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In Conversation

"People Need To Fucking Wake Up" Moby & Steve Ignorant In Conversation
Patrick Clarke , November 28th, 2016 10:34

We got Moby and Steve Ignorant together to discuss everything that's wrong with the world in this age of Brexit and Trump and they ended up deciding to save us all by getting naked. Photos by Kim Ford and Melissa Danis, put together by Zac Leeks

On first appearance, Moby and Steve Ignorant might not seem the most obvious pairing for a joint interview. The former, at his peak, was an advert soundtrack leviathan, and currently lives the cleanest of California lifestyles, owning his own vegan restaurant and waking at 6am each morning to hike the nearby hills. Ignorant, frontman of London anarcho-punk legends Crass, on the other hand, remains true to his working-class anarchist roots, doesn't own a mobile phone and has never heard of Spotify.

To look beyond Moby's days of global mega-stardom, however, is to find an artist imbued with considerable political steel. His new album as Moby and the Void Pacific Choir, These Systems Are Failing, like 1997's considerable left swerve Animal Rights, is a frenetic, furious listen to juxtapose the pleasant reputation of his biggest work, with the musician seizing musicians' commercial irrelevance in the streaming generation to release a record free of political compromise. Although not always represented in his music, he's always had a politicised edge, in part thanks to a childhood obsession with punk, and Crass were amongst his biggest inspirations. It's 'an honour', he says, to be speaking to their frontman. Ignorant, meanwhile, investigating Moby ahead of our interview, was similarly impressed by his politics, in particular his video for 'Are You Lost In The World Like Me?', a subversive and cutting attack on the self-destructive narcissism of the modern world that, somewhat ironically, was a viral sensation on Facebook.

In particular, both are vocal on issues of sustainability and the environment. From their infamous open doors community at Dial House, Crass lived as they preached, growing their own food, embracing self-sufficiency and a respect for life as part of their philosophy; 'be nice to each other and don't fuck the planet up,' as Steve puts it. Though of different generations musically there's just six years' difference in age between the two, and by the end of an hour's conversation on punk, commercialism and, of course, the US election, there's even serious talk of a collaboration, albeit one that features both in their underwear.

On the surface you seem a bit of an odd couple to be doing an interview together, how familiar are you with each other's music?

Steve Ignorant: Not that familiar, although I had heard of Moby. When I [found out I] was doing this I looked up some of his stuff, and when I listened to some of Moby's new tracks the other day it blew me away.

Moby: I'm very familiar with Crass. I grew up in the hardcore punk world in New York, and at the time Crass were just absolutely revered. Also they had the coolest punk rock t-shirt that has ever existed. I still see 16 year old homeless gutter punks in Hollywood with Crass patches and logos on the back of their leather jackets.

SI: Sorry to interrupt you Moby, but can you ask them next time to get me my copyright?

Moby: I'm not sure how well that would go down with 16 year old homeless teenagers!

When you were in Crass, how important was making money?

SI: It was only important so that we could put whatever money we made from gigs and records back into the next project. This sounds like a real cliché, and typical punk rock, but I can remember for some reason shedloads of people came into the gig but there I was at the end with ten bob in my pocket having to borrow money off other people to buy a beer. The weird thing was that when Crass got successful, our manager at the time said 'you've got to start buying stuff because of the tax man.' So we had to buy a new van, then got slated by the punks like 'you sold out, you've got a new van!' What are we meant to bloody do?!

Both of you were inspired in your early days by punk, do you subscribe to the view that there aren't enough bands like that around now to inspire the next generation?

M: There's this terrible, terrible TV show in the states called the American Music Awards, and in addition to being nationalistic it usually represents the most banal, dismissible pop music. But last night Green Day performed and I've never paid much attention to Green Day, but halfway through the punk rock song they were playing they got the whole audience chanting 'No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA', and so in a way I almost feel like the election of Donald Trump has inspired Democrats and progressives and punk rockers in a way that hasn't been seen since Vietnam. I feel like everyone had become very complacent recently, and it was a question I asked myself, like 'where was The Clash of the 21st century? Where was the Crass of the 21st Century?'

