Moby is making his feature directorial debut with Punk Rock Vegan Movie, a doc that explores the relationship between punk rock and animal rights. The superstar DJ and 35-year vegan activist tells the story of how veganism became so intertwined in the hardcore punk scene. More importantly, it educates viewers and raises awareness for the cause of animal rights. Punk Rock Vegan Movie features such luminaries as Ian Mackaye, HR, Dave Navarro, Tony Kanal, Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein, Amy Lee, Captain Sensible, plus a plethora of others. It is set to premiere on January 20 in Park City, Utah, for the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival. After the film premiere, Moby will be giving the doc away for free, which is pretty much the ultimate punk rock move. I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with Moby about all things Punk Rock Vegan Movie, his journey of getting into punk rock and veganism, why he’s focused on having the film be available for free and so much more.
Jeromme Graham: Punk Rock Vegan Movie is your feature directorial debut. You’ve done so much in your career. When did you decide that you wanted to make a film about the relationship between punk and veganism and animal rights?
Moby: Well, in a weird way and maybe I shouldn’t say this, I didn’t want to make this movie. And what I mean is about five or six years ago, I was having dinner with some friends. I used to have a restaurant here in LA called Little Pine. We were having dinner, and I was talking about the history of punk rock and animal rights. I was with a bunch of activists, and no one I was with knew about this history.
I was so surprised because, from my understanding growing up with the guys from Youth of Today and other bands, I guess I’d always been aware of the fact that especially in the hardcore scene, there was always a strong animal rights component to it. I was really sort of surprised and taken aback that so few people were aware of this. Most people thought animal rights tended to be skinny vegans and hardcore punks tended to be people in leather jackets jumping off of stages. I realized no one had told this story to a slightly general audience before and so I thought ok, I guess I’ll try to make this documentary. In the spirit of full disclosure and honesty, I kind of hoped that someone else would make this movie. But at some point, I realized no one else is telling this story, so I guess I should.
Jeromme Graham: You’re kind of the perfect person to tell that story. Touching on how you sort of grew up with the guys from Youth of Today, casual listeners or fans of dance associate you primarily with electronic music and helping to really take that sound to the next level in North America in the 90s. How did you initially get into punk and the punk scene way back when?
Moby: My first introduction to it was so weird and obscure that I doubt anyone will remember this. In the late 70s, there was a writer for Saturday Night Live called Michael O’Donoghue. I think he was the guy behind Mr. Bill, and he was this super-odd SNL writer. He put out this movie called Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, and it was basically a collection of the weirdest video clips that he could find. Obviously, this was pre-internet. This was pre-everything. He just took his favourite video clips, had a clip show and called it a movie. My mom and I went to see it in a theatre in Norwalk, CT. We were the only people in the theatre. It was everything from someone throwing cats into swimming pools to teach them how to swim. If you’re really bored, look up Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video because it’s very strange.
One of the clips was Sid Vicious singing “My Way.” And that was my introduction to the world of punk rock. I’d heard of The Clash, and I’d heard of The Sex Pistols. But I saw this footage of Sid Vicious singing “My Way,” and I was just fascinated. Around that time, a friend of mine’s brother went to England and came back with the Sex Pistols album Never Mind The Bollocks and loaned it to me. Between Sid Vicious singing “My Way” and listening to Never Mind the Bollocks, that was my introduction.
And then what happened was that sort of milieu back then was very uncompartmentalized. What I mean by that is you would go to a club in New York to see a punk rock band and the DJ beforehand would be playing reggae, then the DJ after would be playing disco or hip-hop or anything. It was just this culture in a blender musical world, especially in New York. The club Danceteria would be the perfect example of that. I remember one night seeing Bad Brains there, and Mission of Burma was also on the bill. There was a gay disco DJ, I want to say Larry Levan, but I don’t think it was Larry, and then an early hip-hop DJ and someone playing gothic new wave videos. This world was all these different genres mixed up into one in the same venue and the same places. In a strange way, my introduction to electronic music happened roughly around the same time I was introduced to punk rock.
Jeromme Graham: Did your intro to veganism also come out of the music that you were listening to then?
Moby: The first tour I ever did, if you can call it a tour, was in 1982. I believe it was late 1982. I remember because it was cold. I was playing in this band, The Vatican Commandos, and we got into a van with two other bands. It was C.I.A. and Reflex From Pain, two other Connecticut punk rock bands. We drove 10 hours overnight to Akron, OH. We played a show at a pizza parlour in Akron, and no one came, of course. We spent both Friday and Saturday nights in a vegan squat. I remember being horrified. I had heard of vegetarianism, obviously, but I’d never heard of veganism. At this point, I was a 16-year-old kid, and I only wanted to eat McDonald’s. At that point, they were just eating a lot of lentils, and I just had so much disdain for that. And then, lo and behold, a few years later, I joined them as being a fellow lentil-eating vegan.
