If you knock at the door of Henry Rollins' office in the East Village, you don't get a secretary directing you to a waiting room: You get Rollins himself opening the door, showing you to a beat-up couch across the room, and asking you to make yourself comfortable.
Rollins' New York office, which houses his 2.13.61 record label and publishing company, looks more like a struggling artists' loft than the home of a million-selling alternative rocker; but it befits Rollins' workaholic lifestyle--he pours most of his earnings into the label, sleeps in the back room, and divides the rest of his days between band practice and gym workouts. We met the day after his spoken-word performance in New York-- perhaps the best-attended event at the Mac-sponsored Gig '96--and he spoke at length about everything he's up to; even answering some questions from firefly members. Shortly after we did this interview, we stood with Rollins on the streetcorner and saw a random fan walk by; his jaw practically dropped when Rollins greeted him with a friendly hello and a handshake. Like us, the fan was probably surprised at how approachable he was.
Q: I'm really surprised when I hear you do spoken word shows. There's a really good natured side of you that only seems to come out in those kinds of situations, the way you relate to the audience.
HR: The music thing is a different energy level, a different format, a whole different context. Beneath it, some people think its really funny. For me it's decidedly very humorless. For me, it's more passionate. People get really tripped out because they see the band and they think, 'God what an asshole that guy is.' And then they see the talking show and think, 'Maybe we could hang out with that guy.' When I write lyrics, it's only when I'm angry or hurt or sad. So lyrically it's never really easy going. And the music, you know, is always really intense.
Q: Does that mean you would have to be angry, hurt, or sad on a regular basis in order to keep writing good stuff?
HR: Yeah. In order to keep writing good stuff, yeah. I'm having a streak of everything going OK; I'm not very productive on the writing thing. We've been working for fifteen months on the songwriting on this new record so we're all pretty involved in that. Yeah, it is kind of corny to say that I can only write when I'm feeling bad. But you know, I don't really write for fun; it's not an enjoyable experience. The stuff I read the other night, that's not fun to write. I have to write that. For me, art, or whatever the hell it is I do, has always been a refuge from that which makes me want to tear my lungs out. That's why I play like I play; I'm not into entertainment.
I'm not a singer. If you've heard any of my records, that's not singing. I have no vocal qualities whatsoever. I've got a lot of enthusisam and I go to the cross, but there's no skill going on there. It's more just intuitiveness. So I do all of this for my own thing ... to get it on.
This university student was writing his term paper on me, and asked me recently, "why do you write?" I said to him I'd like to rid myself of writing, to surrender, to release the venom. And hopefully at some point, I'll be a happy, well-adjusted guy and I'll have no need for all that 'art.' And I'll look back at it and say, "OK, we did that."
Q: Do you think the well-adjusted side of you can be expressed musically, though?
HR: Sure, but it wouldn't be interesting to me. I listen to blues music a lot and that's a good person feeling bad and celebrating that pain by releasing it in that kind of joyous fashion. I listen to pretty hard-core bebop jazz and big band, and even with stuff like Duke Ellington there's a lot of sadness and a lot of beautiful shades of melancholy. And sometimes there'll be kind of a downbeat but there'll be a real up-tempo swinging number next to it. It takes you off into a landscape of emotion. For myself, I don't have that kind of skill; I don't have that kind of need. Music doesn't serve me like that. I don't need it for the good times.
Q: The last track, "Shine" on your last album, that was a real uplifting song in a way. It was a pep talk...
HR: It was a protest song. It's protest music. It's a blow to that which wants to oppress. And I get a lot of shit because I put "I" in the lyrics all the time. The "I" is always for someone else. Whenever I write lyrics, in the back of my mind I always see a guy driving to work, driving to a really bad job, one of those horrible institutions like TRW, or one of those low squat buildings near LAX, in Los Angeles. I write with that person in my mind and when I say "I," it's so that when that person is singing along with the song, it empowers them. And for a song like "Shine," that song is the same--don't let them grind you down. Stand up.
And I wrote that to myself to remind myself that it's hard to keep your backbone straight in contemporary America. It's easy to turn into that which you hate, and to get smashed. I read that thing the other night about having clarity, and focus, and priority and not forgetting what you are and not doing anything uneccessary. That's basic bushido, the code of the samarai. That's just a reminder to myself. I continually remind myself to live by a code. It's very important to me. I've got a bad temper; people throw peanuts at my cage regularly. I have to constantly be on guard--to say 'no' and walk on. All the time people..
Q: People at shows or on the street?
HR: On the street. I'm a recognizable person and some people feel the need for some reason to take me to task. You're really messing with the wrong person on that one.
Q: Do you think that by having the more aggressive persona that almost invites people to say, "I'm going to see if I can get away with fucking with him..."
