Last night in Solana Beach, CA former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins kicked off the North American leg of his latest spoken word tour. On Monday I spoke to Henry on the phone from his office in Los Angeles. Henry discussed several topics including the Frequent Flyer tour, his love for Africa and African music, some of his favourite artists and record stores. Two days prior to the interview, on Saturday 13 Feb, Henry Rollins turned 49 – of all the random notes I had scrawled of possible things to quiz Henry about, I somehow forgot to wish him a Happy Birthday, so Happy Birthday Henry!
I’m currently suffering from the male phenomenon (I can’t even say that word just now…) known as man flu, but nonetheless, I am joined today by Henry Rollins, how are you doing sir?
Henry – Pretty good.
That’s great to hear…
What’s the man flu?
You don’t know what man flu is?
That’s why I’m asking you.
Indeed. Well man flu is a deliberating disease. If you’re a female and you get a cold you can normally seem to handle it pretty well, but if you’re a guy, or at least if you’re me, it seems to kind of weaken your immune system and uh, basically…make your brain go a little bit dead. Common tasks like walking and breathing become a chore and you’re resigned to wanting to lay on the couch all day.
Wow. How long have you had this condition?
I’ve had this condition since Wednesday actually… I don’t think its terminal, I’m trying my best to pull through. I think it’s more common for people from the UK in general to have this kind of affliction, I’m not sure if an American, Black Flag legend like yourself would ever have any problems with the man flu or the man cold as it’s known in less severe instances…
No… I’ve luckily never had a cold that put me on my back for more than about 24 hours… and it’s usually just from exhaustion. By the third press day in New York – if I’m usually up at 7 doing 12 hours of press a day – by the third day of that my body usually saying ‘OK hotshot, you’ve gotta slow down’.
So do you take any precautions to stay healthy?… I’ve read a lot from the dispatches that you post online on HenryRollins.com and (in general) it’s quite well known that you keep fit, you go to the gym, but I do recall from one of your spoken words, I think it was on Think Tank, that you went to see a throat doctor in Beverly Hills?
Yeah they actually found a cyst in one of my vocal chords and it had to be removed. That was… that was like damn, 15 years ago. They showed me a photo of it, it’s crazy. The thing is like a grain of sand in size but it’s big enough to mess you up. Joe Sugerman removed this thing from my vocal chords – brother of Danny Sugerman who used to hang around with Jim Morrison.
So your throat’s better since then, with the cyst gone?
Yeah, well, I live a pretty fast paced lifestyle where I have to deliver on stage all the time and I have a lot of obligations. Failure is kinda low on the priority list so I’ve learned over the years how to optimize consistency, how to get the same results, where I can be on the stage in 30 nights in 35 days or whatever. Restorative sleep, good nutrition and a lot of the gym – I hit the gym four to six days a week on the road. I get off the bunk as early as I can, do whatever press I have to do, then I go right to the gym almost immediately for one and a half to two hours.
So when you’re on your travels and you’re going to these gyms, do you sometimes get people who come up to you because they recognise you?
Oh sure, yeah.
Is that awkward?
No, not at all. It’s friendly…“Hey man, what’re you doing in town?”… people are friendly to me, I’m friendly back. We’re all there to get work done so it’s not like anyone’s gonna spend too much time but most the time I’m on the treadmill, I’ve got the earplugs in and people see that you’re doing something, and they’re there to get it done too, you know?
Sure. So you’ve just come back from the European Leg of your latest spoken word tour ‘The Frequent Flyer’ tour, how’s it been going so far?
Great. Great, I did 26 shows in 28 days in a bunch of different countries, and every place was packed, the audiences were really into it. It was pretty exhausting and the weather was not the best for travelling… but I had a really good time.
Yeah, I was back home in Scotland in January and you were there in the UK in around about the same time…
…did that (the weather) hamper your travel in anyway?
No, we were OK. We were lucky because there were a lot of reports that people weren’t having the best of luck.
I guess you were mainly on the road so that’s probably why you were fine, right?
Well, when we got to Ireland and Scotland we were told that the UK was pretty snowed in… by the time we’d got there it had melted down. The places we saw snow were Germany, Switzerland, Hungary and Czech Republic, those were incredibly cold. But the UK, Ireland and Scotland were fine. We just kinda lucked out. We missed it by like a week.
So you have a few days break right now before you hit the road for the North American leg of your tour. You’re going to be coming here to Toronto on March 26, and of course lots of other dates across the US and Canada. What’s on your mind in 2010? The last time I saw you was in Toronto, a lot of the subject matter was George Bush but of course a lot has changed in the last eighteen months since then.
Yeah, well on this tour I’ll be talking a lot about where I’ve just been. Let’s see… mid-October to mid-January… so what’s that eight weeks… no, three months of travel. I went all over the world just by myself with some camera gear and a backpack. I started in Jordan and bounced through Saudia Arabia, the Brunei, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, China, Senegal, Mali and then Dublin. So part of the show will be informed by that travel.
We have a new President. Things are very interesting in America, there is a lot to talk about. Some people in America when they open their mouths they make headlines from just the shear stupidity of what they say – thank you Ms. Palin!
