An Interview with Henry Rollins - Frequent Flyer
Henry Rollins Frequent Flyer tour
An Interview – March 16th 2010
By Mike Bax
All photos by Maura Lanahan
Describing Henry Rollins now is a more complicated thing to do when compared to Henry Rollins of, say, 1982. Back then, Henry was an ex-Häagen-Daz employee who had been asked to join one of his favourite bands, Black Flag, as their permanent lead singer. Henry's stage presence and ability to emote a raw intensity on stage became the stuff of legend, something that most fans of early eighties hardcore punk couldn't get enough of.
As the eighties progressed into the nineties, Black Flag split up, and Henry began touring as a spoken word activist, formed a new band (Rollins Band), and also started doing some bit parts in movies and television roles. This was a time of artistic growth for Henry, a time where he honed his ability to dissect and transform a situation, be it political, public opinion, or some kind of activist awareness, and convert his interpretations of these situations into a stage delivered-dialog. You can still purchase most of these early spoken word tours via Henry's website.
Describing Henry Rollins now takes a little more time, as he currently wears many hats. No longer playing music, he can be described as a singer-songwriter, stand-up comedian /spoken word artist, a writer and publisher, a sometime actor, a regular radio DJ, and internet blogger and a political activist. In a society where most people seem to walk about deflecting information like their internal hard drives are too full to possibly absorb anything new, Henry seems relentless in the pursuit of truths and information. If CNN says somewhere is unsafe, Henry wants to know why and will fly to wherever to take a look for himself. Throughout the Bush administration, Henry remained very vocal on his opinions of George W Bush and the state of the nation, taking the time to watch, read, and learn as much as he could about why his country was rupturing before his eyes.
Henry toured Recountdown through 2008, a tour primarily made up of insight and speculation on what the United States and the rest of the world were going to witness as Bush was finally going to end his tenure as US president. Some of his Recountdown material was tongue in cheek humour, and a portion was centered around his traveling and his unwillingness to accept what CNN was telling him as gospel truth.
Henry is currently on his Frequent Flyer Tour, the tagline for the tour being ‘Knowledge without Mileage Equals Bullshit’. When HENRY talks about traveling the world, he’s not gushing about staying at plush resorts and genteel European cities. He’s talking about stops in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Brunei, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, China, and Senegal. He already has toured and talked about being in Pakistan, Myanmar, and Siberi in previous years. Attendees will experience first hand Henry’s humorous anecdotes around his travels and what he’s seen abroad.
Frequent Flyer touches down in Kitchener at the Conrad Centre on March 25th and the next evening in Toronto on March 26th at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. A full list of live dates, including some Canadian west coast shows are listed in full at the end of this interview.
Mike: Hello Henry. It sounds to me like you will currently fly anywhere that the U.S. government deems a potential quote / unquote safety hazard. Is that accurate?
Henry: I do have to see the name of the country first. The overall principle is, I don’t like being told to be afraid and so far the Obama government hasn’t told me to be afraid. It was the last administration, they were all about: “Be afraid, be very afraid”; and during the Bush years that’s what I would do, I would go places because he said “Don’t.” Not that I’m a tough guy, and I am not looking for a fight or anything. I don’t want to run around being scared all the time and so I would go off and do that; he doesn’t like Iran, I went to Iran, he doesn’t like Pakistan, I went to Pakistan. So it’s definitely an idea, but would I want to go to Chechnya? I don’t know. I don’t know if I could get myself in and out of there in one piece. I am not looking to lose my life too quickly.
Mike: What has been the toughest country for you to get into?
Henry: Saudi Arabia was pretty tricky because I don’t think they want you there. They just make it really difficult, so it took a while to get in, like days of going back and forth with stuff like: “Oh, you didn’t fill this out”, “but you didn’t say I needed to”, “Oh yeah, you do.” They just kept moving things around. Finally I got in; I got a really good visa, a good diplomatic visa. I think they knew that I knew that they were just trying to mess me around, so eventually I wore them down.
Henry: I got my visa.
Mike: Have you ever found it harder to get out of a country than getting in?
Henry: No, not really. Getting out of Africa can sometimes be difficult, just the country itself. The flight and the way things are can be a little tricky; you just have to be really patient, but no, so far I have not had trouble getting out.
Mike: I like the tagline for this tour - "Knowledge without mileage equals bullshit." Is that accurate, do you feel? Do you feel as a society we are fed misinformation?
