Henry Rollins' long, fascinating career has included lengthy stints in the legendary noise-rock group Black Flag and his decade-old Rollins Band. He has recorded numerous spoken-word albums, many of which are laugh-out-loud hilarious. He's acted in movies, from Lost Highway to Johnny Mnemonic, to the forthcoming Jack Frost. He's traveled and performed all over the world. He's run a record label, Infinite Zero, with Rick Rubin, focusing on reissues of out-of-print albums by Devo, Gang Of Four, and more, as well as new releases by his favorite obscure musicians. Rollins is also a successful author and publisher, having released books of essays and poetry through his independent, award-winning 2.13.61 imprint. A new book, Solipsist, comes out this fall, as does a new spoken-word record, Think Tank. Rollins recently spoke to The Onion about his rocky past, successful present, and uncertain future.
The Onion: What's the deal with Solipsist? I haven't seen it yet.
Henry Rollins: We didn't send out any copies for review, which made our press girl very angry. But I'm tired of critics and their opinions of me, good or bad. Not only do I not give a fuck; it gets me hostile at some guy who I could kill with my hands, who, like, gets to wield his fake verbal superiority over me. So I said, "Fuck 'em. Just save your money in printing up press copies, and take out other ads." But what I did was, in summer '93, I was looking through the dictionary, which I like to do a lot, and I saw the word "solipsist," which is one who thinks the world is an extension of himself. And I feel like that a lot, when I'm in album mode, when I'm making a record, or if I'm living in New York City. Everything tends to get very closed in. The only reason they make a subway train is to pack it full of people and stick you in it; that's how you feel at 7 a.m. on the train. "This hell has been created for me. It is my hell." It's easy to get in that kind of mindset, especially when you get… Like, in lyric-writing mode, songwriting mode, you get very self-involved. And cities kind of pack you into yourself, I've noticed: People get very insular, very isolated. So what I did was I tried to write a book from that point of view, and it ended up being this three-year struggle with these very strange essays and these characters, some of whom are very tragic. Not all these people I agree with; they're pretty fatal, but it's interesting to let it go, and they're all solipsistic, and there's a lot of really strange imagery in there. It was like three years of writing in cities all over the world. That ended in '96. At that point, I left the book alone; I always like to give manuscripts a cool-off period, and at the end of the year, I read it and decided it was still fairly worthy of print, and after rewriting and working on it, I gave it to everyone here [at 2.13.61], and everyone read it and found typos and weak sentences. We did that four different times, finding more and more typos and more and more shitty sentences, which I am prone to do. I'm not really a writer; I just kind of sling it out there, and so I worked on it a lot, and now, hopefully, we have something relatively typo-free and relatively sturdy. It's a very strange book. Very extreme. It is an interesting book—in quotations, like when you have someone read your poetry, and they go, "Wow, that was… intense." "Thanks a lot. Don't come over soon." A few people I know have read it, and they like it.
O: How do you feel about being called a poet?
HR: That doesn't work for me. I respect good poetry; we have a couple of great poets on our label, like Ellyn Maybe and Bill Shields. And, you know, I like [French poet Jean] Rimbaud and the good stuff, but my association with poetry is going to a place like Beyond Baroque in Venice, California, which is a real poetry place, and seeing these guys with their corduroy pants, looking like substitute teachers, wearing a scarf, reading this utter bullshit, and that's poetry. And it's so lame. I respect the idea of it, how you can render some heightened imagery and heightened intensity of a moment, but most of the stuff I see, and the pretension that goes around it… Anyone who would say, "I'm a poet"… I gotta run. "Well, then there's my poetry…" Running! I'm running out the door. You know what I mean? It's brutal. In New York, you talk to these people, and they're like, "Well, I'm working here, but really, I'm a poet." "Aieee!" Run! Out the door! Like Bukowski once said, not that I can quote him all that freely, "Most people who write shouldn't." You know, he was right. He had a point there. He could kick that stuff and make it sing all right. I'd much rather read good literature. I'd much rather find good poetry in literature. If you read Thomas Wolfe—not Tom Wolfe, the guy who did Bonfire Of The Vanities—he was your classic Southern writer, and his stuff was very lyrical and poetic. There's so much poetry in his work, and he's not even trying. He's just describing what's on the breakfast table, and it takes two pages, and it's just beautiful, you know? It makes you hungry. That's the kind of poetry I appreciate, when someone is inside a paragraph, and they're making it go.
