Henry Rollins on Occupants, the Occupy Movement, and the Radio

Categories: Q&A

There aren't a lot of middle-of-the-roaders when it comes to Henry Rollins. You love him or you hate him, and he gives you plenty of chances to do either: He hosts a radio show on KCRW (doing remarkable things like following up a Curtis Mayfield cut with a jam by Japanese drone-rockers Boris), he writes books, performs spoken-word sets all over the country, and shows up in movies and TV shows. He even writes for us -- kind of -- penning a column for LA Weekly.

"I don't turn down employment," says Rollins over the phone, discussing his new book of photography and writings, Occupants (Chicago Review Press). The book couples Rollins' sarcastic, violent, and angry prose with photos that range from disturbing to hilarious and span the globe. Rollins and I spoke about the book last week, though in typical Rollins style, the conversation took some unexpected left turns.

Up on the Sun: I really enjoy the new book, and I'm a big fan of the work you do for our sister paper, LA Weekly. . .

Henry Rollins: I'm enjoying that work a lot.

It definitely reads like it.

They give me a lot of room to move. I mean, I've never handed anything in where they're like, "No, no. Are you kidding?" When they edit me, they are always constructive. "That's cool, expand on it." I don't mind if I do. It's always very cool.

I'm a big fan of the radio show, too. My girlfriend lived in California until just a couple months ago when she moved back here, but one of my favorite things to do when I was out there was listen to your show on the radio. I still listen to it online, but I'm kind of a nerd. I like tuning into a physical radio . . .

It's fun. I love terrestrial radio. The idea of Internet radio [is good], and I listen to a lot of things online, too. Like, I'm in a hotel room right now in Seattle, [and] I'll be listening to online radio on and off until I go to sleep tonight. But, the magic of doing terrestrial radio, like KCRW, [is] that [it's] real radio. Someone says, "Well, I have a podcast," and it feels like you're existing inside a jar, a capped jar. There's no air in there, so it's not [real]; you're just kind of doing it alone, to nobody. When you are in real time, with people listening, there's something I got geeked on that as a younger person. It's still a rush for me to be on the radio, and I've done damn near 200 shows at KCRW, and maybe that many at Indie 103, and it's never not new for me. You know, it's still quite exciting.

I feel like that benefits the type of music you play, as well. There's always a sense of "what's going to happen next?" That's harder to achieve in a podcast, because you know that person figured it out at some point.

That's why I think terrestrial radio will always be safe: There will always be radio stations. I like the idea of Internet radio, in that more people could have a radio show. I think it's really cool when a guy from a band has a radio show or when a whole band could have a radio show, if they could keep it together.

A lot of people in bands really love music. I'm sure you've met a lot of band types who are ridiculous music aficionados. They have have sick record collections. They truly love music. Keith Morris, from OFF!, Black Flag, and Circle Jerks . . . that Dude knows so much about music. He should be on KCRW or a station like that. He should have a radio show. That guy is all over the place musically. I've DJ'd with him before; he's incredible.

In Occupants, you cover a lot of thematic ground, but there's one part in there -- the England 2008 entry -- where you talk about the "cut-out records," and how that was "your team." That made me think of your show, that someone like you or Keith Morris is going to bring out stuff that the average Clear Channel guy who's getting his playlist each morning . . . That's not what's going on with you at all.

Those guys are hacks. They don't listen to music at home, quite often. They just present music. And again, it's someone else's playlist. Those are all major-label types; they get told what to play. You can tell. You can tell they are disengaged from the artist they are playing. They're not listening to the whole album. They don't know the [artist's] back catalog. It's not real.

But a lot of people on radio [are] real. They are bringing records from home. At KCRW, everyone is a total music nerd. I work with really wonderful people, and they are all like that. You go to their houses, and it's just walls of records.

Those are the guys I want to listen to.

They are bringing stuff on the radio that they really can't wait for you to hear. I love that. I love bringing a stack of great stuff because I'm really looking forward to you enjoying it. I truly enjoy when I get a letter saying, "Thanks for turning me on to . . . whoever." It makes me want to go get that record out and play it while I'm reading that letter. "Yeah, I know!"

Radio will never go away because of that enthusiasm. You'll always be able to find someone who has good taste in music and will bring on a lot of great stuff. That's never going to stop.

So, about the book, it's called Occupants, and I guess I can't help but draw the line between the title and the Occupy movement. I'm sure you've been following the news . . .

Yeah, I've been to Occupy D.C., Occupy Wall Street, and Occupy Chicago.

What is it like out there?

Well, I'm reading the signs, and I'm talking with people, and their beef, and I'm not trying to distance myself from them by saying "their thing," but, finally, real issues are being addressed: campaign finance reform, the destruction of Glass-Steagall, bank deregulation, loopholes, the wacky high jinks of credit-default swaps, and all of that -- where America got taken to the cleaners, [as did] other good people of the world. A lot of people -- say, 99 percent or so -- who say, "Screw this." Finally.

