Henry Rollins is an actor, author, spoken-word artist, and musician. You likely know him as the iconic lead singer of seminal punk band Black Flag, which kicked off his enduring career.
You might not think of Rollins as an entrepreneur, but that’s how Henry thinks of himself. He’s always gotten things done by personally making it happen – first, out of necessity, and then later for the sake of creative freedom.
As I mentioned, it all began with Black Flag. The band recorded, financed, and distributed their own records, set up and promoted their own shows, and created their own merchandise. Back then, there was no one in the mainstream music world who wanted to help hardcore punks, so they did it themselves.
Henry carried that ethos into his next role as an entrepreneurial author, forming his own publishing company to distribute his books and those of others. He later used the same company to produce recordings for The Rollins Band and other projects.
Since then, Henry Rollins has become a self-made media personality. He has a radio show on KCRW, a column for LA Weekly, and he appears as himself on TV shows like Californication, and as a very out-of-character white supremacist in Sons of Anarchy. Maybe you caught him in his first lead film role, the darkly humorous He Never Died.
This is my second time to interview Henry, which is amazing given that he’s a personal hero of mine. All I can say is I was less nervous this time around.
If you’re a fan of Rollins, you know you’re in for a treat with this interview. If you’re just getting to know the man, prepare to be inspired.
Listen to Unemployable with Brian Clark below ...
The Show Notes
- Henry’s apparel
- Henry Rollins vs Iggy Pop (Spoken Word)
- Rate Unemployable at iTunes
Henry Rollins on Entrepreneurial Art
Henry Rollins: My name is Henry Rollins. I’m an actor, writer, presenter, traveler, journalist — and I am completely unemployable.
Voiceover: Welcome to Unemployable. The show for people who can get a job, they’re just not inclined to take one, and that’s putting it gently. In addition to this podcast, thousands of freelancers and entrepreneurs get actionable advice and other valuable resources from the weekly Unemployable email newsletter. Join us by registering for our free Profit Pillars Course or choose to sign up for the newsletter only at no charge. Simply head over to Unemployable.com and take your business and lifestyle to the next level. That’s Unemployable.com.
Brian Clark: Henry Rollins is an actor, author, spoken word artist, and musician. You likely know him as the iconic lead singer of seminal punk band Black Flag, which kicked off what turned out to be an enduring career. Now, you might not think of Rollins as an entrepreneur, but that’s how Henry thinks of himself, as you’ll hear. He’s always gotten things done by finding a way to make it happen — first out of necessity and then later for the sake of creative freedom. I’m Brian Clark, and this is the season two finale to the Unemployable podcast.
We’re going out with a bang with Mr. Rollins, and as you can tell, I’m fairly excited about it. This is my second time to interview Henry, which is amazing given that he’s a personal hero of mine. All I can say is, I was a lot less nervous this time around. If you’re a fan of Rollins you know what you’re in for. This is going to be a treat of an interview. If you’re just getting to know the man, prepare to be inspired.
Henry, thank you so much for joining us for this podcast. It’s great to talk to you again. It’s been almost a year since you were here in Colorado.
Henry Rollins: Yeah, I really enjoyed that time with you guys.
Brian Clark: Yeah, it was good things. I don’t know what was better, your closing keynote at our event or the next night at the Boulder Theater. You killed it in two different contexts. I loved it. People are still talking about it.
Henry Rollins: Aw, thanks.
Do You Personally Self-Identify as an Entrepreneur?
Brian Clark: Cool. Today we’re talking about art in the context of entrepreneurism, or, I guess we could say we’re talking about entrepreneurism in the context of art. The first question I want to … Since the days of Black Flag all the way through your own publishing career, spoken word — everything other than when you have to work with a team such as the film you just did as the starring role — you’ve taken initiative. You’ve created stuff in order to make a living and also to build businesses. Do you personally self-identify as an entrepreneur?
Henry Rollins: Absolutely, and it is for many reasons. But the main one is for artistic integrity in that, if you’re artistically inclined, you’re going to do something. The more you are able to control every aspect of the creation and release and perception of whatever it is that you’re doing — film, records, whatever — the more it speaks of what exactly you tried to do. If it fails economically, so be it. But at least you can say, “That’s what I wanted to do.”
For me, it’s about integrity, preservation, and ultimately, survival as it pertains to sustainability. I’m only writing a book so I can get it off my desktop so I can write the next one. I need you to read it — yeah, I need you to buy it — but my main goal is so I can finance the next one. So I can do what I want to do, which is work. But I can’t eat air, and the landlord doesn’t take smiles and hugs for pay, for rent. I have costs.
I learned from the days of Black Flag when I would be working at SST Records, which is Black Flag’s label, that if you don’t control it, if you don’t understand the nuts and bolts of what you’re trying to do — in our case it was making records. If you don’t understand the recording, the mastering, the packaging and advertising — every single aspect you can get your head around — you’re leaving yourself open to the whims and wills and ways of other people. That might be okay for some people, but it just does not work for me.
Is It Important For You to Be Involved?
Brian Clark: Yeah. Along those lines, artists are seen as relying on their “representation” for business stuff so they don’t sully themselves with that aspect of the business. Now you guys — originally out of necessity, I guess, and then later I think out of sheer independence like you touched on — you’ve done less of that. You’ve been more hands-on. Do you wish you could just say, “Have your people call my people?” Or is it really important for you to be involved?