O: What is the status of your reissue label?
HR: Well, Rick Rubin and I had that label [Infinite Zero] on Warners, and he lost his deal with Warners. He was not interested in taking the label to his new home at Sony, and Warners wasn't interested in it, either. So it all came back to me in the form of, like, 20 boxes in my living room. So now I am restructuring the label, and I'm going to be relaunching it in the fall. Unfortunately, we lose all the Warner stuff: There won't be any more Devo, no more Gang Of Four, Tom Verlaine… Because you know, Warners doesn't let anything leave Warners, though it's not as if they care anything about Devo. Which is too bad, because those records are so good. People are still thanking me on the street for putting out the Gang Of Four records, including the Gang Of Four guys. They're such good records, and, of course, all there'll be is a best-of, and the real albums will go out of print. [Rhino is releasing a Gang Of Four box set in a few weeks. —ed.] They're basically gone already. But I'll have the rest of it to take over to this new home, and I licensed a bunch of old Fall records before Warners went away. I'm very big into [Fall singer] Mark E. Smith; not the world's nicest guy, but certainly brilliant.
O: Would you be putting that out yourself?
HR: No. There are a couple of different labels, and since the deal isn't set, I might as well not say anything. I'll take it to a good home, and, yeah, if I can't do it there, I'll print up a thousand of everything and just do it myself. It's basically a thing where you get integrity, you break even, and you get to supply some good records to some good people. I'm really sick of the fact that the music industry has lost that. I mean, there are a ton of labels who haven't; there are a lot of little labels who… I mean, like this book company: We're not making money. We're struggling, and there are a lot of record companies that are the same way. They get some cool stuff out, and it pays for itself some months, and then some months you eat shit. But then you have a rush and it'll catch you up. I feel for those labels—I'm one of them, and I'm usually a patron of those labels, because it's that kind of music that I'm interested in. I fully realize that my taste in music, as far as selling records… I know that the stuff I like doesn't sell. I've put out records I think are awesome—like Alan Vega's stuff, and Matthew Shipp, the great jazz pianist. No one buys 'em, and I go, "What the fuck? They're awesome." Even though Matthew's getting incredible critical acclaim and the cover of Jazziz, and all that stuff, people are too busy buying… I don't know what they're buying. You look at the Billboard Top 200 [Albums], and you're like, "Gee, who's buying all those Titanic records? What kind of dummies are out there?" It's disheartening to know that you live in a country that's just teeming with semi-literate, mediocre psychos. If they had better reading skills and laid off the Budweiser, I'd dig the psychosis. Now it just scares me, because they're dumb enough to go out and buy guns and stuff. The older I get, the more I'll wake up some days and say, "Fuck it, I'm dissolving this company and giving everyone their books and records back, and I'm just gonna do my own thing, support myself…" I'm just so sick of supplying high-quality art to deaf ears and blind eyes. Let 'em go have their fuckin' Armageddon movie, you know? And then I get one letter, like, "Dude, Alan Vega rules!" And I'm like, "That's it, I'm back in." All it takes is one. I'm so desperate to hear, "Oh, I got the new Ellyn Maybe poetry book; thank you so much. She's wonderful." "I'm in. I'm back in. Full steam." It means so much.
O: Well, smart people are out there.
HR: Oh, I know. The struggle is finding them, getting to them, connecting to them, keeping them.
O: You've worked in an ice-cream store. You've slept on 100,000 filthy floors. You've been beaned in the head with bottles and spit globs. Now, you're at a point in your life where you've acted in movies with Michael Keaton and Charlie Sheen. You run your own company. Is it difficult to maintain your intensity?
