Moby, Teany, and the Meaning of Life

August 2005

Moby is the very portrait of successful idiosyncrasy. Best known as an eclectic musician—his work has ranged from hard-edged punk rock to electronic dance music to pop ballads to ambient experiments—Moby is so much more. He’s a businessman (Teany, his New York teahouse, opened in 2002), and an artist (he is part of the Little Idiot, a collective of illustrators). But the reason he is a perennial favorite among Vegnews readers (who voted Moby “Favorite Musician” for the past two years) is because of his activism.

A vegan for 16 years (with 4 veg years before that), Moby has been an outspoken and articulate voice for the movement. This conviction is evident in his album Animal Rights (a punk rock release that came out in 1996) and in his Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling 1999 CD Play, which is packaged with a detailed and thoughtful outline of the moral basis for veganism.

With a new release, the spare and lovely Hotel, Moby is once again touring the world in support of his music and his values. Vegnews caught up with him as his tour got under way.

Gregory: Unlike other celebrity vegans who don’t wear it on their sleeves, veganism has become a defining part of your public persona. Does this make you feel like you’re under a lot of scrutiny, with people watching your every move more closely than they otherwise would?

Moby: A lot of times people will ask sort of belligerent questions like “don’t you ever miss eating steak?” Of course, my answer is “no, I never really enjoyed steak to begin with.”

The one question that drives me crazy is when people ask me what I eat. You know, someone will say “oh, you don’t eat meat? Well what do you eat?” Well, if you go into a grocery store and you look at the world of food around us, you’ll see that there are a few different meat products and about a million non-animal products. So I get to eat those million non-animal products.

Gregory: Do you try to use that question as an opportunity for education?

Moby: Well, I usually say “I eat Japanese food, and Mexican food, and Indian food, and Thai food, and Nepalese food,” and on and on and on and on. And then use that as an opportunity to tell people that an Indian restaurant or Japanese restaurant that serves beef is only doing that to accommodate the Western palate. That a lot of these cuisines are inherently vegan or vegetarian.

It’s gotten a lot easier as time has passed. Fifteen years ago, when I would meet people and say that I was a vegan they would have no idea what I was talking about. And now, luckily, people are a little bit better informed.

Gregory: You have a part to play in that. There’s a good chance the liner notes of your CD “Play” were read by more non-vegans than any other vegan treatise.

Moby: When I was growing up, I played in punk rock bands, and in the early 80s when a hardcore band put out a record they invariably put some sort of treatise in there. So when I started making records it just seemed natural for me to include essays in the records I was making. But it’s strange—in writing an essay for a CD booklet, you never know if people are actually gonna read it, and if they do, what they’re gonna make of it. So it’s hard to say what the effectiveness is of these millions and millions of CD booklets.

Gregory: In your liner notes, your website, and your book your writing is very introspective and personal—it’s blog-style pastiche—yet your music strikes me as tightly focused and very structural. Is this a consequence of the different forms, or do you consciously use the different modes to express different things?

Moby: For me, I think it’s just the way that I subjectively respond to these different forms of communication. In writing, I’ve never consciously tried to adopt a specific voice. And with making music I’m just trying to make music that I love in hopes that other people will love it as well.

Gregory: Your latest CD Hotel features some very accessible music, but the liner notes are about anonymity.

Moby: Well, the music and the liner notes don’t necessarily relate—it’s very much an album about relationships, and specifically about being in a relationship where there’s a lot of love and there’s a lot of respect and there’s a lot of attraction, but in the back of your mind you know that it’s going to end. So you’re staying somewhere where you’re not going to live in a permanent capacity, which is akin to a hotel.

It’s also akin to the human condition, in the sense that we know our lives are temporary. It’s the bigger, broader question of trying to reconcile our subjective experience of what it means to be alive with what we know about the nature of the universe around us—especially the more we find out about the nature of the universe on the quantum level. It’s a challenge to give our lives a sense of meaning when we know that we’re short-lived on a tiny little planet on the outskirts of the universe.

Gregory: How are you trying to give your life a sense of meaning?

Moby: I’m not sure. That problem has bedeviled an awful lot of people. It’s very easy to make an objective case for the meaningless of our lives. We’re alive for 60, 70, 80 years on a planet that’s 5 billion years old in a universe that’s 15 billion years old. Its hard to make the case for our lives having any objective significance.

And yet everything around us compels us to believe that our lives do have significance. I think on one hand you have to just entertain that knowledge that our lives are, at least from objective criteria, fairly insignificant. You have to kind of put that on the back burner and just lead your life in as dynamic and rich a way as you possibly can.

Gregory: You’ll be 40 in September. What are your reflections as this milestone birthday approaches?

Moby: It’s strange. Thus far all my life I’ve been relatively young—you’re always young up to a certain age and then you realize you’re not going to be young forever. And it’s a bit disconcerting and daunting because you’re moving into this very unfamiliar territory. When you’re 25 or 30, old age seems so far away that’s its not even worth considering. And then, turning 40, all of a sudden I realize “oh my goodness, in 10 years I’ll be 50, in 20 years I’ll be 60.”

