A Conversation with Moby, King of Techno & Animal Rights Activist
Written by SongHero on October 24, 2021
Moby’s story is an unlikely one, to say the least. That he became a multi-millionaire celibate vegan living in Los Angeles by himself certainly didn’t seem pre-ordained by the circumstances of his early life. Born in Harlem, he was raised by a single mother after his father died in a drunk-driving accident when Moby was two years old. He spent his formative years in Darien, Connecticut, where he lived on food stamps until he was 18 despite the town’s upscale vibe. In high school, he played with a punk band called the Vatican Commandos, then became obsessed with electronic dance music. He moved to New York City in 1991, armed with a single-pointed determination to make it as a DJ. Two years later, his debut single “Go” went top 10 in the United Kingdom, but he wouldn’t emerge as a bona fide star until 1999 when his fifth album “Play” sold 12 million copies. Billboard magazine called him the King of Techno.
Moby made famous enemies—Eminem called him out—and famous friends (some of whom are still calling him out, such as Natalie Portman). Along with David Bowie, Moby created the “Area: One” tour featuring Incubus, Outkast, and Nelly Furtado among others, and for several years he lived a life of rock-star excess—sex, drugs, and mansions on both coasts. He drank so heavily that when his mother died of lung cancer in 1998, he was too hungover to attend her funeral.
Today, with 6 Grammy nominations and a total of 20 million albums sold, Moby has settled down and recently celebrated 11 years of sobriety. He’s also branched out, writing four books, including two memoirs, Porcelain and Then It All Fell Apart. (Moby, whose real name is Richard Melville Hall, is the great-great-great grandnephew of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, so perhaps the urge to write books was in his genes.)
A vegan for his entire adult life, Moby also ran a popular vegan restaurant in Los Angeles called Little Pine (he sold it curing the pandemic) and now devotes a large amount of his time and money to animal rights and vegan activism. We spoke with him about his views on veganism and the future of food.
When did you first become committed to the cause of animal rights?
I grew up eating a generic suburban diet; Burger King, meatloaf, Salami sandwiches, etc. Then in 1984, I realized that it was incompatible to love animals and also contribute to their suffering and death, so I became a vegetarian in 1984, and then a vegan in 1987.
You recently decided to donate all your proceeds from your music to support animal rights. Which organization do you donate the money to—is there more than one? How did you choose that charity?
The main charities I support are the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Mercy for Animals, The Humane League, the Good Food Institute, Brighter Green, and other 501 c3’s. But a big part of animal philanthropy is supporting media (documentaries, books), and products (Beyond Meat, etc). So I try to be philanthropic outside of traditional philanthropic 501 c3’s. I also try to support politicians and campaigns that benefit animals, which is also outside traditional philanthropy.
Tell me a little more about the work that your favorite animal rights charity does.
PCRM was started and run by doctors. They look at the horrifying consequences of a western diet based around meat and dairy and use their expertise and connections to lobby governments to have fewer animal product-based nutrition platforms.
You’re deeply concerned about climate change and the connection between climate damage and meat consumption. Are there any charities that focus on that particular nexus? Or what is the one thing you wish more people realized about eating meat and climate damage?
Oddly, there are no charities specifically working on animal agriculture and climate. Which is odd, as animal agriculture is the third leading cause of climate change. A lot of animal charities are starting to address this, but I really wish that there was at least one 501 c3 dedicated to the issue of animal agriculture and climate.
Beyond animal rights and climate change, what other areas do you feel most inspired by or concerned about? Do you donate 100% of your music proceeds to animal rights or are you actively involved with other charities?
Voting rights. I mean, all progressive issues are important to me, but you can’t really address them seriously without addressing climate and voting first.
Obviously, there are many great activists in the world who are not musicians but songwriters and artists have a long tradition from Woody Guthrie’s protest songs and the Concert for Bangladesh to “We Are The World” and the Elton John AIDS foundation—there’s a monthly list of musicians advocating for change And one advantage is the way musicians can inspire and activate large numbers of younger people to care about issues. What do you see as the most powerful dynamic at work when musicians make music for a cause?
Musicians supporting causes seem to mainly be of service by drawing attention to issues that might otherwise be marginalized or ignored. Also, musicians and other public figures can help raise funds for campaigns, lobby politicians (which I do and is definitely not fun), and help create and promote activist-driven media.
What did your parents like to eat? Were they interested in food?
My mom was a suburban hippie, so she ate, and fed me, early 70s suburban junk food: Frosted Flakes, Steak ‘Ums, Chips Ahoy, French bread toaster oven pizzas. She occasionally tried to eat and feed me tofu and brown rice. I only wanted to eat junk food, so when she tried to feed me tofu and brown rice, I threatened to report her to child welfare services.
What about your grandparents and uncles and aunts—what sort of culinary traditions were you raised with during family meals during holidays?
