A chat with Henry Rollins
First, Henry Rollins fronted one of the seminal American punk bands, Black Flag. Then he built a reputation for his spoken-word tours even as he kept rockin’ with the Rollins Band. He’s even found time to do a few acting gigs here and there, easing his way into television with “Henry’s Film Corner,” on the Independent Film Channel, a show which has now evolved into a less film-specific series called, quite simply, “The Henry Rollins Show.” In the midst of a seemingly non-stop series of interviews, Rollins chatted for a few minutes with Bullz-Eye about the new show, the return of the Rollins Band, his radio show, and, perhaps most surprisingly, his love of a certain piano-pounding pop singer who’s been known to rock the suburbs on occasion.
Bullz-Eye: How’s it going, Henry?
Henry Rollins: Fine, thank you, how are you?
BE: I’m doing great. First off, although we’ve never met, one of my prized possessions…and I once heard you say that you’re not really comfortable with people coveting your autograph, but I gotta be me…is my personalized, autographed copy of your Black Flag book (“Get In The Van: On the Road with Black Flag”).
HR: Oh, wow! Well, I have a lot of autographed stuff. Many years ago, it made me uncomfortable to sign people’s stuff, but then I learned that I had to kind of take responsibility…this sounds like some kind of AA speech…for what you do to people. ‘Cause I have a lot of signed records, and sometimes…like, the other day, Dinosaur (Jr.) came to play on my show. I brought my Australian pressing of one of their albums, and I said, “Would you sign this for me?” And they looked at me like, “Are you kidding?” And I’m, “Uh-uh! I’m a fan!”
HR: And they’re, like, “Uh, okay,” and they kind of embarrassedly signed the thing, and I kind of know that hesitation…but thank you.
BE: No problem. Yeah, I guess it was backstage at a show here in Virginia Beach, and a friend of mine got you to sign it for me, so thanks.
BE: So I get the impression that, on your show (“The Henry Rollins Show,” airing Saturdays at 10 PM on the Independent Film Channel), if given the chance, you would do the whole thing by yourself. I mean, picking the guests, calling them up yourself and inviting them on, everything. I’m sure you don’t do it all, but I presume that, at the very least, you get final say on everything.
HR: Well, yeah, there’s…it being a collaborative effort on TV, I’ve learned, you work with lots of different people. I’m not used to that. I’m used to working with a band, but if I write a book, I write it; you don’t help me with it. I write a song, it’s with a band; I’m part of that. And when I do one of my talking shows, it’s not someone’s writing material for me. So with “The Henry Rollins Show,” and you have other people writing material that you’re going to go out and say down the barrel of a lens from a teleprompter, that…has taken some getting used to. And, so, I do a lot of the writing for the show, but, of course, I can’t do it all. So when other people write stuff for the show, I have to look it over and say, oh, okay, and do some rewrites, just to kind of Henry-ize it…because, you know, no one can be you. And I’m sure that goes on in TV. I mean, I’m learning TV 101 from doing this thing. So that’s been the growing experience. And, so far, it’s cool. Like, all the guests, that’s my want list. The bands, that’s my want list. A couple of times, IFC have said, “Hey, we’d like you to put this band on,” and it’s not necessarily a band I have any records of – you know, I’m not against them – but I go, “You like ‘em that much? Okay! We’re all working together here!” It’s not like it’s some kind of white-power Klan group; it might just be more of a pop thing. I mean, I’m 45 and angry; it’s not really my kind of music. But, y’know, they’re good people, they tried hard, they’ve got a fan base because they go out in a van every day and do it. I respect it; I don’t necessarily want to jump up and down to their record, but I respect it, and that’s enough.
BE: Which actually kind of leads into my next question. I was looking at the show, and, like, one week, it’s Ozzy, then the next week it’s Ben Folds. And, at least to me, Ben Folds seems like kind of an odd choice for you.
HR: Oh, I really am a big fan of Ben Folds’ music.
BE: Oh, okay!
HR: And Ben I are buddies. I was on William Shatner’s album, which Ben produced…
BE: (Smacks palm against forehead) I’d totally forgotten about that.
HR: …and it was Ben’s idea to bring me on, so I’m indebted to Ben, ‘cause I had a really good time with Shatner. He’s a real kick, a really nice guy. So I was really so happy, blown away that he said yes; we were really excited that he said yes to being on the show. I don’t know if you’ve ever see him live, but that is a great night out.
BE: Absolutely. I’ve seen him…well, I’ve seen him several times, but most recently it was at the Bowery Ballroom (in New York City).
HR: Oh, cool! Yeah, I just think he’s a great songwriter. I mean, his band kicks ass. I don’t really think there’s any downside to the Ben Folds experience.