Henry Rollins: No, I like to be involved. I come from the production and nuts and bolts aspect of all this. Coming from punk rock was very useful to what I do now as a 55-year-old man. You get on the phone. You book a show. You go through all the boring mathematics of that and then you haul your band and your gear out to some place in the Midwest and you load the gear in. We had our own PA, so we stacked the PA. I learned how to stack a PA, juice it — power it up. Light the show. And then, after the show I’m not meeting chicks and hanging out, I’m breaking down the damn PA and hauling it back out to the truck.
There was no aspect of a live performance that was mysterious to me. I had no concept of celebrity. It was all mechanics. “I saw you in the newspaper.” Yeah, I called that newspaper and I booked that interview. I’m the one who got that. It’s not magic. I never had this idea of celebrity. I had this idea that if you want to be in the newspaper you call them. You just lie or whatever. Make it happen. You get in that damn paper so people will know that you’re coming to town. So I come from that.
Now, having my own companies, I come in every day. I have a staff, I don’t do everything. I can’t do it by myself. I always want to know what’s going on. There are a few moments now and then where I have my people call their people, but that’s just because right now I’m in the middle of a tour that will be going — it started in January of this year it will be going into February until next year. There’s multiple agents all over the world, I can’t call them all the time. I work with people who liaise.
I’ve learned to delegate because it’s just more than one man can handle, but there’s no way I’m just sailing into the office — or not sailing into an office. I’m sitting in it right now. It’s a real office. It’s not my living room. It’s an office. There’s no way I would not want to know what’s going on, looking over the numbers myself. The deal I have with my agent, I have to go through every single contract for every single show and okay it. I sit there with Heidi, this woman who runs all my stuff with me for the last 20 years. We sit there with every contract — and with a tour this size, it’s a bitch. It’s a lot of work. But at least you know where you’re at and there’s never any tint to your lens. You’re really seeing it. I think that’s survival.
The people who lose out, they’re the ones who just get told, “Oh you’re great,” and they never know what hits them when it hits them. Money gets spent. They have no idea where they’re leaking. No one talks any sense to them when they’re blowing it. You know I have very tossed meetings with my accountant, at least every fiscal quarter. “How’s my spending? How am I doing? Have I done anything insane? You will call me if I’m doing something stupid.” And they go, “Yeah, of course.” I go, “Don’t hesitate with that call. Don’t let me blow it.”
Because I’m human and I’m not great with numbers. To be independent, to keep your integrity, to keep your vision, to not be thrown into some obscure cubical, in my opinion, you have to be an artist warrior. You have to be an artist engineer. You have to know how all the parts fit together. I think it’s very important.
Brian Clark: Yeah, it’s interesting — the whole DIY punk movement that you were such a huge part of — it has some similarities to the maker’s movement they call it now, which is really just talented people making stuff right and trying to make a living.
Henry Rollins: Absolutely, of course. Having your own label is no different than having your micro-brew company or your cannabis grow company. You’re making stuff.
What’s Your Best Advice for Creators?
Brian Clark: Yeah. What’s your best advice for these people? Some of it’s already come out. They want to create, but there’s so many other aspects to it that you just touched on. When you would meet a person such as this, what would you tell them?
Henry Rollins: Well, when you meet someone who is just brimming with ideas you’re meeting Tesla but you have to lay some Edison on them. You have to talk to this person about fiscal realities, about the marketplace. That cool tambourine chant record you want to make that you and your friends recorded last week that’s like the best thing you’ve ever heard, you really want to take a moment to see before you press 3,000 of them.
First off, see if they’re edible — they’re not — because you might be having to eat about 1,800 or 2,800 of the 3,000 because no one gives a hot damn about your wonderful record. As much as you love it and as much as you meant it, if you can’t sell it then you have a problem. So you have to be artistic, of course, to get yourself to that threshold, but man, you got to be able to look around at the marketplace. I’m not saying bend your vision to suit the marketplace, I’m saying please find where all the claymore mines in the field are before you just go running out onto that field.
You really want to see what kind of fight you’re walking up to, gun fight, knife fight, etc. I would advise this person to temper their artistic sensibility with how they release. I get a lot of writers writing me, “Hey man, I’m a poet and I’ve got 5,000 poems and I want you to put out my book.” Well, no. It’s hard to sell a book anyway. It’s really hard to sell a poetry book. So I write them. I go, “You might not want to commit to 500 books that are going to sit in your garage and turn to peat moss in 500 years. You might want to pursue an online way to publish if you just want to get read.”
Maybe go online and put it up for free and then maybe make a chapbook or just something that — make 100 and get a PayPal account. Set it up that way, where you get to satisfy your artistic thirst, quench that. Get your art out there but don’t end up on the street because of it. I’ve started labels, I’ve put out great records that got great reviews and all 300 people who bought each record are thanking me to this day.
The other 1,500 that got pressed up are probably sitting on eBay and Discogs now for .99. We just had to purge them because no one cared about the cool avant jazz records from the East Village that I was putting out in the 90s. They’re great records, trust me. It’s just really hard to sell them. I would issue young artists or entrepreneurs cautionary tales.
