Henry Rollins’ furious schedule includes Claremont Folk Festival

The change of venue for the Claremont Folk Festival, which will be held for the first time this year at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, is not the only unusual aspect of this year’s music extravaganza.

There is a surprisingly edgy name among the eclectic lineup: Henry Rollins.

Mr. Rollins first rose to fame during his 1981-1986 stint as the furious front man for the hardcore punk group Black Flag. He has gone on to become an award-winning spoken word artist, notably winning a Grammy Award in 1995 for Get in the Van, a 2-disc recording of his Black Flag memoirs. He is also a busy actor, the host of his own radio program (KCRW’s “The Henry Rollins Show”) and a regular blogger for the LA Weekly.

The Claremont connection? Mr. Rollins is acquainted with the Harper brothers, whose grandparents founded Claremont’s Folk Music Center. Peter Harper—a sculptor as well as a musician who will make his festival debut this year—notably cast Mr. Rollins’ face in rubber a while back, in preparation to cast the mold in bronze as part of his “Faces of Life” project.

Mr. Rollins can’t recall ever being on a folk festival bill, but he didn’t think too hard when he was asked if he would perform at the 30th annual Claremont Folk Festival, set for Saturday, June 15 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“I was offered and I said sure,” he said. “They asked how much I charged and I said if this helps you guys keep putting this out here every year, I’m happy to do it for free. I think it’s a good thing what they’re doing. Done. No problem.”

His schedule was as punishing as ever last week, as he wrapped up the filming of a history-focused documentary in Washington, DC; filed LA Weekly columns at a time when most people are still in bed; and promoted his 15th book, a compilation called Before the Chop: La Weekly Articles 2011-2012.

Nonetheless, Mr. Rollins found time for a phone interview with the COURIER, a free-range talk in which he weighed in on everything from politics to punk.

COURIER: With everything you’re doing, you come off as being a bit of a workaholic.

Henry Rollins: People have accused me of being a workaholic. I admire workaholics—I think they’re onto something. I’m a mere work slut. I just like to do stuff.

When I left Washington, DC in 1981 to come to California, I left one of the many minimum-wage jobs I had up to that point. At age 20, I thought that’s going to be my life, $3.75 an hour and a lot of time on my feet. I had reconciled myself to that. I didn’t have a great deal of imagination.

When things changed, I still went at things with the same kind of gusto and anger, saying yes and eager to try different things out. The music thing came up and I said, “What do I have to lose?” Then there were movie offers and then voice-over work and talk shows. At this point, it’s an 8-day week keeping up with all of it.

COURIER: People often say that punk is dead. Do you agree?

Henry Rollins: You’ll find it in every generation. Bebop, jazz—it was this beautiful explosion of ridiculously talented musicians going against racism. The Velvet Underground, the Stooges and Andy Warhol were punk rock, and so were the Sex Pistols and The Clash.

People who break molds, who push back: that to me is punk rock. Is there still punk rock? Certainly. But you can make it with a violin or a paintbrush or a dance expression.

You’ll always have young people bumping into stuff, correcting that which needs correcting. You hear some youth band, plying 3-chord angry music and it sounds like a lot of stuff you’ve heard before. There are only so many notes and so many strings. You could ask what’s original about sex, but there are still a whole lot of people flocking to it. There’s nothing original about pizza, but it still works for me.

I appreciate it when a bunch of young people want to get together with instruments and bash it out for a couple of summers. I say, “Rumble, young man, rumble. Have those few summers in the sun.”

I’m also not one to say The Clash was great [and there’s nothing new worth listening to]. Find something that moves you. Go see the band. Sweat it out. Sing with them. Have that moment. Because at one point, rent turns into mortgage and you have a family, and it all gets so damn serious.

So now, when you’re not so jammed up with obligations, find bands playing this summer and go see them and dig it.

COURIER: You’ve said that you don’t make music any more, because you don’t feel you can bring anything new to the table.

Henry Rollins: Years ago, I stopped thinking lyrically. I can’t remember how to write a song now. It was with me and it left. I think rather than force something, it’s better to be honest and move on. Life is short. I’d rather taste all the flavors at the ice cream store than say, “I’m the vanilla guy.”

There’s a time in a musician’s life when he starts playing music. That’s when it’s time to leave. When you start playing music, you’re done, because then the music is no longer playing you. Music used to play me, obsess me. Songs made me write them. That stopped.

COURIER: It seems like the commonality between most of what you do is writing.

Henry Rollins: The writing gets bigger and more as I get older. It allows me to utilize everything I’ve seen in 52 years of living, every country I’ve gone to, the good parts and the bad parts. It brings my thoughts into focus. The writing still makes me write it, the words still choose me. I’d like to think I choose them, but they basically choose me.

