Addicted to the road and searching out the truth wherever it hides — from Uganda to North Korea and back home in the good ‘ole U.S.A. — Henry Rollins has his bags packed more often than not. This is what punk rock instructs him to do. Sometimes noble (handing out soccer balls to kids in Haiti), sometimes insane (drinking cow urine in India), sometimes routine (snapping photographs and signing autographs after any and every show), Rollins doesn’t say no. Headlining some 100 shows a year for the past 30 years, this year he decided to up the ante with close to 200 appearances. I caught up with him towards the end of his “Capitalism” spoken word tour (upcoming dates here), somewhere around stop 160, to talk about today's very important election, where’s he’s been, what’s he’s listening to, and the difficulties of being still.
When we spoke four years ago during your “Recountdown” tour ushering out George W. Bush, you seemed pretty convinced that McCain was going to win, but you also cautioned people to not sit around and wait for the government to solve their problems. How do you think voters are feeling about this election and how are you feeling about it?
[Four years ago], I think there was a real pre-election honeymoon feeling. You know, what if we get the first African American president? And, now, we did that. He’s just a man, and not a whole lot changed… so, for some people I’ve spoken to there’s a sense of disappointment. I don’t have a crystal ball into these matters. I know whom I’m voting for. I don’t know if he’ll win, but whatever happens, Wednesday morning when we get up they will still be serving breakfast and you and I will still have to go out and kick a lot of ass. We carry on.
You were trying to get to all of George W’s so-called “Axis of Evil” countries (Iran, Iraq, and North Korea), North Korea being the only one you hadn’t been to. You traveled there in 2010, how was it?
It was kind of how you think it would be. They want you to come away with a certain impression so it was a very guided, very protected tour. You can’t go over there. You have to go here. You have to ask permission before you take a picture of anything, and usually permission was granted, but you realize that’s because they’re only taking you to places they want you to photograph. It was quite boring, actually.
Where are your favorite places to go?
I always like going to Vietnam, I’ve been there a number of times. I like the environment, the people, the fact that they had hundreds of millions of ordinance dropped on them and they’re still cheerful and friendly and getting on with things. It shows you just how people persevere in adverse conditions. I enjoy time in Africa, it’s always challenging. I mean, you spend a week in Africa and it’s like three weeks anywhere else. You come back and your gear’s all worn out, your boots are broken in. It’s just so rough — what the people are going through, what’s been done to them.
Has this “Capitalism” spoken word tour taken you to places you’ve never been to before?
Yeah, actually, a lot of them and I found out why. A lot of your capital cities don’t have much going on in them after 6 o’ clock. It’s all administrative buildings and businesses, and after six the whole city seems to roll up. We were walking around these empty streets like a movie set, there’s nothing open… some of these shows have been in high school auditoriums because the capital city has no venue. The people have been great, but some of these places were not built to do this.
You’ve been to Australia a lot over the years and you talked about all the great music down under, who are some of your favorites?The interesting thing that happens in Australia is that there are so few places to play, like five radio stations, five record stores, and ten venues, so everyone is in five bands, you know, so there’s more things for you to play during the week. They’re very resourceful, they have all these tentacles in various projects. Eddy Current Suppression Ring, they’re great, not a bad song in the bunch, just real simple rock n' roll. UV Race, Total Control, the Ooga Boogas, the Dangermen, all of it is just impossibly cool music. There’s one record store I go into every time I’m in town and they have stacks of singles and albums waiting for me… all ridiculously hard to get here. I pretty much bought all of it.
What else have you been listening to lately?
A lot of music from Scandinavia, Finland — there’s a really interesting Folk/Psych/Drone/Noise scene up there. I was in Helsinki earlier this year and went to a local record store. I always find the weird noise bin. I pulled out a stack of records and asked the guy if we could play some. He said sure. I ended up buying it all, 200-300 records. I’m slowly wading through them. I had a rare night off last night so I listened to one record. (*Henry hosts a weekly radio show on KCRW, check out the play lists here.)
Henry and the author.
I watched a few of the Nat Geo/Animal Underworld videos – the bears, that was rough, I couldn’t even watch the whole thing.