My grandparents were all old WASPs, so our Sunday dinners involved lamb chops and roast beef and vegetables that were barely recognizable as vegetables—gray green beans, lettuce covered in French dressing, etc. Although my grandmother had grown up in India—her parents were Presbyterian ministers—so she occasionally tried to sneak chutney and spicy pickles onto my plate. Again, I wanted junk food, not chutney.
When did you first become aware of food as an issue with ramifications beyond the personal?
When I read Diet for a New America by John Robbins. Vaguely ironic, as he was the heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream fortune.
Veganism can be a choice based on personal health, global climate change, or moral concern for kindness to animals. Which of these three factors is most important? And are there other reasons that motivate you?
First and foremost my veganism is based on my belief that all animals are entitled to their own life and their own will, and that I can’t in good conscience be involved in contributing to or causing, an animal’s suffering. But my veganism is also sustained by the fact that animal agriculture is the leading cause of rainforest deforestation, the third-leading cause of climate change, the leading cause of antibiotic resistance, and a leading cause of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and many cancers.
You recently tattooed the words “VEGAN FOR LIFE” on your neck—why? Had you been thinking maybe you would switch back to grilled sausages in old age?
I’ve been vegan for 32 years, I don’t have a real job, I don’t date, and I guess deep down I always wanted to look like an ex-con.
What do you think the future of food is, versus what the future of food should be?
Even if animal agriculture didn’t involve animals, it would still make no sense as the future of food, as it makes people fat and sick, causes climate change, and is a horrible use of resources.
What is the single biggest misconception people have about vegans?
That we’re humorless and scrawny. I mean, I may be humorless and scrawny, but my fellow vegans are buff and hysterical.
What is the single best argument for veganism?
Live longer, save animals, save our species. Oh, and have more and better erections.
What are the downsides of being vegan, if any?
Living in a world that ridicules vegans.
If you weren’t vegan, what would your cheat meal be?
One single slice of Saint Marks pizza and a can of Pepsi.
If you had a kid would you force him to be vegan?
Only if he wanted to sleep inside and have access to health care.
If you were president, what policies would you promote regarding food?
Simply this; stop subsidizing any/all industries that do more harm than good. This applies to food, energy, guns, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, etc. It’s patently absurd that trillions of dollars in tax revenues go to industries that make us sick or kill us.
Do you think all Americans should be forced by law to adopt a plant-based diet? Or do you believe people should be allowed to decide for themselves if they want to eat meat once or twice a year in small amounts?
As a first step, I think we should let meat and dairy cost what they actually cost, without subsidies. If a pound of beef costs $50—which is what it would cost without subsidies—that would go a long way towards solving the problem.
Beyond the issue of veganism, what are the other issues related to food that keep you awake at night?
Antibiotic resistance, 80% of which comes from animal agriculture. If people aren’t terrified of antibiotic resistance then, simply, they’re not aware of antibiotic resistance.
The earth will end. Probably not tomorrow but someday. What’s your last meal?
One perfect walnut and one perfect organic orange. Because they’re delicious, but also fascinating when you really stop to look at them and think that somehow the earth took water and dirt and sunlight and DNA and made these phenomenal things.
If there was a party where past Moby could talk to present Moby about future Moby, what would you serve?
Very delicious chocolate cake.
What would a world without food politics look like?
80% less health care spending, 45% less climate change, 90% less rainforest deforestation, 50% reduction in most cancers, 50% reduction in diabetes and heart disease, 80% less antibiotic resistance. So, paradise?
What extra steps do vegans have to take to get enough protein?
According to the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is a vegan, “none.”
Do you feel you have a spiritual connection to animals, and if so can you talk about it a little?
I personally believe that humans are a broken species, separated from the divine or whatever life source you want to name and that the rest of existence lives in a state of, for lack of a better word, “grace,” or innocence. I see all other animals and creatures, even the violent ones, as being in a state of connection with God, and when we visit violence and torture on them we are acting out as creatures separated from the divine. When you see an animal being abused or tortured or killed by a human, you can see, in their eyes, not just terror, but utter bewilderment.
You recently produced a documentary about punk rock and veganism. Punk rock is usually seen as aggressive and thrashing and an almost violent musical assault, while veganism is often based on kindness towards animals and a generally peaceful and gentle approach to the earth and our bodies. Do you think there’s a disconnect between punk and veganism?
Aesthetically and musically, punk rock might seem incredibly aggressive, but more often than not the underlying ethos of punk rock is one of questioning that which is commonly accepted, whether it’s politics, mores, or the way in which we treat the vulnerable. The documentary I’m making looks at the history of punk rock and animal rights and involves everyone from Joe Strummer to Rob Zombie, Kat Von D, and Fred Armisen.
How does working and being creative with no personal profit motive affect your creative process?
Of course, I have an ego, and a desire to be comfortable, but for me, activism is simply much more important and compelling than any of my small, ego-fueled concerns. And the wonderful knock-on effect of working in order to give money to charity is that it’s enabled me to be creative simply for the love of being creative, as I can’t personally profit from my creativity.
For more on Moby and his activist work visit his website: http://www.moby.com