Monday, October 13, 2014

A Life Time Ago: Henry Rollins on Ian MacKaye, New Jersey and the Birth of the Rollins Band

Image courtesy of Henry Rollins

By the time 26-year-old Henry Rollins began rehearsing with guitarist Chris Haskett, bassist Andrew Weiss and drummer Sim Cain in the spring of 1987, he was already a hardened veteran of the international underground music scene. The previous year, his five-year run as the frontman of the legendary Black Flag came to an abrupt end with the departure of founding guitarist Greg Ginn. Wasting no time, Rollins hooked up with longtime friend Haskett (formerly of worth-seeking-out late '70s DC No Wave/Hardcore band The Enzymes), bassist Bernie Wandel and drummer Mick Green to record a solo album, Hot Animal Machine, and an EP of cover songs and parody tunes (credited to “Henrietta Collins & The Wifebeating Childhaters”) called Drive by Shooting. With the arrival of Cain and Weiss (previously of Greg Ginn's instrumental side project Gone and the brilliant New Jersey bands Regressive Aid and Scornflakes), the first incarnation of the Rollins Band was born. By April, the band was performing live; by November, they were in a studio in Leeds, England (with former Minor Threat/future Fugazi member Ian MacKaye serving as producer) recording their debut album, Life Time.

Although the Rollins Band (who would later include a full-time sound engineer, Theo Van Rock, and bassist Melvin Gibbs) would gain mainstream recognition years later with albums like 1992's The End Of Silence and 1994's Weight (and Rollins would later find considerable success as a TV show host, actor and 30-plus-year spoken word performer), Life Time remains perhaps their strongest and most incendiary studio release.

Now, Life Time is set to receive a much-deserved new life with a vinyl reissue on Rollins' 2.13.61 label (in association with MacKaye's Dischord Records). Due out on November 18, this revamped edition of Life Time has been remastered for vinyl by TJ Lipple and will include updated artwork by Jason Farrell. The record will also contain a complimentary digital download coupon for the nine original album songs plus four tracks recorded live in Kortrijk, Belgium on October 16, 1987. (This is not the first time Dischord put out a Rollins-related title this year: In March, the label released the 1980 demo by his first band, S.O.A, as a seven-inch EP.)

With the upcoming Life Time re-release sure to introduce newer fans of Rollins' work to this important chapter in his musical history, I recently touched base with him to gain insight into the album's creation and the earliest days of the Rollins Band.  

What led to the decision to put Life Time back out on vinyl, and how is Dischord assisting in this process?

Ian MacKaye asked if Dischord could do it. I knew he and Dischord would do a good job and so I said yes. They are manufacturing and distributing the record.

Although Life Time was the first Rollins Band album, you released a solo album (Hot Animal Machine) under your name shortly after leaving Black Flag. Why did you decide to move forward in a band environment rather than embark on a strictly “solo” career?

I thought it would be better to be in a cohesive unit, rather than on my own. I think I made the right decision. I did not leave Black Flag; Greg Ginn called me and said he quit. It was a strange phone call. When he quit his own band, I figured it was over with and got to work on the Hot Animal Machine record that day.

Chris was there with you at the very beginning, having played on Hot Animal Machine and the Drive by Shooting EP before the Rollins Band came together. How important was Chris in shaping the Rollins Band's sound and direction in the early days?

Chris was a good writing partner and was very enthusiastic. You need someone who is really into it to keep you into it. He really made the thing go. Sound-wise, I don’t know if we had a sound; we just wrote and recorded those songs very fast. It was all we could afford. The multi-track tapes were recorded over the day after we left the studio with the mixdowns.

How did you end up with Gone's rhythm section in the Rollins Band, and how did Greg feel about that?

Gone had been broken up for months. I asked them if they were sure they were done. Andrew and Sim said they never wanted to see Greg Ginn ever again. So, I asked them if they wanted to be in a band with me. That was February 1987, I believe. By April, we were practicing. April 26, 1987 was the first show.

Image courtesy of Boogie Buzzard (

Rollins Band at City Gardens, Trenton, NJ, 4/26/87 (Photo by Boogie Buzzard:

While Black Flag played musical chairs with their rhythm sections over the years, Sim and Andrew were already a well-oiled, stable duo by the time they became part of the Rollins Band. Considering they had already been together in Gone and Regressive Aid when you started working with them, how would you say their experience and abilities impacted and drove the Rollins Band in the beginning? How did their sound affect the songwriting?

