American singer-songwriter, spoken word artist, author, publisher, actor and radio host – you may as well call Henry Rollins an all-round entertainment Renaissance man. Soon to return to our shores yet again in April/May as part of his extensive The Long March spoken word tour, he talked to Loud from Los Angeles about how much preparation goes into his performances, the current state of the music industry, artists he’s currently enjoying and more.
Q: You’re heading back to Australia again shortly. Some of your recent visits have been based around comedy festivals or just been short runs, so it must be exciting to be doing another fully-fledged tour this time.
A: Well, it’s always nice to be back in Australia; I think it’ll be my 28th or 29th visit when I come there in April. It’s always good; I love Australia since the first time I landed there. I have a great audience there and am looking forward to seeing them. So hopefully it goes okay.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the preparation you do for each tour?
A: Several weeks and months of preparation goes into tours. I never walk out there going, “well, what am I going to talk about?” No, no, no. I start planning them, basically when I come home from the last tour, I start planning the next one.
Q: That may surprise some people, because your performances always seem so natural and effortless.
A: A lot of preparation goes into making it sound so natural. I mean, I am relating to the audience in real time, but a lot of preparation goes into knowing where everything is, so you don’t have to look at where you’re reaching your hand, if you know what I mean. I’m always putting new material in, so it doesn’t turn too much into a reflex. Because these stories, they being what they are, after a few nights, it is what it is and you can almost kind of almost do it word-for-word, in that, what, are you going to change the reality of the story? You can’t, the story went down the way it went down and that’s that. And so, what I do to make sure I don’t fall asleep at the wheel and just kind of dial it in, which is never what you want to do. I’m always adding new material to the set. There’s new ideas, new things to get across and things to put in play.
Q: Are you also mindful that there are people who will go to multiple shows during a tour, and you don’t want to give them almost exactly the same performance?
A: Well, I know that people come to multiple performances and I don’t necessarily think I owe them more than I owe anyone else in that audience. But people say, “yeah, I saw the tour three times last year and although some of the stories were the same, your approach to them was different every night and I really enjoy it”. And I go, “okay, cool”. But people go to different nights of the same tour precisely for that, they just go, “yeah, I like to listen to the subtle changes and things”.
Q: Like a comedian it likely evolves naturally, even without you realising it sometimes.
A: Sure. And also you’re in a different country; I have different stories to reference. Like when I was in Australia 20 years ago, this happened. And I’ll tell that story, and so different countries get different memories that are attached.
Q: Some of your most popular stories relate to music. Do you have a particular sentimental favourite along those lines?
A: No, because when the tours change, I have to flush the material and start from scratch. That’s why so much planning takes place. I come to the end of a tour and I wipe the chalkboard clean. So when you come see me again, you’re not hearing 30 per cent of what you heard last time. A lot of comics apparently do that. I could never dare do that to an audience. I think they’d probably just stone me; I’d be truly afraid of doing that to them.
Q: What are your thoughts on the current state of the music industry? Obviously record sales are in free-fall and there’s a huge flow-on effect there.
A: Well, I think the industry is readjusting. It’s readjusting to downloading and all of that. So I guess the lawyers are busy with things. For myself, my world is very small, in that I don’t have big records. I’m not some major force in retail. I can’t say I don’t care; I wouldn’t say that. I just don’t, it’s not really a thing that hits me where I live. Maybe that’s the best way to explain it.
Q: It’s not really on your radar then?
A: Yeah, just because I’m not Madonna, who might be losing… I’m sure she’s still not really put out all that much, I’m sure she has a few dollars left. It’s not like I’m going to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars because eight million kids want to download my record. Are you kidding? The Chili Peppers give away more records in promo than I sell. That’s where it’s at. I’m not putting down the Chili Peppers; I’m just saying, a big band, it’s a whole different level they’re operating on. Like if you’re Metallica, I guess you’d be concerned. And in principle, I might be concerned, because I guess it’s stealing. Like when you go download someone’s album and just put it in your iPad and go on your merry way, I guess that’s what you would call that. I don’t know what else to call it. I will say that I don’t lose any sleep over it, nor am I going to come hunting for my 65 cents. When kids write me and say, “dude, I just downloaded one of your albums, are you mad?” I always say, I’d rather be heard than paid, kiddo, which is true.
Q: Does much new music excite you these days?
A: Yep, I listen to a lot of new music. I listen to all kinds of stuff all the time. I listen to a lot of really small labels, small labels out of England like Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers, an American label called American Tapes. Basically a lot of crazy, avant noise stuff kind of has my attention right now. Not listening to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, not putting it down, I’m just saying as far as new records. I’m buying a lot of weird noise stuff, Japanese avant music, listening to a lot of really hard metal like High on Fire, Lair of the Minotaur, Electric Wizard, a lot of stoner metal like BONG. Really cool stuff but fairly underground.
Q: Agreed on High on Fire, fantastic band.
A: Yeah, really good, really good.
Q: Could you have envisioned 20 years ago that you wouldn’t be listening to a lot of new rock ‘n’ roll?
A: No, I mean, I’m open-minded. I’m not putting rock ‘n’ roll down, it’s not like I’m throwing out my Thin Lizzy records, ‘cause I play them a lot. And I’m listening to weird, cool, drone sitar music or avant Japanese stuff from Yoko Ono’s first husband, Toshi Ichiyanagi, who is amazing. He has a record out from 1968 which is just insane. These are records my road manager turns me on to, because that’s kind of his world, is avant and weird German music, weird Japanese music, which I find much to my liking, fascinating. So those are the records I’ve been buying and listening to with a great deal of interest. You know, and still listening to Zeppelin and Sabbath, etc, etc. But ten years ago I probably wouldn’t have had all of these kinds of records in my record collection, ‘cause as you grow older, hopefully your mind expands, you want to hear more, you’re more interested in things, we hope.
Q: So the 30-year-old Henry Rollins wouldn’t really be surprised by what the 50-year-old version of you is listening to.
A: Right. ‘Cause the 30-year-old me was buying jazz records as soon as I, if I had an extra ten bucks I’d buy a jazz record, ‘cause it was kind of new to me. And now, all of this weird avant stuff is new to me. So basically I got my ears open for something I’ve never heard before that sparks my interest, and once I get interested, look out. I’m on it like a cheap suit.
Q: Any famous last words?
A: Yeah, looking forward to getting back to Australia, that’s the truth.