Saul Williams Vs. Henry Rollins | The Exclusive Interview

When we were approached with an opportunity to interview rock & roll icon Henry Rollins, it took about .5 seconds to say "HELL YES!" But the more we thought about it, the more nervous we got. I mean, Henry is a pretty intense guy. Would he tear us to shreds over the phone with a verbal barrage of insults? Would he talk about some 13th century Japanese author we know nothing about and then rip our hearts our of chest? So, in an effort to spare ourselves certain death at the hands of one of rock & roll's most intense, interesting and thought provoking personalities, we decided it would be much more entertaining (and beneficial to our health) to pair him up with an equally intense, politically charged wordsmith. The first person that came to mind (obviously) was poet/musician/actor Saul Williams, possibly the only person in the universe who could go blow for blow with this intellectual heavyweight. Here is the result of that meeting of the minds.


SW: Lets just jump right in. My first question is, there is an Ethiopian tribe that says that essentially male adolescence starts at the age of 23 and goes on to the age of 42, being that the age that manhood begins is 42. What do you think about that?

HR: Oh I don't know if anyone can put a real rule on any of that. I see very, very young people in all kinds of incredible environments, having to be men very early on. Ya know, dads in jail, wherever all of a sudden a very young person is kind of the man of the house. I don't know if there is any rule on any of that. Maybe as far as attitudes, understanding and maybe men picking up and stopping their male bullshit, or at least get a handle on it. Maybe their 40s is a time when you can start separating the wheat from the chaff with logic and basic, decent conduct.

SW: Do you feel like you have a better handle on things now than when you were younger?

HR: I do, but that is just me. I think with humans, I don't think you can really generalize much besides they get hungry, tired and stuff like that.

SW: Gotcha. I have a lot of friends that believe in stuff like fasting and I know that you have written routines and disciplines that either is on the extreme of asceticism or on the extreme of indulgence. I was wondering if you had any insight into the idea of asceticism versus indulgence.

HR: Well, for me every bite of food that goes in my mouth, ya know, nutritional intake is kinda goal oriented. Right now I am training for a tour that goes through August. At forty-five and going out to play rock music in hot places, you just can't not train for that and diet for that and get an optimum outcome. So, I guess I don't know if I would indulge in anything. I'm kinda like a racehorse. If I didn't feed myself somebody would stick the appropriate food bucket in front of my face, and fasting... I've never fasted. I don't see the good of fasting unless you have a religious or spiritual thing attached to it. I try and do the right amount at the right time of day. And indulgence, well, I've been known to eat some cheese popcorn now and then.

SW: [laughs]

HR: It's not like I go on big binges. In the wintertime, when depression sets in, I've been known to buy that odd block of Vermont cheddar cheese at the supermarket. Basically I'm a lightweight.

SW: You're a lightweight. Alright. So, I wanted to ask you your views on the current Da Vinci Code phenomenon. I know that on your show you try to focus more so on the art house, more obscure films and maybe turn people on to something that they perhaps were not familiar with. But, I feel as if this is a phenomenon and I was interested in knowing what your insight is on this.

HR: Well, God bores me.

SW: [laughs]

HR: If it gets someone else through the night, great, but The Da Vinci Code is a book I'd never read. I don't need any kind of new version of what did or what did not happen to Christ or secrets of the Bible. It's not a book I've spent a great deal of time in besides reading parts of the "New Testament" in hotel rooms. Parts that I've read we're really cool, seems like some good common sense, be nice to people, there is nothing new about you or anybody else under the sun, etc. That's fine. Rather than Tom Hanks and somebody else running around to figure something out about God, I think that some Christians had better figure the fuck out that women's reproductive rights belong to women and not to men and not to people waiving Bibles.

SW: Right.

Christians who are running around with the idea of irreducible complexity, and they can't figure it out with science then God must have done it should stay the fuck out of public schools. That is my fucking Da Vinci Code.

HR: And tell other Christians who are running around with the idea of irreducible complexity, and they can't figure it out with science then God must have done it should stay the fuck out of public schools. That is my fucking Da Vinci Code.

SW: [laughs] Alright... uh, I read an interview where you said what you felt was the key to happiness. It seems to me as if, lets say, you ask people about their life now it is based upon love, and I question whether yours is essentially based on work?

