Jul 05, 2016 11:11AM

Henry Rollins Talks Trump, Trans Rights & Sydney's Lock-Out Laws

"There are a lot of Americans who are very angry."

Henry Rollins is not someone who's often at a loss for words, but when the subject of Sydney's controversial lock-out laws comes up in our conversation, he's momentarily struck dumb. It's the first he's heard of it. "But it's a night-time city!" he says, sounding genuinely concerned. "That's very puritanical. It's like being in Salt Lake City, Utah or something. And Sydney is like super gay and very switched on. When I was there for Mardi Gras, I was [staying] off Crown Street at the Adina and that neighbourhood, Surry Hills, was just pumping. It seems counterintuitive to a city that is that lively… It just doesn't make any real sense! Oh well," he sighs. "I hope you all come to your senses."

One thing you always hear about Henry is that he has an amazing work ethic, which is true (at the end of our 20-something minute conversation I still have questions; he offers to answer them by email and sends back thoughtful, succinct responses within hours). He's soon to embark on a month-long tour of Australia, which, in addition to the standard east coast cities and a spot on the Festival of Dangerous Ideas bill, will also take him everywhere from Margaret River to the Blue Mountains to Alice Springs. He is, categorically, not interested in having down-time. "I come from the idea of I like being on stage. I am not looking to go on tour and not be on tour. I don't go anywhere to sit in a hotel. I've had the same agent [Tim Pittman] in Australia from 1989 to now and it's always the same conversation. He goes, 'OK, how many shows?' and I go, 'You know me!' It's always about three and a half weeks with around 20 shows."

Performing that many shows in that many days is just the tip of the iceberg. Henry's schedule is insanely full: as well as touring his spoken word show all over the globe, he hosts a weekly radio show on KCRW and a fortnightly podcast with long-time collaborator Heidi May; he also writes a regular column for the LA Weekly that covers whatever Henry is thinking about that week (anything from a meditation on the joys of travel to a passionate takedown of North Carolina's anti-trans bathroom laws). He advocates for the gay community, for trans folk, for the marginalised. He is palpably smart, and would probably be intimidating to talk to if he wasn't so damn nice.

By his count, he's visited Australia 36 times since 1989; this year's tour will bring it to 37. "I have found that on the east coast of Australia, the more north you go and the closer to the weekend you get, the louder and more helpful the audiences get," he says. "If there's a pause, someone will fill it in for you. After a few beers, they become quite interactive. Anything from Brisbane [and up] has a 'yahoo' celebratory element. And so by the time you're up in Darwin, the audience will leave their seats after the show and sometimes follow you backstage and come into the dressing room, like" — he affects a broad Australian accent — "'Hey! How ya goin'!'"

It's not that he's against audience participation. It's just that he's a perfectionist and doesn't want to be thrown off his exhaustively studied routine. "The reason I don't leave much up to chance is because I work very hard at being clear and being impactful," he explains. "I'd rather go on stage very prepared, having separated the wheat from the chaff, and not on your time. I'm not saying I'm pulling a string out of my chest and my mouth is moving, I'm engaged, it's just that I've really thought over the material very carefully before I dare take it in front of an audience. I have a lot of respect for the audience but I also have a very healthy amount of fear. I'm really not into disappointing people. The number one thing in my life I can get wrong is letting down an audience. I lose sleep over it."

He applies the same hyper-perfectionism to everything he does, which, lately, includes a lot of acting. Henry says he doesn't think of himself as an actor, but if someone wants to hire him, he's going to come at it with the same level of intensity that he devotes to his spoken word. The types of shows his appeared in have been varied, although he tends to get cast in the same kind of roles — military types, violence-prone misfits, charming sociopaths. He played a prison guard in David Lynch's Lost Highway way back when (of working with Lynch he says there was "Zero let down. He is as cool as you would hope he would be"), a white supremacist on Sons of Anarchy, voiced antagonist Zaheer on The Legend of Korra, played an immortal cannibal on He Never Died and is soon to appear as a religious nut-job/psychopath in The Last Heist. Do directors just look at his bullish neck-to-head ratio and think 'villain'? "I guess," he says. "I don't think I am an actor, so if that's what they see and I think I can do the job well, I sign on. Basically, I am very grateful for what comes my way. If it's bad guys, I'll take it. It is a very liberating thing to be the bad guy. When you can leave your morality at the door, it's an interesting way to spend the day."

Perhaps getting into that headspace is an outlet for him, given that he spends most of his days delivering the kind of speeches that make you want to be a better person. Perhaps it goes a way to explaining his capacity to put himself in other people's shoes. When our conversation turns to the US election, he says he understands how the average American could end up pro-Trump. "There's been a concentrated effort to dumb down the average American through public educational delivery systems for about 40 years, and only after decades of that could a guy like Trump have any traction whatsoever," he says. Once he starts on this track, his monologuing instincts kick in. "When I was like ten and Nixon was president, Republicans and Democrats were smart, the voters were very intelligent, and words mattered. When [a politician] said something in an interview, the press corps would be on [them] going, 'What did you say!?' It would be very critical. But now all news outlets are for profit and, as the head of ABC said, Trump is bad for politics but he's great for business. That kinda tells you everything. Trump is crass. He makes me laugh. I'm no fan, but he says something and I'm like 'OK, you're a pig but that was funny'. There are a lot of Americans who are very angry, and their anger is real and their anger is defendable. I'd be angry about those points too but I'd be directing my anger in a different direction and Trump would not be my mouthpiece. But the anger is real and Trump in his own way speaks for these people. And so what you have is an electorate, we the people, who don't travel much, who don't have time to read like we used to, and in that environment with a lot of financial instability, a guy like Trump can get a lot of traction."

He continues: "If you look at America's history, we're not that interested in progress, we're not that interested in equality, we've had ample chances to right the wrongs from 1865 when the Civil War ended to right now, we've had millions of chances to get it right and we're not that interested. So something like House Bill 2 comes up — some people are outraged [but] I look at it and go, 'Yeah, that's how we roll!' We love to separate, we love to divide, we love to point fingers and go, 'See, all those filthy queers!' We'll say something, we'll find something to beat them up on. I'm getting tired of it. I've just kind of resigned myself to that I live in a country where people like to shoot guns, like to take drugs and like to start wars."

It's a slightly more fatalistic position than I had expected from Henry, given that his spoken word is usually a life-affirming experience. "The reason I say I'm resigned to it is that some people will change and some of this is generational but things can progress, as they have," he explains. What frustrates him most is that while there's a movement towards meaningful social change, there are elements of the population determined to hold onto their exclusionary politics. "I mean, we don't have slaves anymore — hooray! — but we still have a long way to go. We could be double speeding this without even breaking a sweat and therein lies my frustration. But I'm resigned at the fact that we're always gonna have some kind of bigotry, misogyny, homophobia etcetera. My goal is to never fall into it and to influence and inspire as best I can by getting up and shooting my mouth off, writing things, going on stage, talking about it, inspiring young people to vote. I would never tell them who to vote for — I wouldn't dare. I just wanna get them to the ballot box."

Henry Rollins will be touring Australia from Friday, September 2 until Sunday, September 25 — for full details and to buy tickets, click here.

He will also appear at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House on September 3 — for full details and to buy tickets, click here

Photo: Heidi May

Nadia Bailey