The electronica star and writer/director of ‘The Punk Rock Vegan Movie’ on his punk and hardcore roots and how they led him to veganism.
Today veganism is an acknowledged, albeit still minority, part of the punk scene. Nevertheless, hearing that a punk has moved into and then beyond vegetarianism surprises few people, thanks in large part to pioneering efforts by some in the hardcore and anarcho-punk scenes.
Looking to document the emergence of veganism in punk, and connect its conjoined twin animal rights, the electronica musician, D.J., producer and all-round musical polymath Moby earlier this year released ‘The Punk Rock Vegan Movie’, which he wrote and directed.
It might seem a curious pairing of creator and genre, but only if you’ve not been paying attention. Moby’s 1996 album ‘Animal Rights’, punk-oriented by way of The Prodigy or Nine Inch Nails, included a version of Mission of Burma’s ‘That’s When I Reach For My Revolver’. More recently, he joined Rise Against before the pandemic to cover Minor Threat’s ‘In My Eyes’ at a California skatepark show. And Moby’s punk roots go deeper still, providing connections with plenty of the luminaries that appear in the film.
The number of famous vegan punks in the cast list alone is enough to make the vegan-curious stop and think. Those making an appearance include Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi), Davey Havok (AFI), Dave Navarro (Jane’s Addiction), Tim McIlrath (Rise Against), Walter Schreifels (Gorilla Biscuits, Youth of Today), Captain Sensible (The Damned), Steve Ignorant (Crass) and – pictured below – HR (Bad Brains).
Premiered at The Slamdance Film Festival, ‘The Punk Rock Vegan Movie’ offers up an engaging, alternative history of punk rock, while also serving as an effective polemic against the evils of the meat and dairy industries. Better still, Moby’s made it freely available via YouTube (all the better to spread its activist message, of course).
He joined Punktuation from the US, via Zoom, to talk about his punk and hardcore roots, how they led him to veganism and how, in a sea of a-political, self-promoting music, punk remains kind of unique.
The film does a great job of looking at both punk rock and veganism, and how straight edge connects the two. If we go right back to the beginning for you, when and where did punk strike you?
The first time I remember hearing punk rock on the radio would have been 1978 and I was 13 or 12 years old and I was very bored. Basically my entire summer was spent reading and watching TV and listening to the radio. And I would take my grandfather’s old Dictaphone – if you’ve ever seen a Dictaphone, it’s basically the world’s the cheapest audio recorder – and I would sit by the radio and record songs that I liked.
You can imagine the sound quality of holding a 30-year-old cheap plastic microphone up to a transistor radio speaker, but to me this was like the height of technology, it was very exciting. And I recorded ‘I Fought The Law’ by The Clash on WNEW, which was the only station in the New York area that was a little bit adventurous – they would play Elvis Costello etc. And I’d never really heard anything like this. And I kept listening to it over and over again.
Then a friend of mine moved to the UK to go to school and when he came back, his brother had a copy of ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ and that’s when I realised, ‘Oh, this is punk rock. I’ve heard about this’. He loaned me his copy of ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’, I listened to it and I was like, ‘This is it. This is my year zero’, this is the only thing that has ever made sense to me – that and David Bowie. I feel like it’s a cliché saying that, because I feel like any middle-aged punk rock, new wave person you talk to – we’re gonna reference David Bowie and the Sex Pistols, but I guess I’m just a middle-aged new wave, punk rock cliché.
After experiencing punk rock on the radio, when did you go to your first punk show?
Luckily, I remember all these things so clearly. [There’s] two ways to answer that. One is some friends and I went to a Rock Against Racism concert, because the Bad Brains were playing. And we had heard the Bad Brains on college radio. We’re like, ‘We’re finally going to a punk rock show’. And we showed up at nine in the morning. And the concert didn’t start until 6pm. So in true bored, suburban 15-year-old fashion, we waited for nine hours. We just waited and waited. We walked around a little bit. We waited. But we had to leave before the Bad Brains came on, because we all had to be home [and] it was New York City in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. So I didn’t actually see the Bad Brains that time.
The first punk rock show I really saw was Fear at the Mudd Club. My friend Tom kind of stole a car, and he and my friend Dave and I drove into New York City. I don’t know how we even heard Fear were playing at the Mudd club. And somehow we got in – we were 15 years old, not allowed to drive, not allowed to go into bars, but somehow we got in and it was… yeah, I mean, Fear are a problematic band, the lyrics have not aged that well, but boy oh boy being 15 years old in New York in 1981 or ‘82 and seeing Fear at the Mudd Club was just transformational.
