INTERVIEW

Henry Rollins calls U.S. men "the dumbest creatures" & Trump "wrongest possible" leader for pandemic

The hardcore punk legend spoke to Salon about life under lockdown and his amoral role in the creepy "Dreamland"

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published June 5, 2020 7:00PM (EDT)
Henry Rollins in "Dreamland" (Uncork'd Entertainment)
Henry Rollins in "Dreamland" (Uncork'd Entertainment)

I had a great conversation recently with Henry Rollins, the L.A. punk legend turned "performance poet" turned king-of-all-media Renaissance man. It was literally just a day or two before the nation erupted in protest over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As a longtime crusader against police brutality and other forms of violence, as well as for the rights of marginalized and victimized people, Rollins would absolutely have things to say about that. So the context for what you're about to read is yes to pandemic lockdown, but not quite yet for uprising of 2020. 

I didn't tell Rollins that I was never a huge fan of Black Flag, the famous or infamous L.A. hardcore band he fronted in the 1980s. I guess I'm confessing that now. Demographically speaking, I ought to have been: Rollins and I are both white leftist dudes from the coasts, and come from exactly the same Boomer/Gen-X crossover micro-generation who were teenagers when punk rock emerged in New York and London. Back in the day, he might have derided me as an overly arch and artsy "new waver" and I might have spurned him as a humorless and overly macho avatar of hardcore. (We would both have been right.)

All these years later, such supposed divisions are even less interesting than hearing old leftists recall their quarrels over some doctrinal point of Marxist theory. Rollins has been moving away from music since disbanding the Henry Rollins Band (successor to Black Flag) in the late '90s, and quit it entirely about a decade ago. What's he been doing? A bit of everything that can be driven by his outsize, outspoken personality: spoken-word performance, playing with snakes, radio and podcast hosting, men's advice columns, political activism — oh, and occasional acting, which was the proximate reason he got on the phone with me from his home in Los Angeles.

Rollins plays a supremely odious supporting role in Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald's violent and disturbing shaggy-dog thriller "Dreamland," a movie I quite enjoyed, even if I'll have a hard time describing it. McDonald himself is something of an underground legend from the punk era, best "known," one might say, for the 1996 rock mockumentary "Hard Core Logo." (Absolutely freakin' see it, if you haven't.) "Dreamland" — now available on-demand and through streaming platforms — isn't going to make McDonald famous or anything, but it's a memorably trippy voyage into Eurotrash sex-trafficking darkness, with a peculiar undertow of artistic longing, even wistfulness. Along with Rollins, it stars Stephen McHattie, Juliette Lewis and Icelandic actor Tómas Lemarquis, for a triple or even quadruple bill of "people who definitely ought to be more famous than they are."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity — but not that much, because Rollins is a natural performer who never loses the thread.

Henry, I can't help thinking that with all the stuff that you've done over the years, music, politics, activism, all the different forms of cultural attack, this must be a weird and difficult period. How are you dealing with all this?

Well, it can lead one to a great deal of introspection since you have so much damn time to sit there, depending on where you are economically. If you're front-line, your life is incredibly tense, I imagine. I have a home that has everything in it: my offices, my studio, my gym. So in my life, I'm doing my normal workday because I can hit the gym from the office by walking up the stairs and down the hall.

My excursions are getting the mail two days a week, on Wednesday and Saturdays, and groceries, which is, like, really minimal. I live alone so that's just every 10 days. So my relationship with the outside world is — I've used a quarter-tank of gas in the last six or seven weeks. I'm not trying to make light of the situation, but my world hasn't changed that much. The thing that I've been dealing with is realizing when you see all the car ads, "Hey, we're going to be starting our engines soon" — don't sell me a car with your idea that we're going back to anything.

You really need to get rid of the idea that one day we're going back. That's not going to happen. Everything is new. You really got to put on a new set of clothes and move forward. There's a lot of stuff you're just going to have to leave behind. I really did not know how much I took for granted. "Let's go out and get a cup of coffee!" That's a tricky maneuver. Really? To go into a building was pretty cool three months ago.

So that's the thing I've been dealing with, being a touring guy. It's like, wow, did my livelihood just kind of pack up and go away? Me and every agent worth his or her weight in salt are speculating on this, because it is what we do. I don't see it coming back. So when people are like, "Yeah, just a couple of years," I'm like, "Yeah, I don't think so." So I'm trying to reinvent kind of my everything. Luckily I can kind of get by with my shabby writing. I own the publishing company, so I sleep with the owner every night. So I've just been working on the stuff I was going to be working on this year anyway.

