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Sticking It To The Man: An Interview With Henry Rollins

Interview by Aline Duriaud.

Henry Rollins is a spoken word artist, author, publisher, musician, radio host, actor and activist. He was the lead singer in seminal Los Angeles hardcore punk band Black Flag and, in 1987, went on to form The Rollins Band, which mutated through several incarnations. He has just completed a UK tour.

3:AM: I read an interview you gave, where you discussed some of your literary influences. You mentioned Kathy Acker. I remembered an essay in her collection Bodies of Work, in which she writes about bodybuilding as an activity with its own vocabulary, rhythms and internal tensions. Could you tell me about bodybuilding in relation to your work? As content, and/or as an activity/ discipline whose structures inform your work? For example, the concept of pushing to the point of negative failure (is that the correct term?), of transformation, of reinvention.

HR: I work out, I train for tours and for health but it’s not bodybuilding. That is a whole other thing as they say. The concentration, discipine and focus it takes to train well has been helpful in realizing objectives elsewhere. Beyond that, it’s what I do to stay even, as it were. Kathy was really great. I liked her a lot, a lot of people did.

3:AM: You have said that you do not enjoy writing, and need to do it. Please discuss writing as embodied; an endurance act involving body and breath. How does breath inform your work?

HR: Writing for me, for the most part is a painful obsession that I wish would turn me loose but it won’t. A lot of people work from their weaknesses or flaws, that’s what writing allows me to do. It’s how I plumb personal depths that I can’t get to any other way. Also, not being very good keeps you coming back for another round of humiliation and failure.

As far as breath is concerned, being on stage and using my voice as my primary means of cummunication, it is certiainly a consideration. It’s one of the things that always made me like horn players, they are completely manual, no sustain. If they don’t push air, nothing happens. That’s the same way with me. To get the thoughts to connect with the words and to their delivery, I spend a lot of time dwelling on all that.

3:AM: What is the relationship in your work in various media between improvisation and discipline?

HR: I think it was someone in the Rolling Stones who said it. Something about if you want to play loose, you have to be really tight. That’s how improv is for me. You want to go fast? You better know your stuff and know it hard so you can throw it around and know how to use it in different contexts and such. It’s as much a matter of knowing yourself as much as anything else. It’s the only way to combat someone on morning radio shows when you’re doing it by phone, and get them to submit.

3:AM: I notice a metaphor of combat threading through your work; combat as a vital energy deployed against attitudes, institutions and things that anger you. In a broader sense, dialogue and interaction as combat. This strikes me as a particularly American metaphor: art as action and battle. How do you feel about this statement?

HR: To be an awake American, you realize the confrontational battlfield you live in. Everything is political here. Money is your last line of defense between you and the street. Do drugs? Bad battle strategy to me. Overweight, too slow, you will lose. Take your eye off the ball, someone will take your lunch and eat in front of you. That’s America. You want to tell the truth? You will learn confrontation. For me, art was always a vehicle for all of that. It has never been for art’s sake. I throw out insults like chum. I want the clash.

3:AM: Where do contemplation and reflection fit into your work? How does it interlock or interface with action?

HR: Well, you think and then you move on it. I spend a lot of time thinking things through; I run ideas, I wargame them. I spend a lot of time on my own doing just that. It’s from composure that I draw primary power.

3:AM: Where or how do you find peace?

HR: I don’t look for it. I seek relief and rest more than anything. Restorative sleep, a lack of people around me. I am heading towards that, or trying to more often than not. People wind me up so when I am on my own, I am always better off.

3:AM: Where or how do you allow yourself to be vulnerable?

HR: I go to places I know little about and deal with what comes. Iran, Pakistan, Syria, places like that. I go alone and see what happens. In an intimate or romantic sense, I have no interest in those areas.

3:AM: Given your intense work ethic, do you regard yourself as sacrificing yourself to your art? What are your thoughts and feelings about the notion of sacrifice as intrinsic to artistic production?

HR: I think when you put yourself in uncomfortable or unfamiliar surroundings or situations, it can force you into an in-the-moment frame of mind and this has great potential. I don’t know about sacrifice for art, that seems a little contrived or trying to create what was your previous state. This is where money and success can really damage you. You start making money, it’s best to forget it as best you can and just put your head down and do your thing. It’s one of the reasons I live alone, work alone and stay to myself as much as possible, it keeps me heading towards it.

3:AM: Do you think one has to lose control to make new work? If so, how do you lose control in the context of your artistic practice?

HR: I think those so inclined have their own way of getting to that place. I am not interested in losing control as I am in being in situations out of my control and dealing with that. I was in Islamabad when Bhutto was killed, that was wild.

