IT’S three decades and several lifetimes of experience since Henry Rollins launched himself at the world as the singer with hardcore LA punk band Black Flag. Characterised by his uncompromising howl, cult success was followed by flirtations with the hard rock mainstream as leader of the Rollins Band, which remained active until 2006. In the UK he’s probably better known for his guest appearances in MTV’s Jackass and roles in films like Heat and Johnny Mnemonic, than he is for the numerous spoken word albums he has made in the last 20 years, not to mention the irascible, visceral literature based on his endless travel journals.
With every justification he’s been described as a punk rock polymath and it’s clear that, in middle age, the barely contained intensity that drove his music has found a parallel in the relentless curiosity that fuels his wandering. I caught up with him over Christmas 2009 just after he returned from eight weeks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, China and elsewhere. He’d spent three and a half days at home in LA over Christmas, before heading out to Senegal and Mali ahead of the European leg of his Frequent Flyer tour that played the O2 Academy Bournemouth on 19 January 2010.
It’s eight in the morning, your time... you sound full of beans…
Yeh, it’s a combination of jet lag and habitual early rising, but I’m raring to go. It’s nice being able to just stand in my house and dick around as I forget how it feels, but 2010 is the year I get busy, it’s what I wanted so I’m not going to bitch about it.
I understand you prefer to travel light – even the most seasoned traveller would wonder why when you could have all the comfort?
When I travel though it’s on my own with just a couple of backpacks and my camera. It’s what keeps me going, going, going. I think as an American it’s good for me to go see how our foreign policy decisions affect the day-to-day for people around the world, where the lash of globalisation lands. It changes your worldview. It makes you see things differently, not just in terms of your own country or your own town.
It almost completely eliminates cynicism which is so liberating. I have so much admiration for homo sapiens now, we are so adaptable. You go around the world and you find that, hey, people are OK! They don’t hate you, they don’t want to kill you, they’re just trying to make it through.
Henry Rollins can flit between barely suppressed joy and righteous anger in a breath. One minute he’s riffing on the sheer joy of having a favourite place to eat in Tokyo and being able to broadcast a radio show as he walks the streets of Jakarta; the next he’s railing against the injustices being perpetrated on their people daily by “awful” Burmese government.
You like to get in amongst it all then Henry?
I like to walk until I can’t see any tourists, then make that my starting place. I like to engage with the country I’m in and see the everyday stuff – I did something like 1200 miles in Nepal last summer, but not like some Western stiff with a camera come to judge, you have to learn how to just be in a foreign land.
I hate seeing American tourists going into McDonald’s in Tokyo, but of course I compromise – I found myself using a free internet connection in Costa Coffee in Beijing when I should have tried harder to keep it local.
This is the stuff that informs my writing and what I talk about at my shows. My audience is invariably younger than me so I’m able to say to them: ‘Look, be aware of this. You should feel some responsibility for this, it’s happening on your watch and it doesn’t have to be that way.’
So, is this Henry Rollins done with music?
Yeh, pretty much. That’s a bell I rang really hard for quite a while. To do another album now, at the age of 49, would mean I’d have to go on tour and that would take me ’til I’m 51. And within that it’s incumbent on me to play songs that are 20 years old or whatever. I just don’t want to be in that way-back machine, trying to finesse something that I’ve already done. I see people like Mick Jagger and I think: ‘Don’t you have a Plan B? Go learn to paint or something.’ It’s like living in 1968 and playing songs you wrote 40 years ago. I’m not disparaging it, it’s just I need something more. I need to feel like the freshman again, not be worrying that some young buck is going to come rip my guts out at the watering hole.
It would be so easy in this business, there’s a certain level of ego, to listen to people tell you how wonderful you are, but you have to say thanks and then go back to work.