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Ahead of the premiere of his Punk Rock Vegan Movie this weekend, Moby reflects on his 35 years as a vegan, how animal rights activism found a home in punk and hardcore, and why he’s giving the film away for free…
Before he became a million-selling electronic artist in the ’90s, Moby was a mover and shaker in New York’s legendary ’80s hardcore scene. As well as spawning killer music by bands like Cro-Mags, Gorilla Biscuits, Youth Of Today, Bad Brains, the Misfits and countless others from in and outside the city, the scene also turned the then-teenaged Moby on to the activism that ran parallel to the music.
It was partly the influence of the scene and its messages that Moby quit meat and went vegan. Three-and-a-half decades on, he remains so, these days proudly sporting the words ‘Vegan For Life’ on his neck, and ‘Animal’ down his right arm, and ‘Rights’ down the other in thick, block capitals. It was this that helped Kerrang! identify him in a vegan restaurant in Los Angeles last summer (“Thank you for realising it was me,” he laughs when we tell him. “You wouldn’t believe how many people get disappointed when they realise I’m not Michael Stipe from REM…”).
This weekend, Moby’s premiering his directorial debut, Punk Rock Vegan Movie, at the Slamdance Film Festival in Salt Lake City. In it, he examines the history of American punk and hardcore, and its intersection with veganism and animal rights activism, via interviews with the original British punk vegans like Crass’ Steve Ignorant and The Damned’s Captain Sensible, the old guard with whom he used to run like Ray Cappo and Porcell from Youth Of Today/Shelter, Cro-Mags’ John Joseph, Rob Zombie, Walter Schriefels from Gorilla Biscuits/Rival Schools, Sepultura’s Derrick Green and Minor Threat/Fugazi frontman Ian McKaye, as well as those who were inspired by them, like Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath, Fall Out Boy drummer Andy Hurley, Arch Enemy singer Alissa White-Gluz and Refused’s Dennis Lyxzén.
Being a work of activism, Moby’s also giving the film away for free immediately after the premiere. Talking to Kerrang! from LA, here he looks back at how punk changed his life, the struggle to get good vegan food in the ’80s, and getting “karmic” food poisoning from McDonald’s…
What’s your first memory of the intersection of music and animal rights?
“My introduction to the world of punk rock and activism, especially animal rights activism, was the one and only tour I did with my band, The Vatican Commandos, in 1982 when I was 16 years old. We were this tiny little punk rock band, and we got into a van with three other bands from Connecticut. Like, 20 of us piled into this tiny van and drove 12 hours to Akron, Ohio. And the entire tour consisted of going to Akron, Ohio, sleeping on the floor of a vegan squat, playing in a pizza parlour the next day and then driving back. But from our perspective, we were like, ‘Wow, we’re on tour!’ because our moms weren’t there.
“We arrived at around five or six in the morning at this punk rock squat. We all stumbled in and fell asleep on the floor, and in the morning, these punk rock kids who were living in this squat made us lentils. I was a 16-year-old kid from the suburbs – I didn’t know what a lentil was. They said, ‘Oh, this is a vegan squat. We’re all vegan.’ I didn’t even know what vegan meant. I thought vegetarian was just weird hippies. In a fit of interesting karma, my friend Jeff and I rejected the vegan squat, went to McDonald’s, and we both got terrible food poisoning.”
How did veganism come in for the scene?
“Ray and Porcell from Youth Of Today, they were the first friends of mine who actually made a choice to be punk rock vegetarians, and later vegans. They got interested in Krishna as well – I still don’t know what that means. Those guys, and Walter and Arthur from Gorilla Biscuits moved into Lower Manhattan, which at the time in the mid-’80s was a warzone. In Lower Manhattan, you could get an apartment for $100 a month. Everybody worked at this health food store called Prana on First Avenue, and I almost feel like the story of punk rock and veganism in the United States wouldn’t exist without this one health food store. There was this old hippie who ran it, and it was exactly what you’d imagine an old hippie health food store to be like – there was some sick cat asleep on the beans, everything was dusty, but it was amazing. The guy who owned it let all these punk rockers work there, he let them take food, when they would go on tour, he would let them go and give them a job when they come back. So I really feel like that was kind of the epicentre, this old dusty health food store. I think Rob Zombie was probably working in there as well because he went to NYU, which is around the corner, John Joseph was probably in there buying black beans and nutritional yeast, Derrick from Sepultura might have been working there. It was this weird, accidental home for all these punk rock kids.”