BE: How did the new IFC show come about in the first place? Did it just evolve out of your first show, “Henry’s Film Corner,” or…
HR: Swift River, the producers, they came to me. I never would’ve come up with, “Hey, I’m gonna do a TV show!” That never would’ve occurred to me. And they came to me and said, “We have this idea for a film review show, and we like you for it.” I was not their first choice. They will not cop to that, but I think they went after Denis Leary at first, who just went, like… (Takes deep breath) “Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh…get the fuck off my phone line.” Because Denis is incredibly talented and successful and, uh, has a life. Me, I have none of that going. So when they said, “Can you take this meeting?” I was, “Yes, thank you so much!” (Laughs) So I took the meeting and I liked the idea of the show. They said, “Look, we want you to talk about films you like and talk to some actors,” and I said, yeah, I could do that a few days a month. And, so, we took that one out and pitched it to people, which is one of the most excruciating experiences of your life. You’ll never get that slime off you all the way. Pitching is just weird. It’s, like, “Hey, how about liking me?” And it’s just an afternoon where your stomach knots up. But we went to IFC with our little 12-minute demo that we made, and they went, “Wow, we like Henry, and we like this. Here’s some money; can you make a half-hour version of that?” And we went, “Yeah!” So we did that, we gave it to them, they gave it a think, and they came back and said, “Can you make a season of that?” And we’re, like, “Oh, YEAH!” And, hey, we got a show! And that was the first season. And it was monthly, so it was just a couple of days a month; it was very low-impact. And then they said, “We’d like to do a second season,” which we were blown away about, “and we’d like to do it weekly, and we’ll call it ‘The Henry Rollins Show,’ and you don’t have to put on actors if you don’t want…and we think it’d be great if you had music. What do you think of that?” And I just said, damn, man, thanks! And so we went for it.
BE: How psyched are you about “Samurai 7” (the anime show inspired by the film “Seven Samurai”) following your show? Because you seem like a Kurosawa man to me.
HR: Oh, I’m a huge Kurosawa fan! In fact, last year, when some of the Kurosawa films were still being released on DVD – like “Kagemusha,” because finally, that one came out in its entirety, color-corrected – I would talk about Kurosawa. He’s one of those guys I reference all the time, because Klaus Kinski and Toshiro Mifune are my two favorite male principal actors. And Kurosawa…come on, he’s kind of unimpeachably great!
BE: I’ve seen you speak on three different occasions in Hampton Roads – once at Old Dominion University, once at the Boathouse, and I think once at a club down at the beach called the Abyss – and, obviously, you’re less of a standup comedian than a spoken word artist who just happens to be funny sometimes…
HR: Yeah, I just go up there and talk. Quite honestly, I really don’t know what you call it; I just go for it.
BE: Who would you say some of your inspirations are? Because I’m thinking, like, Lenny Bruce…
HR: Yeah, he was an inspiration to me. Um, who else? Well, growing up, I listened to a lot of comedy records, ‘cause my mom kind of left me to my own devices. Not in a cruel way; she worked for the government and she was always downtown in D.C., so it was always, like, “Here’s the key, here’s the can of Spaghetti-O’s, don’t burn the house down, I gotta go talk to some guy on behalf of Hubert Humphrey,” or something, so I was left to my own devices, so I would listen to my own little comedy records that my mom would give me…and I would listen to her Lenny Bruce records. And I had no idea what he was on about with, y’know, his junkie be-bop humor. But I liked the fact that people were laughing; it kept me company. So by 8th grade, I had Carlin’s Class Clown, Occupation: Fool, AM/FM, all the Bill Cosby Warner Brothers era records, some of the Pryor records, like All-American Nigger, That Nigger’s Crazy…those are, y’know, gotta have ‘em…and kind of tuned out on the whole Lenny Bruce thing because I just didn’t understand the references. I got Lenny Bruce, I really connected with Lenny Bruce, as an older guy; having been out in the world, I played those records over again and went, “Oh! Oh, I get it! Now I get it! I see why everyone was laughing now!” And he’s one of those voices that continues to inspire me, because of his bravery. And you see what price he paid. So those people are inspiring to me. Monty Python is hugely inspiring to me. But comedians, they aren’t really what inspired me to do those talking shows, and it’s really not what I have in my head when I go out there. I’m really not sophisticated enough to take an influence and make you see who it is. I just kind of go out there, somewhat recklessly in that I’m not gonna try to be anyone other than myself, and I just let it rip…with some discipline and some storytelling chops, y’know, from many years of doing it. But I’m not gonna try and make you laugh every five seconds. I’m not gonna script it. And I’m not trying to be Chris Rock-esque. And I’ve never really met many comedians, nor do I hang out with them, and I’ve only ever been in a comedy club one time in my life, and it was a show that I did, and they had nowhere else to put me in that part of New Jersey. And I went into this very depressing place, with those headshots of comedians wallpapering the place…and people were very nice to me, but it was a very uncomfortable evening for me. I felt really out of my element.