But I worry about our wonderful fellow Americans. Some of them have this pandemic hubris. Like, "That virus wouldn't dare." Really? You're not that tough, and it's not trying to be tough. You're pounding the wrong bit of sand there. So when I see these youngsters out at the beach and all that, I'm like, "Wow, two weeks from now . . . " I want to be wrong of course. I don't want to see those awful statistics. This is kind of the wrong country for something like this to hit, with the wrongest possible person in charge.

It certainly seems that way. It's hard to imagine anyone worse suited for the role.

In an election year, with a desperate person trying to hang on? Looking at the news outlets this person uses. I don't think it could get any worse for good people who I might have disagreements with — and that part is fine. I don't want them dying this way. I want them dying of old age a long time from now.

But for all of us, it's a lot of time, no matter what you're doing, to sit around and see everything be different and wonder what the next step is. Me, I'm just radically embracing what I think the future is going to be. I don't know what it is exactly, it's just not what it was three months ago.

In terms of the way you see the larger society, where's the balance for you right now between hope that we can push some kind of a reset button or fear that things are going to get worse?

Well my hope — not to jump on Nietzsche, I was 16 a long time ago — but hope is the first sign of defeat. For me, my optimism comes from the hard news, from your Tony Faucis of the world who say, "Look, this is tough right now but we're working no doubt 24/7 on vaccines." So my optimism, which I'll supplant for hope, would be rooted in medicine, science, epidemiologists. Not radio show hosts, thank you. Just people who do this for a living and who have seen things like Ebola, etc., before. My optimism is with science and those are the people I take my cues from. I listen to those grim reports and go, "OK." Not someone running for office.

You've written things that I felt were very moving and very forthright about the issue of masculinity, about the issue of how much men cause themselves to suffer, maybe when they don't have to. In a crisis like this, are you concerned for some of our gender that they're going through some s**t that they don't necessarily have to, because they're not thinking things through and being smart about it?  

Yeah, well, we're the dumbest creatures on the planet: men, male homo sapiens. I mean, we're just a hopeless bunch. You really can't help us enough; we need all we can get. That whole "masks are for sissies" thing, that's where I go, "Please, man, scientists are not trying to get you to lose the arm wrestling match. They're trying to save you, man." 

I felt kind of weird putting a mask on many weeks ago, not because I'm a tough guy because I'm not, just because putting something on was weird. Now I realize I'm doing it to keep you safe from me. Now I wear it, I have a discipline. I go to the grocery store, my bimonthly trip to Trader Joe's, I put it in my t-shirt collar so I know I can't forget it. I put the seatbelt on, when I take the seatbelt off in the parking garage, I mask up. I'm into it.

I don't think I'm carrying anything, but I don't want to chance your health. In many cases all that tough-guy stuff, it really does not only do you, the man, a disservice but the people around you. Family, people at the store, people you should be really cool with. I mean Jared Yates Sexton's book, "The Man They Wanted Me to Be," is just a beautiful piece of work. A lot of the way he describes his father in the book reminded me of mine. I saw some of the things I had fallen for as a young person and, I don't know, just kind of walked out of years later. It's a thing in this country. I've been to about 100 countries and I've never seen such a tough-guy parade, besides maybe Australia and South Africa, two other countries where white people went in and kind of took everyone's stuff.

When you see these dudes in, like, Lansing, Michigan, or wherever with their bizarre fascist dress-up showing up with automatic weapons, what do you make of that?

Yeah, why do you need a rifle to go down to the building downtown? I mean, where'd you get all that stuff? Out of those stores where you go and there's another guy: "Like, yeah, man, I think I need three more magazines. Yeah, man, you better arm up because Obama's coming." They just kind of talk themselves into it. "I think I need a camo glove warmer. Yeah, man!" 

Listen, the first millionaire of the California Gold Rush was the guy who had the store that sold the pans. Well, I think there's people making mad loot off of your glint-free dagger for night operations when the liberals come for your guns. Like some tree-hugging guy is going to try to take your AR-15? The whole thing is . . . So when you see that amount of guns, and the whole day it's like, "See, we didn't even use them!" Are we supposed to say thank you? You're a good boy? What was that? Then you see this amazing governor [Gretchen Whitmer], who's this calm woman, just kind of smiling like a school teacher, like, "Well, that was that, and I'll take my 72% approval rating and go back to work now and try to save you. Gotta go." It can make a sane person worry for his or her country.