Were veganism and animal rights quite common ground for you all as mates?
“One of the things that really surprised me when I was making it was, a lot of the people in the movie, like Ray, Rob Zombie, Derrick, I’ve known these guys for such a long time, but I realised I’d never sat down and had really in-depth, serious conversations with them. What was amazing about this was realising how incredibly bright and thoughtful these friends of mine are. John Joseph, I’ve known him on and off for decades, but we’d never had a conversation like that. I mean, he’s a very complicated person, but when you first meet him, he seems like this super-tough New York street kid. And what was amazing as we sat down to talk about animal rights, he became so emotional, and almost quiet. It was really very fascinating seeing this side of some of the heaviest musicians on the planet.”
Can you remember what it was that made you want to go vegan?
“I had what I think of as this human neurological paradox. And the moment you become aware of it, it becomes so obvious, and it manifests in so many different ways. One glaring example was when I was growing up, I loved animals unconditionally, all animals, but I also loved Burger King. If I would see a cow in a field, I’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s so great, what a beautiful cow.’ And then I would run to McDonald’s. Because that was the dominant cultural paradigm, it seemed weird to even consider questioning that. And then in 1984, I had my big realisation: ‘Oh, it’s simply illogical, and inconsistent, and unethical to love animals and also cause their suffering, and death.’ So in 1984, that’s where I went vegetarian. And then I read this book called Diet For A New America [by John Robbins]. And that, like a lot of people back then, was what turned me from a vegetarian to a vegan in 1987. So now it’s been, what, like 35 years.”
Tell us about the first punk show you went to…
“My first punk rock show was either the end of 1981, or the beginning of 1982. My friends, Dave and Tom, and Bill and I sort of… not stole but ‘borrowed without telling’ someone’s car and drove to Lower Manhattan to go see Fear at the Mudd Club. Of course, the car broke down. So at two o’clock in the morning, Tom had to call his dad who drove in to drive us back. It was humiliating. It was terrifying. We were more afraid of Tom’s dad than we were of the gangs and violent people in Lower Manhattan in 1981. But Fear at the Mudd Club, that was the first time I saw slam dancing. We were like, ‘What is this?’ It just seemed like the coolest, most remarkable thing. That night was sort of our introduction into the hardcore scene.”
Was the activism and politics as all-pervading in that scene as history has written it?
“Punk rock, from its beginnings, was very political, bands like The Clash and Crass. And then when it came to the States and sort of became hardcore, it became even more political, more activist-oriented, the music got faster, the music got heavier, and it became much more, unapologetically confrontational. That there was that ethos of hardcore, whether it’s with Minor Threat, or the Dead Kennedys, or Black Flag, or the Bad Brains. It was uncompromisingly aggressive and confrontational, and that’s sort of what I grew up with. And there was this baked-in ethos in the hardcore scene, where people would play a show, and it was fun, there’d be stage-diving, the music was great and it was very celebratory, but half of the merch table was always anti-nuclear leaflets, pro-vegetarian leaflets. The activism was such an integral part of that scene. Apart from the Circle Jerks, who I love, I can’t think of too many punk rock bands who didn’t have a political, activist approach to what they were doing.”
Swipe across to see some stills from Punk Rock Vegan Movie
Why do you think animal rights activism and veganism found a home with punk and hardcore rather than metal?
“That’s a great question. And I wonder, in a weird way – keeping in mind I love metal, and I’m definitely not maligning a genre – about how metal came from establishment rock. And granted, there’s obviously a strong current of metal that’s very counterculture and very anti-authority, and in the ’80s it was political, but it was more focused on war and Armageddon, which are certainly good things to be focused on. But originally, you know, it was an evolution from Led Zeppelin, it wasn’t as marginalised. You had bands like Def Leppard – and I love Def Leppard – but it was almost pop-metal. It was a little more establishment. Which is not a criticism, it’s just a statement that it came from more legitimate music and music business. Those bands were on big labels, they sold records, they had private planes.
“Punk rock – not to say it’s better or worse – very much came from the completely marginalised, weird culture. It was weird, it was very fringe, and up until Green Day and Rancid, it never sold records. If you started a metal band at that time, you might end up super-rich and sell 10 million records. If you were in a hardcore band, your best hope was that 100 people would come see you at a VFW hall. So at that time, there was no commercial incentive. There was no profit motive. There was no ability to be a rock star. There was basically very little chance that a girl would ever come to your show, so you didn’t have to think about being attractive. You could just be this angry activist yelling on a stage. That made it, from my perspective, a much more fertile ground for uncompromising activism because, worst-case scenario, the 10 people at your show would leave, as opposed to worst-case scenario for a metal band was you’d get dropped from Warner Bros. and you’re suddenly worth a few million dollars less.