HR: No. No, that's never a problem, believe it or not. And the irony of my life is never wasted upon me. Now, if someone wants to spit on me, I just roll up the window of my BMW 540i. I have a lot of money and all that stuff, and I'm sitting in the house I own right now, which also serves as an office for everyone here [at 2.13.61]. On that level, I've had some success, and to me, I approach the whole thing with a very wry smile. That lifestyle. It's not like I'm livin' large; I'm living adequately. If you amortize the last 18 years, it's been like $8.50 an hour, so God bless me. It's no problem at all, because my head is still in the same place. For me, the venues got bigger over the years. But you know what? Then they got smaller again. They're on their way down again. You come and you go, and attendance-wise, I'm probably on my way out. As far as creatively and everything, I'm holding just fine. It's not a problem maintaining intensity. A producer friend of mine made a really good point a couple years ago. He said, "Find any Frank Sinatra record that's not intense." He's fully focused; he's riveted on the topic like a laser beam. I play Frank's records a lot, and he's right. Even when he's like, [imitates Sinatra] "Hey…," he's doing "Hey…" within an inch of its life. That's just discipline and application, but where I might not be blue in the face yelling and screaming like I once was, I'm 37. I no longer feel the need to do that. I'm not a young man, and I can find intensity in a lot of different ways, sometimes without even raising my voice. When I was younger, it was all about how I need three extra sets of lungs to get enough wind to get out the thing at the screaming level I need to, because that's the way it needs to be. Now, I see that there's a whole lot of other colors on the palette. A lot of people never really lose their thing; I've seen them in their 40s and 50s. A guy like Iggy Pop… Iggy's like 51. Iggy's like… Fuck, man. Where does it come from? He's like the fountain of youth or something. He's this self-recharging battery, and he just gets more crazed as he goes. You see this chemical change come over him when he hits the stage; it's like, "I don't know this guy." And then, afterwards, he's like, "Hey man, how are ya"? He's this other animal. I think you just have to keep finding passion.
O: You talk openly about tragedies, about your past, about your dark side. Is there anything you still keep from people?
HR: No. Not really. Everyone who knows me knows that I'm a hopeless romantic who listens to love ballads and doo-wop songs all the time. I can't be keeping it that secret; I just told you. I like romance with women, not just grabbing them and fucking them, and throwing them out the window. I like the idea of going out with a woman and not doing anything, and just eating dinner and talking, and that's cool, too. So, someone might look at me and say, "No way, man. He's just banging strippers." And I do that, but not all the time. Just once a year or something. But that's one thing a lot of people wouldn't know. But otherwise, yeah. Maybe I'm ego-tripping, but I don't find myself a particularly horrible person, so I don't think I need to hold back anything I think or feel. I've never raped or killed anybody, or hurt a kid. I've done all the more inept, high-volume stuff—like, "Whoops, sorry I came in your hair. Don't worry, I won't use your name when I tell this story on stage." Stuff like that is more what I've done: just your sort of boy-growing-up fuck-ups. So there's really nothing to hold back. I've made some great mistakes in my life, but, you know, they were honest mistakes. I've never tried to rip someone off and gotten caught; I went out on tour and played my hardest, and maybe no one gave a fuck that summer, and that's a failure in a way.
O: You have a new record coming out this fall, right?
HR: Yeah, it's a talking record. It's called Think Tank, not because my mind is some sort of huge intellectual engine; it's just that the original cover concept I had was a drawing of a bunch of kids in the '50s in a classroom. Kind of one of those wholesome, Wonder Bread images. And the collective thought balloon over their heads was going to be a tank. But I ran into a young man who did an amazing flyer for a speaking date in Montana; he drew this hilarious, overblown caricature of me—huge neck, little head, confused scowl, the testosterone has made him bewildered. It's just hilarious-looking, and it says, tattooed on my arm, "Spoken Word." It's great, so we bought the artwork for the cover. It's just too hilarious; it looks like one of those monster-truck posters. It's like the record, totally over the top. The record comes out in September along with a 90-minute video. And I'm working on a solo album with music, and there's a band I just finished producing called Mother Superior. It's not that I have a problem with the Rollins Band, or that we've broken up or anything; I just wanted to give those guys a rest and give myself a rest from the Rollins Band ritual. It's been 10 1/2 years without a break. It's cool stuff that we do; I just wanted to work with other people, and I wanted to work with someone here in L.A., where I could just drive down the street to practice and not have to camp out in New York in the summer. So I