HR: Yeah. I don't have a great deal of love in my life. I love my work but I don't know many people. I've met a lot of people, but the people I see most often are those that I work with. I mean, the girls here at the office, my band mates and road manager, those are the people I see the most, cuz those are the people I work with and I work all the time. Past that my phone really doesn't ring on the weekends. I like seeing some people I grew up with when I am in my hometown of Washington, DC, people like Ian MacKaye who I've known for over thirty years, as well as his family. They are great people and I look forward to seeing them, but the work is the driving motivator in my life. It is my focus. I get up every day, seven days a week, and work. I guess I am a workaholic.

SW: It seems that way.

HR: The girls at the office say I am a lightweight because I don't pursue relationships, and you know, get the steady girlfriend or the wife. They are angry that I don't breed.

SW: [laughs]

HR: I like kids I just don't want any. It looks like a lot of work and that is such a road well traveled I'd rather travel some other ones. Ya know, when you see dads at airports being like a baby roadie with all the gear, it just really is not for me. I like to go sleekly and quickly, as one man with one passport in his hand and run to the gate and go. I guess work would be what I'm all about at this point. But you never know. You battle with someone in the supermarket for an eggplant and all of a sudden you're in love.

SW: Has this happened to you? Have you become smitten?

HR: Hell no!

SW: [laughs]

HR: No, in my life it has happened a few times where I saw a girl and I became so overwhelmed I almost felt sick. That has happened to me once in my life.

SW: Did you follow through?

HR: Yeah. It took me a while. I'm shy, but I followed through and it was a cool six weeks, but we weren't for each other, but we tried. I don't get lonely, and I'm not some tough guy or a hard guy. I'm not trying to put that across. I am just very work-driven and I'm on deadline all the time. I've just got to deliver and kinda, in my line of work, it is result oriented. Ya know, 8pm, stage, gotta go. By 4pm on most every day of tour I'm just a wreck getting ready for the show that night. So when someone says, "Hey, how come you haven't called me, what's that tone in your voice," I really can't hear that.

SW: So, being someone that people are always trying to get in your head and ask for your opinion and advice on stuff, do people come to you for relationship advice still?

HR: Mmmm, no. Well, yeah, angry guy dumped by girl.

SW: [laughs] Like teach me some of that alone shit.

HR: I get "Ya know I'm really depressed and I'll never meet a girl like that again and I'm twenty-one." Son, you're twenty-one. It is a big world out there and you are going to have a really good time. You are gonna meet lots of women, and humans are complex tricky creatures. If only we were dogs then shit would work out better but humans are very complex. There are a lot of reasons that things don't work so you don't have to call the girl a bitch because everything a person does is coming from a real reason. She cheated on you? Well, she wasn't getting what she needed from you. She is getting something she needed from this other fellow, or woman or whatever that she left you for, so you gotta move on. But don't kill yourself. Don't drink yourself into a stupor. Don't drive to the guy's house. None of that stuff is appropriate behavior. And believe it or not, you're gonna be fine.

SW: You mentioned DC being your hometown. What role do you think Henry Rollins and Bad Brains played in the then definition of punk rock?

HR: Well, that was one of the greatest music phenomenons of my lifetime. Bad Brains. To this day I have never seen anything that was better than the Bad Brains at peak performance. Maybe something that was as good in its own way, but it's not like you're gonna bring some band on stage that could have blown that away. Especially in the time that Bad Brains emerged. There is nothing like that, especially in our microscopic music scene, which was bar bands putting on skinny ties trying to hang in for one more summer with the booming New Wave. Young, earnest punk rock types, like myself, and everybody else on the Dischord label, ya know, just picking up instruments and going at it for the most part in a mediocre standard fashion, and then here comes the Bad Brains out of the ghetto. Out of East Capitol Street or wherever those guys were from... a fucking terrifying neighborhood. We saw them open for The Damned summer of '79 right before they recorded their demo. That was the set they played. Imagine not having heard the music that makes your shelves groan right now. Imagine not having any of that context and here comes the Bad Brains, with the guitar player has got on scrubs with fake blood. The singer is in a torn suit with staples and chains, and they come on and do "Pay To Cum," "Why'd You Have To Go," "Black Dots," etc. People didn't know what to do, and only a few people would come up to the front of the stage. Ian and I walked right on up and felt like our ship had come in! As far as impact, it was incredibly motivational. Ian and I are still in awe of those guys.

SW: So what is up with your Thin Lizzy fixation?