Henry: Well, yeah, that’s why I put it on the tour. I think that you can only know so much until you actually really put your feet on the ground and go. You can read a book and that’s okay, but if you want to know something, you have to do the time, you have to do the mile; that’s how you get the information. In my opinion, you have to get in there.
Mike: How at risk are you putting yourself, when you visit some of these locations? I caught your Re-countdown Tour and you talked a little about some of your travels on that tour. A few of the places you mentioned sounded a little dicey to me, like you were taking life in hand to walk away from the consulate you were at.
Henry: Yeah, I mean, some places you have to have your wits about you. I was on the streets of Islamabad, Pakistan the day that Bhutto was assassinated, and the morning after which was quite the display; a lot of things on fire. No one even looked at me twice, people just tried to get on with things, they didn’t seem to notice me. I am sure you could go to some kind of political upheaval in some country and have a really bad time; have some bad things done to you, but so far I have been okay. I think it’s just important to look a block at a time, look down the street and try to have a total situation awareness that would be of help to you.
Mike: My wife just got back from Saudi last month, I’m pretty sure that her experiences there as a Caucasian woman differed from yours as a male in that country.
Henry: Yeah, being a male traveling must be a whole different thing than traveling as a female.
Mike: She had to wear the abaya, the berka, the works….. She had to cover herself right up while she was there.
Henry: Women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia.
Mike: No. She couldn’t eat in certain restaurants unless she sat in the designated family areas.
Henry: That’s right.
Mike: There were a few things that she just said: “Wow, really? That’s how it’s going to be? Okay.” (Laughs)
Henry: Sharia Law… I was in Saudi Arabia a few months ago and Sharia Law just makes me scratch my head.
Mike: This is kind of an open question, what scares you as a traveler?
Henry: Long layovers, I think it would be not being able to get out of the place, I think that would be scary to me. So far that has not happened. To be in a situation where all of a sudden you are the object of hatred. To be in a place at the wrong time and all of a sudden it’s about “what your government did to our government,” or somehow you are the bad guy…
Mike: You’re the scapegoat.
Henry: It’s your fault, you’re going to take the beating anyway. That frightens me.
Mike: You’re going to go back to South Africa in May, if I am reading my literature correctly?
Henry: I will be there in May.
Mike: Do you plan to film these, like you did with your 2008 visit?
Henry: Oh, no. I will be going there with a couple of cameras. I’ll be taking photos but films, no.
Mike: Barack Obama was voted into office midway through the Re-countdown Tour; how did that affect your show and the material you were talking about on that tour?
Henry: Well, it was interesting being on tour for the end of the Bush Administration and the beginning of the Obama Administration, but I was on tour for only about twenty days into his administration, so it was kind of a day-to-day and look and see. But so much of the show really wasn’t about Bush; it was watching Cheney, Palin, and Bob. That’s what the tour was about. That was still remarkable to watch… post election. I also speculated as to what Bush’s post election life would be like, he’s got a lot of lives on his hands. I wonder how he handles those long afternoons thinking about what he did and the lives he’s cost. We are still in many ways living in the Bush Era. We are still fighting his wars. We are still dealing with the consequences, economically, of his decisions to deregulate to the A.I.G. loan, all of that; the bailouts of the banks, that’s all Bush. The right-wingers try to say it’s Obama, but it’s not, so we are dealing with all of that. The Bush years, in my opinion, were so controversial that Obama might spend all four years of his presidency - and I think he very well could be a four year president - I think he will be just spending his four years kind of neutralizing the effect of the Republicans hanging around just saying “No” to everything; which is a great strategy!
Mike: How much of your current tour adheres to structured content, Henry? Do you ad-lib when you are on stage? Or do you have certain things you want to say?
Henry: Yes some, when the opportunity is right. I like to go out fairly prepared. I don’t like to go out there and improvise, and I don’t want things to go sideways on stage time. I’m very respectful of people’s time. If something doesn’t work I don’t think that’s fair to the audience to watch something fail. So with ideas, I try not to work it out on stage, I try to have all that done beforehand. It’s only fair… This is not unique; many performers will tell you that they respect their audience. They paid and came there to see you, how bad can they be? So you have to be good to these people. I take them very seriously, not myself but them… oh yes, very seriously; I work very hard to be prepared.
Mike: Currently your CV would have actor, radio personality, world traveler/touring speaker, blogger, and published author; and you did two wonderful seasons on the I.F.C of the “Henry Rollins Show.” Do you ever slow down? What do you do to relax?