Brian Clark: Yeah, it can be rough.
Henry Rollins: Really rough. And the intent is good, that’s the thing. Everyone has good intention. They don’t want to make a million dollars, necessarily, they just want to sell their record or book or computer chip so they can innovate the next one, or keep the lights on and keep a staff. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do with my company, 213 — keep the lights on and, like I said, clear the desk so we can make the next whatever we’re going to make.
Brian Clark: You talk a lot about how everyone is doing what they’re doing now to do the next thing. That’s a theme with you that’s very strong.
Henry Rollins: Absolutely. I’m a maker. I want to build you a ship. I don’t want to sail in it. I want you to sail in it. I don’t want it to leak. And if you feel so inclined, tell your friend how good your ship is and send him to me so I can build another one. I like writing books so I can finish them so I can write the next one. I don’t take that much joy in looking at the finished book when it comes back from the printer. I crack open the box. I look at it. I go, “Cool. So, how are we on the first draft of the next book?” I’m done by the time anything of mine ever comes out — book, record, whatever. I was there at the mastering. I was there at the final edit. I’m done, it’s your turn. I’m on to the next thing.
I’m not putting it down, but being creatively minded I’m only interested in building the thing. I want you to dig it. I want you to buy it. Not so I can drive a Ferrari, just so I can buy some good camera gear to go out and finish the next photo book because I broke my lens in Bangladesh, which I did. I tripped and face-planted on the street and watched my beautiful Cannon lens crack in half. I’m like, “Wow, that’s putting a crimp in my day.” Anyway, sustainability and thoughts to that will help you remain creative. Because if you’re the tree in the forest that falls unwitnessed, that’s really not exactly what you showed up to do, you showed up to be witnessed.
You got to build that audience. You got to keep them. There again, you have to look at your marketplace. “Am I charging too much? How can I save my customers on mail order? How can I make it somehow less brutal on my Australian mail order customers who pay like half a month’s wage to get something in the mail from America?” It’s cruel and unusual. So you find every possible way to make it not so bleeding out of the mouth for your wonderful customers, etc. Why? Because you want to be an artist, and all of this stuff comes in. You don’t want to necessarily take it from some other company and sign to them. You want to do your own thing. That’s where I come from.
I’ve written like 27 books and 2 of them are not on my own label. One was on Random House just because an editor there is a fan of mine. He said, “Let’s do a compendium of your books. You pick the material, I’ll put it out. We’ll even give you an advance because I’m a fan of yours. I can get this book in places you can’t get your books because you’re little and we’re big. It’ll be a book that other people will read to get your company.” It’s called the Portable Henry Rollins. I sign that thing all the time. For a lot of people it’s the only book of mine they’ve ever been able to find in a store.
The other book was a photo book I did where I showed this manuscript to Heidi. We had photographs from all over the world. I said, “Let’s do it.” She goes, “It’s a six-figure setup to do a photo book. We’ve done them before. They’re painful to put together. She said, “Let’s get another label to put this out so they eat that cost.” All the sudden, I hired a literary agent who was happy to take 10 percent of my action, William Morris, and they got me a book deal with a fine publisher.
All the sudden, I’m working with an editor who’s beating me up for the better. I’m sending them cover photos and titles for the book and they said, “Well, we’ll have a meeting and we’ll talk about your title.” I’m not used to hearing that from anyone. I’m like, “You’re going to talk about it?” I wanted to get on an airplane and go to where the publisher was and turn over desks. “You’re going to talk about my title and see if you like it? Really?” They didn’t like my title, I had to change it. It was incredible. And I sent them a cover and they went, “Nah, we don’t like it.”
I was barely able to contain myself, because I’m not used to compromising. The changes we made to the writing were for the better. I grew up a lot, I became much more mature. Finally, I didn’t like their suggestions for the book cover so I just kept sending them photos I liked until they said, “We’ll take that one.” We both won. They got the one they liked and I got the one I liked. I’d never done that before. Never. And so I didn’t like it.
Brian Clark: Yeah, the freedom. I say that all the time. Yes, it’s nice to make money, but I’m interested in freedom. I don’t want to be told what to do.
Henry Rollins: Exactly. I’ll take half the paycheck to have the artistic freedom. I’ve been on major labels, they paid me a lot of money and that was groovy, but they told me a lot of how it’s going to be. I did a decade of that and then I went back to the Indy world, and I’d never go back to that “being told what’s up” thing even if I starve out. I need the freedom.
But if you’re smart and you’re willing to take the time to learn a lot of the aspects of what you do and how it relates to the factory that makes it and to the people that buy it, you can have both. You can have your own company, be the independent entrepreneur, maintain your vision, and keep the lights on. You might buy the sports cars and that might be part of your vision. The money was never — beyond sustainability money has never been anything but that, the means to make more and to buy tools. I live in cheap clothes. I eat out of cans. I don’t have a middle class bank account but I live a very middle class lifestyle. I just don’t want stuff. I just want to make stuff. I buy notebooks and pens so I can write more
What Do You Think About the Cult of Entrepreneurs?
Brian Clark: I get that. On the flip side of that, when you and I were young it wasn’t cool to be an entrepreneur. You wanted to be in a band, maybe you did want to write books, maybe you were a jock even. But now there’s this kind of cult of entrepreneurs, and I’m afraid that to a certain degree, it’s not about making stuff. It’s about, “Look at me. I’m a tech pro and I’m going to get rich like Zuckerberg.” What are your thoughts on that?
