Henry Rollins is getting things done. Over the course of his 30-year career, Rollins has evolved from the sexy, muscle-bound psycho frontman for the incendiary proto-hardcore band Black Flag to today's slightly more erudite persona.
He's changed, but his intensity and relentless drive haven't flagged at all. Rollins' spoken-word touring schedule takes him to 25 countries a year, and when he's home he's either hosting a radio show, writing another book, championing a cause, or doing voiceover work.
Of late, Rollins has shifted his focus to telling other people's stories. A recent photo book, Occupants, finds Rollins in full-on journalism mode.
"I'm out in the world more often, so I look at things from a different perspective," he says. "When you're young and you're finding your way in the world it's me, me, me all the time. That can especially last too long for people in the entertainment industry. That should've been over when you're 22, but it lasts into people's 30s, 40s, and, sadly, their 60s. For me, it's a process of looking around more and seeing that there's more out there. Traveling extensively and getting out of my element has changed my perspective greatly."
Another change for Rollins is crucial: He's no longer making music.
"I won't do music unless I get some divine inspiration to make something completely different," he says. "What I don't want to do is make another record that sounded like the last one. You can always tell when a musician is just going through the motions. I'll hear musicians and think, wow—you're just doing what you think people expect you to do, just stringing riffs together. Very few people can do music for several decades and still write songs. When I stopped being into music 100 percent, I quit. I cannot fool people. If I'm not into something, I cannot act my way around it. I just can't."
But you're probably still hearing Rollins' voice nearly every day on television. Not only has Rollins narrated a spate of recent documentaries and done voiceover work on Fox cartoons such as American Dad, he's also served as spokesman on several widely broadcast television commercials. Among other things, Rollins is the voice of Japanese luxury automaker Infiniti.
"I say yes to employment," he says. "I get flack for it from people who say, why are you shilling for these companies? I'm not exactly shilling; I'm a voice. This is the work I can get in Hollywood between tours. If someone finds this offensive or in any way hypocritical, I take it square on the jaw. I go at all of this with a utilitarian bent, in that I come from minimum-wage work. So between tours I'm for all intents and purposes out of work. I do the Infiniti commercials, and I was also one of the main spokesmen for Verizon for over a year. Those companies were putting me on TV like, every seven seconds.
"I don't stumble into those jobs, and it's not by accident," he continues. "I love this work. I love that I got these jobs. I was recently offered an audition for Citibank, but I didn't want that one. Skoal tobacco offered me a job as well and I turned that down, because I think tobacco is a monumentally bad idea. If it's an advertisement for something I won't do, I won't do the voicework. If they're not selling Zyklon B, tobacco, or alcohol products, I'll consider it."
Looking back, Rollins expresses amazement that his life's trajectory has taken into so many uncharted territories. Who would have thought a high-school-educated punk-rock singer would have become an omnipresent media figure, activist, and international man of letters?
"I'm in a permanent working-class mind set," he says. "I love eating and I love paying my bills, so I love working. I went from scooping ice cream for minimum wage, then I got to sing in Black Flag, and one thing led to another. I didn't think I'd move to Hollywood one day and act, or I'd be in a rock band. I thought I was going to be working for wages for 10 hours a day. And I thought, wow, this is going to really hurt. It turns out that being in a band hurt worse, but at least I thought I was getting somewhere.
"I look back at everything and I look at material accomplishments like my home and I go, wow, I remember living in an abandoned building and washing my face in a public fountain. I'm not saying the end of the road is success or money, and I don't equate success with money. For me it's always been just trying to get something done. And I have been able to get things done. When I hit 50 last year, I thought, wow, who saw this coming?"