3:AM: What is love?

HR: I think it’s something for parents, families, married people, people with dogs. I never really understood it and, as I grew older, did not seek it or get anything from it. There are people I like but it’s more admiration, respect and desire to serve and protect than anything else. When I am walking through my old neighborhood and I pass a house where I know the people inside, I would rather just see the lights on and know they’re ok than go in and talk to them most of the time.


3:AM: Who would you like to collaborate with next?

HR: No one comes to mind.

3:AM: Who are some female writers or artists you particularly admire or are influenced by?

HR: Flannery O’Connor, Diamanda Galas, PJ Harvey, Billie Holiday, Naomi Klein, Joan Didion, Angela Davis, Ginger MacKaye, Ninan, Nico, Aretha, they are all strong and interesting and innovative in their own way.

3:AM: Is the concept of the intellectual alive, or defunct, or neither? What does it mean to you?

HR: I think it’s someone who values thought, learning and exploring ideas. They are the ones preyed upon by the killers of culture: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Fox News pundits. To think is being seen as elite, effeminate to the neoconservatives. Intellectually lazy people, like Bush, do a lot of harm. Obama infuriates and terrifies them, it’s quite obvious. It’s not a black thing they have with him, it’s his mind they don’t like. That he’s clear is what angers them so. I think intellectuals are around in America, despite America.

3:AM: How are you received in Europe? How are you received in other places, e.g. when on tour in Asia?

HR: Quite well. I have been to some of these countries many, many times so they figure I like them, which of course I do, very much. I do some of my best shows outside of America.

3:AM: What do you think about writing as confession, as a means of evacuating trauma? Does your writing fit into the genre of confessional prose?

HR: There are certainly elements of that in my work. It’s a way to beat the awful truth out of yourself.

3:AM: When you write do you get closer to, or further away from, loneliness, or both?

HR: I associate loneliness with my youth. It’s really not a part of my life. I am sitting on an airplane at the moment. Burma-Thailand-Taipei-USA. This time next week, England. There’s no one waiting for me and no one I am looking forward to seeing. I won’t call anyone when I walk in the door. Management might call, but it’s just to run numbers and talk about what’s upcoming. So, loneliness, it’s not a thing in my life, really. I am not trying to sound too cool or tough, I’m neither. It’s just how I ended up. I miss some dead people, but what are you going to do about that?

3:AM: I understand that you admire Fassbinder, who often scrutinises the manner in which individuals internalise and reproduce structures of authority, and cruelty. Which other filmmakers interest you, and what does compassion mean to you? How do you cultivate compassion in your life and work?

HR: Other filmmakers I admire: Herzog, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Wenders, Malle, Coppola — both of them — Lynch, both Andersons, the Cohens, there’s a lot of great directors out there, dead and alive, fairly countless really, Tran Anh Hung, Stone, Jarmush, etc. Apologies to anyone’s name I misspelled.

Cultivating compassion? That’s easy. Stick your head into a few rooms at Walter Reed, go to places where there’s hardly enough food. See starvation on the face of a child. Look at what sanctions do to the people of Burma, go to Calcutta, etc. For me, it’s a part of being alive and aware.

3:AM: I also note that you admire Artaud. What aspects of his work compel you?

HR: I think he was unhinged and occupied that space very well. I have read a lot of his stuff, mostly from the volume that the late Susan Sontag edited. That’s a very well considered collection. A good deal of his stuff goes over my head but he opens me up, which I think is what it’s all about to a certain extent.

3:AM: When you perform (is it appropriate to call your spoken word and live appearances performances?), do you reveal yourself to the audience, construct yourself in front of the audience, or both?

HR: I tell them what I saw and how it made me feel, that’s about it. I report and recount.

3:AM: How do you stay generous? How do you practice generosity as an artist?

HR: I stay generous knowing I am really fortunate, and one of the best ways to stick it to the man is to be generous. The man wants you to be stingy and let some people live in poverty and pain. The more you spread it around, the weaker the man gets and the Funk grows ever stronger. Bootsy will lead us, as we get up for the downstroke. As an artist, you do benefits, you speak out, you gather people, you point things out. You stick it to the man.

3:AM: How do you get away from yourself?

HR: Sleep. Music. Run. Workout.

3:AM: What do you do for fun?

HR: Ebay, work on my radio show, read, space out and think of things, watch films and documentaries, kinda boring stuff I guess.

(Pic by Maura Lanahan.)

Aline Duriaud is a writer, curator and mental health advocate. She is currently curating an exhibition at London’s Vegas Gallery, which will open in February 2009.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 29th, 2008.