Henry Rollins: I think a lot of people are attracted by the money and they think they’re going to be Mark Zuckerberg. A lot of people who wrote all the great rock and roll songs, they got there before all the notes and melodies got put together. You know, Lennon and McCartney, Leiber and Stoller — people like that. They got there first. No one had written those riffs before, and it became rock and roll.
Now when you write it you’re like, “Wait a minute. I have that song, it’s on a Wings record. Damn it.” There’s a lot of mediocre talent that gets pulled into any industry — tech industry, music industry — there’s a lot of mediocre acting and a lot of mediocre directors. They make those movies and you’re like, “All right. Well, there’s two hours I’ll never get back.” I think a lot of that — and I’m projecting — I think a lot of that is because it was the money.
Their idea of it that was the attractive element. It wasn’t the innovative element, “Well I have an amazing idea I want to bring to bear,” it was, “I want a fleet of Corvettes and a bunch of beautiful women at my side.” So they work from that backwards. I think a lot of those people burn out quickly or they think that someone like Mark Zuckerberg — “If he can do it I can do it.” I don’t necessarily agree. I think someone like that, they build something great. But when you want to build your own — well, he built it better. He built it first. If you think he’s not trying to better it every single day, you’re high.
I think what you have is a lot of people running towards whatever it is — to be the next Yahoo.com, or whatever the dot com is. I think they go belly up very quickly. They have two or three good years and then they go away. A lot of these people from music to tech — you don’t hear about them in three years. But there’s still a few people you’re always hearing about. Guys like Bill Gates. Love him or hate him, he got something right. And I bet doesn’t get up every morning going, “Wow, isn’t it great that I’m rich?” He gets up every day, probably at some stupid hour like 4:00 a.m., going, “Okay. How can I better this thing?” He certainly might feel marketplace competition, but that’s who he is.
Do you think Don Rickles — who’s probably doing three shows this weekend at age 140 years old — do you think he’s thinking about money? The Rolling Stones are doing shows this year. You think Mick Jagger thinks, “I need to get rich?” He just wants to play the song Brown Sugar really well and knock that audience out. Keith Richards doesn’t think about money, he thinks about rock and roll and being really good at it. What I’m saying is the people who are there to stick around, they are capitalizing on great ideas and they want to better it. I hate this word in this context, but they really love what they’re doing and they would do it for free.
Brian Clark: Yeah.
Henry Rollins: At this point — this never comes out sounding the way I want it — I don’t think about money anymore. I don’t have to worry about the money for dinner, I got it. Now I just think about work and how much I can do. I’ve been up since 5:17 this morning. I’m working today. It’s Friday. I’m going to be working through the weekend. Not because, “Oh, poor me.” I got stuff I want to do. So it’s going to keep me burning the candle at both ends until I drag myself into this office where I’ll be tomorrow, Saturday, and I’ll be on Sunday — working. I’ll be back here on Monday. Not for the money, because I got things I got to do.
It’s your sincerity. It’s your vision. It’s your desire to do something. Again this is corny, but it’s your desire to do something really good. And these people — you see them in the entertainment business and all industries — why are they 88 and still heading over to Warner Brothers at 5:00 a.m.? Because they got this amazing show they’re working on. They’re not thinking about money or a big house, they’re thinking about, “I got to get in there at 4:00 and pump up this script.”
That’s it. It’s your sincerity and your dedication that leads to your sustainability. And the rest of it — a lot of it’s luck. A lot of it, sadly, is just talent. Some people are really damn talented. And the mediocre, they find out how mediocre they are when they start trying to fly with the eagles and they realize they’re pigeons.
What Do You Tell People Who Are Struggling to Sustain?
Brian Clark: Yeah. Another aspect of that — you’ve got the talent, whether as an artist or a creative entrepreneur, however we want to label this. The promise of the Internet was, “Look there may only be 1,000 people in the entire world who are into your thing but you can find those people and they can sustain you and you can do your art or you can do your thing.” What do you tell those people when they are struggling and they’re looking for — whether it be luck or the right idea?
Henry Rollins: Well, I would tell them that you live in the best possible age to be an entrepreneur and to be eclectic, to have the weird music. Because I’m that guy who buys those weird records. And I buy them. I hear things on the Internet. The Internet has brought me to I don’t know how many feet of space on my LP shelves, because I heard that band on the Internet and I bought that record from that guy who has them in his garage in Helsinki. I keep in close communication with these musicians.
I would tell these entrepreneurs that the Internet is your friend. I’ve had a book company since 1983. We used to do a multi piece of paper mail-out of all of our new stuff. To save money, we taught ourselves how to do zone mailing, bulk mailing, where you get these filthy canvas bags from the United States Postal Service. We would have them at my company and we’re bulk mailing hundreds of pounds of paper. We learned how to do this zone mailing thing and it’s a bitch.
What happens? Three weeks later, 30 percent of all that comes back because the guy moved or it was a squat and the police raided it and it’s gone. You get these papers, useless paper that we just put in the trash cans. It goes. We just lost $2,700 trying to get you to buy $3,700 worth of books. We would get beat up. Now, point and click and you’re on our mailing list, “We came up with this idea to sell this thing and we just sent it to you and in a nanosecond it shows up in your mailbox.”