HR: Oh, it is just a band that I like. I mean, at one point I was listening to a lot of Thin Lizzy, I still listen to them now, but its not like I've been to every place they've ever played. Ya know, if you are somebody that gets interviewed a lot and you say that you like something, all of a sudden they are like - you are obsessed, actually no, I have lots of records. But yeah, I listen to them a lot. I am a friend with Phil's mother, who calls herself my Irish grandmother. She really is a wonderful woman.

SW: That is very cool. Alright. I think we are running out of time, but I am going to go ahead and ask you another question.

HR: Sure. Ask anything you want.

SW: Thank you. John Keats said, "Poets are the midwives of reality." I'm wondering what is your take on poetry and on the growing popularity of spoken word.

HR: Well, Nietzche said, "poets are those who muddy their waters to make them appear deep," and that is most poetry slams that I've been to. I think it is a great mechanism to get across imagery and ideas, and it is a genius way to take what is in front of you and make it in to something more, and to humanize it in that you take a tree and write about it in such a way that it becomes more than a tree. You pull it with your will and your skill and your love of form, through your own distinctive human filter, and it comes through you on to the page and all of a sudden we have this tree that is way more than what the person saw before they read the wonderful poem. That, to me, is what poetry is all about. Taking the every day, which is what we are surrounded by, and making it something else. I think that poetry becomes all too quickly a method of picking up chicks, battling other poets, ya know, "this is a poem to get back at last week's Thursday night poetry slam where Leonard wrote me that poem where he said he didn't like my poem!" Ya know what? Go back to Long Beach State and get back to your alcoholism.

SW: [laughs]

HR: But, real poetry where it is timeless, that is great. I think if more people tried to write like that, we'd all be better off...if people would just try to see things more artistically; or get out of their box to perceive things differently. You know, where perception could be way more open, then you might not have some guy in Arkansas calling the gay guy in high school evil or immoral, or want to kill him, as he might have a better understanding. I'm all for it until the forum and the mechanism becomes just a means to satisfy the ego, and it just becomes more bullshit. Those kinds of scenes are so easily contaminated and they go south so easily and quickly. I am always a little suspect. I just watched every music scene start off as this beautiful, clear pond... and ya know in a couple of summers there are beer cans floating in it and the fish are dead and there is an RV parked next to it.

SW: Is that what essentially happened to punk?

HR: Well I think it happens to any music form that stands still, especially in the consumer's culture where media is up your ass and in your face at all times. How can anything that vibrant and fresh stay that vibrant and fresh when there is money to be made? And when the major labels found out there is money to be made in the farm teams, all bets were off. Thankfully there are lots of great musicians who held on to their vision even with the advent of fame and money. Sometimes art becomes a slippery thing that is hard to hold on to when cooks come into the kitchen and people tell you that you are great and there is temptation to still do what you're doing yet somehow get paid and be acceptable. I think with anything that becomes mainstreamed or reported about, I mean in 1992 you could go to Macy's and buy grunge clothing.

SW: Right.

HR: It started out as people using second hand clothing because the Pacific Northwest is always so freaking cold all the time, you wear multiple layers, and that look came out of function and poverty. It became something else about a year later when well layered, Midwestern Caucasians found themselves having to go out and buy their already perforated and severed clothing. It happened with punk rock once there was a buck to be made. Warner Brothers swooped in and took Husker Du from SST and took R.E.M. and all these from the farm leagues and made a lot of bucks. And yeah, they turned out a few good records and some really awful ones, and took some good bands and made them really bad.

SW: So what do you think of the punk rock of today? Using all poetic license, so it could be blogging, it could be anything...

HR: Well I think that as long as there's young people there's always going to be good music, good art and passionate, honest renderings of what people are going through. I mean, people go "music sucks now," well, not what I'm listening to.

SW: Right.

HR: Every town, every day in every genre there is kick ass music. There are some great innovative voices out there, some great vision and some very brave people who do have their head screwed on straight and do see what is going on and do see the writing on the wall. They are either taking advantage of it or doing something about it. Art will always be fun, because art will always be used as a means to defy convention, to defy oppression. With Bush, there has to be, just to breathe every day and not go nuts, you have to find some silver lining in the oppressive, destructive Bush cloud of hate. Well, at least it is leading to some good music, some young people becoming politicized. I think Bush has done some wonderful things. He has finally united America in that most of us hate him now. He has also led to some young people to go "WHOAH! I better vote! I better get an opinion! I better save my country from these motherfuckers." It is too bad that is took maybe some irretrievable loss to affect that, but better it happen in a bad situation that not happen at all.

SW: Even you yourself have been said to use anger as a catalyst.