asked them if they wanted to write with me, and they said, "Yeah, let's try it out." So we got some practice time, and that night, we wrote two songs. We've practiced five times, and we've got an album's worth of stuff. It's basically like Thin Lizzy meets The Stooges. It's real simple, real rock, not a metal thing. It's a blues-based alley-rock thing. They're all younger than me, and they just get on with it. With the Rollins Band, there are roadies and all that stuff; these guys just haul it out of the van, whack it together, and it's, "All right, let's rock." We go into it with such lack of pretense, it's alarming. We get it done. We're practicing in the same room I practiced in when I first joined Black Flag. It's this really hellish little place, but it's still around. And it's 10 bucks an hour, so you've gotta go. It's so weird to walk in there and go, "Oh, yeah. I learned 'TV Party' in this room 17 years ago, and here I am again." So it's gonna be an interesting record, and the reason I can work with such abandon is I know none of this is getting airplay, just like no one cared about my last record [Rollins Band's 1997 album Come In And Burn]. I never tried to write songs for radio, but I would have radio edits in mind. These songs end up being seven-minute, howling, "Rock on!" kind of songs. My manager came last night to listen, and I go, "What do you think?" And he goes, "Fuckin' awesome. No video, no airplay." And I'm like, "Hey, no video budget, and no radio tour." No money, no money
problems. I don't give a fuck, because it's not as if they play me on the radio anyway. A major label will spend tons of money trying to get you on the radio; that's how they sell records. DreamWorks dropped a lot of money on me last year, video-wise and promo-wise, and to their dismay, nothing happened. So this time around, I figured, fuck it. Let's make a record on one-tenth the budget, go get in a van, and go do some shows here in town. Go fuck people up. This band will just dance on people's heads. So I'm havin' fun in my old age with these guys. That'll come out next year, I guess.
O: Are you ready for another publicity onslaught? You were kind of everywhere for a long time, and then the record didn't do much…
HR: Well, I came back from the tour, from Japan and Australia. I finished with the band in Osaka, then I went right to Australia and did a bunch of speaking dates. Then I came back here in November and basically hunkered down to winter out and work on the book company, which I do every winter. In December, I went out to England. I worked with Black Sabbath, helping them with the video press kit for their reunion shows, and from there, I went to Africa and Madagascar and hung out. That was fun. That was an eye-opener.
O: So you've just been sitting around on the couch watching TV this whole time.
HR: Yeah, that's me. Then I did a bunch more speaking dates and lecture dates, and come spring, I started working on this record, editing down the talking record and the video, and finalizing this book. I have two books in motion now. I've been busy, but I've been mostly in L.A. This year, I did work on the soundtrack for Small Soldiers, the video that's on MTV now. That's me and the Bone Thugs guys [doing "War"]. I just wrapped up a part in the film Desperate But Not Serious with Claudia Schiffer and Christine Taylor and all these beautiful women. Very strange, to be on the set with, like, 20 drop-dead women who have, besides a professional capacity, zero interest in you. And you're just sitting amongst them, and none of them are looking at you. None of them are talking to you. Claudia Schiffer has bodyguards with her. She's real nice; I mean, no one bugged her. She's mellow. I guess she gets enough crazoids running at her in airports, she kind of has to have her big Samoan man around her. So that was fun, and I just finished a film for Warner Bros. called Jack Frost with Michael Keaton. It's not like he and I worked together; I never met the guy, but I play his son's psycho hockey coach, so it was me and all these 12-year-olds. In the movie, they know I'm nuts, so I yell and scream, "Go kill 'em!" and everything, and they know I'm nuts, so none of them pay attention to me. It's great to have all these precocious Hollywood 12-year-olds blow me off at every given opportunity. It's great to be in a kids' film, to be dissed by all these kids. It's perfect for me. I'm lovin' it. So I've been really busy here in town. I'm the voice for GMC trucks, so I've been doing all the voiceovers for their TV ads. Nice work if you can get it. I've been pretty busy here, just not geographically intense. But then I go to Europe for press, come right back, start doing the talking shows in September, and then go back to Europe. I'll be in Europe until December, and then in January, I'm headlining this thing in New Zealand, and then I go to Australia for press. From there, I think I'm gonna go hike through Java. It's so close, and I'll have all these frequent-flyer miles. It really is close. My next book is like a travel book; it goes literally around the world two different times, from Russia to Japan to Bangkok to Africa, all over. I've got to take it to Indonesia now.
O: Did you ever think, when you were managing the ice-cream store, that you'd have a trip to Java planned?
