This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 9. Grab your copy here.
We sat down with the inimitable Henry Rollins at Splendour to chat about why being a music freak is good for you and his unquenchable thirst for Australian music.
HAPPY: Mr. Henry Rollins! How are you going?
HENRY ROLLINS: Hey. Nice to meet you. How are you?
HAPPY: As a massive supporter of underground music here in Australia can you tell me about any artists or records you’re currently enjoying?
HENRY ROLLINS: From Australia? I’m kind of a fan of labels. There’s Sarah Mary Chadwick who’s on Rice Is Nice. She’s fantastic. She’s a Kiwi. She used to be in Batrider. Great band. Her new record, Sugar Still Melts In the Rain? Beautiful record. She’s got a new live album coming out soon which I haven’t heard yet but I’m getting a download.
She’s just one of my Australian, well Australian-based, favourites. I bought a bunch of records just recently at Strange World in Melbourne and due to jet lag and “Sounds good! Put it in the pile!” I don’t know what I bought! I usually have no idea what I’ve bought.
I will buy anything on the Bedroom Suck label. Anything on AARGHT!, anything on ANTI FADE – I just think I like what they do. I’ll buy anything with Mikey Young’s name on it, mastered by or produced by. He’s just a smart guy, makes good choices. His own music is fantastic.
I love the AUSMUTEANTS. I was here early this year – and these were bands that I would never see otherwise – but I had a night off in Melbourne. I was here making a documentary and Richie [Ramone] from Strange World said, “The AUSMUTEANTS are playing tonight with Straight Arrows, do you want to go?” NO WAY!
So I went and I got to see both bands which was so much fun. They were fantastic. But if I didn’t have that night off there was a good chance that they would breakup before I ever get a chance to see them.
And oh! Terry! They have a new album called I’m Terry – it’s coming out any second now on Upset The Rhythm out of the UK. Chris [Tipton] who runs upset sent it to me as a download for my radio show. Sounds great! They don’t make bad songs that band. They’re fantastic.
HAPPY: They’re songwriters!
HENRY ROLLINS: They’re great. I don’t know them but I’m just a fan. And so that’s a band I pay attention to. I play all their songs on my radio show.
HAPPY: As an American, what do you hear in the sound of these Australian bands? They’re groups which people would loosely call ‘underground’ or ‘punk’ but there’s not real way to describe them.
HENRY ROLLINS: I just hear the super energised creative force of these young people. And I’m old so I call everyone ‘young’. But I just think they understand guitars, they understand melody. I love that these bands breakup so quickly like, “OH NO! They’re GONE!” And then they kind of reform.
I was talking to the singer of Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Brendan [Huntley]. He was over at my house a few weeks ago in Las Angeles. I said, “What is it about with these bands?!” He goes, “Oh we just move on. Someone will go to Europe and all of a sudden you’ll have no drummer, so you just make a new band.” So I said, “No one sticks around! Like even Eddy Current, gone! Boom then there’s this other band. Boom! Gone. What is it?” He just goes, “We get on to the next thing.”
Like Dick Diver. Another great band. I was talking to Steph [Hughes] back in ’16. I said, “New record?” She was like, “I don’t know!” What do you mean you ‘don’t know’?! And so I don’t know what it is with these bands. You kinda blink and you miss them. It makes it really fascinating as a guy not from here to try and keep up.
HAPPY: Zephyr Pavey – who’s in Total Control with Dick Diver’s Al Montfort as well as Mikey Young – said to me the other month that there’s no expectation that these bands are ever going to make money, so they just play to the fans. They’re only going to make music when they want to make music.
HENRY ROLLINS: I think that’s it! Because I don’t think there is money in it. When I saw Straight Arrows and AUSMUTEANTS I was in a storefront. It was like me and 25 people all smashed together. I didn’t pay to get in. Someone let me in – I hope I didn’t screw them up!
HAPPY: Do you think maybe they recognised you?
HENRY ROLLINS: Oh no. I kind of just blagged on with Richie and snuck in with him. But I talked to the bands and they thanked me for putting them on my radio show. I’m always trying to drag my listeners to the record store. Like, “Buy records! Keep these bands fed! They really depend on you!” That’s why. I get given some records, but I’m a record buyer. I know where the money goes. I used to be one of those guys, you know?
HAPPY: There’s a sense of community which sits around record stores, especially in these smaller scenes. But digital technology seems to have been a disruptive force…
HENRY ROLLINS: To me, digital is a mixed bag. In that the upside is that some guy will write me, “Dude! Check out this band! They’re really cool!” OK. I go online and can go to their Bandcamp page and listen or I can go to YouTube and listen to the whole album. If I like it I go to the record store and buy it. You just sold me a record man!
If you want to be curious, “I want to listen to John Cale’s solo records now that my big brother gave me his Velvet Underground Record.” You can listen to John Cale and go “I like it” or “I don’t” for free! You can go, “Wow, he’s my favourite guy now!” and go out and get his records because the internet allowed you to be curious and not have to pay for something you didn’t like. That’s the upside.