HR: Oh yeah! It is my main motivator. Pissed off is kind of the mood I am in all the time. I'm not mad at you. I'm not mad at the guy in traffic that can't drive. My anger is more of a civic anger. I see the faulty mechanisms in America. Just cheap motherfuckers getting away with stuff, and it is very aggravating.

Here in America it seems to be, ya know, everywhere is the Olive Garden. Have a big bowl of this and shut the fuck up and watch this! Demi Moore is gonna nude up! Fuckin' A! Where a lot of Europeans look at us and think that we all are nuts. You scare us! You freak us out!

SW: An offshoot of anger is definitely violence. Would you say that then, just as anger has served its purpose in your life, the violence that Bush has perpetuated plays some necessary role in today's unfolding of events?

HR: No. I think that he and his Vulcan crew have been able to affect change that didn't need to change. They rippled the water in ways it didn't need to be rippled, and drew new lines in the sand that if we were cool, or more rational adults really in search of peace and everyone getting along, they wouldn't have done that. I don't think they are in search of those things. I don't think it was necessary. I think quite the opposite is necessary a lot of times. What they do, the opposite would have been the way to go. Like with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Not a good guy. All the Iranian people I know are not fans of his. But, if you go into Iran, which I am very sure we are going to do, you are going to kill a lot if Iranian people...a lot of people who Ahmadinejad does not speak for.

SW: Right.

HR: Iran has such a young population, and there are so many young people there who want what we want. They just want to have fun and be good people and, ya know, get some kicks before they die, and this guy is coming from a pretty rigid, psychotic point of view. Instead of sitting down at the table, you hear guys like John Bolton talking about, well; he is obviously furthering Iran's ballistic missile system. Like, you are just inventing this shit. You're just saying words. I mean, here we go again. I think we should be more concerned more about Condoleezza Rice and Cheney and all that more than Ahmadinehad. So, I guess your question is are they speeding up eventualities?

SW: My question is more like, if you as a creative artist have noticed the necessity of anger in your acts of creation and in your relationship to punk rock, and in the images of be it fake blood or real blood, or men throwing elbows and moshing and all this stuff. The role that violence has played in your work has, well, played a role. Is it just raw aggression, or...

HR: Well, understand that a lot of that aggression is just passion.

SW: Right.

HR: I mean there is a lot of aggression in tango music. It is like men and women are so in to each other that they are biting each other in the neck.

SW: [laughs]

HR: Why did you bite her? Cuz I love her! Ya know, that is why she bit me. Not that I am into biting women, I am just saying that...

SW: No, sex can be very violent in a non-violent kind of way.

HR: Yeah yeah, it is passion; it is the human brought to a boil. That is more of what I am talking about. Like, a bunch of young men running around, elbowing each other in the head is just the civilized version of rams butting their horns together on the edge of a mountain in spring. That is just youth. I hope nobody gets hurt; I certainly don't want somebody running into me, thank you. At forty-five I'll break, but I don't see it and go "what are they doing?"

SW: That is what makes me think of America because America is young. It is adolescent. I do feel like...

HR: It is. Absolutely.

SW: Aren't our actions almost the exact same, in that you know you have a Bush going out there and using this angst, this adolescence, saying I am going to do it my way...

HR: Yes, I believe he is right, but he is doing this in very ancient parts of the world, who can look back a thousand years and go wow, we have a religion that goes farther back than this. We have poets that go back farther than your country. We have hundreds and hundreds of years of history. America, you have Hooters. You have the paint that is still drying. And so when the precocious young loudmouth comes up to the adult's dinner table after eight o'clock, everyone goes shush! Go to bed! America is kind of like the show horse, in an older world...

SW: And that brings me back to the first question that was essentially manhood starting in the forties, as opposed to the common conception to it starting in the twenties. What does it take for a nation to mature, for an individual to mature in this age?

HR: I think great leadership and acknowledgement... I think you have to snap out of your American-ness and see the world. I travel a lot. 9-11 was not a mystery to me. It sucked. It shocked me and it depresses me to this day. But, my manager, who also travels a lot, I asked him if he was surprised about 9-11 and he said no. He asked me and I said no. I just knew that at some point something, and I am sure that this is not a unique revelation, I just figured something is gonna push back. We push and push and at some point something or someone is going to push back. We should have had the wake up call with the first Trade Tower attack. I was in New York for that and I just remember going yeah, that's what you do, you push back.

I think Americans suffer because they don't get out often enough. They don't leave the country ...

