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Real Conversations 1 Excerpt: Henry Rollins

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V. Vale interviews Henry Rollins

HENRY ROLLINS: I’m runnin’ too fast, doin’ too much stuff with too little time as always. Just been in the studio for ten hours working on my band’s record.

VALE: And on a Sunday, too—-

HR: Yeah, it was the only day we could do it. I’ve got a voice-over job at 9 AM tomorrow morning. Then I go back to the studio and do the next shift–bright and early the morning after I go to New York for shows. We’re just trying to get it all done.

V: I have this theory that “underground” or “alternative” has somehow become associated with the kind of violent, pseudo-push-the-envelope content that appears on Hard Copy. And this is siphoning off a lot of once-rebellious curiosity and energy that a few years ago used to go toward, say, finding books like you and I publish—- Henry Rollins

HR: Yeah. I think there are a lot more players and a lot more pretenders to the throne now. And that’s where all this “new access to communication” kind of kicks you in the teeth: because even the mediocre can make their thing look really good. I see a lot of independent books and I open them up and they’re really bad. It would make you not want to pay attention to the “underground book world” when you see some of these books–they suck! And why did that book come out? Because anyone can lay out and design a book at home now, take a Zip disk, send it to a printer and get a book back.

I remember the first time I did a book by sending someone a disk–I think it was with your old girlfriend. Before that, me and Laura used to hand-layout galleys. Ohmigod, that was excruciating! It was all “busy work” and you couldn’t make a mistake–it was like prison. Especially if it was a big book: “Oh god, there goes my weekend and four days of next week, my eyesight and my sanity: making it line up on that little blue grid with my hot wax roller.” Man, you’d come to the end of the book and think you’d been through Dante’s Inferno . . . getting to the other side. Whereas now, you kind of blithely modem something to someone in Hong Kong, and then a book comes back in a crate three months later: “Wow!” So there are a lot more people in the pool now.

I just think there are a lot of mediocre books–on the Simon & Schuster level, and on the Manic D level . . . on the big and on the small there’s a lot of “Eh” material. I think a lot of “Eh” people are picking up pens and guitars these days–I really do.

It also happened with indie music, too. We had all kinds of really cool bands. Then all of a sudden there were a ton of bands, and you had to start weeding through them. Then what happens is, you have an indie record store with more records than it’s ever had, but only 30% of them are good. And people lose interest after a while when they have too many choices and get stuck with too many mediocre things they dragged home for a big chunk of their paycheck . . . whereas Marlboro always delivers! Budweiser always delivers . . . and the pot dealer on the bike–he delivers too! (Y’know what I’m sayin’?) And Jack Daniels will always give you the same result.

Just like big music labels like Warner Bros. have always done, I think a lot of indie record labels started going for the cash. Like, SubPop had a little period where they thought they were gonna be able to sell people anything because they had Nirvana for a second . . . A lot of indie labels, when they got hooked up to a major label for their distributor, are all of a sudden having to go to these meetings at long tables and get filled with b.s. that two years ago they would swear drunkenly they never would have stood for. They’re now working happily with people they swore they would never speak to . . . going into buildings they vowed to torch, in angry poetry in years gone by. And you know, I might be one of those. But I was never the one to say, “F— major labels!” Personally, I’ve never been burned by a major label–they pay on time. It’s the indie labels I’ve had to go after, and yank my stuff away from.

I’ve never had a problem with Publishers Group West (PGW; independent book distributor), or a Tower Records account, ever. But in the old days, back in the SST world, with Pickwick, Greenworld, Enigma–all those companies . . . we’d be on the phone: “Please pay us! Please pay us! We’re starving.” “Well, don’t worry–we’ll get back to you.” “But it’s supposedly due in 90 days, and now it’s been 140 days. Please! Do what you say you were gonna do!” I’ve never had that happen with Sony when I worked with them; I did Ozzy Osborne’s video press kit for his last record, and the last Black Sabbath record. They paid me on time, they did everything they said they were going to do. Sony, who could have my legs broken any hour of the day–Pink Dot would do it for them. They can call in an air strike if they want! But they dealt with me fairly, every single time. It doesn’t make me like them any more, but y’know, it’s hard for me to put them down.

V: Well, the Sex Pistols were always on major labels: EMI, Virgin–

HR: And they took the money and got kicked off. They got paid and they were paid to leave. Well, good for them! And also they got a cool song out of it (“EMI”). But when I was on Imago, people went, “F— you–you sold out!” I asked, “Do you like the Clash?” and they go, “Yeah!” “Well, they were on CBS”–which is Epic, Sony, from the get-go. So, whatever. It’s not the label you’re on, it’s where you’re at.

