Henry Rollins 2016 spoken word tour of the UK starts this week. Tickets from here.
Before hits the road he speaks to LTW boss and Membranes singer John Robb about the art of spoken word and why he opted out of the various Black Flag reunions…
No-one comes close to the sheer volume of word iron that Henry Rollins pumps in his spoken word that are so mesmerising that the three hour talks feel like thirty minutes.
If you have never seen Henry Rollins deliver his marathon pieces then we urge you to get to one of the shows on this tour.
These are stunning displays of wordage- it takes some doing to deliver poignant, heartfelt, darkly funny and perfectly executed talks on music, politics, emotional skree and the world like this and the former Black Flag frontman has turned it into an art from.
There’s been a mighty torrent flowing under the bridge of life since Rollins last made his way round these shores a couple of years ago. No doubt plenty of this has seeped into his set which he stokes with trips round the world to less visited corners of the planet to fill his sense of wonderment as he peers through all echelons of our planet on a nervous breakdown with a gimlet eye and a compassion. These pepper his talks about his life, his music and our culture that has turned spoken word into an artform.
One of the mainstays for the 54 year old is still the impact that punk rock had on him when he was growing up and the fantastically and artfully distorted vision him and fellow Washington DC traveller Ian Mackaye got of the musical form as the ad hoc musical imports would turn up in the local record shop.
You don’t interview Rollins you enter his world in a waterfall of words…by the time I turn on the recorder he is in the middle of talking about one of his favourite bands and a key influence on the DC scene, Wire.
Rollins : ‘I found the last album pretty cool. I didn’t initially understand the point of it though in some ways, but it’s still a great record. Some of the songs are like their Document and Witness album and I was obsessed with that record. It still sounds amazing. The band’s debut Pink Flag album was really important to us. To many in DC that was a huge record. It really kicked our ass. I’ve read other people’s interviews from the time and they say the same thing – saying there was nothing like that sound before. Bad Brains coerced Wire into what they were already doing and that had a real effect on them and all of us. Everyone was going, ‘whats this!’. And then Chairs Missing came out and it was so different and I remember everyone going, ‘is this the same band!’ and been blown away by that record as well. 154 was also amazing in yet another different way. I had to get these records and they were hard to get unless they had been domestic realises. I remember cool, hip friends having the Mannequin EP and then I got Pink Flag from domestic import record stores and I tried to get everything from the Wire bootlegs that were coming out to the Peel sessions and then being the fanatic that I am I got all the solo stuff as well, the electronic stuff, Bruce Gilbert solo records. Everything.’
LTW : This fanboy fanaticism is a key part of his spoken word but also his great radio show.
Rollins : ‘Wire are just one of the bands that I play most weeks on my radio show. It’s a 52 week radio broadcast year and Wire are on a lot but the Fall are on even more. They are, like on on 25 of the shows a year – I like to check in with Mr Smith and see what’s going on as much as I can. Ty Segall as wll – I play him all the time and I play a lot of Wire.. They always sound good, really dense sound and sound good whatever they are played next to…’
Rollins : It’s all my effort to get young people to buy records from the bargain bins or lost corners of record stores and feel as excited as I did buying punk rock records. Explaining that if you like Joe Strummer you should like what Sun Ra is doing and if you like Sex Pistols then you should have time for Hawkwind. It all fits together and it’s time to pull your head out of your ass and be more broad minded. There’s not enough time to hear all the great records there are and certainly not enough time to play them all! I hand it to my listeners for listening! I play records from the 1940s to the current times. From listening to the past you learn that people were bucking the system at every turn even then in my country. Every generation has done that musically. All the way playing the same kind of music with an awareness and anger and looking around. They were shaping the way a thinking person’s music and that it could be more than ‘baby, baby, baby’. It makes me mad sometimes that side of punk rock that we are supposed to be stupid and play dumb. No! we are supposed to be the anti stupid. Stop being dumb! c’mon I thought punk rock was like bebop jazz or whatever and it was all coming from the same place in my option and coming from an intellectual intensity and I want to be fully awake and I’m doing this. When we are very awake we can check on the government and call them out. That’s the scene I come from in Washington DC when we had gigs 2miles from the White House – you could really feel it.’