Pretty quickly after that you’re active in the punk scene with your own band. Tell me about that time.
Yeah, so in 1981, my friends and I started a punk rock band that had a bunch of different names, eventually settling on Vatican Commandos. And it was so exciting. I mean, new wave was exciting, electronic music was exciting, but the hardcore punk scene was ours.
There were no major labels involved. Apart from a 30-minute radio show on WNYU every Tuesday called ‘Oi The Show’, there was no media. There were flyers and record stores and bars where people would put on hardcore shows. The most anyone ever got paid to play a show was maybe $20, and that $20 would go to gas and food. From ‘81, ‘82, ‘83 was a really special time in and around New York for hardcore punk.
We would play shows with other Connecticut or New York bands, and it was kind of arbitrary – one minute we’d be the headliner and then the next show, another band would. Every now and then a real band would come through town – like the Circle Jerks or Black Flag, and every band would beg to open up for them. I can’t even remember the bands we opened for, I think Agnostic Front, the Misfits, Flipper (possibly), the Circle Jerks. Honestly, it starts to get a little hazy, because whenever a band was there, everybody would desperately try and get on the bill, because it meant you didn’t have to buy a ticket (when the tickets were $3).
So, you came to punk first and then punk led you to veganism?
Yeah, so in 1982 my hardcore band did our one and only tour. We drove to Akron, Ohio and we stayed in a vegan squat. And keep in mind I was 15 or 16 years old. I didn’t know what ‘vegan’ was. All I know is that in the morning when we woke up, there was a guy with a blue mohawk, serving us lentils. And I’ve never even heard of ‘lentils’ before. So that was my introduction.
But at the time, I was a meat [eater] and I thought this whole idea of veganism was ridiculous, but then fast forward a couple of years to ‘84 and I became a vegetarian and then in 1987 became a vegan.
The film’s got great exposure on YouTube so far (with 372,000 views and counting), and momentum towards veganism seems to be increasing, but is it anywhere near the mainstream in the US?
No, we’re very far, which is one of the most confusing aspects of being an animal rights activist. Like, we’re actually not trying to change people’s minds, because the vast majority of people on the planet already like animals, and they already are horrified by the idea of animal suffering. And the vast majority of the people on the planet would never want to hurt an animal or kill an animal.
So we don’t have to convince people to care about animals. But the confusing thing is that almost everyone on the planet who cares about animals and is horrified by animal suffering, actively contributes to animal suffering. It’s so confusing.
You put it quite diplomatically in the film when you say that other genres, outside of punk, tend to be more… neutral, shall we say, about issues.
Obviously, musically I love so many different genres, from classical music to hip hop to folk music to disco, I mean, there isn’t a genre that I don’t really like. But punk is kind of unique. In folk music, there was traditionally a huge strain of political activism and hip hop has always had a strain of political activism, but so many musical genres are so depressingly a-political.
On one hand, it’s not really my place to judge. But on the other hand, I do because – to state the obvious – we don’t live in a world that really affords us the luxury of apathy. We live in a world that’s an inch away from complete catastrophe on so many different fronts: antibiotic resistance, attacks on democracy, climate change, pandemics, on and on and on, and all of these things pertain to the production of meat and dairy.
So, the fact that, like, I’ll go on social media, and I look at indie band accounts, and it’s just this gratuitous self-promotion and it just makes me depressed. You know, now is not the time for gratuitous self-promotion, now is the time to address these problems with whatever tools we have at our disposal.
Finally, in terms of your own animal rights activism, what are you most proud of?
I don’t know if proud is the right word, because basically the subtext to everything I do, at least as far as my perspective goes, is I can never do enough – I just don’t quite know always what to do.
Like, in my life there’s no higher priority than trying to end the use of animals for food and fashion and sport. It’s more important to me than my health, it’s more important than my happiness, it’s more important than my life, it’s more important to my career. So I don’t feel much of a sense of accomplishment or pride, because I know that I could always do more.
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I’m a punk rock aficionado, martial arts pupil and fair-to-middling student of the Bengali language. I’m also a journalist, writer and editor, specialising in medicine and technology.
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