HR: No, but I do plan on having a job like the ice-cream store again before I die. I'm pretty survivalist: The money I make, I invest. With a lot of the books and records, I own the masters. I don't know what it's going to be worth, but I own 'em. I put away money every year, in the IRA thing and in stocks and all that. I've seen a lot of my peers… You know, one of the singers in Black Flag is a waiter at this really bad diner in Hollywood. He's salt of the earth, and he's a sweetheart, but he'll pour your coffee for $4.25 an hour, and that's how you can end up. There are a lot of people—big metal guys—who are now working at Blockbuster, but they still have the eyeliner and the dyed black hair and the idiot stripper girlfriend, and they're waiting for the next deal. They didn't save the money. They didn't realize how quickly it'd all be over. For a guy like me, I had 18 minutes instead of 15 because of tenacity, the will of the cockroach. I realize that, 18 months from now, I could have pretty meager resources. So I'm always frugal, and I'm taking advantage of taking a shot while I've got the shot to take. Because in two years, all this may be a memory.
O: Well, music styles come and go, but you'll always be able to talk.
HR: Yeah. As it is now, those audiences get exponentially bigger every year—like, up to 2,500 people a night. It staggers me. But you never know. Things come and go. At the end of the day, I would love to end up like a guy like George Carlin: ancient, still cool, still gets to work. I've hung out with him, and he's just the coolest. Zero burned out. He's a phenomenon. There's not many like him. I would still like to be able to talk to young people when I'm older. As it is now, I'm older than all those students on campus when I go to the universities, like by 10 years or more, and I can definitely bring them something they're not getting from their parents. I'm not a peer. I am older. And I can definitely bring something positive, which to me is worth it right there—to give some young person a different perspective on smoking and drinking. Definitely attack kids' latent homophobia. I'd love to get in there and knock those motherfuckers around. And hopefully, there'll be a chance for me to do that at some point. But my manager has said to me, sitting at his pool at his big house that's bigger than mine—the one I helped him get; the irony of that is like falling on your keys—he said, "Effectively, your career in music is over." I'm like, "Richard, don't say that. Dude, my brotha, how can you say that?" And I went, "Okay, well, if that's that, fuck it. Let's call the movie agent and start going on auditions again. Let's broaden another horizon."
O: There's plenty of work for guys who can play mean authority figures.
HR: Yeah, right. Thanks a lot. That's all there is for me. That's all I do get is the character-actor parts: "We need a nut job. Let's give Henry Rollins a call." Hey, if it's a cool script, I'll take it. I pass on the corny scripts, but if it's a good script, I go audition. Hollywood for me is just like the money train. I love corporate money. I love making money off TriStar and turning it into a poetry book or a CD. It's the shit. It's my kind of subversion. The money they spend… Even when DreamWorks sends me around, it's business class, nice hotels. They go, "Where do you want to eat today?" And I go, "Well, there's this steak place I like here in town." Boom! We're there. I'm like, "God damn. All right." To me, it's really fascinating on that level, knowing the distortion of reality, and how you sit with these people and have these power meetings. They are so full of shit, and you talk the shit with them, and they're nodding, like, "This is synergy! We're happening!" And I'm like, "Oh, my God, you guys are such assholes. Nine people live in a room and sweat to death because of people like you, you pony-tail-having, Mercedes Benz-driving motherfuckers." And all I think is, "How can I get some of your money?"
O: Do you ever lay in your king-size bed at the Four Seasons and think, "God, I used to be on someone's couch"?
HR: Nightly. And whenever I eat a full meal, I remember, like, 13 years ago, when this was once a year when I used to go visit my mom on tour, and she'd feed us, or I'd stay with the Misfits, and their moms would cook up a holy storm of food. None of that ever escapes me. It's one of the reasons I've been able to stick around, because none of it is taken for granted. When I'm driving this utter monstrosity of a car, it's hilarious. People double-take all the time in traffic. They go, like, "Oh, my God! That's Hank Rollins in a Beemer with Sabbath pounding!" The best thing is to drive around in that thing with the new Slayer CD in it, and watch people's heads turn. I have cops wave at me, like, "No shit, there goes that Black Flag dude." Black Flag's old roadie from '82 saw me pull up in that thing at the wrap party for a movie, and he said, "Hank Rollins, punk rock has been very good to me!" Which is what I say all the time. It's hilarious. So whenever any of that happens—when I'm at the nice hotel—I'm laughing. Knowing it's temporary, but, oh, my God, what a ride.