SI: Absolutely.

M: The aggressive, energised, political, or even politicised, culturally aware music hasn't really existed [recently]. In an odd way, Donald Trump and maybe Brexit is gonna be great for inspiring a new wave of socially conscious political music.

SI: Some of the best material we ever wrote was when that bitch Margaret Thatcher was in power with that idiot Ronald Regan, so it looks like we've got the same situation coming up. I agree absolutely with Moby.

M: One thing I wanted to mention when you guys approached me about doing this interview one of the things that really excited me about it, was that when I was a teenager in Connecticut, how so many things were introduced to me by Crass. It was through reading interviews and reading the fanzines that I found out about anarcho-situationist movements, and it's almost like the early-20th century roots of punk rock, that hybrid of art and political engagement. So that's why apart from the great music, I've always been such a fan of Crass, for including all those things in music that other bands either weren't aware of or weren't bothering with.

SI: I was thinking the same thing the other day when I was listening to your new tracks. The animation on [Are You Lost in the World like Me] was fantastic, it's the sort of stuff I love. That being said, when we were going it was pre-internet and you had to go to libraries to look up things. We could write song about nuclear war, and we saw ourselves as an information bureau where people would be able to pick up on it and find out what stuff was about, like anarchism, recycling, vegetarianism or whatever, and we were learning about it too.

What I like about what you're doing, Moby, and which I'm not doing, is that you're still using the modern technology which I don't think I could do, you're twisting it round on people and thinking 'look, use it for something creative and use it to really learn, not just to trawl through stuff'. Because people still feel as bad as they do, but because it's quicker to look at a load of rubbish, it doesn't make it any better.

Is that an exception though, is social media destroying the idea of the band of the information bureau?

SI: No not at all, they can try but there's always gonna be three people who want to get together and bash about in a garage and think they're gonna get somewhere, get angry that they're not getting anywhere, and with a politician telling them what to fucking do. In the same way there's always people wanting to hark back to Woodie Guthrie or Bob Dylan, it's always gonna be there, there's always gonna be that little spark. It's always gonna be cliquey, it's always gonna be the minority, but that's what makes it so beautiful and that's what makes it so angry.

Sleaford Mods are talking about what's happening on council estates, they're talking about real life on benefits in Nottingham, about life on the breadline. Just because we give the impression that life's a certain way because of technology, there are still people having a rough time of it. So there are bands trying to do it, and there always will be. You've just got to go and find them.

There's a Donald Trump-shaped elephant in the room. What was your reaction to his election, Steve?

SI: I just thought, 'what the fuck have they done?' He was being seen as a bit of a joke over here, a bit like Boris Johnson who's a complete right wing buffoon, and 'because he's a bit of a clown it's all a bit of a laugh'. I actually find it quite terrifying that a person like that has been elected. But when I saw in the English papers the areas that he'd been voted in, it started to make a bit of sense. I think you Americans are in for a rough time Moby, same as we are under this present Prime Minister. So good luck there mate!

M: As an American, no one expected Donald Trump to ever be a serious candidate for President. I don't think he even expected to be a serious candidate. He wanted the free media he would get. On election night I met up with a bunch of my friends and we thought we were just gonna sit around and watch Hillary Clinton become the next president, but as the night progressed we got progressively more depressed. People started crying, people started throwing up when they realised this ignorant, sociopath, racist misogynist was actually going to be the president of the United States.

On a national existential level it's one of the biggest challenges the United States has ever dealt with, that he's not just a racist and a misogynist, but he's also mentally ill and completely unqualified for the job. It's been a really depressing challenging time. I've never been all that proud of America to begin with, but this has really shaken my faith in the country where I was born.

You've both lived under Thatcher, Regan and Bush. Will the next four years be the most threatening yet?

M: It depends what your criteria is. Politically things are gonna get pretty gnarly, and I'm concerned, especially from an American perspective, because it's not just Trump, it's the Republicans in the House and the Senate and the Supreme Court, and his cabinet appointees. They're very far to the right; it's almost this lunatic fringe of the right wing. But there are some other issues that are actually quite apocalyptic. When you look at the consequences of climate change, at rainforest deforestation, at antibiotic resistance, these are not necessarily political issues, but rather issues that have the ability to threaten our species.