That was a hard day for us, just awful. We went back to the hotel after a day of shooting and just silence.
Were there any lingering after affects to drinking the cow urine in India or eating snake hearts?
You just walk it off. The cow urine was brutal, incredibly painful; it’s distilled and concentrated. Eating rats and stuff like that, eh, it’s flesh. You just eat, it’s kind of weird, but not as weird as getting sued.
So you’d rather wrestle an alligator than get sued, have you been sued?
I’m just saying if you get into it with lawyers that’s way worse than jumping on the back of the alligator. It’s my running joke. If I had my way I’d do my thing with the alligator and feed it the lawyer.
Was there ever a moment with the Nat Geo videos where it was too much?
No, I always go for it. I never say no to a shot. I know when I’m in front of a camera I probably shouldn’t be there so you don’t say no and you get the shot. Sons of Anarchy, that’s real acting. I can’t believe I got that job and they kept me around. I’m always bright, cheerful, and ready cause I’m not qualified to do any of it. When you’re around real actors you see that you’re not one of them.
Considering this crazy tour schedule that is your life, I was blown away by how generous you are with your time. I mean, after a three hour show you hung out and talked to every single person that wanted to say hello…. an hour and a half, at least. And, it was intense, people telling you how much your words and writing and music mean to them, how you’ve, in some cases, saved them from suicide or feeling alone or giving up. Is there ever a night where you think, ‘no, I can’t do this.’?
No, it’s odd, I do a gut check every afternoon — you know, are you into this? And, my gut always says yes. I enjoy the audience. Ask anyone on the road, it’s truly impossible to do this unless you love it. Sadly, there are some who don’t love it and they go out there, but you can tell they’re dialing it in. You have to remain interested in the topic matter. I am interested.
You talked about your friend David Lee Roth (the “Mark Twain of hard rock”) telling you how he views the audience, that when people buy a ticket to see you it’s essentially a contract with you.
The audience keeps me on my best behavior, they are real; putting out real money, real time and coming excited. I come in five hours before, knowing what will be. I hold the cards, it’s up to my honesty to meet their honesty and expectations and their trust in me to deliver. I’m not thinking I’m important, but they trust me not to dial it in. How can you let all those smiling faces down? I take that out there every night, which gives me a proper sense of fear and it’s hard to get tired of that.
What happens in December when the tour is over?
I have a number of books I’m working on so I’ll get back to LA in late November and I’ll be waking up in my own bed for the last week of shows, which is always weird — to do a show and then drive home, or finish a show and go get groceries and go home, but that will be the case. I’ll be working during the day, pre-show on stuff, but once the shows are over I’ll go into book editing mode and gently urge the staff to go on Christmas vacation ASAP so I can have the building to myself and I’ll just work. I have four different book projects and at least two will be coming out next year.
Do you find it hard to come home, back to LA? I would think it’s pretty strange to go from being on stage in front of an audience every night, all this energy expenditure and excitement and then you’re home by yourself.
Right, it becomes very Pavlovian in that every night you have a show, everything around you is in motion, and then you come home to all these records you bought while you were away, and you have time to put them on and that’s cool, for a few days. But, then I get incredibly lonely; well, not lonely but I want to be doing what I do. It’s a hard adjustment for me to go from 60 to 0, [like a] bullet shot into a tree and you just lodge there and it’s tough. You come home and there’s no moment to be in. This business will drive you nuts, you’re this hysterical thing, high stress, high expectation, activity and then you come home to your people who don’t do what you do, and then you have to translate yourself into this understandable thing. It’s why people break up — you’re going out with a girl while you’re on tour, you come home and the stillness breaks a couple up because he or she comes home to something else. It’s like junkies who rehab and they don’t know who these two clean people are anymore, they break up because it’s the dope that kept them together. For someone like me, to go out with a gal, quite often it’s the distance that kept us together. You don’t have to deal with the day to day, you have this kind of Cinderella story for eight months, then you come home and look at each other and it’s this kind of ‘I don’t know who you are,’ it just makes you want to go back on tour. My assistant, she guarantees me that I’m avoiding adult life.