When Henry Rollins wants to talk music, you listen. Best-known as the frontman for legendary California punks Black Flag through the first half of the ’80s, the singer led his own Rollins Band post-Flag and picked up a Grammy for the spoken-word recording of his Black Flag tour memoir, Get in the Van, in 1995. At 56, Rollins is now a successful spoken word performer, writer and actor who blurs the lines between comedy, confessional poetry and motivational speaking.
He has also never stopped buying records. A supremely well-versed and engaged fan, Rollins DJs, collects, and talks about music with the same intensity he brought to Black Flag. It’s only slightly less scary.
Now, Rollins is part of the team behind The Sound of Vinyl, a new music marketplace that offers curated selections from the likes of Rollins and others, as well as a surprisingly smart algorithm that learns from your input and personalizes selections for you. Rollins took some time to talk with PEOPLE about his lifetime in the trenches of record collecting.
How did you get involved with The Sound of Vinyl?
A few months ago I was at Capitol for a listening party, and my boss Jason approached me with the idea. A few days later, I was back at Capitol and he rolls out the whole thing and we just had this kind of really fun brainstorming session. And so I signed on. We’re interviewing people from different aspects of the music world — mastering guys, producers, people running labels — and people who just love records. Obviously we’ll be selling records — good ones — but it’s also going to be a place where you can get educated on mastering, how to care for records …
Even with the current vinyl resurgence, I’m still not sure people understand what a labor of love it is to produce a record, let alone care for one.
At some point, we want to bring cameras to a pressing plant and show people exactly how that record gets to your turntable — how many steps are involved and how and why you should take care of it. Because like, look at all the work that went into it!
As vinyl demand increases, there’s been a backlog at pressing plants, and smaller labels or bands — who may have always dealt in vinyl — are increasingly being pushed out. Do you think the vinyl resurgence is negatively affecting music distribution from the top down?
Basically, we’re talking about supply and demand. And right now, since vinyl kinda sorta went away in the ’80s because of CDs, there’s not many pressing plants. At a place like Rainbow, here in Los Angeles, you gotta get in line. Like, two fiscal quarters of a line. And now people are shopping out vinyl [production] to the Czech Republic because you can’t get it done here. Germany, France — they’re pressing vinyl like mad, for American labels, because we can’t meet the demand. And so, I think, capitalism is a wonderful thing, and it finds its way. And so maybe a few years from now, maybe we find a steady pattern of sales where the industry will adjust. And maybe we’ll get one or two more plants and there won’t be such a glut of people waiting.
You’ve been nearly everywhere. What are your favorite record shops?
On the West Coast, the two Amoebas are fantastic, because they’re just massive, and the buyers in the different departments are really knowledgeable and love music. You can just ask about something, and some guy will take you over and he’ll know every record in the bin. There’s great record stores in Washington, D.C., where I come from — Crooked Beat, which me and Ian MacKaye [Minor Threat and Fugazi] go to every time we’re in D.C. We go there and Red Onion, because we know the guys there, and I never leave empty-handed. D.C.’s always had great record stores, because you’ve got a lot of great musicians there and a lot of really smart people who want good records. Seattle’s university district has some great record stores; there’s some places around University of Wisconsin — Madison. But to be honest, some of the best record stores I go into are in Scandinavia, Hamburg and Frankfurt in Germany, and believe it or not, the most insane record store I’ve ever been to in my life was in Moscow. It looked like the Library of Congress with a cash register near the door. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. My road manager found a record that’s been on his want list for like, 20 years, and five aisles over, I heard him yelling. I was in 19 countries last year, and I bought records in about 17 or 18 of them. South Africa, Russia, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia — wherever I go, I find a record store.
What’s on the Henry Rollins record wish list?
Well, let’s see. I don’t want to show all my cards, so I’m gonna float out one title. I’d like to get the Indian pressing of Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine” single. It is the proverbial hen’s tooth; one was up on Discogs a while ago for $1,000, and the day I wrote the guy negotiating about the price, a guy got in front of me and paid the asking price. And the seller wrote me and said, “You are never going to see this record again,” and that was three or so years ago and he was right. I’m happy to go to India and search for it.
That idea of the all-knowing record store clerk/guru is kind of vanishing, but the concept behind the site seems to be to try and combine the old school and new school platforms for buying records.
We don’t have time to call you, the way that your local record store might — that’s an analog experience. But our computer can, and if you tell us enough of what you like and what you don’t like, we start sharpening that scalpel. And someone or something responding to your want list or to your interests, it’s a very effective thing. You see e-commerce sites saying, “People who looked at what you’re looking at liked this” and as cynical as I am, I have found great records because of that. I used to think I was falling for something, and then I realized it was just a good idea. I buy one to three records every day. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s early, I haven’t bought one yet, but believe me, I’m gonna buy one. And so I’m always looking, and if I had my way, everyone would be like that and every house would come with a turntable, every hotel room would have a turntable. Cars would have turntables.
You’ve been a part of the music industry through pretty much all of its big format changes — what do you make of streaming becoming the new dominant format?
I’m not anti-streaming, because I do think it allows a young person whose wallet is thin to explore something before they buy it, because a vinyl purchase is not that cheap. But I think if that’s going to be your primary way of listening, you’re robbing yourself of so much. You’re screwing yourself. In your short life, you should listen to a lot of records.
Do you think we’ll ever have a digital music format that rivals vinyl?
Well, I think that — as has probably happened with you — the curious music fan will go from their phone or car stereo to somehow hearing a record, and the first time you do, it takes about a song for your brain to re-map. But then you’ll start going, “Oh yeah, listen to all that depth, and the drums are ringing more,” and digital just doesn’t offer that. I think once people get it, if they can afford it, they progress to an analog situation. I have heard so much talk about an “upgraded digital format…” I was sitting in with a famous mastering engineer who was working on a famous jazz album, and he had the original tapes and said, “One day, DVD audio is going to surpass this,” and I said, “Well, okay, really? Because this is like the best-sounding thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” And that was like, I don’t know, 12 years ago. If they can make digital sound that good, great, because I’m on the road a lot, so I have to listen to digital music by default, sometimes nine months out of the year. So yeah, make it better for me!
There’s that cliché about social media making us less social; I think the profusion of digital music has made people crave something more.
Yeah! The record store guy! You’d go into your record store and there’d be this old crusty guy — who I look like now — kind of talking to the cashier too much. I grew up in those environments — and those guys did talk too much — but they culturalized me! There was this place in London, Ray’s Jazz Shop, and you’d go in there and there’d be these wizened old crones behind the counter browbeating each other about Coleman Hawkins, and you’d ask a question, and they’d kind of scowl at you and deliver this lesson on Charlie Parker, you stupid boy. Or the angry guys at Tower Records in the East Village — I’d go upstairs and I’d ask them about something and they’d just go, “BUY THIS RECORD, TODAY!” And I’d come back and go, “Oh yeah, this was really good,” and they’d, you know, lessen the beating this time, but I learned from them. And then I’d go there for the lesson, for the hang, for the talk.
You can’t necessarily do that over the internet, but if we keep this vinyl thing going, record stores will come back. I remember in the ’80s, every fourth building was an independent record store, with a guy and a cat and records all over the place. Ann Arbor, Cleveland — two years later, you take the same walk from the same rank venue you’re gonna be sweating in that night and the place would be gone! But record stores are coming back — in L.A., there’s some insanely well-curated record stores as big as your kitchen, but people are going. And so I think a return to analog… we’re looking at people finding out what’s truly great about playback. If you can’t go to the gig, get the record. Get three.