They learned the Hot Animal Machine album in one day. We had new songs within a few days of practicing for the first time. Andrew was the magic. One riff after another, it seemed effortless for him. Together, Andrew and Sim were an unbelievable unit. Incredible. Chris and I just hung on.

The Rollins Band spent a lot of time in New Jersey in those days. What were some bands and venues from the Garden State at that time that still stand out in your memory?

Ween is the one that sticks out the most. I can’t remember other bands that were nearby. I remember City Gardens and the Court Tavern.

The great Randy Ellis a.k.a. Randy Now (legendary promoter of Trenton's City Gardens) was an important figure for the Rollins Band in those days. How did he help the band back then?

He helped book our first tour. He was very helpful. We were just figuring things out and he was there for us.

When I played a show for Randy years ago, he immediately struck me as this super-enthusiastic, over-the-top guy who was really into bands and the music they created. I think this came through in this recent Riot on the Dance Floor documentary about him and City Gardens. What are your thoughts on the film? How would you best sum up Randy?

I never saw the film, but your description of him works. He really loves the music. For him, it’s real. That’s what you want.

How did Ian MacKaye become involved in the recording of Life Time? What was his greatest impact on the creation of that album?

I called Ian on a payphone from England and said I needed help with the record. He flew out immediately and took charge. He made a clear, hard-hitting album in no time, which was all we could afford. Almost everyone in the band had a lot of respect for him and that made things go pretty smoothly. Ian is a very good producer. I don’t think a lot of people know the amazing amount of records he has produced. It’s crazy.

I've always loved how Life Time sounds. As great as the later Black Flag albums are, the production – especially on the drums – always sounded a little foggy to me, whereas things on Life Time are very crisp and coherent. Was this the result of Ian's production, the studio you used, or both?

It was a combination of Sim’s excellent playing [and] recording the reality of it clearly on tape. Ian didn’t mess around. We put up the mics and rolled tape. I think we were done with the whole thing in about a week. It’s all I could afford. Some Black Flag albums were mixed by someone who medicates with marijuana. They sounded a little foggy to me as well.

Rollins and Weiss at City Gardens, Trenton, NJ, 4/26/87 (photo by Boogie Buzzard:

Since Life Time was the Rollins Band's first album, what was the greatest thing you learned about working together in the studio for the first time that helped shape the band's working relationship on subsequent recordings?

That Andrew would always be an asshole. That never changed and proved to be the “thing” about every recording we ever made. A distinctly unenjoyable experience every single time.

I've always felt that the studio tracks on Life Time were the closest the Rollins Band came to capturing your live energy on record. Would you agree? If not, which Rollins Band studio recording do you feel best represents what the group was able to do in front of an audience?

I think Life Time and the End Of Silence Demos come closest to the live sound.

What kind of feedback on Life Time, if any, did you receive from former members of Black Flag?

I cannot recall any at all. I am not aware that any of them have ever heard any of those records.

After Come in and Burn (1997), you formed a new version of the Rollins Band with the guys from Mother Superior. What changed in your working/creative relationship with the original band – especially Chris and Sim – that necessitated moving forward with new musicians after spending so many years together?

It was great working with people who were into it, ready to go, were happy to travel, didn’t whine and didn’t talk about money all the time. Playing with the Mother Superior guys is probably the only time I was in a positive environment making music. It was great to be in a band without drama or cliche adult rockstar problems and just play really hard every night.

With the exception of Andrew, the original Rollins Band lineup reunited for a tour with X in 2006. Why didn't this incarnation of the band continue beyond that point?

Because it was a bad idea of Chris Haskett’s that I said yes to. I can’t believe I was stupid enough to fall back in with those people. That’s a summer I’ll never get back. It should have never happened. The playing was good, but the experience was awful. I blame myself only.

In addition to the Life Time re-issue providing newer fans a look into your past, Dischord put out a seven-inch EP of the 1980 S.O.A. demo earlier this year. How do you feel about walking into a record store and seeing an S.O.A. record in the “new releases” section in 2014?

I have no feeling about it. I have never played the record and have not heard those recordings since 1981. If it brings someone some joy, that’s good to go. I think one needs to be careful with the past. If you’re going to release something old, it better be solid. I was very careful with the End of Silence Demos. I listened to them over and over after mixing them to make sure they were good enough to release. I don’t want anyone thinking that their wallets are being raided. If Ian says the S.O.A. demos are good to go, I trust him. Personally, I don’t want to hear the record.

With the Rollins Band now in the rearview mirror, what do you think was the group's greatest accomplishment?

We gave it all we had.


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