LTW : Politics is now all too real and all too visceral as the recent Paris terror underlined.
Rollins : ‘If you are on the streets and kill people you will create fear as you know killing tourists are easy targets and make headlines. The terror network are know trying to outdo each other and try and and create another horror headline whether it’s a gig or a venue. In their eyes these are great places to blow yourself up. Paris will not be the end of it and it will not be the last attempt to do something like this unfortunately. If you are a tourist you are a target because if it’s your aim and your intent to kill then this would take very little effort and you go to where the people are and you kill young people like in Paris. If it’s an old person there are not enough people left around to mourn you when you die that’s how cynical these people are.
My response to Paris would be to say lets quadruple the amount of gigs that we do and the amount of gigs that we go to. Lets do 5 gigs a night. Lets have a nonstop festival. Lets get more young people together so they don’t decide to blow other young people up.
The politicians are going to do what they do and you can’t stop that with songs and an acoustic guitar or with music but you can try. If we could get people into one place and get them to work it out and get a consensus happening that’s a start and this is what rock n roll can do.
2016 should be music overload. Instead of 50 shows, lets do 150 free shows, free festivals – lets get thousands of people in awareness. We will never beat terrorism – it’s like like herpes – you find ways to control it and then there is another outbreak. ISIS or whoever is next will be there 40 years from now sadly. But maybe it will never be guys turning kids into chopped meet at venue again. Maybe an angry kid in Pakistan thinks about joining the jihad may think twice about it if we can reach them. It might sound naive about using music but I think it’s a good idea. I’m going out there with a vengeance. Let’s defeat terrorism with an optimism. This should not be happening, not on my watch. Not on your watch. This will be part of the set for the tour and the talk in major cities.’
LTW : The talk! the three hour experience is mind boggling. How do you prepare for such a feat?
Rollins : ‘All of my shows, tour after tour, follow a formulae. Some of the stories are hand picked from the interesting fruit trees from round the world when I’ve been travelling – central Asia, the African continent for the TV shows and documentaries I’ve done. Since the last tour it’s all been very eventful and there’s been a lot to comment on from South America to Easter Island, then the river Amazon. I’ve even be leaning about the biodiversity of the Antarctic peninsula and learning about the different kinds of ice and glacier flows and sea life in and out of the water. I was speaking to scientists about the poles and now I’m busting with information…that’s part of it and then there is the music related stuff as well.’
LTW : Is the spoken word format the best one for you to tackle these big and wide varying issues.
Rollins : ‘Being on stage talking makes more sense to me than being in a band now. I’ve not done that for many years now. How I interact with the world is easier to deal with like this and I can’t think how to interact in any other way. Spoken word is my primary audience contact and music is a second. When I was on stage playing music with my own drummer if I screwed up there was safety net but also a set structure whereas if I want to say something in a spoken word set I can turn a topic on a dime and I don’t have to agree with the bass player about anything. I prefer the room to move. The freedom it gives me. I did music non stop for 25 years and the thing is I can can do without it. I can’t wait to go come back from Antartica and tell you about it but would I be able to do that in a song? Being on a 55 date speaking date makes more sense to me. The thing with rock n roll and music is that I don’t reject it as an art form – if anyone else does it then that’s fine but for me when I stopped doing music I’m was done with it. It was like someone had put a chip in my head and I ran out of lyrics.’