No longer does old age seem like this inconceivable thing that happens to other people. It seems like a very real thing that’s happening to me. And it’s just hard to reconcile that with my experience in being alive so far. It’s basically preparing to go somewhere I’ve never been and I have no experience with.

Gregory: As you look back on your life so far, do you find that being vegan has been significant in how you approach the world, beyond just what you eat or wear?

Moby: I think it’s the best choice I’ve ever made, for a variety of reasons. When I became a vegan years ago, I did it just because it seemed like the right thing to do. But now, in hindsight, the ramifications have been immense—from a health perspective, from an awareness perspective, from an environmental perspective, and also from a guilt perspective.

All of my friends who eat meat have to go through a rationalization, a justification every time they put a piece of meat in their mouth. You know that deep down they’re very troubled by what they’re doing. That’s why when you talk to meat-eaters and you ask them to watch a video of what goes on in a slaughterhouse they’ll all just say “no.” There’s a defensiveness and willful cluelessness on the part of people who do eat meat, and it’s nice to not have to indulge in that.

Gregory: Teany, your New York teahouse, isn’t totally vegan, is it?

Moby: No, Teany is half vegan, half vegetarian. It was a big issue for us when we first opened. There are a lot of fantastic vegan restaurants in New York, and I eat at them often, but the problem with a lot of vegan restaurants is its hard to get your non-vegan friends to go to them.

When we opened Teany we wanted a place that would be really welcoming for vegans, vegetarians—just about anybody. And what I find gratifying is that probably half the people who come into Teany aren’t even vegetarians. It’s nice to have someone who’s basically an omnivore or a carnivore come in and have a really nice experience and then think positively about vegetarianism.

Gregory: And the same goes for the Teany book. It’s vegan, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with it.

Moby: In the late 80s and early 90s I was really militant in my veganism and my animal rights activism. And I found that my militancy, although justified, wasn’t exactly winning people over. When I would meet people and chastise them for eating meat, I found that they just became defensive and closed off and didn’t actually listen to what I was saying. And so, as time has passed, my beliefs stayed just as strong but I found that if I talked to people in a less strident manner—in a much friendlier way—they’re much more inclined to listen to what I have to say.

Gregory: You travel all over the world, eating out of a different kitchen for every meal. You must be constantly confronted with things on your plate that you wish weren’t there.

Moby: Not really, because I’m so diligent in the preparatory process. Most cities have really good vegetarian restaurants, and if someone has gone to the trouble of opening a vegetarian restaurant, they’re certainly gonna know what veganism is. And a lot of bigger cities have good vegan restaurants.

There a lot of vegan musicians, so people who do catering for musicians tend to be fairly familiar with veganism. But if I get the sense that I can’t trust what’s being served to me, then I usually just make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Gregory: In an interview you did recently, you likened the instant-gratification culture of downloading and celebrity worship with the American junk food diet. Do you find that your veganism is part of a larger way of being with the world that promotes a deeper connection?

Moby: Again, people choose veganism for so many different reasons. I have some friends who are vegan purely for ethical reasons—for animal rights reasons—and they eat more junk food than your average truck driver in Middle America. I have some friends who are punk rock vegans and I’m kind of disgusted with some of the things that they eat.

Gregory: And there are all these new, highly processed vegan junk food products.

Moby: Yeah. At the end of the day I’d much rather people be eating vegan junk food than normal junk food, but it is strange that Coca-Cola has fewer ingredients than a lot of vegan products now. So, arguably, Coca-Cola is more of a health food than some of the vegan things that my friends eat.

Gregory: Everything we do in this modern world has a negative aspect if you dig deeply enough.

Moby: Oh yeah. I think that’s the hidden story of the world in which we live. We’re so disconnected from the means of production of just about everything that comes into our lives. And everything is produced unethically.

But you have to put it in perspective: things do seem to be getting better. There’s so much work to be done, and there’s still a long way to go, but people are so much more aware of vegetarianism, veganism and animal rights now than they were ten or twenty years ago. It can be disheartening when you realize how much work still needs to be done, but it is worth occasionally patting ourselves on the back and congratulating ourselves on the work that we’ve already done.

Teany Tiny Refuge

The first time I visited Teany, on a leafy and quiet (for New York) street in the happening Lower East Side, it was to find refuge from the relentless summer rain. Sitting next to one of Teany’s mascots, a whimsical “tea robot” made of soldered teapots and teaspoons, I shook off the damp with a steaming cup of delicate white tea.

Pairing the tea incongruously with a slice of overwhelmingly rich vegan chocolate cake somehow worked for me that day. You can do that at Teany, where the tea selection is absolutely first rate but nobody’s a snob about it.

Teany, which is also tiny, is serene without being pretentious. The celebrity aspect of its existence is a diversion—Moby’s name or image is nowhere to be found in the brightly whitewashed space, and his music is never played there. The staff is friendly and helpful, and when you ask them about Moby, they talk about him like he’s just some regular guy in the neighborhood who happens to co-own the place—which, actually, is the truth.

Really, Teany is a great neighborhood teahouse, a perfect escape from the tribulations of the world outside, and a quiet reminder that sanctuary is always there for you, if you know where to look.

90 Rivington Street
New York, NY 10002

Gregory Dicum writes about food and the natural world from San Francisco, where he fervently hopes there will one day be a Teany too.

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