INTERVIEW: Henry Rollins

His days in Black Flag and the Rollins Band long behind him, Henry Rollins has been taking his unique insights, stories and observations on the road for almost 30 years now. Staging mammoth ‘spoken word’ (though, don’t call it that in front of him) tours across every continent in the world, Rollins has developed a cult following that of course links back to his days as frontman of the legendary Black Flag, but also that draws from a whole different demographic. Rollins’ performances are painfully funny, totally honest and bitingly witty. He will be touring Australia this April and May, with a show at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre on May 8. Henry was kind enough to answer some questions from Radar.

How do you describe what it is that you’re doing now? For me, it’s not quite comedy, and it’s not quite spoken word; it’s somewhere between the two.
All it has ever been for me is a talking show, that’s it. Sometimes there is humor in there, sometimes not. When I first heard the term “spoken word” I cringed.

What first motivated you to start doing these sorts of performances?
I started in 1983. I liked being alone onstage and able to do what I wanted. Being in a band was good, too but this was a good outlet for me.

How do you compare your touring lifestyle now, to that of your days in Black Flag, or the Rollins Band? Are there some parallels, or is it a totally different style?
 Things are more efficient now. I am not having to stay up all night with no place to sleep. Venues are better, sound onstage is better. The intent and discipline are the same, the surroundings and access have improved.

The sheer amount of things you do, or contribute to, is pretty immense; radio shows, writing for LA Weekly and Vanity Fair, acting, as well as these long spoken word tours. Do you like your life to be so busy, so frenetic?

Yes,  it keeps things real for me. I am not interested in doing nothing. It just doesn’t do it for me. I say yes to a lot of things and it keeps me on my toes.

Between the long tours, and all the other aspects of your life, is there anything you try to do to keep from burning out?
No. I just do the work. I go to the gym a lot to keep stress down but past that, I just keep it happening. One day, no one will want me onstage but until then, I will keep touring and working on things. It’s all pretty interesting.

I saw you on your Australian tour back in 2010, and I remember you saying that you don’t like to stay at home for too long, that travelling is simply part of your life. Maybe a tough question, but do you do these long spoken word tours because you like travelling, or do you travel because you like doing the spoken word tours? Which is the main motivating factor? Or is it a combination of both?
I like being onstage and being with the audience. Travel comes with, so it works out. When I am not on tour, I am traveling on my own. Being at the house is cool now and then, you can listen to a record you want to hear or something but that gets boring and too safe for me and I start feeling soft and that I am not trying hard enough.

The towns you perform in, do you try to get out and explore them while you’re there? Or is it more a situation of “drive to the venue, do the show, pack up, drive to the next venue”?
Depends on the schedule. Sometimes, there’s time to look around, sometimes there is not. Frequently, the pre-show hours are taken up with press, gym and writing obligations.

Does this kind of lifestyle get lonely at times? Always travelling, rarely being “home”?
A little but I am not the type that gets very lonely. I have been living this way for many years and I am all about the work, not the hang out so much.

You also speak often about your experiences travelling in countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Saudi Arabia; what country have you been most surprised by, or fallen in love with?
None of it surprises me all that much, I just let things happen as best I can without getting too far in front of a place and put too much into what it is supposed to be. I really like being in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos. Southeast Asia is a great destination for me.

From following your Twitter, it seems like you’ve been spending a lot of time on the road with Dinosaur Jr. Do you get the urge to get back into music, or get nostalgic for the band touring lifestyle, in those situations?
Not at all. I like being alone onstage. It’s good for how I am now. I don’t want unity or to be in a group mentality at this point. I like the manual setting of being onstage alone. It’s very hard and very honest. It’s tough to be out there on my own, which is one of the reasons I like it. Also, I like being around less people on the bus post show and pre-show. I was never about the camaraderie.

When you perform, how pre-prepared is your routine? Do you have a set script that you follow each night? How much does your performance change from show to show?
I go to the stage very prepared. I don’t want to waste an audience’s time. The set changes a lot as new things happen in the world and I come up with things to talk about. I don’t write any of it out, I just work through the ideas I want to talk about and take them to the stage. I will do these ideas over and over and they get shape and speed. The US shows are different as there are more inside political references.

What can we expect from this particular tour of Australia?
I’ll be onstage, talking about where I have been, what I thought about it, what’s happening here or there, etc. It’s the same thing I always do but with different destinations, stories.

Henry Rollins performs at the IPAC on May 8th.

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