Jeromme Graham: One thing that I love that you touched on in the film was touring as a vegan before that became more common. Everyone seemed to have horror stories or different hacks that they had to employ to ensure that they had something to eat on the road. When you started touring as a DJ in the early 90s or so, what was that like for you then?
Moby: I became a vegan in 1987, so I guess I’ve been a vegan now for 35 years. In some places, being a vegan on tour in 1990 or 1991 wasn’t that challenging. If you went to London, it really wasn’t that hard. There were health food stores; you could get soy milk, you could get bread, you could always get oatmeal. I have to say that in the decades I’ve been touring, the one constant is oatmeal. You can get it anywhere, and you can make it delicious with anything. If you’re in an airport in the middle of nowhere and you have oatmeal, you can find nuts. You can find raisins. You can find brown sugar. Oatmeal has been my best friend as a touring vegan.
Touring as a vegan in the early ’90s was challenging, but it was borderline impossible, and I don’t know how I ate when you’d go to Eastern Europe. Or when you’d go to Southeast Asia or Brazil. Going to places where veganism was just so unheard of. That would just involve a lot of hopeful naive explanations. Trying to explain to people that I don’t eat meat and I don’t eat dairy. You’d sometimes have these conversations in broken English, and the people’s response understandably would be: “well, what do you eat?” Sometimes the food was disgusting. I remember one time in Poland, getting a bowl of undercooked white rice and some overcooked carrots, and that was the best they could do. I was like, well, it’s food, and I can’t complain. It’s 1991, and I’m starving and will eat anything that’s put in front of me.
Jeromme Graham: That’s a far cry from the vegan options that are available today.
Moby: Nothing makes me feel more like an old person than talking about stories of touring before the internet. Because we also didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t have faxes. You just had to trust. You’d have a phone call with someone in Ireland, you’d get on a plane and hope that the show would actually happen.
Jeromme Graham: In Punk Rock Vegan Movie, you start it out with a brief refresher on the history of punk music; you trace it back to Gene Vincent and Little Richard in the 1950s. I’d never heard Little Richard be referred to as an architect or early influence on punk before. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Moby: In a way, to me, it seems so clear. Like you just listen to the beginning of “Tutti Frutti.” I remember the first time I saw or heard Little Richard; I felt the same way as when I first saw or heard Sid Vicious. What in the world is this? I guess it’s that sort of gleeful chaos. That screaming and barely constrained approach towards performance. I’m sure that some people would disagree with me when I cite Little Richard as one of the early progenitors of the punk ethos, but to me, I’d also put Marcel Duchamp in there, possibly. It’s been going on for quite a long time. The people who are gleefully and chaotically anti-establishment, but in those weird moments, the establishment somehow catches up to those anti-establishment weirdos. That certainly happened in the case of Gene Vincent and Little Richard.
Jeromme Graham: Totally. That makes sense. Them being brought up threw me at first. But then, thinking about bands like the New York Dolls and acts that would follow after that, I can see a bit of a throughline.
Moby: It’s like that theatrical chaos. The anti-establishment theatrical chaos. The people like Little Richard or Iggy Pop who just feel like they couldn’t do anything else. Just imagine Little Richard or Iggy Pop trying to have an office job. The people for whom, if they weren’t standing on stage shirtless and screaming at the top of their lungs, they would be institutionalized.
Jeromme Graham: Punk Rock Vegan features everyone from Davey Havok and Tony Kanal to Captain Sensible, HR, and John Joseph. How did you go about rangling everyone for this? That’s a lot of big characters, so I can’t imagine it was easy.
Moby: Yeah. And especially because I’m not saying I did this well, but I had to do everything myself. When I was at college, I went to UConn for a little while, but I also went to this school called SUNY Purchase, and I had a bunch of friends in the experimental films department. That was around ’87, I guess. We started working on really incredibly strange low-budget student films. I was living in an abandoned factory at the time and was as broke as broke can be. I was a squatter in an abandoned factory with no running water. The films we made back then were so low-budget. We would get Super 8 film, and we would borrow a Super 8 camera. And we’d borrow money to develop the Super 8 film. That would be the movie. That approach is kind of both what I know, but I also thought it served the nature of this movie to have it be that sort of DIY low-budget approach. So that meant I either had to do everything or figure out how to do everything.
In terms of booking people for the interviews, it was just me running into people at venues. Running into people at vegan restaurants, running into people at movie theatres. And just email and text. Scott from Earth Crisis, it took me like two years to finally figure out a way to sit down with him and interview him. It was constant, to the point where I was irritating. Ian MacKaye gets irritated easily; he probably just agreed to do the interview so that I would shut up and stop bothering him. With some people like Davey and Tony, it was a lot easier. They live in LA. They used to go to my restaurant. It’s much easier if it’s Tony Kanal and he’s having brunch with his wife and kids in my restaurant; I walk up to him and say, “hey, when can I come interview you?”
And the other thing I will say is because the movie was about veganism and animal rights, a lot of people who are committed to the cause of animal rights were very receptive. I feel like if I had gone to Doyle from The Misfits and said, “can I interview you about punk rock?” he would’ve just said no. But because he’s so committed to animal rights, he was much more receptive.