Henry: Sleep, read, listen to music. I don’t do much down time; it just doesn’t really work for me. It doesn’t really make sense. I am not putting it down, I know it’s necessary. I believe in restorative sleep and time spent away from the thing, so you can return with a clear head and a rested mind. I am pretty ambitious and so I am always cooking on something, I am always behind. Last night was a night off, I spent the whole evening sitting in the hotel room writing and preparing things.
Mike: Did you ever think back in ‘84/’85 when you were on the road with Black Flag, getting on the bus and doing shows, that you would eventually be a television celebrity, you would be doing movies… did that possibility even enter your mind?
Henry: No…no...no, I never saw past the next meal in those days like others did, there is no evidence that says you should. Things were so at the end of your reach, immediate… an apartment, rent, a bank account? No. You would live for a year at a time, with nothing more than forty dollars in your pocket. I am not trying to say, “Oh poor little me”, that’s just independent music in those days. It puts you in a certain mind frame and not always having my life be that way. I used to have a job, a car, a bank account. I had an apartment which I split with my old buddy from the neighbourhood; I had a real normal life. I would go into work sixty hours a week. Foot numbing, you know…. mind numbing, minimum wage work where you stand all day and you scoop ice cream, or where you sell tickets to the movie theatre; low-skilled low-paid wage labour.
Henry: The upshot was, I had a car that worked and I could pay my rent. Then I get into music and I’m like, “Wow!” And so you do that for a few years and you forget you ever had money in your pocket and food takes on a whole new identity. You don’t have to tell me where money comes from; I know very well where it comes from. Anything else that has come my way has just been gravy and so, no, I didn’t have any idea things would be like this. Things have gone very well for me and I’m nothing but grateful. I don’t think I am owed anything; I think I’m just incredibly lucky. That being said, I think it does take a lot of hard work to sustain…. to stay in it.
Henry: It’s not like my beautiful voice or my pretty face is keeping me out there; it’s me applying myself and kind of doing not a whole lot else.
Mike: I haven’t picked up a copy of “A Mad Dash” yet. Would you describe that particular book as a collection of journal entries, or is it more word-smithed then that?
Henry: Yeah, I have been doing a lot of those books lately; I think there are three or four out now.
Henry: “A Dull Roar,” “A Preferred Blur,” and “A Mad Dash,” so there’s three; I wish there were four but there’s only three. Those are just journal books from all the tour traveling I’d done. I have done travel and journal books before, but these last three have a similar name thing. They are what they are; they are travel books that describe where I go. It’s not exactly a journal in that I know someone is going to read them, so I write them with that in mind.
Mike: I can remember seeing your first spoken word tour - this would be back mid to late 80’s. I saw a date in Toronto at a club called The Diamond. It was mostly attended by young Black Flag fans. Your audience now seems so much more diverse compared to those early shows. Do you have an idea of who is attending your shows these days?
Henry: Only when I meet them or receive their mail. When I look into the audience I see a largely white audience, between eighteen to forty-five, seems to be fifty-fifty male and female, so I can give you the demographic breakdown. As far as what brought them in, was it a film, was it a book, was it the last talking show, was it a friend saying “you have to see this guy,” that I find out case by case if people choose to tell me. That is how I hear every possible configuration of “I watch everything you do,” or “I went to see your band once, didn’t really like it but I like the talking shows,” or “my boyfriend brought me and I think it was cool,” or whatever. “My husband loves you, me not so much, but my husband thinks you’re the best”… I hear everything.
Mike: You mentioned earlier, you remain very into music. Do you think you will ever tour or perform again? Or are you going to do it as a fan?
Henry: I can tell you what I don’t want to do, I don’t want to go out with new or old guys and play old music. I think it would be artistically lazy. I don’t like looking backwards that way; I don’t want to go into maintenance mode, and okay, “I am going to be twenty-six years old tonight”. I’m fifty, or getting there anyway. You get so tired with these bands; they keep going out there and trotting it out. I walked by Genesis yesterday, at Sirius radio, I’m sure they’re good men and hard working, but REALLY... YOU KNOW? They are going to go out and play somewhere and play those old songs, and Mick Jagger is going to sing “Satisfaction” this month or something. I don’t want to do it!
Mike: (Laughs) One of my favourite parts of Recountdown was you talking about attending the David Lee Roth and Van Halen re-union tour. Not so much the re-union itself, but your take on the fans that were in attendance. I thought that was interesting, and quite comedic.