The downside, in my opinion, is that the currency of music has become devalued. For me a record is something I buy, I want to take good care of and I want to play again when I’m 90 – which is in a week and a half! But when it streams and you pay a monthly subscribership? Okay cool, but then music is just this thing. When it’s, “I stole these files from my friend.” That’s a band that’s in a van eating their toenails they’re so hungry!
We’ve made music into this thing that you download or you swipe or stream. We’ve kind of devalued it as a currency. Then you stop thinking of the band and the band maybe even stops thinking as much of themslves. I think you’ve got to put value into things. If you pay a lot for something you take really good care of it. If you get it on sale you walk on it. You drop it on the ground. And so I’m afraid of music becoming devalued because it means so much to me.
HAPPY: I guess you were part of an era where, through American ingenuity I guess, this whole constellation of bands – Black Flag being one of foremost – built an infrastructure for themslves. You were on the outside…
HENRY ROLLINS: Totally! We were rejected by everyone else. We had to build our own.
HAPPY: I’ve heard you own a first pressing of the Ramones’ debut. Can you tell me about the impact of that band on you as an artist and more broadly?
HENRY ROLLINS: Absolutely! You know I was born in 1861, so the bands that were relevant to me were what I heard on the radio. Foghat, Van Halen, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller – what’s now known as classic rock. But I wanted more. I’d play these records and they’re not angry! I’m angry! I’m a teenager. I want to burn everything to the ground. A buddy of mine – still my friend to this day – Roberto said, “Henry, I got your soundtrack.” And he loaned me the first Clash album. You know I had to give it back the next day. I played it three times and it blew my mind out.
I gave it back, begrudgingly. Then he gave me the first Ramones album. I took that home, played it three times. First two times I didn’t get it. I was just like, “What are they doing?! This is ridiculous. Where’s the guitar lead? Why are the songs so short?” I just didn’t get it. But then by the third time I went, “Oh! Favourite band.” [Clicks his fingers] Like finally, it’s here! That’s when I discovered I’m a punk rock guy.
And like a year later I saw them play. Stood right up front. Got sweated on by Dee Dee. It was a revelation. They were so powerful. One song after another for like an hour. They killed you, you left like you’re… wounded! So powerful. And that’s when I started seeing The Clash, going to punk rock shows and realising I shared a talent with the Bad Brains. I’d go see the Bad Brains with thirty people at a house party. Then my friend Ian MacKaye starts Dischord Records. Minor Threat, Fugazi – off that goes! And so that music – Ramones – represents to me a big sea change in my life that I’ve never recovered from.
And punk rock? I’m one of the 80 million people who punk rock saved my life and five nights ago I gave Seymour Stein – who owns Sire Records and who signed the Ramones after seeing them play for 20 minutes – his lifetime achievement award. It was my way of being able to thank him.
HAPPY: Another digital disruption is that we tend to listen to music – an album – once. We’re not stuck with them like you were with that Ramones record. We don’t buy a CD or record anymore and take it home to try and figure it out because we’ve paid 20 dollars for it! Do you think that filters back and changes artist’s creativity or is there a human element that’s always going to be the same?
HENRY ROLLINS: I think that’s a great question. I think eventually it might filter down to the artists. I hope not. But when you just download a record or stream it and didn’t pay 20 bucks, maybe it’ll get more listened to. You won’t be able to put too many coats of paint on the house, but you’ll be able to paint a big house. You have a lot of music.
I listen to a lot of records once. I buy a lot of records I only listen to once, a lot of noise records. Wolf Eyes! I got 800 of those records. One time then I gotta go because I’m going to be dead soon! Other records I’ll listen to for the rest of my life. Over and over. Obsessively.
HAPPY: Could you tell me about some of those?
HENRY ROLLINS: Okay sure. Like The Damned, the U.K. Subs, The Stooges, Iggy, Bowie – I mean that’s just in my blood. I gotta hear those records or I won’t be able to live.
HAPPY: Do you think its tied to a certain point of your youth or are there other records that came further down the track?
HENRY ROLLINS: Yes, absolutely. But. Dinosaur Jr take me to my happy place. Bands like Terry. I play those records all the time. They’re just so good. I think as a young person you might miss out on, “Having my favourite record DUDE!” if you just stream. I recommend grabbing a couple of Bowie records. Definitely get Raw Power and Fun House by The Stooges. You really need them.
HAPPY: Of course!
HENRY ROLLINS: The first Velvet Underground! Television’s Marquee Moon. Get like 10 or 25 must-have-these records and play them all the time. Become a music freak, it’s good for you. And then you’ll know whether you need to vinyl or just a one-time-one-time-only. Keep an open mind. And with that I must go!
This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 9. Grab your copy here.