What's incredibly depressing to me is that very few people are actually making substantive efforts to address these things. You have climate change and antibiotic resistance which are two of the biggest horses of the apocalypse, and they're basically breathing on our necks, and there's no political will or effort being expended to deal with them. Future generations, if there even are any, will simply look back at us and say 'what the fuck were you doing? You knew the world was falling apart and you did nothing to stop it.'

Do you agree, Steve?

SI: If I can quote from a film I watched the other day: “Fucking criminal mate! You had the world on a string and you fucked it!” That was a quote by Reginald Kray.

In the long term is that the most dangerous thing about Trump? His attitude towards the environment?

SI: It's one of them! It's gonna affect future generations. Why is it that when we say 'I don't like trees being cut down, and I'm concerned about climate change,' that we're still seen as weirdos? It's obvious! It's the same as when you're a vegetarian, you used to get kicked out pubs for it! People don't take it seriously until it happens to them.

M: People don't truly respond to something until they see the direct consequences. You could almost say that throughout human history there are people who can either foresee consequences or who are capable of looking for information and predicting the consequences will happen, but the vast majority of people won't respond to climate change until their city is underwater, food supply is disrupted or everyone around them is dying of zoonotic disease. It's almost like someone dealing with an addiction, like you hope that the person can overcome the addiction before the addiction kills them. We hope that as a species we're capable of dealing with environmental catastrophe before it actually does collectively kill most of us.

As musicians, how do you see your role in trying to raise awareness?

M: I'm gonna have to start walking down the street and start hitting people in the head!

SI: What we're all talking about here is that we just want to live a lovely life. I don't want to have the threat of the sky falling on my head or some idiot pushing some button that sets off World War Three. I just think 'fucking hell, I just want a nice time!' There's people saying 'well you can't have it,' but why can't I fucking have it! Why do you think I shout and scream and swear then? We should all be having parties, not having interviews like this!

Moby, you've spoken before about being frustrated with the idea of having to tolerate the most hateful of others' opinions.

M: It's hard because I was raised with this idea that we're supposed to be tolerant of other people's opinions, but then what happens if other people's opinions are racist and hateful and wrong? Should the progressives in Germany in the 30s have tolerated the National Socialists? Of course they shouldn't have.

Why should we tolerate people who are destroying the environment and sowing these seeds of vitriol and hatred? I feel like sometimes we have to be a little less inclusive and tolerant if other people's opinions could lead to the destruction of our species.

SI: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Do you agree with the sentiment expressed by Clinton and Obama after the election that we owe Trump the right to govern, that these are the rules of democracy?

M: Are you aware of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief? I added a sixth one, which is schadenfreude. I've grieved, I've gotten angry, and I don't think we owe him the right to govern, I think we owe him the right to fail miserably in public and laugh at him while he does.

SI: And that's exactly what I'm doing over here mate! That makes two of us.

M: I'm actually cautiously optimistic that Donald Trump will be so bad that he will force America to wake up and realise that forcing America to vote for right wing Republicans is always a terrible idea. It's never been a good idea, but what happened here is you have a president like Obama who gives you eight years of relative stability and prosperity, and people forget that Republicans are just terrible, not just for the country but for the planet. Maybe this is America's equivalent of bottoming out, like a crystal meth addict going on one last big run before they have to get sober.

So you think the only way is up?

M: It's gonna get a lot, lot worse, but hopefully in that process people wake up a little bit.

Is that the positive to take then, that this will galvanise people?

M: I'm very optimistic on that front, and I hope that in the UK the same thing happens, that people wake up, take direct action, and remember to vote! I feel that one of the reasons Brexit happened was that people stayed at home rather than going to the polls.

Turnout in the US election was barely 50%.

M: And there's this infuriating thing, I don't want to get too nuanced, but we have the electoral college in the United States and that means we don't have direct democracy. Hillary Clinton won three million more votes, so there's this question of how you can call something a democracy when the person with the most votes loses. As an American it's mind-boggling and infuriating.

