Henry Rollins is a dangerous man.
Over the course of a career spanning more than three decades, the punk rock icon has systematically set his sights on a thousand different forms of authority, all the while resisting the conformist pull of the very industry he manages to make a living from. There are a lot of so-called rebels out there who look like children’s show hosts next to Rollins, and most of his contemporaries are either babbling their lives away in drug funks or starring in ads for car insurance. Or they’re dead.
And yet despite his reputation, in conversation Rollins speaks gently, with surprisingly good grace. He might have a reputation as a warrior – as an old-school anarchist, a Hunter S. Thompson type with all the subtlety and manners of a bull terrier – but more than anything Rollins is eager to talk about his loves. Or perhaps love, singular, given music seems to be the obsession that drives everything he does.
Rollins is even a connoisseur when it comes to smaller-scale Australian bands, and name-drops acts as diverse as Hierophants and Straight Arrows. “There’s so much good stuff in Australia, you almost wonder if there’s something in the water,” he says with a laugh. “When you see all these bands from Sydney to Brisbane, Melbourne, Geelong…” He sighs. “There are so many great ones.”
“I’ve always found Australia to be interesting in that – don’t take this the wrong way – you’re kind of nowhere in the world. You’re not Europe. You’re not near America. You’re kind of blessed in that you’re not tied to all these countries. In your own way, you’re kind of left to your own devices. There’s a lot of purity and originality that can be derived from that relative isolation. I’ve always thought you are left alone enough that true talent can grow without getting stepped on, redirected or somewhat corrupted.”
Rollins’ patronage of the Aussie scene doesn’t just extend to simply buying albums or mentioning bands in interviews – he finds the opportunity to spruik acts from Down Under whenever he can, writing articles for LA Weekly about our record stores and filling his radio show with tunes from artists like Summer Flake. His piece on Sydney’s own Red Eye Records wasn’t just an account of a store – it was a devotional, a paean to the endless possibilities of vinyl.
“In Australia, not living there, I can’t keep the closest track on what’s going on,” he says, almost despondent. “Between trips to Australia, a lot goes on musically. And I miss things, even though I pay attention. And I do pay attention.”
As far as Rollins is concerned, the vibrant Australian scene represents a nice change when compared to America’s more claustrophobic community. “In America everyone’s in a band, and everyone’s trying to play the Super Bowl half-time proceedings … You hear these bands, you’re like, ‘Are you kidding? You think someone can’t tell your record collection?’ They’re so derivative it’s painful. You feel sorry for them.”
The one-time Black Flag frontman and now spoken-word artist’s pity is a terrifying thing. He resists the idea that contemporary American bands might be paying homage to nostalgic acts; he barks out a laugh when the phrase is mentioned. “I don’t even think it’s that conscious. I think they don’t listen to that much music and all of a sudden they want to be in a band. And so they go from what they know – but what they know is not much. MTV doesn’t even play music videos anymore.”
He considers for a moment – softens. “This is in more the mainstream,” he says. “The mainstream has never done much for me. I find as time goes on, you really don’t need to leave the independent world of music. It is quite alive and quite well and churning out amazing music, while the mainstream is just deadened. You feel bad for them, all these fans who like all this mediocre stuff, because you can’t throw a Ty Segall record at them and go ‘here’ and have them go, ‘Wow, thanks!’ They’ll go, ‘It doesn’t sound like (insert platinum-selling album artist here).’
“Well, I don’t feel that bad for them. They’re adults, they can make their own decisions. I just think the mainstream crawled away and died and is still producing sound. It’s still emitting content. Whereas the alternative world is really exciting. I mean, every once in a while someone will write me and say, ‘Music sucks now,’ and I’m like, ‘Not at my house, man.’ I can’t keep up. There’s so many good records to listen to, you’ve gotta stay up late and get up early to keep up with them. It’s a great problem to have.”
A great problem, and one that Rollins tackles the same way he has chosen to combat so many other obstacles in his life: systematically, with an awe-inspiring mix of dedication, perspiration and sheer unbridled effort. Henry Rollins doesn’t just listen to music – he listens to music.
“There’s protein listening and carbohydrate listening,” he explains. “Protein is when you’re burning. You’re finding new bands, you’re trying to push yourself. You’re listening to bands [and] you know it’s good, but it’s tough. You have to drag yourself up to it. You put in the time. And on weekends or long plane rides, I go for the carbohydrate listens. Carbohydrate listening is basically the music I’m familiar with. Comfort food for the ears. So I do five or six days a week protein and about four hours a week carbohydrate.”
For Rollins, the internet has been singularly useful in his quest for new protein listens to devour. He’s a proud patron of websites like Bandcamp and the endless pleasures provided by YouTube’s ‘suggested videos’ bar.
“For me, the internet has been a great tool for listening to music,” he says. “If I can listen to your album for free, or listen to songs on your Bandcamp page, [then] if I like what you’re doing, I’ll buy your record. And [I like] the fact that I can listen to it first, so I don’t have to gamble – you’ve not penalised me 99 cents for a download just for me to hear I don’t like your music.”
Ultimately, nothing about this man is casual. Nothing is half-arsed or perfunctory. To hear Rollins talk about buying records and listening to music is to hear a man talking about his very life’s work. “I’m very careful with my money, ’cause it came to me very hard,” he says. “I never had an inheritance. I went out and earned my money. So I’m not interested in buying drugs or fancy food. I want something I can use next week, next month, next decade.
“You take care of your records … man, you’ll be able to play those records as long as you’re living,” he says, and there’s no mistaking his tone. It’s the same one he used some 35 years ago, back when he first barked out the chorus hiding in ‘Rise Above’ like a snake in the undergrowth. A tone of sheer, terrifying conviction.
“When everything else falls apart in my world, it’s just too bad I can’t eat vinyl,” he says. “I have enough of it here. I think it’s the one thing in my life I got right.”