BE: Music-wise, it’s been about three years since your last album (2003’s Weighting), but I’ve heard rumblings that the Rollins Band is practicing again?
HR: Oh, oh, we played yesterday!
BE: Oh, sweet!
HR: Yeah, we played for the TV show yesterday. Me, Melvin Gibbs, Sim Cain, Chris Haskett, Theo Van Rock. Oh, yeah: the Weight line-up. And we’re going out in late July and going all through August with X…the great X…in Los Angeles. It’s gonna be a hell of a tour.
BE: Yeah, I had heard that John Doe (singer for X, along with Exene Cervenka) was going to be on the show soon.
HR: John? Yeah, he’s gonna be on real soon. He was one of the first people I called to be on my show as a musical guest. He’s a wonderful guy. I’ve known John…damn, I dunno, 23 years or so.
BE: I heard you also did an interview with (director) Penelope Spheeris and Perry Farrell recently, too.
HR: Yeah, a few days ago. I’ve known both of them…I’ve known Penelope since ’81 and Perry since ’90, so I already had a rapport with those people. And, y’know, I’m a fan of theirs, so it was no problem getting a conversation going. Perry I’ve toured with, and Penelope was one of the first people I met when I came out here, so we had a conversation going.
BE: And “Harmony in My Head”…
HR: My radio show.
HR: Tuesday nights from 8 to 10 PM. I’m still waking up from that one; that’s where I was last night.
BE: It clearly borrows its title from the Buzzcocks.
HR: Yeah, it’s my favorite Buzzcocks song, but it also speaks of what the show is about, in that, y’know, like, last night, I played Jimmy Giuffre, a really cool jazz guy, and I played all-girl alt-rock, and all kinds of stuff. We started the show with Tinariwen, a band from, like, Mali…y’know, they’re from some part of the Sahara. And that’s what we led off with: this crazy world-music track. And that’s how the show goes, because in my way of thinking, there’s great music in every category…’cause it’s all music to me.
BE: Which is funny because, to me, I was thinking it was ironic that the show’s called “Harmony in My Head,” because a lot of the time, it feels like disharmony…because, like, you follow the Fall with Patsy Cline, then the Stooges…
HR: Yeah, but to me, that all sounds right. And if other people find it somewhat…discordant, I can dig that. But, y’know, I’m sure they’ll be okay. I mean, everyone should listen to my radio show. It’s only two hours. (Pleading) It’s free!
BE: And that’s on streaming audio, right?
HR: Oh, yeah…you can stream it. In fact, if you go to harmonyinmyhead.com, you can get the address for this gal named Tara who’s actually archived them all, so you can download them later. And, again, it’s free! So what the hell, you might enjoy it. It’s not like we sit down, strap you down, and make you listen to it!
BE: Okay, and just one more quick question: I was caught up in the whole West Memphis Threecase before the two “Paradise Lost” documentaries before I knew you were working on their behalf. (Writer’s note: Rollins instigated Rise Above, a benefit album of Black Flag covers, with proceeds going to help the trio’s defense fund.) Are you still in regular touch with those guys?
HR: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. In fact, next weekend, I’m doing a thing with Jello Biafra and a whole bunch of people up in San Francisco; we’re all speaking and, y’know, raising money for them. Oh, yeah, and I’m doing that because Damien (Echols) wrote me from Death Row and asked me to. I said, “Yeah, man, I’ll do that for you.” I write Damien a lot, and I’ve…my bandmates and I, we have raised a considerable amount of money for the West Memphis Three, and we continue to, and I continue to talk about them on stage and try to keep it going on their behalf, because that’s what they need. It’s one of those situations where money really does help, because, y’know, it’s lawyers. They need money.
BE: You saying his name reminded me that Jello Biafra is actually someone who I think of as sometimes comparable to you, with your spoken word.
HR: Yeah, I mean, his thing is more of a lecture thing that goes for, like, five hours. I don’t think I have that kind of stamina.
BE: Alright, well, I want to keep you on schedule, but it’s been awesome talking to you.
HR: Oh, thank you!
BE: And I hope the Rollins Band or your spoken word schedule finds you back in Hampton Roads before too long.
HR: I’ll get down there as soon as I can.
BE: Excellent. Good talking to you, Henry.
HR: Alright, man. Thanks.