As the co-founder of Bad Brains, one of the most influential rock bands of the past 40 years, HR has played every major venue in every major city one can think of, in addition to countless pubs, dive bars and random holes-in-the-wall from one side of this world to the other. He has slowed down a bit as his 63rd birthday approaches, but not entirely. Even during extended breaks, he tries to fit in at least one show a month, and his formal touring schedule is as hectic as it's ever been. This most current tour has seen him doing 10 shows in almost as many days.
But at the moment, HR is back home, on the phone from Philly. It's his day off, kinda, and he speaks to Orlando Weekly with calm, earnest deliberation. Right now he's talking about the Southern swing of his current tour, which includes stops in Tampa (Dec. 14), Stuart (Dec. 15), Melbourne (Dec. 16), Miami (Dec. 18) and Jax Beach (Dec. 19). It all begins this Thursday night at Café DaVinci in DeLand.
For the past four years, he's been playing with a band that includes guitarist Ezekiel Zagar, Joshua Freshy on bass and Wesley Rast on drums. "The message is still there," he says, "but the way the band delivers the music is not as aggressive as it used to be."
Having made his name leading one of the fiercest punk bands the world has ever seen, the last two decades or so have seen HR refining his focus around his first love, reggae, crafting a sound that's far more mellow and accessible, but in no way less intense. "When I first started out, there were only a few of us, but now there are thousands of us." He's speaking specifically of Rastafari, but he could also be talking punk rock or hardcore, which Bad Brains infused with the spirit of Selassie I to create a potent new variant on the DIY ethos. Their influence can be heard in artists ranging from Black Flag to Body Count, Snoop Dogg to Sublime, Matisyahu to Death Grips.
Throughout our discussion, HR projects a message of gratitude for life and for his fans, a message that resonates all the more after a difficult last few years. A rare disorder was causing constant, excruciating cluster headaches, and he finally chose an extreme option – brain surgery – to treat it. Such procedures always carry risks, but thankfully he came through just fine.
"I'm doing much better," he says, "so much better than earlier before, when it was a struggle. God has answered my prayers and made me a stronger man. He's given me the gift of telling people what's going on through my music."
Between Bad Brains and his solo work, HR has appeared on at least 25 albums over the years, but he estimates that it could be as many as 40; even he doesn't know.
Many artists have a bunch of pre-show rituals and warm-up exercises, but HR likes using that time to just connect with the fans. "I don't like to be seen in the audience's eyes as some kind of mystic person who they can't see until the show starts," he says. "I like to get out and mingle with the people and let them know that Rasta is on their side."
Opening for HR on those first four shows will be Dollyrots, a husband-and-wife duo hailing from nearby Land O'Lakes. After years in L.A., they now live in Tampa, so these HR shows amount to a homecoming of sorts. They play as a trio, switching out drummers as the logistics of touring demand, but the core of the group remains bass player/vocalist Kelly Ogden and guitarist Luis Cabezas, childhood sweethearts who met in eighth grade and came together as a band while attending New College of Florida in 2000. They moved to Los Angeles in 2002 and released their debut album on Lookout! Records two years later.
All together, they've released 11 studio albums; their sixth, Whiplash Splash, was released last year on their own Arrested Youth label. They've also released six EPs, including a split 7-inch with Bowling for Soup in 2011 and an EP of Christmas music in 2014, which was their busiest year to date. As one might expect from such adorable punk-rock parents, their music is accessible and sweet, but not cloyingly so.
They are, of course, big fans of HR, and the feeling is mutual. "I think Dollyrots are outrageous," he says, which is really saying something, coming from him.
His goals for 2019 are simple, but nothing is simple when it comes to HR.
"I just want to enrich myself, and engulf myself in the reggae," he says. "I want my group to be happy with me, and happy with what's going on, and for the kids to have even more fun than they did in 2018!" You can bet on that.