So there is a lot of things to talk about.. like this trip I just went on was fascinating – to learn about Sharia law from Saudia Arabian people in Riyadh was pretty, pretty informative.
You seem to be particularly drawn to Africa?
Yeah because it’s so completely impossible for me to get my head around. Well you know its such an incredibly huge country… and you can’t say you know anything about the place because you go to little sections of it, but I’ve been to Africa nine times and every time you think you know something but you go there and you realise you don’t know too much. I mean it’s such an incredible place.
In January you went to the Festival au Desert.
Uh-huh, I’ve been there twice now yeah…
Yeah you’re second time in Mali – what drew you to go there?
Music. Really good music. Really good music. The bands like Tinariwen, Terakaft, Koudede… really great stuff. I have the records, it’s great to see it live. The people who end up at this thing are really cool… it’s a pretty long way to go, so it’s hard to run into a jerk at a thing like this – if you’re a NASCAR fan then probably the festival doesn’t have any appeal to you. You can walk up to pretty much anyone there and start a conversation, because they came a long way to dig this crazy music. And Timbuktu is a pretty difficult destination, it takes days to get there.
Well that’s where the joke comes from?
Exactly. Travellers in centuries past used to go there and get hacked to pieces. Things are better now; now you just get a hotel room with no soap.
You mention getting hacked to pieces… Quite often a topic in your spoken work, given this type of travel, is that security becomes an issue…
Yeah security has been an issue in some places. I was advised not to go to Mali to this festival because of the kidnappings and killings of the Saudi Arabian tourists, and the kidnappings of the Italian tourists recently. In fact they moved the festival closer to Timbuktu because they were afraid of problems, and I was advised not to go – so I went. And I’m not brave or a tough guy or anything, I’m just curious, so I went.
I’ve been to places where I’ve been advised I shouldn’t go, like Pakistan, I was there when Bhutto was assassinated, and that was pretty intense. But I’ve been told not to go to a lot of places, don’t be afraid…I was told not to go to Java, Jakarta, because I was told they don’t like white people, “Oh, OK, sure,” and so I went and nobody looked at me twice there, nobody cared.
I remember your story about Bhutto when you were there during her assassination, there were people marching to mourn her death…
Yeah, and I just jumped in with them, figuring “this will be interesting, let’s see where this goes!” (laughs)
That’s the kind of story that as an audience member you try and imagine what the scene must have been like through Henry Rollins eyes, but really… that’s definitely something for your biography isn’t it?
Yeah, and these are the stories that inform what I say on stage, inform what I write about. It’s these kind of travel experiences which I get my information. Like if I want to talk about Iran I go to Iran and what I tell you about is what happened when I was there not something I read out of a book, that’s someone else’s story. So I try and actualize all these ideas as much as possible by going – it doesn’t make me an expert, it allows me to deal with my curiosity, you know?
Yeah. If we can return to Africa briefly. It’s going to be a huge year for the continent as a whole with South Africa hosting the World Cup, such a major sporting event. Recently in January they had the African Cup of Nations football tournament in Angola and the bus carrying the Togo national team was attacked, the driver died and some of the players were injured. Since that happened there have been reports, from Europe especially, of people saying ‘well if Angola can’t hold a tournament then South Africa is not ready to host the World Cup’…
It’ll be interesting to see what happens in South Africa. I was in Mali the night, whatever team won in Angola, and I could barely get to the airport. Me and the taxi driver…there’s so many people in the street, and this is at night with hardly any street lights, and they’re stopping buses and people are punching windows out. But I’m like the white guy in this car and people are looking and they start hitting the car. We had to cross over the median and hop into oncoming traffic because traffic was being stopped by people on the way to the airport. So getting to the airport was a little hairy, and just because some football team had won. So what South Africa is going to do with that influx of people at the World Cup that could be really something. What I fear is how the authority will meet out it’s control.
Well it’s a fantastic opportunity for the continent as a whole, I think it’s brilliant that they’ve given the World Cup to South Africa, it’s going to bring a huge amount of tourism. Security…
Do you know when that is?
It’s in June, a month after you’re playing some dates in May I believe…
Yeah I’ll be there in May. I’ll be Pretororia, Cape Town, Johannesburg.
Well the World Cup starts June 11…
Oh good… I think I don’t wanna be close to it.
Yeah I think you’ll be alright. You wouldn’t be able to find a hotel there in June anyway.
So there’s gonna be a few billion people watching on TV and half the world seemingly turning up on South Africa’s doorstep. So let’s hope it all goes well. I’ve never had the privilege to go to Africa yet but you’re obviously one of the tourists there who has an open mind and is able to tell the difference between all the different countries there and not just tar them all with the same brush, because there’s more to Africa. All the individual countries have their own different problems…
…and the world still needs to open up its eyes and realise that it’s not the Third World but it is part of the the one World where we all live.
There you go, that’s it, that’s the big idea.
Another topic I wanted to go onto… You’ve done a lot of activism work, and one of the causes you’ve been behind the most is the West Memphis Three. The latest news back in January was that Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley have been denied new trials. I was just wondering if you had any further contact with the group?