If I had had that in 1994, man. It would have been the biggest game changer. I can’t believe my company made it to now with what is now afforded people. I would tell them, “Take advantage of the technology. You can find an audience.” If it’s only 86 people, that might not be a failure. You might have found the 86 people that I couldn’t have found in 1991 because I was doing it with folding paper I printed at Kinko’s and licking a stamp. Humping that bag down to the loading bay of the Hollywood Post Office on Hollywood Boulevard, literally. Knowing my way into the loading dock area, which I got very familiar with.
I would tell them to take advantage of the technology. But get ready, get set. Your audience might only be a couple hundred people. Again, the marketplace, you really have to understand what battlefield you’re walking onto. I get those letters all the time, “Hey, I sold 50 of my CD-R. How do I sell the next 3,000?” Put up half of it for free. Give people a great chance to hear what you do. Because there’s people like me who want to buy a record. They want to hear some music. If I can hear your record on Bandcamp and if I like it, I’ll buy the vinyl. Just because I understand. I want to keep you in business. I want to help you make the next record.
I do that GoFundMe thing. “Send us $20 and we’ll send you the record and we’ll love you forever when it’s done.” I’ve done that, and eight months later you get your LP in the mail. Because I come from that struggle. I would instruct that you use the technology around you, but really realize what you’re getting yourself into and don’t sell it unless you know — well, don’t produce it unless you know you can sell it.
Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. Good advice.
Henry Rollins: Risk is a bitch. It really is. You can lose really big, and I speak from experience. It puts a lump in my throat to this day. We would do these amazing books on my company. A lyric book by the great Jeffery Lee Pierce of the Gun Club. I get at least one or three emails a week, “Hey Henry, that book goes for $300 on eBay. You have an extra one?”
No, but I wish I could have sold you the dented warped one when it rained in LA that one time in 1998 and my garage leaked and it rained on that stock of books. Because in those days you weren’t buying them. And now that the world has caught up with the great Jeffery Lee Piece of the Gun Club everyone wants that book. But when I pressed up 3,500 copies, it’s too bad I couldn’t eat them, because we only sold like 600 copies of that book. It’s not because the book wasn’t good, it’s because we made too many.
Brian Clark: It’s funny that it’s the Internet that is getting people to discover this man. That’s exactly what we’re talking about.
Henry Rollins: Right. But while you still have this amazing technology, you must be careful.
Brian Clark: Negate your risk.
Henry Rollins:. It will maybe keep you there, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to be smart . You’ve got to be really smart and talented and tech savvy. And you might not want to do it alone. You might want to find some people who really know how to get your independent — I keep referencing music. It’s just an industry I understand and have been around so I can use it as an example.
You might want to take your product to a consultant and go, “Look, I have this thing.” He or she can listen and go, “Okay, I can help you sell at least 1,000 of those. And if you need to reprint or repress, we can also — I know a low batch manufacturer across town who you can drive over and meet the guy and you can do a limited run.” My little company, we do Henry Rollins t-shirts. I’m not Michael Jackson so they’re — I’m not in the big bands so we’re not making thousands, but if you meet the right manufacturer they’ll print up 150.
We just came up with a great t-shirt design last week. We have made 150 t-shirts and I aim to sell all of them. Am I buying a house in Geneva from that sale? No. Will I make enough to come up with another funny idea for a t-shirt and make another 100? That’s what I’m hoping for.
Brian Clark: Yeah, we’ll link to those t-shirts in the show notes here. I hope some people head over there and buy them. I know I will.
Henry Rollins: Well, thanks. But the basic message is: be innovative because life is short. Avoid the cubical. Avoid a job that you hate. Because it makes you grow up way too fast. It’s not good for your body. It’s not good for your brain. It’s not good for your circulatory system. People wake up and go into jobs that they hate. I’ve never had that experience. I’ve had jobs in the entertainment business where it’s a movie where some of the actors are less than wonderful to be around, but it’s six weeks, not six years.
By thinking innovatively and being, at times, tougher than I’ve ever wanted to be and having to learn way more nuts and bolts stuff than I ever wanted to, I’ve been able to be — not an amazingly talented person — but innovative and strong enough and vigorous enough with work ethic to be quite independent and do pretty much exactly what I want. And sell enough to be able to make the next one. At some point I do have to sell you that thing, but only because I want to make another one. I’m not trying to thin out your wallet, but every once in a while, I got a thing for you. I’m going to make it as good as I can and I’m going to sell it to you and make that as painless as possible so both you and me can keep doing our thing.
But I’ve avoided a job at a place — I know people that hate their job and it doesn’t make them good parents. It’s really not making their lives great. And then guess what? One day you’re my age, you’re 55 and a lot of your life is behind you. And if it sucked, you never get to rewrite it. You don’t get to rewind it, you only get to regret it. I can’t live that way. I’m not a smart person, smarts for me is like doing pull ups. It hurts and it’s really hard. So I’ve gone the hard way to be sustainable, to let my curiosity and my creativity not be my downfall.
