Henry Rollins on traveling, photography and being an American abroad

Henry Rollins built a name for himself as the face of Black Flag in the early-80s, a relentless touring beast that he documented in his book, “Get In the Van.” Rollins also released a host of solo records and albums, all while fostering his career as a writer, radio personality and actor. With a tenacious drive to perform and explore, he has traveled the world, and on Friday, Sept. 21, Rollins will be sharing those experiences with a Louisville audience through photos, when he swings by the Kentucky Center For The Arts for his “Travel Slideshow Tour.” Before he shows his photographs, and tells the stories behind them, we caught up with Rollins. 

LEO: I know you’ve been to Kentucky at least a few times to play, if not more. As someone who’s seen a lot of the world, how do we compare on an international level?
Henry Rollins: I can’t remember having a bad time in Kentucky. I’m not the harshest judge of audiences, as I’m grateful anyone shows up for anything I’m doing. For me, it’s always Saturday night in New York City. I think that’s really the only way to go. There’s no such thing as a midweek show to me. 

What drew you to traveling? Was it always there, that drive to get out and see the world, or did you develop it during your time with Black Flag?
My mother was one of those people who appreciated the arts. So, she would save her pay and every few years, we would go somewhere. Greece, Turkey, Italy, England, all to see ruins, galleries, etc. That got me warmed up, but it was touring that made me prefer being out in the world rather than at home or, otherwise, in one place. 

It’s not an easy existence being on the move. So much of it is manual. Everything you want requires a journey. There’s a vigor and a certain duty to it that you have to maintain that I quite like. I miss it when I’m away from it. Perhaps it’s like a sailor missing the ship? I don’t know.

What got you into photography? What are you looking for when you’re trying to document your experiences?
I’m not an artistic person in the least. For me, it’s sheer documentation. What I’m trying to get across in any photograph is the impact of the moment on me and, hopefully, that comes through in the shot. It’s basically storytelling. As the person capturing the image, you need to be objective as possible. I’ve been learning as I go, which is usually the case with me.

What have you learned from your travels? How does America stack up? What could we do better?
I’ve learned that pretty much people aren’t asking for much. Water, food, shelter, safety, a sense of sustainability, so they don’t have to be constantly thinking of water, food, shelter, etc. As we do in the West. By traveling to the places I have, I’ve been able to meet people who are living without the racing stripes, and it’s a lesson-rich environment. Tolerance and patience are what I’ve learned from travel. The USA is a No. 1, top-shelf place to live. Nowhere I’ve been to comes close.

How are you received as an American?
Usually, everything goes fine. I’ve found that it’s not always where you’re from, but how you conduct yourself. Being culturally aware, polite and respectful at all times. These things go a long way. I have found that people want to like you. They want to welcome you. If you’re in a place and truly want to know about it, that will come off you with everything you do. This is how I travel, and it’s gotten me all through the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Syria, Lebanon, anywhere else.

Have you noticed different music scene in different cultures? Where has the most interesting scene from your perspective and why?
There are great music scenes almost anywhere you go. Chile has an amazing psych scene that’s recently getting out into other places, thanks to licensing deals with labels like Sacred Bones. Blow Your Mind Records in Santiago is a great label. I’ve been to their place. Finland has an insane noise/drone/folk scene. I have literally hundreds of records from there. I’m usually interested in any music scene anywhere, because it’s often about way more than just music.

What’s the most intense place that you’ve traveled and why? What was your takeaway?
Probably Afghanistan. You can see the history everywhere. Soviet war junk, Mujahideen graves. Uzbekistan is intense. You go to certain parts of Samarkand, and broken pottery is on the ground from the Mongols in 1220, when they pretty much flattened the place. It’s the locations where the history is in your face that makes a place intense to me. The takeaway is that no matter when you were living, there were no ‘good old days.’