I think this might be a bit of a broad brush, but the president should be most upset about this. This was on his watch. He dropped the ball, in my opinion. I like the guy. I voted for him, and I'd like to vote for him again, but he dropped the ball on this, and the American people picked it up. If anyone should be losing sleep over this, it should be Barack Obama. He's not a stupid man, by any degree, so I think he is probably like, "Yeah, I should have been on this."

What do I mean by that? He should have been calling out -- by name -- some of these bank people. He gives a lot of bad people a pass, in my opinion. That's the frustration a lot of people have with Barack Obama. They like the guy, but he doesn't bring his foot down. You're like, "Really? Not even on this one?" He won't get in there and throw his shoulder against any door. You know, you arrest 700 kids on the Brooklyn Bridge, but no bankers have gone to jail for defrauding millions of people? That's a little odd.

So the good part is, people are addressing real issues. The [bad] part -- and I want to be wrong about this, but it makes me dismayed -- is that, thanks to Fox News and the press and lots of outlets, this protest has been ghettoized and marginalized and turned into a "lefty, left-wing, hippie, patchouli, liberal, progressive thang," when in my opinion, this is a non-partisan concern. It's about as partisan as baseball and beer, you know what I mean?

Everyone can get this to a certain degree. So I was talking to some people at Occupy Wall Street, [and] I said, "If we're really getting down to technicalities, [with] what's being brought up, shouldn't there be a bunch of Tea Party people here?" 'Cause, they're not there, [but] their apparent grievances are kind of the same. Like, you know, "You ripped me off," [to] these banks. What's up with that? But Fox News says, "No, no, these are dirty hippies. The Tea Partiers -- they were great, and now some real grassroots movement; George Soros is financing Occupy Wall Street. And . . . no. There's no one I saw, at any of the Occupy protests I've been at, where I saw swastikas, people carrying guns -- aside from cops -- or signs with pictures of Barack Obama with a bone through his nose. That's a Tea Party event. Not an Occupy event.

Someone asked me, "What do you think?" But, to make this thing really rock, it should be shoulder to shoulder, no room to move, to Midtown. It should be 4 million people, to where Bloomberg can not leave his building. Not for fear of bodily harm, but just because of the humanity on the street. Literally, he can't get the door open. To where no cars can drive in lower Manhattan. Where's there's not enough cops to arrest them, there's not enough flex ties to cart these people off.

The cops, in my opinion, they've been breaking the rules. They've been violating the First Amendment. People do have the right to peaceably assemble . . . The cops' job is to protect and maintain the general welfare of the people, not arrest them . . . But they are taking orders; they are just kind of the infantry. I'm hoping in 2012, when the snow melts, this thing goes 10 times.

A lot of lines have been drawn between this and the Arab Spring, and a good chunk of your book takes place abroad. I don't think we're there yet. This isn't the Arab Spring . . .

No, and I don't think it's going to get that way. American law enforcement is not going to fire on protesters, and protesters aren't going to be firing Kalashnikovs at law enforcement. It's not going to come to that. I think you're going to see some serious tear gas next summer, but someone is going to lose some temper, and something is going to boil over. I think this is really going to rock next year. The snow is going to melt, and everyone is going to bring a friend.

I think, around July or August -- out of the heat or sheer proximity -- the cops are going to act out somewhere, and there will be a massive macing. Or, they might bring out some of that new technology. There's a new article in Harper's -- five or seven months ago -- about the new technology for crowd dispersal. You know, microwaving people . . . It doesn't kill you, but like all the sudden you feel like you are cooking alive, and you will go home. These piercing tones -- you lose your balance you fall on the ground, you piss your pants. All this is available right now. Made in America.

One thing about this book: You really delve into the mindset of "the other side." On both the right and the left, there's an unwillingness to do that. "Do or die; it's your country, right or wrong."

I do that a lot. It's an interesting exercise, and you get a lot of truth out of it. I like debating the other side's point of view. I like debating the death penalty, but be on the pro-death penalty side. I think that the death penalty is this awful, brutal, obscene thing, but I can easily understand the logic of some people [who say], "Look, the guy, with a surveillance camera on, hacked a woman to pieces. So let's take him out in the backyard and put a bullet through his head and save the guy's last meal. He's not worth it." I completely understand where that person is coming from.

But you can't be the United States of America and tell other countries how to do shit when you would do that. You lose the right to go to other countries and say, "Hey, wait a minute now" when you have public executions. Sanctioned murder. I try and understand other people's frustration.

A lot of it just comes from a lack of complete information. People like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh -- they operate on some of the facts and through cherry-picked information and they edit and take things out of context. It's incredible what some of these agencies do. You just can't believe adults would do that. Like, "No way? Really?"

Open up your eyes, sweetheart. It's how these guys play. It took me years to fully believe that. I saw it for myself, when you listen to some of these shows, and you read their statistics. It's like, "Wow, you're okay with lying . . ." It blew my mind. Now? I don't even flinch.

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