But avoiding the straight grind — I’ll do anything to avoid the straight world. Look at them, they’re just angry. They save up for that vacation in that boring place and they just watch HBO in a different room for a week and go home. I don’t want that. I’m not putting it down, I’m just saying I can’t ever have it be me.
Brian Clark: Amen, that’s all of us in this particular audience.
Henry Rollins: That’s what we’re all trying to do, have a blast. Really ride by the seat of our pants and have an amazing ride. Because one day you wake up, you’re old and you can’t even stand up. It’s okay. But from that point — from right now, you and me talking, to that point — you’ve got to be many things, and ordinary can’t play into that. To be an independent entrepreneur you have to be exceptional. You have to be exceptional by learning a lot. Some daring comes into it, but it has to be calculated daring, it has to be informed daring. Like I said, you’re going to walk out onto a battlefield. If you can get the lay of the land before you walk out you stand a way better chance of walking off the battle field intact.
What is Artistic Integrity These Days to You?
Brian Clark: Yep. Let me ask you this. This is an interesting question because, on one hand, the theme of your closing keynote last year really moved quickly to integrity. You’ve touched on it thus far in this episode. And yet, at the same time, Henry Rollins says, “I show up for a paycheck because I’ve got to get paid to do the next thing.” What is artistic integrity these days to you? Remember, in the old days if you put your song in a commercial you were a sellout. Now the young bands — that’s how they’re breaking.
Henry Rollins: Yep. Well, as Leonard Cohen once said to me years ago, he said, “The test for you is going to be how you’re going to balance your art and your finances.” Maybe he saw something in me. He basically said, “Things are coming your way and your test is going to be how you balance all of that.” So artistic integrity and money? I need to be able to look at my grizzled, deeply-lined face in the mirror every day and not hate it too much. I need to be able to live with myself, and there are some paychecks I’ve said no to just because I didn’t like how the money smelled. I didn’t like how it was being made. I’ve walked away from a lot of paydays because I’m not a mercenary. So your integrity is basically where you say no.
For some people, everything looks good to them. I come from a principled point of view. I don’t have stock holders, I have fans. Basically, when I go on tour I’m running for office for the next election. I answer the mail when I get written. I talk to people before and after shows when I meet them on the street or in the grocery store, and I get reviewed. “That thing you did sucked.” Okay. Well, just because you didn’t like it doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.
But I can’t have them say, “Hey, that pro-child porn thing you did I thought was really lame.” I can’t be that guy. He didn’t like the movie I was in, all right, bite me. I liked it and that’s why I showed up. But I can’t do something that I’m ideologically against because I know that I’m going to answer for it. I answer for everything that I do via email, on the street, at my shows, etc. I live in a fairly transparent environment, so if I’m going to be walking around in glass pants all the time I need to be able to deal with, “Hey your ass is hanging out of your glass pants.” Well, okay.
Brian Clark: It’s interesting, because people think of this as, “Well, Henry, he’s an artist so he has to be that way,” but I’ve said no to 99 percent of the things that came my way because it wasn’t the right thing.
Henry Rollins: Why did you say no?
Brian Clark: Because it was wrong for the people I serve.
Henry Rollins: Right.
Brian Clark: An entrepreneur is a servant to an audience.
Henry Rollins: There is how you’re finding your balance, because it disgusted you or it went against why you showed up in the first place. And that is how you balance money and art, or money and integrity. Opportunity and integrity, etc. If you’re coming from a good place, your moral nose, your true north, your keel will always keep you balanced and you’ll just dismiss out of hand what is wrong. It may make you think twice.
Brian Clark: It’s not a bad test to say, “What would Henry Rollins do?”
Henry Rollins: I would like to think that I wouldn’t show up for something that was disgusting.
Brian Clark: Well, sometimes it’s just not a good fit.
Henry Rollins: “We’re going to pay you this money but you got to pollute this stream.” I’m sorry man.
Brian Clark: It’s not necessarily disgusting, but it’s not right. And if you’re just thinking about money you might do it, but you can’t because that’s a short-term play and you got to play the long game.
Henry Rollins: Yeah. It’s a tattoo. You’re going to wear it. Everything I’ve done, I wear. Every record I’ve ever made — for better or worse. You don’t like that record? Okay. But I get that bad review from that record from the time it came out to now. These things never go away. It’s like the naked photo of you on the Internet, it’s there forever. Because these are not cuts and bruises you heal from, they are tattoos. When you release something it’s in stone. Knowing that, I make my decisions accordingly. My moral balance, my moral keel, my moral antennae, my sense of right and wrong, I think, have served me quite well. I get offers to do stuff where the money is swell. I just can’t do it.
I had a manager for years and he would send me these offers. “Hey, this just came in, I know you’re going to say no,” but the subtext is, “I want you to say yes and here’s the pitch.” I’m like, “Richard, why did you even bother sending it?” He’s like, “I know, but can’t we even talk about it?” Because he’s going to get 15 percent of that. I’m like, “No, man. I can’t do that thing.” Those things come in to me now and then and we laugh and say, “No. Thank you so much, but no.”
Brian Clark: Yeah.
Henry Rollins: Then they write back “But why?” And I’m like, “I’m not going to … ”
Brian Clark: It’s funny how tone deaf some people can be by even asking you to do a certain thing.
Henry Rollins: Yeah, but they don’t know you or they never would have bothered contacting you. But trust me, someone said yes an hour later.
