Henry Rollins is a 21st-century renaissance man. He began as one of the original punk rockers as the singer of Black Flag, but that’s ancient history. Today he’s an author, world traveler, documentary series host, spoken-word performer, DJ, columnist, actor (he was in SXSW to promote a horror film that gave him his first leading role, “He Never Died”), and the voice of Infiniti car commercials.
On March 17, the last day of the SXSW Film Conference, Rollins sat down with Indiewire editor in chief Dana Harris in Austin in front of a packed ballroom to discuss all of the above — and with it, presented some sage advice. Here’s the highlights.
If you have to ask for permission or advice, in Rollins own words, “it means you are kind of shaky in your convictions.” Did James Brown and Iggy Pop ask for permission to pursue careers in music? No; they just said, “get out of the way; here it comes.”
2. The only way to overcome fear is to ask questions and educate yourself. It’s the reason Rollins travels so much, especially to places considered dangerous destinations including Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Lebanon, among others. For Rollins, however, travel is not so much about thrill-seeking as it is about re-evaluating the prevailing geopolitical narrative. “I go to these places to dispel the myth that I was raised with,” he told the audience. “I’m not a tough guy, nor am I looking for a fight or looking to get in danger. I don’t want to be an enemy of the world, [but] I [also] don’t want to be afraid of the world.”
3. Anger and curiosity are the two main ingredients of taking action.
“I’m driven primarily by two things: anger and curiosity,” said Rollins. The anger, he says, is what makes him curious, and the curiosity, in turn, fuels the anger. The resulting emotional cocktail, he says, “makes me want to do stuff and live vigorously.” In other words, it spurs him to use his various tools of expression — whether it’s writing, his radio show, photography or travel — to engage with whatever riled him up in the first place.
4. Say thank you to the people who take the time to listen to you.
“The only reason I get to do anything is because I have an audience — and I need them more than they need me,” Rollins said. “They’ll be done with me long before I’m done with them, which sucks, because I’m never going to be done with them, ever.” It’s an unpleasant reality for not just Rollins, but anyone — creative professional or not. That’s why gratitude, according to Rollins, plays such an important role in the relationship you have with an audience. You have to say thank you to your audience as often as you can, Rollins said, because everyone is giving you time they can’t get back. In other words, it doesn’t matter how great of a musician, filmmaker, friend, or parent you are; your success, hinges on the way in which trust informs your relationships.
5. Getting in bed with The Man doesn’t make you a whore.
For years, Rollins has faced fans accusing him of selling out. “Black Flag was an insanely ambitious band,” said Rollins, “[we] had our own label and we wanted to take over the world in our own way.” By aspiring to release an album, the band wasn’t turning its back on punk philosophy, but attempting to carry it out to a wider audience. “We thought we should just own the world with music — not so we could be rich and have big cars, but because we should just rip this place apart, music should just wreck it,” Rollins continued. “I’m an insurgent. This is punk rock. I’m going into Gate 5 at Warner Brothers today, I’ve got a job at this place, no one knows that I can’t act, don’t you see?”
6. But if The Man asks you to do something you don’t believe in, don’t.
When a fast food chain approached Rollins and offered him a generous sum to make a voiceover for an upcoming annual corporate event, he declined. “It’s fast food, I think that will kill you, so I said I can’t be part of that,” Rollins said. He also declined to participate in a music tour sponsored by Skoal tobacco — despite the fact that they offered him five shows a week opening for Iggy Pop (who Rollins described as his personal hero) and a $100,000 signing bonus.
“If you’re not going to do something that is really good and doesn’t do something good for someone artistically or make them better, or stronger or braver, do something else that makes the world better, or safer, or cooler or smarter or less homophobic or less racist, or less misogynistic,” Rollins said. “Otherwise you’re not ever going to do anything of any worth and you know it. You know you’re full of it and you’ll never be able to approach what you’re doing with the amount of velocity and vengeance and fury that you must to achieve the first step out the door.”
7. Take the hard way. You’ll be better for it.
“Stress is good — too much is not good, but [just enough] stress keeps the snare drum’s skin tight,” Rollins told the audience. “I would go the harder route because you get better scars and your nose looks better when it’s bent and your stories are better.”
8. Being frustrated and hopeful at the same time is totally punk rock.
Many subscribe to defeatist attitude about the current sociopolitical and cultural climate of the United States, but Rollins sees it very differently. “I get very angry at America just because it should be so much better than it is,” he said. It frustrates him “knowing how good it could be and seeing how mediocre and desperate and mean it has become.”
Rollins describes himself as “one of those hippy-dippy-changey types who want to empty prisons, fill up the schools and you’ll see it, it will be like an hourglass. They’ll all leave prison and they’ll all go to school and then the next generation won’t bother with prison because school is way better.”
Editor’s note: This article was originally listed as 9 tips; there were 8. We’ve adjusted the numbers and the headline; we regret the editing error.