I didn’t want to do a music tour and do old material. If I didn’t write it this year then it’s old for me. It’s like fighting a battle that has already been won. It’s like becoming a war re-enactor like those civil war actors. Not something I’m interested in. Black Flag went out a couple of summers ago and they said come out with us and sing but, for me, those battles have already got fought. Those were not songs. They were battle hymns. They were not tours. They were way we killed it. All they are now is just pantomime and I don’t want to be that guy. I take my cues from Miles Davis or My Bloody Valentine like I play this thing 40 minutes before there are even songs. I don’t people saying they liked what I did once. It has to move on. I have no problem with other people doing it. Next week in New York Dinosaur Jnr are playing a series of gigs and I’m going to all seven shows.. I will be at J Mascis’s side of the stage. Iggy Pop plays back catalogue…and that’s fine. But when I left music I was done. I was having more adventures doing other things like I would show up in a movie see if I could act – it’s their fault if I’m in the movie. I’ve done documentaries all over the world for National Geographic with docs you get access to stuff like American history and we get to roll out the initial blueprint for the White House with Lincoln and Washington’s signatures on the paper and the next day I stare at the bullet from Lincoln’s skull fasinating stuff – I could be doing that or I could go on tour and sing twenty year old songs…’
LTW : It’s not that you have a problem with the various versions of Black Flag that are out there…
Rollins : ‘I never got a phone call from Greg. I like these guys. They are good men. Exceptionally good people – even if I didn’t agree with the intent. Keith is one of my heroes – a few of those guys come round to my house and we had a meeting and I said ‘look it is what it is – old codgers playing 30 year old music!’.
Keith said we have the right to play it which is true but my suggestion is why? does it boil down to finance, lack of artistic bravery or something else? If I’m not doing something that has not got the risk of failure then my heart is not all the way in it. If I’m 99 per cent on it that’s not enough – the one per cent poisons the well for me…’
LTW : Is the same true with films?
Rollins : ‘From the audition you either get the part or they say you suck. I like that. You hear ‘no’ and that’s good for me. When I’m in a movie me and 340 people fought for that part I know the score. I’m only interested in fighting for my part and the confrontation at Warner Brothers with 8 other assholes who want the part. I have got to get out there and make this happen and that suits me. No safety net. With the talk shows there is no safety net. There is no snare drum to keep me in time. With a rock band if I screw up a lyric no-one can tell because it’s so loud. When I’m on TV within one the two syllables you can tell how shit I am. I can’t rip off my audience. I work hard to prepare my sequence, to speak to an audience.’
LTW : How much do you have to prepare the spoken word show?
Rollins : ‘A lot! I talk to the walls in my room. I take long walks before the tour and say the show out loud. I live alone and I’m off round and round, pacing back and forth. I speak under my breath. I’m still pacing before the shows. I pace back and forth for an hour working through the idea. When I’m onstage 20 minutes into the show there is no warm up I’m already at maximum intensity because I have already been talking for half an hour before I’m on stage. I’m always pruning the talk. If it sucks I lose it. If you don’t take the bilge on stage and only take the good stuff and keep chipping away to make it lean and mean on stage and I can make you laugh or engaged then it’s working.
I move very little. Some crowds are very level headed, some laugh a lot in parts and that energises you. Some audiences are more fun. Some audiences are faster. Some are slower like the audience in the lower half of America. Boston, London or Dublin – now that’s a fast crowd. They are sharp! A bad gig in Manchester is a bad gig. They give you no mercy. I love the UK audience they really listen . No audiences suck though. It’s just about the audience having a different metabalism. East coast people talk fast and you find that you are faster. In Mississippi they have that wonderful ‘hey man, what you doing you are? feel.
London is one of the faster crowds – it’s like banf bang bang. It’s like firing bullets back at each other. It picks up my metabilism. It makes my mind sharper. I know I’m not smart but I’m ready for those two plus hours because I’m in shape. The rest of the time I’m a wreck. With a fast audience it’s like a band audience – the more it’s into it the more it gets that it will be a great show. The audience helps you find your rhythm. It’s true of talking shows as well. Some audiences are hostile skinhead guys or you get places like Sheffield or Melbourne and that audience goes off and you lose bodyweight keeping up. Like the old CBGBs gigs where there was no air to breathe and I’m choking on my own vomit and that’s the best show that month because it’s New York man. They are going off as hard as you are and the whole audience and you collectively collapse. An audience like that you give them everything. You give them the future. A bad audience can be like the outskirts of Colorado where you can argue with drunks all night.
It’s different from gigs even if there are a lot of the same elements with the same focus and preparation. Talking shows and music shows are the same physically and mentally. You have to train for both. Talking shows are much harder as there is far more information to get through. Thousands of words and three hour long shows. The prep is the same though – it’s engaging with a live audience to upload the signal before putting it out. It’s precious so don’t waste that time…’