Brian Clark: Yeah.
Henry Rollins: They just thought it might be cool to drag your integrity into their cesspool. After a while, if you do good things for long enough, you get branded. Your integrity will become a brand. “Henry we want you in our documentary so it has some integrity.” Well, that’s a really bad opening line. If that’s your pitch then I’m probably not showing up, because it sounds like you’ve made a toxic stew and you think I’m the antidote or the neutralizer of the toxin.
Brian Clark: Yeah, the fact that you would legitimize it is the reason why you’re not going to do it.
Henry Rollins: Right. But you do become — like my good pal Ian MacKaye from the band Fugazi. The guy, he’s like Abe Lincoln, there’s really no dirt on the guy’s collar. People tap him all the time because he’s one of those trademarks of quality if he’s in it. People say, “Hey, I want you to be in this documentary,” because everyone makes a documentary now, “Ian’s in it. Will you be in it?” I write Ian. “Are you really in this thing?” “Yeah, they flew here last week and filmed me.” Well, if Ian’s in it then I’ll consider it, because he’s my best friend. But I’m also a fan of his, and if he said yes to it — he doesn’t show up for gross stuff. When Ian shows up for it — trust me, they’re not writing Ian and saying, “Henry showed up.” Ian is always the integrity bait.
Brian Clark: Yeah.
Henry Rollins: I’ve shown up for stuff because he’s in it.
Brian Clark: Saint Ian, I think you could call him.
Henry Rollins: Yeah. So “What would Ian do” is for me. And if Ian’s in it, now I’ll consider it. If I’m in it, you better read it carefully.
Brian Clark: All right. Henry, I want to be respectful of your time but before you go …
Henry Rollins: I’m respectful of yours, and thank you for being respectful of mine. But along this line, if you have any other questions — because I know I go long — please ask. Because I think that this is important for young, innovative entrepreneurial-types to hear. I’m not saying what I’m saying is important or great, but someone honest should be asked these questions who’s had some experience in this arena. What I’m saying is I’m happy to field these questions.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I know. I was so happy that you actually agreed to — we did an interview last year and you did this show. I’m like, “But there is no one that people need to hear from in this context more than Henry Rollins.” Because we’ve talked about this before. You gave me a lot of guidance even though I was not “in the artistic realm.” But as an entrepreneur I feel that the act of creation — there is an aspect of art to it, at least if you care about it.
Henry Rollins: Absolutely, yeah, and integrity and honesty and goodness. Those are words that you’ve heard me say in our time together on the phone. You’ve heard me say those words quite a bit. If you don’t bring the “I’m a good person” to this, everything you do is going to be screwed up. And if you bring the idea of, “I really want to do good,” you stand a much better chance of getting through. Just because you’re trying to do something good, you’re partway there already. It’s a really good thing to have that wind at your back.
Brian Clark: Yes, I agree, 100 percent. I actually do want to ask you another question, but it’s not about this. When I drove you from Denver to Boulder for your Boulder Theater gig that night, you, of course, told amazing stories the music industry. I think we talked about the Ramones, we talked a little bit about David Lee Roth and Gene Simmons. I won’t repeat any of those private stories. This year at our event in October we’re having the band Cake play a performance.
Henry Rollins: Great band.
Any Rock and Roll Stories About Cake?
Brian Clark: Yeah. Do you have any rock and roll stories about the guys from Cake?
Henry Rollins: Well, John is the lead guy, right?
Brian Clark: Yeah.
Henry Rollins: Okay. He’s just one of the smarter, funnier guys in independent music and hopefully — they’re coming to play?
Brian Clark: Yeah, they’ll be there. Yeah.
Henry Rollins: Hopefully he’ll speak, like maybe an interview or some kind of podcast thing that you can do with him. He’s an interesting guy on a lot of levels, and please give him my best. Not only is he a smart guy, he’s very funny and he’s been making the music he’s wanted to make and thriving for decades. He can probably offer some real pearls of wisdom.
I don’t have any “We were drunk in 1975 in Paris” stories with him, but we did spend a long day on MTV together doing different press ops and he’s just a fine person. Really smart and, like I said, he’s a funny dude because he’s smart. A lot of times smart people are really funny because they’re fast. He’s like that, in my opinion. Just a smart funny guy who makes really good records that are worth buying. To me, he has won. Because trust me, he really makes the music he wants to make and he has found an audience. You know where he was …
Brian Clark: You know what’s amazing, their first number one hit in 2011 and they’re a 1995 debut band.
Henry Rollins: Right. I met him when he was a few years in. They release and tour consistently. There’s a lot to be said for someone from the Pleistocene Era of the 90s who is still with us now, because there’s a lot of musicians — good, bad and mediocre — who aren’t. Who had hits. Who sold a lot of records, and they just couldn’t keep it going for myriad reasons. There’s a million ways to screw it up. But John and his band have kept it going.
That is a perfect band to play at your event for more than one reason. A, they’re great, but B, C, D, E, F, and G, you should get into him and find out challenges he came up against to keep the band going and if he ever had any sleepless nights. Because all of your success stories, they have failure. All of your Bill Gates — I don’t know if he’s an example. But people who sustained, who prevail — none of them are without bad stories. “Oh man, we nearly lost the company.” None of them. “Oh yeah, I made this thing and it’s been smooth sailing.”