Steve, how much blame do you place on low voter turnout for Brexit?

SI: Yeah, I was totally shocked by it, but I sort of knew it was coming really. With all the media stuff we had in England at the time it was all about the migrants and refugees, that they're gonna take our jobs and the usual old bullshit, and that's what the media sold it on and that's why people voted for Brexit. We're in a new millennium and we've still got this fucking skin problem. Look at England, or look at the USA, you've got soup kitchens and food banks. You could pick up a Charles Dickens book written in the 1850s, and it's still like that.

Going back to what Moby said about Green Day, good for them if they did it, I respect you a bit more now lads. If only more celebrities stopped just flashing their bodies about and got with it. In fact, Moby, I've just had a great idea! If we're really this wound up about it, me and you should do a pop video where we're just in our underwear, I'm up for it if you are!

M: Err… I would love to do that, I just wonder how many people want to see two middle aged guys in their underwear!

SI: I think it'd work! We'll put it on late at night when everyone's come back from the pub and stuff and they're drunk eating their curries. They'll watch anything.

M: I'm in if you're in! I'm definitely a fan of public humiliation.

Where do you think this supposed disillusionment towards the political system comes from?

M: I think it actually might just be distraction. A friend of mine said one of the reasons that people in their 20s stay home on Election Day is because they're all just home fucking. Old people go to the polls because they can't get erections, young people stay home, do drugs and have sex. I think it's maybe a question of getting people in their 20s to take a break from having sex to go vote, and to recognise that politics is not just this mundane, banal domain for old people doing tedious things. It actually has real world consequences. I feel like the younger generation has been spared those consequences, they're spending all their time on Snapchat and Facebook, and they're not really aware that the world around them is falling apart because their face is buried in their screens.

Is it narcissism, then, rather than apathy or disillusionment?

SI: I can only talk about what I see, but all of the adverts on TV, I'm 58, but men wearing moisturiser so their beards look better? What the fuck's going on there? We're in a time of change as well, the pub culture's disappearing in England, young people won't go to pubs so much and if they do it's just so they can tank up before they go out to nightclubs so they can be sick and end up in a gutter. They're the people that need to fucking wake up. It's the same old story, working in the week, dressing up for the weekend, getting hammered and that's their life, just as long as their mobile phone is working.

M: But there's a subtext to that which is how tyranny happens. If you look at the history of demagoguery and fascism, it always happens when there are two things. It requires a gentle populace to allow it to happen, whether through laziness, ignorance or ineptitude, but it also requires a very angry, dissatisfied section of the populace who want egregiously simple answers to very complicated problems.

Like you were saying, the world is experiencing great change, but you've got loads of people terrified of this change and the Donald Trumps, the Boris Johnsons making utterly simplistic, reductionist policy proposals that are unrealistic but then people buy it up. It's the age old thing: If you want to get elected, blame immigrants. It worked in the 20th century and it works now, and it's heart-breaking to see people make the same mistakes. They're looking at a complicated world, but they just keep blaming immigrants, and it's really disturbing that people haven't got past that.

SI: Absolutely, and then the minute you try and take up arms, not necessarily guns, but when you face it head on with direct action they'll either come down very hard on you or make you out like you're some kind of terrorist. You can't win. I think what me and Moby are both talking about is the frustration. It's so frustrating, like there's thumb screws on your head and they're getting tighter and tighter. When do you want me to break? Because when I break you're gonna be flat on your arse. You governments, both American and English, you'd better watch out, 'cause you're gonna get a fucking big kick in the head if you're not careful, and it ain't gonna be pretty.

And on that note, I'm unfortunate to say we've run out of time!

M: Just speaking for me this has been really great. If someone had come to me when I was 16 years old and listening to Crass and said that years later I'd be doing an interview with you I never would have believed them. It's been quite an honour, so thank you for doing this Steve.

SI: Thanks Moby, and listen, I'm quite serious about you and me getting together. Let's wear underwear.

M: I'd love to.

Moby and the Void Pacific Choir's new album These Systems Are Failing is out now on Little Idiot/Mute.