just gotta look harder. The needle in the haystack is just smaller, and the haystack…there’s more hay. And all the different hay strands are just all these bands. In every town there’s a great band.
And sometimes it seems too that finding them, when the challenge gets bigger…finding them is just that much sweeter.
Oh yeah. Sure.
Well, thank you very much. It’s been an excellent interview for me.
I’ve been waiting to talk to you for like eight years, man.
Hopefully I’ll get a chance to shake your hand or something at the San Diego show.
Yeah, I’ll see you down there. We’re gonna kick your ass.
I hope so. I look forward to it. Have a great tour.
Right on. See ya.