SW: That's about right.

HR: I think what is needed is for, well, I wish more Americans traveled. I wish every American could go to Calcutta...

SW: They say only fourteen percent of Americans have passports...

HR: Yeah, and doesn't it show? I think Americans suffer because they don't get out often enough. They don't leave the country, where Europeans... look at their passports! You'll see kids that are twenty years old and have already been to Northern Africa, they've already been on driving trips through the European continent, where you have to make way and make room for other cultures. You'll see people who acknowledge other religions, other ways, other customs and other rites of passage. Here in America it seems to be, ya know, everywhere is the Olive Garden. Have a big bowl of this and shut the fuck up and watch this! Demi Moore is gonna nude up! Fuckin' A! Where a lot of Europeans look at us and think that we all are nuts. You scare us! You freak us out! So, I wish more Americans did travel. Right after 9-11 an Israeli woman said America used to be the world and now America is part of the world. As that kind of brought us on to the world stage, cuz now we know what a lot of other countries know about terrorism; and about losing? America rarely loses and other countries know loss. I mean, how many people died under Stalin? I think sometimes here our eyes are not open wide enough, and a lot of Americans get their input from a Sean Hannity, ya know, somebody who gives them bumper sticker sized bits of hate. Another thing to understand is that everyone thinks they are doing the right thing. All your Republicans and Conservatives who are Bush Republicans think they are a part of the solution and those that oppose them are part of the problem. They think the same thing of me as I think of them, and we both look at each other and go, "Don't you get it?" And they really think I don't get it as I really think they don't get it.

SW: Right.

HR: Americans suffer from that lack of discussion. I don't know if you watch much UK television. They put Tony Blair in a classroom sized environment and people just fire questions at him. The twenty-two year old black youth stands up and goes, "Ya know what? I think you are a liar."

SW: And he is forced to fend for himself.

HR: He has to stand there, and to his credit, Tony Blair stands there and politely and eloquently defends his point of view. I was like damn; you could never get that close to Bush.

SW: Did you watch that Steven Colbert thing?

HR: Yeah! I thought it was brilliant! I wrote Stephanie Miller at Air America the other day. She was weighing in on CNN and I wrote her and I said man, that guy, that pundit she was with that said he didn't think he was funny, he didn't get it! I was like YOU DIDN'T GET IT? Oh you got it you just couldn't handle it! I thought Colbert had more balls... can you imagine saying that? Not flubbing a line! Like, four arm lengths from the President of the United States!?!? I mean; that was unbelievable.

SW: That was one of the most heroic things I have ever seen. I fucking was amazed!

HR: It stunned me! I mean, the writing... he has some serious writers on his show. He is going to eclipse Jon Stewart, who is no slouch.

SW: He already did eclipse Jon Stewart as far as I am concerned.

HR: But the writing is better.

SW: It is smarter.

HR: And Jon Stewart is not stupid any day of the week. He is a wonderful guy and it is a brilliant show, but Colbert, I have never seen anything like that guy.

SW: [laughs]

HR: To do that at the correspondents' dinner, it was funny to watch the President when that mimic was next to him, doing those soft jokes like taking down the China wall and that stuff, but you saw that face that Bush makes when he is getting asked questions he doesn't like. His mouth turns down and he kind of scrunches his mouth down to one corner. He got that way with the mime guy who was kind of zinging him, but then when Colbert got up there, he was really being so truthful. The criticism, the Hannitys of the world said he wasn't funny and he bombed. No, he didn't bomb. He got laughs. He was completely brilliant and has more courage than anyone else in that room to do that. Talk about democracy at work. It is that kind of thing that is going to keep us all alive... that kind of freedom.

SW: For sure.

HR: America is in a really strange place right now. Never in my life have I seen a president polarize a nation. I've never seen America like this, with so many people over here and so many over there on issues. You know the '08 elections are going to be fascinating. I hope that a car doesn't hit me beforehand.

SW: Well thank you. It has been wonderful talking to you. I appreciate all of your responses.

HR: Well thank you. Thanks for talking with me.

SW: Thank you sir. I really am a big fan of your work, and keep it up.

HR: I will. See you down the road.


Catch Henry Rollins on tour this summer and be sure to check out The Henry Rollins Show, Saturdays at 10pm ET on IFC.

Saul Williams released his latest poetry book, The Dead Emcee Scrolls, earlier this year via MTV Books.

Saul Williams Vs. Henry Rollins | The Exclusive Interview