What follows is more of that chat, in which we cover topics ranging from travel tips to visiting wounded veterans to Rollins' colossal record collection. You can catch more of Rollins this Friday, October 26, when he performs his spoken word show, "Capitalism," at Alumni Hall at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier.
SEVEN DAYS: When you travel, it's typically as just a dude with a passport. You don't really have much more access than any average tourist. And I'm guessing that in many of the places you go, most people have no idea who you are. If you did have more access, would that change the way you approach your travels?
HENRY ROLLINS: That's basically true. And hell yeah it would change my approach. But I do have a little more access when I travel with documentary teams — last year I traveled with National Geographic. When you've got that hookup, they open the place for you. You walk towards a door and it just opens. It's pretty cool.
Or, when you travel with the USO, you put your passport away and use a Department of Defense ID, which they give to you then take away from you when you go back to the real world. It's interesting to travel with just a military ID on military planes and helicopters. You get a lot of access that way. I mean, here you are walking through Saddam Hussein's palace to go check out his bedroom. I did that. But otherwise, yeah, I'm usually on my own.
When I go to Africa, it's usually just me and my backpack, and that doesn't give you a lot of access. You're traveling as a tourist. Sometimes if I go somewhere for a length of time I'll get a tour guide for a few days, hit the museums get the general historical knowledge. But what's most relevant to me is when I just get on my own and walk down streets, just pick a direction. Or I'll say to a taxi driver, which always seems to amuse them, "Give me $5 in that direction." And they say, "Well, where do you want to go?" And I say, "That way." Then I just walk back and whatever happens on the way happens.
SD: You visit Walter Reed hospital often. Why is that important to you?
HR: If you can put a smile on one of these guy's faces, or momentarily distract the family from what they're dealing with … like, here's their son with tubes coming out of him and 40 percent of his brain left, if you can do anything to lift those folks just a little, do it. It's one of the only legitimate and redeemable things you'll ever do with relative celebrity. Otherwise, you're standing around going, "Thank you. Oh, thank you." I don't mind it. But I don't think I'm great because I signed 65 autographs last night. If you're gonna be recognized, that's a very cool thing to do with it. You walk into these guys' rooms and they're like, "No way!" The guy smiles for a minute and forgets, for a minute, that he's missing his legs. I think that and fundraising are two great things you can do if you're a known person. Otherwise, [celebrity] is just a self-congratulatory walk. That doesn't interest me. Coming from punk rock as I do, we're kind of immune to all of that.
SD: You make a point to buy at least one record every day. What was today's record?
HR: I don't know yet. What I do is, I'll put a whole bunch of records in my Discogs shopping cart and I'll pick a few of them off per day. Actually, I have a bid on Ebay that's going to end in about an hour. So that might be my record today. But I try and buy between one and five records a day. And that's a little insane, I know. And I'm woefully behind on listening and I'll catch up to a degree in December. But there's a larger idea.
I'm not trying to deprive someone else's ears from listening to a particular record. I do a lot of archiving. So I'm trying to preserve certain aspects of musics that I think history will overlook. So I have a building in Los Angeles that's dedicated to preservation of everything from acetates to test pressings, vinyl, cassette releases, ultra independent CDR releases. And lots of paper, lots of flyers, correspondence. And the building is climate controlled, with UV coating on every pane of glass in every window. It's like the house is wearing sunglasses. So, while I'm listening to the records and enjoying them, it's about preservation. My place is like a roach motel: the records come in but they don't leave.
SD: Are you archiving by any genre or era? Is there any method to the madness?
HR: There has to be otherwise you'll go nuts. Punk rock, classic punk rock. Bands like the Clash, the Damned are of great interest to me because they changed my life. Some of those bands, I have original artwork, lyric sheets, set lists and some pretty crazy memorabilia. And then a lot of the independent music, stuff that's considered "noise music," labels like American Tapes, midwestern cassette labels. Some of these labels have over a thousand releases. American tapes, there's over a thousand. And I have probably 900 of them. I collect entire labels.
Most of my listening at this point is composed of microscopic labels. I've been listening to a lot of weird Finnish psych, drone and folk music. These bands are very small, and make very limited editions of their music, so you have to hunt them down. But when you get them … I mean, some of these records are so weird, and so cool, people just think so far out of the box they don't even know of the existence of a box.
Henry Rollins performs “Capitalism” on Friday, October 26, 8 p.m. at Alumni Hall at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. $25-28.