“But I will say, credit has to be given to the original heavy music vegan, who is Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath. I’m pretty good friends with him and his wife. He’s been a vegan since the early-’70s. He’s probably been vegan for longer than any person on the planet.”
Yeah, and you guys had it tough enough – he was doing it as a kid in 1960s industrial Birmingham…
“Yeah. In the movie, people talk about just how hard it was to get food on tour at that time, and you have, like, John Joseph explaining how you’d make a stew out of what vegetables you could get, but it must have been even harder than that for Geezer.”
How much of a part did direct action play?
“When the UK scene became more dramatically activist, I think of CND, and how people were getting arrested. That was so impressive and inspiring. And you can almost draw a line from that and the original punks in the UK being arrested in the ’70s, to Extinction Rebellion. It’s the same ethos – even the iconography looks kind of the same! That’s one of the things I wanted to draw attention to in the movie: how a lot of modern activism had its birth had its roots in punk rock activism. Look at Extinction Rebellion, it certainly doesn’t look like hippies. Nothing against hippies, but everything about what they’re doing is so punk, it’s that confrontation.
“In the States, the activism, there wasn’t always that obvious hunt sabotage approach, but the Animal Liberation Front, definitely, to a very large extent had its roots in the hardcore scene. Putting on a black hoodie and wearing a black face mask and sabotaging a vivisection lab – that was connected to hardcore. The people I knew in the ALF were, like, sabotaging a vivisection lab on Tuesday and going to see Earth Crisis on Wednesday.”
Things have come a long way as far as ease of going vegan goes. You must be pretty glad not to be having to survive on the road in the ways described in the movie…
“Well when I first went vegan you didn’t have a lot of choice. Now there’s probably 20 vegan restaurants within a mile of my house. It’s interesting because for the longest time, vegan food was seen as uninspiring health food. And I kind of like that – I like brown rice and broccoli. But what happened, I guess, in the early part of this century, was people realised that vegan food didn’t have to be super-healthy. Like, they could use sugar, they could use chocolate, they can use oil, they can use salt, they can use all the things that other restaurants were using, and you suddenly had this explosion of vegan food that wasn’t particularly healthy, but that was really delicious. Suddenly, I could take my normal friends to a vegan restaurant and they wouldn’t complain, because up until about 2001, whenever I took someone to a vegan restaurant, they would just be unhappy. So, in terms of driving the spread of veganism, the invention of delicious, unhealthy vegan food definitely helped.”
You’re giving the movie away for free. How come?
“More than anything else, this is a labour of activism. It might sound self-satisfied or self-aggrandising, but when I do commercial things, or creative things that have an activist component, I try as much as I can to structure it so that I can't benefit from it. I am not clever enough or strong enough to straddle the two lines, I don’t know how to benefit myself and be a good activist at the same time.
“I used to own a restaurant in Los Angeles. And early in the beginning, I was like, ‘Oh, well, maybe it’ll maybe become successful and I’ll make some money from it.’ I almost had to punch myself in the face and stop myself even thinking that way. So I set it up so that any money generated had to go to animal rights organisations, because it basically forces me to – at least in my own conscience – be pure, with the understanding that my self-interest and my ego simply do not matter, compared and contrasted to activism. I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to be holier than thou or whatever, it’s just that some people are much better at straddling that line. So that’s why giving the movie away was, to me, a logical thing. If I was trying to make money from it, there would be an insidious compromise that would creep into every aspect of production, creating it, marketing it. And I just can’t. I can’t do that.”
What are you hoping people who watch the movie come away with?
“About 10 or 15 years ago, I decided I would never read anything about myself. If I do an interview, I don’t read it. I don’t Google myself. I don’t read comments. I’m not psychologically strong enough to see what people are saying about me. But someone I work with told me that when this movie was announced, I guess they were looking at some punk rock social media account, and a lot of the younger people were confused and sort of angry that they they didn’t know about the history of punk rock and animal rights. Which I found to be so surprising, but I guess if they grow up with – and I love these bands – Green Day and The Offspring, there’s a chance they wouldn’t have known that punk rock at one point was, and hopefully continues to be, this very fertile ground for very confrontational animal rights activism.”
Punk Rock Vegan Movie will debut on January 20 at Slamdance.
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