COURIER: Reading some of your recent blogs, you use some pretty colorful language. When you were writing about the 2012 presidential election, you described the Republican primary, with its parade of potential candidates, by saying “The clown car was packed, and the jokes kept right on coming.”

Henry Rollins: To watch it all fall apart was kind of fun. There was so much vitriol, so much hot air…

When you watch Mitt Romney speak, there’s not one real thing coming off that guy. I’ve never seen someone of such a high profile be so incredibly disingenuous at every turn. It makes me uncomfortable. I think he is just a very successful businessman who ran out of stuff to do. He’s got money, he’s a good looking man, but he’s not really that into it.

It’s an unenviable job. Why would anyone want to be the president? If something goes boom in the night, it’s all up you. You’d have to have a massive ego to get up there and say, “I got this.” I so don’t got this.

COURIER: How would you characterize today’s political climate?

Henry Rollins: It’s the old guard clinging tenaciously to what they think is their birthright, their way of life. It’s guys like my dad, who is probably somewhere clutching an AR15 in the weeds, waiting for Sean Hannity to give him his next directive. I don’t know where the guy is, but if he’s still with us, he’d insist we’ve lost the republic.

I remember him saying, when I was 7 or 8 years old, “Henry, when you see any population with a noticeable amount of gay people, that’s a culture on its way out.” He’d kind of go off on these tangents—the beer helped. He’s seeing his America going away, being replaced by one that has a black president, in which marriage equality is being seen as a constitutional and civil issue, not a religious one.

Proposition 8 is going to die. DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) is going to die. Look at all those obstreperous kids making so much noise at convenience stores and bus stops. By 2016, a lot of them will be voting. Do you think you’re going to be able to sell them on a package that promotes intolerance for women and their reproductive rights and intolerance for people of color and for gay people? These are people who own rap records and have gay friends.

COURIER: What do you think is the line between keeping up with the news and going down the rabbit hole with conspiracy theories?

Henry Rollins: I think one of the best ways to get some answers is to just follow the money. With a lot of this stuff like Iraq, you just need to find out who’s making the money and get into them. Ask yourself who’s having a good day when a village gets obliterated. Well, if you’re selling munitions, your account is going to be replenished. Find the people who profit off of war. Find out who lobbies for them, and who they’re paying.

You don’t need conspiracy. You just need Shakespeare: greed, jealousy, betrayal.

COURIER: Do you feel there’s still good music being made?

Henry Rollins: Absolutely. I can’t keep up with all of the records I buy. One of the things that keeps me young is that I have big ears. Just because someone is 18, I don’t say, “What do they know about music?” There are young people making music I greatly admire, that I listen to with interest.

I don’t go by age. In a lot of Native American Indian tribes, age wasn’t a thing. When the elders met, everyone weighed in. You were considered a person as soon as you were born.

COURIER: How is 52 treating you?

Henry Rollins: I like to keep myself ageless. Fifty-two is just a number on a driver’s license. It’s the only one I’ve got. I can’t be younger. All I can do is be here right now and be more healthy to see if I can get more laps around the track.

There’s a great deal of hatred and contempt for Americans by American companies; look what they’re trying to feed you. They’re trying to pump you up, fatten you up, raise your blood pressure and kill you off, as long as you smoke enough cigarettes on the way out. I don’t want to go for that scam. My idea is sheer defiance.

COURIER: You’re becoming a sort of cultural arbiter. People are asking your opinion on pretty big issues. Did you ever expect that?

Henry Rollins: I was an awful student. I crawled through high school. Anything to do with English was a joy. Science was obtuse to me. Math might as well have been Sanscrit. History was just bored athletic coaches who had to teach history so they could coach their teams. It was never sexy to me until I was an adult.

But then I went to Berlin and saw the remains of World War II. I went to Auschwitz. It was not the most pleasant day of my life, but it was worthwhile. It made me want to know more. I’ve traveled to the Middle East, to South East Asia. I go to Africa one to 3 times a year. From that, you get an interesting idea of the world.

I’ve seen incredibly generous people who have seen so much awfulness wrought upon them. In southern Sudan, you see Dinka farmers using dead northern soldiers as fertilizers. You’ve got corn shooting through the soil, pushing clothing through. It’s the travel that has made me want to know more. It’s like tattoos: If you get one, you want another.

If you go to one country, you want to go to the one next to it. Anger fuels your curiosity and your curiosity fuels your anger. I’m not angry at you, or at anything. I’m just angry to go. I’m yelling as they stamp my passport: “Let’s go now, damn it. I want to check it out!”

Admission to the Claremont Folk Festival—which features performances by Henry Rollins, David Lindley, Peter Harper, Janet Klein & Her Parlor Boys, Leon Mobley and Da Lion, Moira Smiley and Voco, and Round Mountain, among others—is $25. For information about the festival, set for Saturday, June 15, plus tickets, visit www.folkmusiccenter.com/folk-festival.

—Sarah Torribio



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