HR: You know, I don't try to be angry to prove something. I wouldn't try to intimidate you for any reason unless you were trying to intimidate me, and then I would show you that you can't do that to me. I'd defend myself. But I don't go around shoving people around; that's not me at all--hey that's for a cop. I'm not into that type of behavior at all.
I was raised in Washington, DC, very violent place. I grew up with violence. My introduction to music was violent. The years I've spent on tours, some of that was extremely violent. My whole access into culture was violent. Violence is something I understand. Don't like it, don't condone it, but I sure understand where it comes from. I see it in myself; I've done some pretty violent things in my lifetime and I've been around some pretty severe violence all the way up to homicide. Now I'm not trying to say I'm a big tough guy... I'm a typical American--waist deep in this violent culture. I don't go hitting people. But I know where that feeling comes from and I've done it a lot and I don't wonder why people get hacked into four or five pieces and left in bags on the side of the 405 [freeway]. I don't wonder about that at all.
Q: There's a piece on one of the spoken word albums, "Adventures of an Asshole"--about being tempted and giving in and getting somebody from the stage...
HR: Oh, when I wound up in the hospital for a week and a half with that scar across my knuckle? Yeah, I still got that guy's teeth at home. We were in a matchbox of a closet. Yup. I shouln't have done that.
Q: Was that the last time anything like that has ever happened?
HR: No. I got arrested a while later in Germany...what'd I do to that guy? Let's see. I broke his nose, put eight stitches in his eye and knocked out one of his teeth. I got arrested, taken to jail in...Dusseldorf? The cop says, "Why'd you do that?" And I told them why and they said, "Oh." They got a few people from the gig as witnesses and asked if that guy did that to this singer guy and they said, "Yeah, he did," and they said, "Oh, well, OK, you can go." I was trying to defend myself, so...
Q: Now that your audiences tend to be pretty much with you, I mean, I saw you once with Black Flag and you cleared the room....It must make a difference now that the people are going to be pulling for you?
HR: It's cool. I don't really think about the audience much. I think of myself. Let me dig myself out of that one (laughs). If I think of the audience too much, then I'm going to start catering to them...and it turns into entertainment. And I've got time for entertainment; I'm just not at all that interested in doing it myself. I'd rather go for some pretty raw expression. Like when you see Pharoah Sanders or Ahmad Jamal, it's just coming out of them. But, to be more concise, I like it better now that people aren't throwing stuff at my face and trying to fight me on stage. Like in the '80s, it was just aggravating all the time. You know, like Skinheads "sieg heiling" you and people spitting on you, lighting lighters on you--I have scars from cigars and cigarettes on me, Bic pens, burns from cigarette lighters, all that--I prefer it now to that.
Q: On TV, the Woodstock thing two summers ago, I thought one of the stranger moments of it all was when you were on and you said, "This next song is about not fitting in," and two hundred fifty thousand people went,"Yeah!" Did that strike you as funny or ironic?
HR: There's some irony there, but on the other hand, it's like David Lee Roth always says, "Everybody's doing as best as they can." And just because everybody's assembling over on one field, doesn't mean that they don't have that idea of not wanting to fit in. I think all those people went to see all those bands and be part of this cool event, and get outside, meet chicks, and meet guys, and roll around in the mud, and get out of their hometowns. I think that was a lot of the spirit, from having looked at the audience. And as to where they go home to, they might not fit in. Who knows? From a lot of places those kids might've come from, there might not be the cool, cosmopolitan setting we have here where a guy can be walking down the street wearing a wig and a dress and no one will punch him out or chase him or make comments; no one'll even notice it. Where if you do that in Dearborn, Michigan, that's a gesture and you're going to get someone trying to hurt you. So there is a bit of irony in something like that, but on the other hand, you got to get past the group mentality and get right down to the individual and see why that person does what he or she does.
Q: What's the next band album going to sound like?
HR: It sounds like the last record, but...better. I think Melvin is more integrated into the band; he's been in the band three years now and when we did the Weight album, he'd been in the band for about one minute. We literally just hired him; he's the one who made the audition. He's actually the only band member we've ever had to audition. That was the Weight album--us getting to know Melvin and Melvin getting to know us and not retreading any old methods and materials.
Q: The last album was more concise in terms of songs. Is the sort of blues-jam side of the band coming back?
HR: Well, there's no real eight minute epic song on this one, sorry to say. But maybe not so sorry. It was kind of neat to have these new songs, not like the Weight stuff, where the songs are clocking in at about three and five minutes. With the old lineup, we just got into these... I don't know how our audiences survived us. We would do a two hour set and it would be only twelve songs. There's one song that was so turgid and long, we've never released it. We were never able to fit it onto one reel of tape. The only complete versions we have of it are live and we do have a multi-track version from a Westwood One radio gig we did in Trenton that came out as a live album in Japan called Electro-Convulsive Therapy, Shock Treatment. And we left [the song] off having mercy for the audience because it's twenty-eight minutes--it's one song. And by the end of the tune, the people in the crowd are like, "What are they doing? Fuck you!" I was all involved in these howling solos and when I listen to The End of Silence stuff every once in a while, it's eight minutes, nine minutes... My God! What were we thinking?
