A Henry Rollins Interviewby Max Barashenkov / 28.03.2012
Henry Rollins descends onto our shores in May, his third visit to our neck of the woods. If you don’t know who he is, well, there is little hope for you. Currently, he travels the world, dropping the most intense performances since, perhaps, Black Flag itself. Part-rant, part-philosophy, part-comedy, his act is a steamroller not to be missed – a man exploding into humour, anger, nostalgia for over two hours, non-stop. We got a chance to ask him some questions and, him being an extremely opinionated man, decided to stray away from traditional interview tropes. The result? Well, he pretty much kicked our ass, smeared our smart-asses all over the pavement. Glorious.
Mahala: You are billed here under ‘Comedy’. Is that a common thing? How do you react to such a description, or label, of your act? Are you a comedian? An activist? Just that old guy from that hardcore band from the 80s?
Henry Rollins: I have always called what I do a talking show. That’s all it’s ever been to me. While there are some comedic elements at times, I don’t think it would really pass as comedy in the classic sense. That what I do gets billed as comedy here and this is perhaps due to promoters not knowing what else to call it. Perhaps we should go with that old guy from the hardcore band line, that might work out well.
In your previous performances you talked a lot about your travels. As a man well traveled and versed in various cultures and political situations, what are your views on post-apartheid South Africa and its current government?
I think it would be a bit disingenuous for me to make comment on South Africa’s government with the lack of knowledge I have as to its ins and outs. It’s really not of my interest to pass judgment or be rude. What is clear to me, at least, is that there are challenges that face South Africa, certainly, but that things seem to be moving forward towards a more peaceful and democratic posture. I get this from the people I have met there and what they have said to me. Beyond that, I don’t know what is happening in South Africa at the moment. It’s not on the news pages in America. I should do some investigating so I can learn more.
What are your views on the Arab Spring? Is real change in those regions really possible, or is it just a guise thrown over the eyes of the common people as the reigns of power simply change hands?
I don’t know if it’s necessarily change you’re seeing as much as a reaction to the harder and sharper elbows of capitalism and austerity measures being pushed back against. In my country, bank deregulation led to a lot of volatility and loss in the private sector. In other countries, I think that the common people, as you call them, saw that things could be different and so, at great risk, they made some changes. As to the governmental systems that come in the place of what got ousted, I guess we will all have to wait and see how these countries deal with those challenges. I don’t think it will be an easy path to negotiate in any case and there might be more violence to come and perhaps even more sweeping changes as these countries try to kind some balance.
Similarly, what do you think of the Occupy movement? Has it achieved anything? Anything real and tangible? From my limited viewpoint, the bankers laughed and spat on the protesters from their skyscrapers and simply had the Occupy folk removed.
To a degree, you are right. So far, the Occupy movement has not produced any legislation. It has been beaten back by policemen dispatched to disenfranchise people of their First Amendment rights under the Constitution. That being said, it has started a conversation that needs to be had and it will hopefully lead to some meaningful changes. I don’t know what else those “common people” are supposed to do when they see that the game is rigged and they are getting the short end of the deal every time. I think it’s been a great show of non-violent force that points to the cowardice of local governments who can’t handle the fact that people have found the crooks and are pointing at them in broad daylight.
The recent Kony2012 fiasco has shown some chinks in the “power of social media” armour. What are your thoughts on “facebook activism”? The feeling of being involved through a simple click of a button?
The video got seen by millions and millions of people. Do that many people check out what you do? No, they don’t. I think the fact that so many people watched only shows how powerful it is. I think you need to rethink that one. Activism certainly has to be more than a mere mouse click but again, it gets something started. Hopefully, it leads to something more substantial.
Would you agree with the statement that the world needs to get a hella lot more pissed off and violent (I am talking here not about physical violence – though that might be a part of it – but about stronger words in the media, the re-emergence of politically-motivated ‘art’, etc.) before any real change will occur? Or, how you would you go about the cliché notion of ‘changing the world’?
I would not. If you’re not talking about physical violence, than what kind of violence are you talking about? I think what is necessary is multitude. Mass numbers of people with unshakeable resolve and stamina. In my country, we have strong words in the media. We have news outlets calling my president a racist, a terrorist. There are bumper stickers and t-shirts everywhere in America that say all kinds of violent things about the president. Is that what you’re talking about? I guess that is what you’re talking about. It’s not going all that well for those people. They are vastly outnumbered by smarter, calmer, stronger and braver people who will, thankfully, lead.
What, for you, is real evil?
Evil, to me is a quantity for pussies who can’t handle people doing real things in the real world. It’s not a word I use.
As someone who appreciates a great variety of music, what is your stance on music piracy? Records being copied and distributed for free online? With bands making most of their income from shows and tours, is selling physical records a thing of the past?
I think it is stealing. It’s too bad that a band works so hard and gets sidelined by people who say they like them but that’s how it goes sometimes. I think a lot of bands are doing well with selling LPs. I think CDs are going to go away eventually. It will perhaps come down to vinyl for the real fans and MP3 files for the lightweights.
Have you heard any South African bands? If so, did you enjoy any of them?
I have not.
South Africa, musically, is a very small pond, especially for the loose ‘rock n roll category’. Our stages are dominated by mediocre bands shitting out digested sounds, which is a situation shared by many countries. But here, we lack any kind of real punk/DIY movement. From your experiences in SOA, Black Flag and SST Records, how is such a movement ‘created’? Can it only happen organically, as it did in the States in the early 80s? Or can certain steps be taken in terms of promoting such a thing? Basement shows? DIY EPs? Etc.
I think at its core, it comes from a very pure source. From that starting point, it radiates outward and often loses potency. Once a music stabilizes, it often gets co-opted and loses more potency. I think if bands are willing to lose most of the trappings of band mythology, which to a degree, were put in place to keep them down – the drugs and other forms of self-abuse – then they can stay relevant. I think it’s important for bands to insulate themselves from what is happening in music, lest they get too much like the other groups. That happens a lot. I think some scenes don’t get interesting because all they did was listen to what the other bands were doing.
Are there any bands or records that you are currently listening to that you would recommend?
I am looking forward to the new High On Fire record, all their other albums work for me. It should be coming out soon. I don’t know if I would recommend anything I listen to. I have been checking out a lot of Acid Mothers Temple and Makoto Kawabata stuff lately, a lot of older German music like Cluster and Kraftwerk as well as older Japanese Avant music.
Out of all the places that you’ve visited, which had the most unexpected and vibrant music scene?
* Henry Rollins will be onstage at The Bassline in Jozi on May 16, Baxter Theatre in Cape Town on May 18 and finally at Suncoast Casino in Durban on May 19. Get your tickets HERE.