Yeah, well hopefully the thing we want to have happen is for the thing to go to the Supreme Court, because it got knocked down by Judge Burnett who tried the case the last time, and so he was of no help whatsoever, he you know, just doesn’t wanna know. And even though there’s so much new stuff to talk about, you know, DNA evidence, testing, that brings no physical evidence of any of the incarcerated boys tying them to the crime scene, but a hair from one of the father’s is inside one of the bindings on the dead kids… so that should be, in a lot of people’s minds, grounds for a whole new day in court. Can’t find physical evidence of the three accused but you’re finding physical evidence of someone else? And you can’t give a new trial? It’s something… it’s out of a nightmare this thing.
Yeah. When you look at the facts it seems behond baffling how they even got convicted in the first place…
Yep, it’s tough…
Definitely a head scratcher. Let’s talk about music. I listen to your show a lot on KCRW, you obviously play a real eclectic mix, it’s sometimes almost John Peel-esque in the eclecticness of what you play… like in January you did a jazz special with just jazz for 2 hours, some of the songs 10, 12 minutes long…
Yeah, my audience can handle it.
Talking more of contemporary music, you don’t play so much of the newer stuff…
We play some… I try and play so much, it can’t all be new.
From contemporary artists though, is there any in particular you’re into at the moment?
Well there’s a couple of different labels that I pay attention to, one is called American Tapes, it’s a noise label, they put out some pretty hair-raising noise music, on CD, sometimes cassette and sometimes one-side lathe-cut LP’s. There is another label called Gods Of Tundra, which is another noise label I find interesting. I pay attention to anything on Dischord, anything on Ipecac. There’s a lot of small labels doing a lot of really cool stuff… Retard Disco, uh, Matador. A lot of cool labels and a lot of cool stuff.
The band Mi Ami, I believe their album is called Watersports? Dax Riggs is an interesting guy, he was in a band called Deadboy and the Elephantmen, now he’s solo – check out anything he does, he’s amazing. Dinosaur Jr. just made a great new album called Farm, really, really good record…
Yeah it’s great…
The new Slayer album is great. So you know, there’s bands that are touring and happening right now that are fantastic. Vice Cooler, the guy from Northern Cal, well he’s not from there but he lives there, he’s got a number of different bands, one’s called XBXRX, he’s also playing drums in the The Raincoats right now, but he’s amazing, he does an album like every few months. A guy named Weasel Walter, crazy sax player, makes these crazy avant jazz records, just ear-splitting noise, just crazy. And so this is the stuff I pay attention to, there’s a lot of kind of underground music that to me is really shaking things up and not compromising anything, and that’s the stuff that gets my attention.
A lot of interesting stuff coming out of Africa now, a lot of great re-issues and a lot of great bands happening right now, out of Congo, out of Mali. So there’s a lot you know if you listen globally, kind of you’re spoiled for choice.
The African thing seems to be getting borrowed a lot more by contemporary artists, and looking East towards the likes of India too, I guess the Beatles did it famously but now some other artists are catching on and realising there’s a lot of influence there.
Soul Train got a lot of inspiration from Indian music as well. Artists every few decades, they kind of look over and go “Oh! Brazil, Africa, India!” and they kind of just do something over there.
During your travels you’re frequently visiting record stores across the world, are there any favourite places, hidden gems, maybe in North America, that you recommend people go?
Well, I’m gonna be in Texas soon – I think it’s Dallas, Bill’s Records, that’s a great vinyl store. It’s kinda pricey but you always find something. Amoeba is a great record store in California, it’s all, you know, new stuff, and they have a great used section. It’s two floors, it’s huge, and it’s kind of impossible to walk in there and not walk out with at least two things that you have to listen to immediately. And it’s about half a mile from where I live so I go when I can, when I’m not on the road.
There’s also a lot of cool stores on the east and west village of New York, I don’t know their names.
One last question, I’m getting beeped through by this other interview, I’ve kinda really gotta jam…
OK, so the token Music Vice question: This interview is for MusicVice.com, Henry Rollins, what other vices do you have apart from music?
Ah, probably too much love for cheese popcorn. I probably like sleep too much, and uh, I could probably spend more time reading and less time goofing around on the internet.
You’re probably the first person ever to not mention cigarettes or alcohol, but of course I’m not surprised.
Oh yeah, that’s not my problem, I’ve got a whole bunch of other problems!
All right man, well I hope you get over your flu and I’ll see you down the road.
© Brian Banks, Music Vice
[n.b. I know many would like to listen to this interview as a podcast – the recording is pretty good but the volume/levels needs to be fixed before it can be podcast. We’ll get this online soon if it can be sorted, but the words are the most important thing.]
For tour dates and venue information for Henry Rollins’ Frequent Flyer tour visit HenryRollins.com
The photos used in this story are by Maura Lanahan.
Check out a video clip, courtesy of Henry Rollins: HenryRollins live in Melbourne
Henry Rollins on KCRW (weekly shows available for listening online)
World Cup 2010 South Africa – Official FIFA website
Free The West Memphis Three – WM3.org
Festival au Desert – festival-au-desert.org
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