Henry: They were an interesting bunch. It was ultimately a depressing show; not any fault of the band, they were great! They played very well, David Lee was in amazing shape and they delivered, and you can’t put it down. It was just what they were doing was kind of sad; men in their fifties playing music they wrote in their twenties. That is what it is! It ain’t nothing else. I guess its okay for them, but I don’t want to. I can’t judge, I am in no position to judge anybody. I am not better than them it’s just that I get a few choices in life. My choice is not to sing “Liar” again.
Mike: Fair enough. I used to use the word ‘intense’ to describe you, and now I think I’ve changed that descriptive to ‘informed’. Do you think that’s fair?
Henry: I think I am a bit of both. You earn your informedness, you become informed by doing the time and doing the miles and applying yourself. There is a lot of information I am after so I can be informed, and I put a high priority on that. I rarely, if you have ever followed my shows at all, and it sounds like you do a little……
Henry: If I talk about a country, it’s never because I read about it in a book, I tell you about when I went. I’m certainly not wanting to make you think that I’m an expert, because of course I’m not. I am coming at it from a personal “I burned the lean tissue here… I did the miles” to get the info I have, and that’s how I go about it. I read books, you read books, we all read books….. for me, if you want to know, you have to go, that’s my bottom line. You do it how you like… I have to go to these places and that’s how I do it. I can speak with a degree of confidence because I busted my ass and got there.
Mike: If you could form a descriptive sentence on what an individual will take away from attending a “Frequent Flyer Tour,” what would you say that is?
Henry: A whole lot of opinion, delivered at a high rate of speed. The longest opinionated diatribe they have ever heard.
Catch the Frequent Flyer tour this week when it rolls through Kitchener and Toronto. Full tour dates are listed below.
March 22 Montreal, QC, Le National
March 23 Ottawa, ON, Bronson Centre
March 24 Kingston, ON, Sydenham St United Church
March 25 Kitchener, ON, Conrad Centre
March 26 Toronto, ON, Queen Elizabeth Theatre
March 27 Syracuse, NY, Westcott Theater
March 28 Ithaca, NY, Castaways
March 30 State College, PA, State Theater
March 31 Pittsburgh, PA, Hazlett Theate
April 1 Kent, OH, Kent Stage
April 2 Columbus, OH, LC Pavillon
April 3 Newport, KY, Historic Southgate House
April 4 Lexington, KY, Buster
April 5 Bloomington, IN, Buskirk-Chumley Theater
April 7 Chicago, IL, Vic Theater
April 8 Milwaukee, WI , Turner Hall Ballroom
April 9 Madison, WI, Barrymore Theater
April 15 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Melbourne Town Hall
April 16 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Melbourne Town Hall
April 18 Sydney Comedy Festival, Enmore Theatre
April 19 Sydney Comedy Festival, Enmore Theatre
April 21 Cairns, Tanks Arts Centre
April 22 Brisbane, Powerhouse
April 25 Wellington, The Paramount
April 26 Auckland, Bruce Mason Centre
April 28 Newcastle Panthers
April 29 Wollongong, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre
April 30 Adelaide, Norwood Concert Hall
Sat May 1 Perth, Astor Theatre
Sun May 2 Perth, Astor Theatre
Thur May 6 in Pretoria, South Africa at The South African State Theatre
Fri May 7 Newtown Johannesburg, South Africa at the Bassline
Sat May 8 Cape Town, South Africa at Baxter Hall
May 14 Minneapolis, MN Pantages Theatre
May 15 Davenport, IA Capitol Theater
May 16 Brandon, SD Brandon Performing Arts Center
May 18 Boulder, CO Boulder Theater
May 19 Billings, MT Babcock Theatre
May 21 Edmonton, AB Winspear Centre
May 22 Calgary, AB Jack Singer Concert Hall
May 23 Kelowna, BC Community Theatre
May 24 Victoria, BC McPherson Playhouse
May 25 Vancouver, BC The Centre For Performing Arts
May 27 Seattle, WA Moore Theatre
May 28 Bellingham, WA, Mount Baker
May 29 Portland, ORAladdin Theater
May 30 Eugene, OR McDonald Theatre
June 1 Great Pass, Pass. Rogue Theatre
June 2 Reno, NV Grand Sierra Resort Theatre
June 3 Sacramento, CA Crest Theatre
June 4 Fresno, CA Tower Theater
June 5 Santa Cruz, CA Rio Theatre
June 6 San Luis Obispo, CA Downtown Brew
June 8 San Francisco, CA Herbst Theater
June 11 Los Angeles, CA Largo
June 12 Los Angeles, CA Largo