I don’t want to hear a story like that. I want to meet the person who failed or had to really suck it up and keep on going because chances are you, the mere mortal, you’re going to blow it and you’re going to have to plan B, C, D, E, F and G it and keep going. I like to hear about the hard luck stories or how they nearly lost it. Because almost every label — all your Virgin Records and Warner Brothers that are still with us today — they’ve nearly lost it a few times.
Brian Clark: Yeah, the theme of the entrepreneurs and freelancers, artists, what have you, it’s always the same thing: struggle. But all people see is the success and think, “Oh that’s not me.” Everyone fails.
Henry Rollins: Heck no. If all you see is the success, rarely are you going to get there. Because you’re just seeing the final product. You’re seeing point Z. But B through Y, the journey, that’s what you want to teach. How you got there. If you just see the final product — a lot of people they get into the, you know, the business of celebrity thinking, “Oh, it’s all newly-corked bottles of champagne.” No, it was acting school. It was auditions where you were told, “You suck. Go home and get better.”
Then you see that person in the movie. “Oh, must be nice.” Shut up. There’s a lot of hard road to get to that red carpet. And the real people, they’re not even interested in the red carpet. They have to walk the damn thing to get into the premiere so they can get back on the set to make the next film the next day. So you really want to preach that struggle. Absolutely. The more people who come to your seminar and your convention, hopefully they’re there to learn how to what that struggle looks like, feels like and how to be ready for it.
Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. Henry, you mentioned that you’re embarking on a tour at the beginning. Tell us a little bit about that.
Henry Rollins: Well the tour started — I left on the December 31st of last year for a tour. I have shows — I’ve done 14 countries so far this year and I’ve got 5 more trips to Europe to go. I have shows all over the world. I still have to go back to Australia, I was just there a few weeks ago. I have to go back to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. I’ve got a bunch of more European shows to do. A ton of shows in the US of A, and then, Jan into Feb I’ve got Canada.
By February 5th of 2017, this tour will be landing. But as it is now, I have four radio shows I owe to the BBC because I’m filling in for Jarvis Cocker. I’ve got a radio show a week for KCRW. A radio show a month for the NTS network. An article a month for Rolling Stone Australia. An article a week for the LA Weekly. Three books I’m working on, which I will start editing in 2017. And about 100 more shows. Three films are out this year. I’m shamelessly promoting them. One of them I wrote so I have to go basically support that one. I’m in the film, but I also wrote the screenplay. So I’m basically in all media.
I’ve got to work on season two of a TV show called Con Man that I was in last year. We were shooting season two and they abruptly announced that they’re shooting it and they said, “Do you have any availability?” We looked at my calendar and went, “Yeah, this day and this day.” So hopefully they’ll be able to work around me. I’m a busy guy with a lot a lot on.
Brian Clark: The tour is spoken word right?
Henry Rollins: Yeah, there’s no music or anything. It’s just me on my own with a microphone.
Brian Clark: Do you have any Colorado dates coming up?
Henry Rollins: Well, because of you and the show you drove me to, it’ll take me a while to get back to Colorado because I got to get new material. I can’t keep telling old stories.
Brian Clark: Oh, I got you.
Henry Rollins: Hopefully, November or December for the great state of Colorado.
Brian Clark: Excellent.
Henry Rollins: Hopefully some cities I didn’t get to last time. But what I’m loathe to do is charge you money for a ticket and tell you what I told you last time. That’s what I call a rip-off. It also is boring to me.
Brian Clark: I remember that, because I asked you to do the Iggy Pop story and you were like, “Nope, I’ve done it. I’m not doing it again.”
Henry Rollins: Yeah, you can watch that online.
Brian Clark: It’s online.
Henry Rollins: Online, yeah. So I’d rather break new ground and pass or fail on new material.
Brian Clark: I got you. Henry, thank you so much for your time man, it’s been a joy to talk to you again.
Henry Rollins: Oh, no problem. I hope what I said was contributive and substantive, because it’s your innovators and these bold, independent entrepreneurs — they make your country a better place to live in. They make everything better, I think. I want to live in a country full of these people. I want to buy their stuff. I want to benefit from their genius. So I’ll do anything to promote it and to hurl it forward. I want to be a part of that. So hopefully, by you and me talking, we’re both part of it.
Brian Clark: You’re definitely a big part of it sir, thank you again.
Henry Rollins: No problem. Anything you need — you got my email address — just let me know and I’ll always do whatever I can.
Brian Clark: Okay, everyone, that was fairly epic. Thanks for tuning in for this show and also the entire season that we just completed. We will be back in September with a brand new season of high impact episodes with Unemployable, but the newsletter will continue all summer long, or at least summer here in this part of the world.
We’re also going to be adding some original content to Unemployable.com in addition to the curation that we do every week, the hand-picked best resources in eight categories for ambitious freelancers and creative entrepreneurs. If you’re not on the list, head over to Unemployable.com and sign up and we’ll make sure and deliver the value to you each week. That said, thanks so much for tuning in. Again, if you’re digging the show and want to leave a rating or review over at iTunes, use the URL Unemployable.com/iTunes. I certainly appreciate it. But for now, you know the drill. Keep going.