Q: Jumping back, I totally dig and understand the writing of music as therapy. What about spoken word; where does that passion come from? How are you thinking of your audience?
HR: There's definitely a desire to communicate. This sounds really corny, but I am a slave to my work, a workaholic, and glad of it. I like what I do; this is my place, my little universe, one of them. I am primarily a loner. I don't go to clubs. I don't hang out with people. I don't know many people. It's just the way it ended up. It's not a sob story; it's fine for me. That's the only interaction I have with people, those talking shows. Most of the people in my phone book are artists, management, producers, engineers. I don't ever call people with, "Hi! How are you?" I say, "How are you? Do you have that 16/30 ready? When do you want me to come into the studio?" That's what I do.
So the talking shows allow me to come out of my cave and that's why those shows go on for so long. I hate walking off stage. Sometimes I walk off and I miss them as I'm walking off the stage. I wonder if they'll let me go another hour. That's why I do it: to communicate, to get points across. The music kind of takes care of itself because we've done all that as preproduction in the practice room. So by the time it gets onstage, each song has about one hundred hours of way too much mothering gone into it. So when you see us play live, that is the product of ninety days of practice, over a year of writing, listening to demos on the weekends after practice. The talking thing is way more random; it's way more like free jazz. I'm just gonna go out there and blow with the idea of keeping it streamlined and not wasting time. It's wild.
And it's a great thing when you see a performer really able to--especially in the spoken thing. It's always been impressive to me when someone can really do what they want up there. The audience has confidence in the performer and the performer has confidence in the crowd, in themselves... like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin. These are great communicators, kind of comedians, but more social commentators. They're heroes of mine, both of them. I grew up listening to their records before I knew what they were talking about. My mom had those records. I never had a chance to meet Lenny Bruce but I did meet George Carlin the other day at MTV and it was really cool to be able to say hi to him.
Q: firefly member FishboneSoldier asks this question: You've signed with the Dreamworks label....had you considered recording for your own label instead?
HR: No, I couldn't afford my guys on this label. I got guys who are married, guys who are divorced, guys with kids. This label could not support the Rollins Band on a proper level. The next Rollins Band album will probably sell better than the last one, which sold about a million. Too bad though, I'd like to have us under this room, but I kind of like the idea of Dreamworks doing it.
Q: Can you see using the Web as a way of communication?
HR: Sure. I have two sites up. One for the book company and one for the record label, and I did pretty much all the writing. Ian (MacKaye) from Fugazi was here editing the Fugazi movie the other day, we checked out the site for about half an hour.
Q: Can your fans get to you that way?
HR: I get e-mail every day forwarded to my AOL site. Especially when college is in, man--up to 50 pieces a day. They're in their library working away--"I can get to Henry? Dude, what's up? I'm writing this report and I'm bored to death!" I'm a pretty busy guy, but I answer some of it. In postcard length. Every day after band practice I come in here, stay until night time, then I go to the gym. My day is over around 11pm.
Q: You can sleep after working out?
HR: The workouts I do? Like a dead person! I come out almnost vomiting. Last nght was leg night, which is the big daddy of all workouts. See the stripe here (shows his back). That's from 450 pounds biting into your skin.
Q: Is that therapy as well?
HR: Yeah. I've been working out since I was 15. And this is a way to blow off a lot of tension. This business, the entertainment business, it's tension city. Songwriting can be very tense-- five guys, five egos in a room moving each other around. The gym you just go in--boom--and explode. I do high-weight, low-rep. It's basically power lifting, not Charles Atlas stuff. I go religiously. Anywhere in the world I am--South America, Japan. I tried to find a gym in Moscow but that didn't work out.
Q: The important question: You did an interview in the New York Press last week, and the guy writing the article claimed that you ate a bag of worms. Did that really happen?
HR: Sure. That writer was into doing a macho thing with me. He challenged me to pushups, did 54 of them--really bad ones--in front of me and his dad. Then I said, 'You know what? I won't do any, you're more of a man than me, just tell everyone you won.' Then he challenged me to eat one worm, so I just took the bag and...kinda fucked with his plans.
I've been trashed pretty bad in some interviews, and in the tabloids--the big rumor was that I was going out with Madonna. I mean, I've met her, she has a record label and we were up for grabs for awhile. So my manager and I went over there, met Madonna and her manager. She was totally cool, businesslike. Twenty minutes later she waves to me, we're outta there, and then I hear I'm having an affair with her.