Jeromme Graham: Are you excited to open the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival? Does the feeling compare to how you feel when you’d drop an album or kick off a tour?
Moby: This is different. First off, aggressively, in the interest of sanity and self-preservation, I don’t pay attention to reviews or comments. If I did, I would lose my mind. I just have this categorical approach to things that I make. When they go into the outside world, I don’t read reviews or articles. And that way, if someone hates me, I never know about it, and it’s blissful because I know a lot of people don’t like me. OK fine. Luckily, as long as I ignore it, it doesn’t drive me crazy.
In terms of releasing movies or releasing anything, once it’s released, I don’t pay attention. And it’s not saying that I’m above it or that I don’t care; it’s saying that if I pay attention, I will lose my mind and have to be locked up somewhere. Premiering the movie at Slamdance, my only hope is that somehow I’ve done a good job creating something that will, in its own small way, move the conversation about animal rights forward. That’s the only goal. I don’t care if anyone thinks I’m a good director. With the movie, to me, it all has to be in service of animal rights. If I hadn’t done a good job there, that to me would feel like a failure. If I haven’t served the cause of animal rights well, that would be the only possibility for failure.
The plan when I was making it, and especially now that we’re getting ready to release it, is to make sure that there’s no way for me to ever make money from it. That’s why I’m the cameraman, I’m soundman. I had to teach myself how to do stop-motion animation. Just to keep the costs as low as possible to enable me to give it away. Partially, it’s just the spirit of DIY punk rock. But also, I don’t want to create a barrier for anyone anywhere to see a movie about animal rights, essentially and especially on a global level. There are a lot of people who are really financially struggling, and I don’t want to have a financial barrier between them and something they might get something from.
Jeromme Graham: Has anyone tried to discourage or dissuade you from doing that?
Moby: Yeah, it’s almost impossible to do this. Like the mechanism doesn’t exist. We’ve looked into a bunch of free distribution platforms, and they all have strings attached. The landscape of trying to give away a movie is so much harder than you’d think. There are the YouTubes of the world. There’s Vimeo. As we get into it, I’m hoping that we’ll find more and more platforms that will enable me to just distribute this for free.
Jeromme Graham: Totally. I think that’s a great idea, and as you mentioned, it really gets it out there to the people that need to see it but also economically can’t really afford to rent it or pay to see it.
Moby: And even if it’s just like someone saying, “oh, you helped me save 99 cents or a few dollars.” Why not? People are struggling. If you can, in a tiny way, try and reach people in a way that’s not financially onerous, why not do that? The last thing I’ll say there is, to be fair, it’s not like Disney+ or any of these places are banging down the walls to buy a super obscure low-budget idiosyncratic punk rock vegan movie. It’s not like I’ve taken the high road and said no to the millions of dollars I’m being offered. Even if I tried to sell it, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be able to. So we just figured, why not bypass that completely and give it away for free without even trying to sell it in the first place?
Jeromme Graham: Hopefully, it’ll be well received once it’s out in the world.
Moby: Luckily, I will never know.
Jeromme Graham: Right, there you go. Lastly, I was listening to “Go” after I saw the news that Angelo Badalamenti had passed away. You sample “Laura Palmer’s Theme” on that one. What did Angelo and his work mean to you? And can you say a bit about him?
Moby: Oh wow. Yeah. I can’t say a bit about him; I could say a lot about Angelo. I remember one of my first celebrity encounters, and I remember this so clearly; it would’ve been 1990. I was living on Mott Street. I lived on Mott Street for a long time in a bunch of different apartments in New York. There was an A&R person who had heard “Go,” and he also worked with Angelo and with David Lynch and Julee Cruise. He wanted to sign me. This was so interesting. He called me, it was a Sunday night, and he said, “Moby, you’re not going to believe this. I’m in front of your building with Angelo.” I was like, “what are you talking about?” And so I went downstairs, and Kevin, the A&R person who oddly enough lives up the street from me now and I still see him hiking with his dogs; he and Angelo had been out to dinner, and Angelo wanted to meet me. He was so generous. When I got into his car, I thought he was going to yell at me, like how dare I mess with his composition, but he was so gracious and so complimentary. We became friends, and our paths just kept crossing over the years.
I know, obviously, people generally speak well of the dead, but he is just an enthusiastic and childlike musician. Go back and listen to all the work he did with David Lynch, from “The Pink Room” and Fire Walk With Me to David’s solo records to Julee Cruise’s records. Clearly, just so gifted. Not just with film music but in terms of working within pop idioms and bending them in such a way. I feel like I’m stating the obvious, and I’m a little ashamed at how platitudinal I’m being, but he had this ability to craft music in a way that just worked perfectly over and over again. It’s very easy to say nothing but wonderful things about Angelo.
For more information on Punk Rock Vegan Movie’s premiere at Slamdance Film Festival, check out: slamdance.com