I think it was Tom Nichols who just wrote a piece about how if anybody views Donald Trump as a symbol of manliness or masculinity, that's an indication of how depraved that whole idea has become. He's the least manly person in the universe, but he's become the projection for those guys.

Yeah and it's too bad. It's not for me to denigrate fellow Americans. I just think all those people are better than what they're saying and better than what they're doing. I understand the anger. I understand the fear, the financial fear, fear of the future, and all those things. They're a bunch of sissies. I'm not looking to get beat up. I'm just saying, all that is real. Uncertainty, let's call it that, that's all real. Hell, I'm uncertain, and it keeps me up. I slept at least three hours last night wondering what the hell I'm doing, if I have tour dates ever. I think about it a lot.

So they're better than the nine magazines strapped to their chest as they kind of stand impotently in front of the building with enough ammunition to take on whatever. They're better than that and the argument, since it is life and death, it deserves more intellectual health. It deserves better hash being slung in the conversation than, "We're going to show up with a bunch of guns, stand around and then go home." You didn't prove anything. You just really upset a bunch of people. Did you enjoy yourself?

So I think we're all better than what we're being fed and what a lot of us are doing. My manager, she goes out every day, walks 10 miles in the morning, and gets yelled at for the mask. Like, what are you doing? I haven't been yelled at for my mask yet. I don't want to, I'm not looking, I never thought that would be something that would get me into a thing. But she said, yeah, a couple of people in the blocks around her home are like, "What's up with that?" I don't know, life? So I'm sorry that's where we are but I can't say as a lover of the country and a fan and an observer that I'm all that surprised.

I imagine we could talk a lot longer, but talk to me about Bruce McDonald's movie "Dreamland." You have done some acting here and there, you're not brand new to this, but it's never been your main gig. Tell me about what drew you to this project because it might be related.

A couple of things. Bruce, the director, is a solid pal of mine for over 20 years. 

Yeah, I was thinking that must be true. You guys would get along.

He's just a joy to be around and a joy to work with. He's one of the cooler, neato guys you meet in your life if you're lucky. So when he writes me about something, I'm all ears because it's you, man. So he wrote me and said, "Hey, look at this script." I quickly read it and looked at this character who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Pretty close to that, yeah.

No, he's got nothing. Trust me, I've studied and studied. There's nothing good about this guy except how he ends up. What's worse than a pedophile? One that feeds kids to a pedophile. So he's worse than the perverts depicted in the film, in at least one scene. So I'm not a pedophile.

That's good!

So I just had to be, like, can I throw away all my morality? So the way I got to the idea of the character was I decided that Hercules was the name he got from a woman who is trying to get away from him, or a prostitute, who said, "Oh you're a real Hercules" because she's just playing the guy. The next day he tells all his friends, "Oh yeah, the ladies call me Hercules." And everyone goes, "OK, man, just call him Hercules so he'll leave."

Everyone is like, "Oh, Hercules, yeah, everyone loves Hercules." He's like, "Yeah, that's right." That's kind of how he is. I mean look at his awful clothes and the fact that anyone would say "I'm Hercules," unless you're a chihuahua. 

We shot the thing in Luxembourg, which is a fascinating place to live for a month. Not a whole lot to do, like at 7 p.m. the coffee shop is closed. It's like living in a Hallmark postcard because they had the Christmas things going. Literally, every citizen is out in this big city square with the lights on and hot chocolate. You're like, "Are you kidding me, man?" You see how cynical you can be as an American. So I worked with these amazing people under the steerage of Bruce. We wrapped out towards the end of the year and all went home. But that was like two and a half years ago.

So the indie world, as you know, is a struggle in how you get distribution. So I guess they've been working to do that since I went home. It's not my department. It's a trippy film. Juliette Lewis is utterly amazing to work with. My personal MVP for the whole thing was Tómas the vampire [Tómas Lemarquis], who in my opinion stole every single scene he was in, and kind of stole the whole film, despite all the great talent that was assembled. He's just amazing and a really fascinating guy to hang out with.

"Dreamland" is currently available in theaters, on demand and digital.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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