Henry Rollins: The Column! Sound Trekking

[The one and only Henry Rollins contributes a weekly column and far-reaching reportage to the music section of the LA Weekly. Look for your weekly Henry Rollins fix right here on West Coast Sound every week and make sure to tune in to Henry's KCRW radio show every Saturday evening, or online, or as a podcast, or however else you decided to listen to the most eclectic DJ on LA's airwaves.

This installment includes Henry's thoughts on creating soundtracks for his travels. And come back for the awesomely annotated playlist for his KCRW BROADCAST. For more details please visit and

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Sound Trekking

Le Mat Village, which is a few kilometers outside of Hanoi, Vietnam, is famous for its snakes. I am at a restaurant that serves them up.The smells coming my way change every few inhalations from appetizing aromas to tobacco smoke to rank and rotting garbage. In this heat and humidity, things decompose rapidly.

The air is full of voices. Hundreds of chatty patrons pack the dark brown wooden seats and tables.

All around the eaters are those who are there to be eaten. Huge ponds contain quacking ducks and large fish, immense pens house honking geese, statue-like crocodiles get their own enclosures, airy cages are the home to dozens of curious and restless rat snakes, small pools are set up for the turtles and carp, and hundreds of cobras are kept several meters away from the customers in a building guarded by a large dog.

Except for that hound, all of the other animals I just listed are on borrowed time. Their numbers could be up as soon as a hungry guest points to a certain dish on the menu.

I am here working on a very long and involved project with the National Geographic Channel. We have been shooting for a couple of weeks now in America and Vietnam. Days from now, we will take our numerous Pelican cases of gear and haul them and ourselves to India. After a week there, we head back to America for more fun and frivolity, or as we do at Nat. Geo., more serious, well-researched docu-journalism.

This makes my third journey to Vietnam. It's one of my favorite destinations now. I have tried but so far failed to connect with any alternative or underground bands or records here. One young med student who is doing some translation and consultation for us has proven to be a non-source of information as to something different musically here. Earlier today, I asked him what he knew of the local music here and he started singing some of the worst eighties hair band power ballads, asking me enthusiastically if I had ever heard these songs. I said yes with great emphasis, hoping that he would stop singing, which unfortunately only made him lay into it harder.

It's not always easy to find that mainline to a city's alternative or underground music scene. I very well could be naive but I think if you look hard enough, you will find one almost anywhere there's enough people with a place to plug in. A country that has been through as much as Vietnam has to have some crazy music somewhere.

I don't think I will have time to scour the crowded streets of Hanoi for record stores. Our schedule is very packed and we are putting in long days that leave me pretty beat. Besides, I have spent quite a bit of time looking for records in Vietnam. As good as it got was a row of record stores in Saigon in the summer of 2008. I went into each one, trying to forget how awful the one before was. Too bad I wasn't in the market for bootlegged CDs of American megacrap.

So, while I am here, I will have to content myself with the five hundred and ninety-five gigabytes of music I have with me. I think I'll get by.

This year will be my thirtieth year traveling all over the world. In that time, I have always had to consider the portability of music. I usually have to carry everything, sometimes for long periods of time, so weight is a great consideration.

Back in the cassette and walkman days, I would limit myself to a few tapes. I made some of the most well-considered and densely packed mixtapes ever. Each song had to stand the "desert island" test, and choosing which tunes would accompany me over the months, miles and continents took quite a bit of time. Things are different now, of course, but I still have those tapes and they still sound good to me.

The new technology of the i-Pod and my trusty Shure SE535 ear buds allow me to set up incredible soundtracks to accompany the often epic scenes unfolding in front of me as I travel the globe. A few examples: Sun Ra while sitting on a boat going up the Niger River in Mali, Ramones while watching tourists walk around in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and only a day ago, Dax Riggs and Frank Zappa while caught in traffic getting out of Hanoi to the mountains northeast of city. Somehow, the music always enhances the imagery.

David Lynch once told me that putting the music to the scene was one of his favorite parts of the whole process of film making. For me, the world is a massive Sergio Leone wide shot and when I call the tune, I am my own Ennio Morricone.

Music is my constant. The further out in the world I am, the better it sounds.

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