Henry Rollins is a world-renowned multimedia artist, whose work has spanned an array of projects, from fronting punk icons Black Flag to his own Rollins Band, spoken word tours, Rolling Stone columns, a weekly radio show on KCRW and political television.
I wanted to get Rollins’ perspective on the importance of unfiltered media coverage leading up to the RI primary elections, and was also curious about what role, if any, he believed artists played in the broader media landscape. I asked for his thoughts on what responsibility voters have to seek out alternative candidates, as well as his evaluation of primary voting’s role in shaping a democracy’s agenda.
Bill Bartholomew (Motif): We are approaching a hot-button primary election in RI, with strong divisions between gubernatorial, senatorial and other candidates in both the democratic and GOP primaries. What is your message about the importance of primary voting?
Henry Rollins: I think citizens should understand that it’s as important, if not more important, than the election that follows. It’s how you get your actual choices. It’s like getting to decide on what’s on the menu before you go to the restaurant. I know it’s a time drain with everything else you might have going on, but when done correctly, American democracy is actually a constantly interactive/maintenance experience. It’s apathy and non participation that gets you all the pain later.
BB: How important is it for media to offer air time to non-mainstream candidates? What responsibility do voters have to seek out alternative voices?
HR: Those are really good questions. As far as media, non-mainstream, like someone who claims to be more Trump than Trump, or like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Or both? Or all? How much time? The media has to walk a very fine line as the amount of coverage, shading and favoring can be hugely influential and all outlets do it. Did the Libertarian and Green Party candidates give America Trump? As far as voters, I think that due to how deeply set in stone the two party system is, that a third party win is not coming soon, but could in the future. A politician working within the two-side model with a non-mainstream message or posture, sure they should be checked out. I think a lot of the frustration many of us are feeling is because we think there’s nothing but the same old message. I think that’s going to change and I think you’re seeing that right now.
BB: How do artists fit into the broader media ecosystem when it comes to social and political issues? Do artists have an inherent responsibility to explore social issues and report on their findings through their work?
HR: I think artists fit in to media any way they choose. I’m not trying to give you a short answer. I really do think it’s up to the artist, case by case. I don’t think anyone with a guitar, paintbrush, camera or whatever else has an inherent obligation or responsibility to be political or weigh in on any matter. If they want to, of course, go ahead. I think some feel the need to do so, and if they’re not sincerely inclined or driven to do it, the results are often half baked or disingenuous.
BB: What is your advice to fringe candidates as to how to build relationships with artists and media members?
HR: Be honest, put your truth out there and don’t back off no matter what. Past that, I don’t know if a politician should try to build a relationship with an artist.
BB: You mentioned to me that you don’t have much interest in the podcast medium. Why is that?
HR: Because suddenly, it seems that everyone has one and many of these podcasters ask me to be on it. I do a phone interview with a publication. Months later, that person has a podcast and asks if they can take the interview and make into one. I meet someone at a show. I talk with them for a minute. The conversation was recorded and goes into a podcast. I get one to five requests a week to be on them. Many podcasts are good. Please know that many of them are not.
BB: Do you view radio, especially on local and niche levels, as an influential platform?
HR: It can be. I think political talk shows can be very influential. I do wonder that with all the ways a person can connect with media, if radio isn’t something that’s in the rearview, taking a backseat to podcasts, video casts and streaming of 24/7 music.
BB: From your core-values perspective, does either major political party in the US truly represent the best interests of ordinary people?
HR: I think they both do. I think they also feather their own nests and look out for their next elections. I think there are examples on both sides that are the real thing and quite selfless, but American politics has always been a careerist venture. Americans buy and sell each other with great ease. It’s in our history, after all. I think we, the electorate, should be much, much harder on the elected. Tell this to a person with 1.5 jobs, an almost upside down house and two kids, to take time out of their insane schedule to keep up on all this and call their representative. Americans work their butts off and often, there’s little left at the end of the day. Both sides need to up their game considerably. If I had a job like that, I would be putting in the extra hours, not out of love of the job, but out of fear of getting it wrong.
BB: Do you see the election of President Trump as a correction of sorts, in the sense that it might wake up apathetic potential voters?
HR: I see what you’re saying, but the correction would have to be seen after the upcoming elections have concluded. I see the Trump administration as an eventuality. Since Reagan, many Americans have craved an obviously fake populist as president. Reagan had more nutritional caloric value in one speech than Trump will have in his whole time in office, but he fits the bill well enough for a lot of people. That anyone was surprised that he was elected surprises me. Even though the elections haven’t happened, I do think Trump has woken up a lot of people. I think it’s getting through to some people that American democracy is theirs to lose.
BB: What’s next for you professionally?
HR: Work with CNN, work on a TV show and then immediately into a tour that goes on and off until late December. 2019 is pretty open, but there will be two books coming out.