I’ve grown to want to be trustful of labels, because I was aware of the integrity of, like, Dischord, or SST–I worked at SST, kind of; we all did, because we were living on the floor there. These are high-fiber people who wouldn’t sign something just “to sell”–they sign something they think is good. Ian MacKaye at Dischord doesn’t put out anything unless he thinks it’s good–he doesn’t care if it’s gonna sell ten, or ten thousand. If it’s good, it’s going on the label. Luckily he sells a jillion Fugazi records, so he can finance his smaller bands.

But I think that even on the indie level, there are people who go, “Okay. I think this will sell.” And all of a sudden they’re putting out cutesy stuff that just sucks. It’s offensive, cloying, and at its worst it’s mediocre. If it were catastrophic, it might be kinda cool, like the Vanilla Ice “live” album–that’s kinda cool because it’s so bad. But with his last effort, he tried to do a rock album; it is mediocre and it’s a bore . . . because it’s a mediocre guy trying to “fly right” and he doesn’t have it. But when he was at his grossest, he was kind of amazing!

I do see some indie books that I think are really interesting, though. I love that book on Death Metal. It’s a book I would want to put out because it’s a book I went out and bought. And the topic–that whole world of those people–is really fascinating to me. It’s very telling of where this country’s at: that kids are so bummed out they’re going to that extreme to vent it. So there are good books coming out.

I would trust a label like RE/Search because I know you. Even as a consumer, looking at the track record, it’s a label where I would put a bunch of money down and say, “Look, here’s a hundred bucks, just send me stuff as it comes out until a hundred bucks runs out.” Because I know you’re not going to put out anything that you didn’t put a ton of energy into and don’t absolutely love. I wish people had more faith like that, but it’s hard for people to have faith in label integrity when so many labels belch out a lot of stuff where you go, “Nope . . . nope . . . nope . . . nope.”

There are a lot of bootleg labels now, like Sea of Tunes that always puts out Beach Boys bootlegs. They find the most amazing stuff, like entire session outtakes from the master reels–someone has broken into the vaults. And I buy everything with that logo on it, because I know what it’s going to sound like. And if you want Beatles bootlegs, you go to Vigatone. They don’t put out anything that doesn’t sound great–you can hear Paul McCartney’s hair growing, it’s so clear. And even though it’s a bootleg label, the level of integrity and quality is just outstanding. I mean, if they were a legit label, they’d be the critics’ wet dream! Because everything is just top of the line.

So, I’m loyal to labels on account of I want people to be loyal to mine. I know that when we put out a Rollins book, we’re gonna do fine. I mean, it sells 10,000 immediately and it just keeps on going. The whole company’s afloat from my back catalog; print run after print run just goes. It doesn’t fly out the door, but it’s steady enough to keep the lights on, the rent paid, and the employees salaried–and that’s not bad . . . the fact that after all these years, those books still sell.

The merchandise, the T-shirts, still go steadily; every three days there’s a Glad bag full of orders for UPS to drag out to the truck. And I know a lot of people who, when I had my little record label going, just said, “Look, I don’t know who Alan Vega is, but if you put him out, he must be good. So I went and bought the record and–man, that dude’s cool!” I managed to generate some kind of interest for a minute there, where people said, “I’ll take a chance, because I want to be taken somewhere.”

I think the challenge you and I face is to find these people. I refuse to think they’re not there anymore. I just think that in America they’re probably harder to find. There are probably less of them than there were, just because these people have less of an opportunity to let their proverbial “freak flag fly” [quoting Jimi Hendrix]; they’re too busy. The real world encroaches upon our thing more steadily every day, like a rainforest getting eaten away by high-rises. It’s hard to take a book like yours home and read it when you’re 21 and balancing a kid on one arm, you can’t make car payments, and you’ve got this really hellish job.

Americans get a lot of gear thrown at them these days–more than when I was a high school graduate. I got out of high school in ’79 (Wow, I’ve been out of high school for twenty years; that’s a nice, round number!), and man, has it changed. On the level of violence, pollution, consumership, sex–it’s all changed. Sex can now kill you. It used to be: at the worst, your girlfriend would get pregnant. And that was like a catastrophe. Now, it’s like: I could die. And the stakes are higher. If you had a minimum wage job you used to be able to split a crummy apartment with your friend. Now, that’s trickier; now there are three people in that one-bedroom.

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