“I always end up back at the Earth”: Interview with Vegan Illustrator Matt Gauck

Vegan always wins...
Vegan always wins…

It is funny how you meet certain people. We all have those stories of randomly connecting with someone who, in short order, feels like an old friend.

This is certainly true for me when it comes to Matt Gauck, an impressively interesting and creative nomadic vegan illustrator (or “drawist,” as he puts it) wandering the world (mostly on two wheels) with a home base in Portland, Oregon. Since getting in touch with Matt for some logo work for an event (Vegan Night Out) and a non-profit organization (Triangle Chance for All), I have had the good fortune to trade many an e-mail with Matt that left me laughing and feeling good to know that someone out there was doing something interesting.

Matt’s artwork is often humorous and always thought-provoking, with a deep core of environmental awareness coupled with a keen attention to the most pressing social issues of our time. While much of it is dark, with a rather morbid sense of humor (which I love) and a healthy dose of metal, Matt’s art is as varied as the situations our planet and its passengers face today.

You can check out Matt’s artwork at Cargo Collective, and you can learn about and support his upcoming bike tour/book tour/story-gathering tour by donating to his Indiegogo campaign.

How long have you been vegan, and what motivated you to cut animal products out of your life?

Well, my official jump to veganism happened about six years ago, right when I moved to Portland. I had been vegetarian for a long time before that, like seven or eight years, and I was super into dumpster diving from 2002 through about 2007. When I say “really into” I mean I literally didn’t buy almost any food at all; and I would only buy vegan food, even though I didn’t consider myself vegan at the time. Even from the beginning I had more of a problem with the money side of the industries of exploitation, and wanted to avoid putting any money into that market. Anyway, when I moved out here (to Portland) I found that dumpster diving is way less of a possibility for a variety of reasons, and I finally started putting my money into the vegan industry, and went vegan. I also read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, closely followed by that collection of essays about the Animal Liberation Front, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?, that Sue Coe did the cover art for…those helped round out my politics regarding animals.

You have said that you are doing your best to live by the phrase: “How will you live your life so that it doesn’t make a mockery of your values?” How does veganism tie into your overall value system—and putting your values in practice? How about music—has the soundtrack of your life influenced those values and actions as well?

I love that quote. Everybody can learn something from that, no matter what you’re into. Veganism is a huge part of my value system, but that’s still just a stepping stone to me—my main interest is honestly just eating vegetables and simple, whole foods, and supporting small farms, farmer’s markets, and co-ops. I think the logical transition is vegetarian to vegan to farmer to Walden pond or something like that. Self-support, or supporting a small group on a small scale: that’s a great idea and ideal to me. I think the backbone of this quote is responsibility, and then also being fully intentional about all the decisions you make.

As for the music thing, it helps me remember things outside my everyday life—people writing lyrics about issues overseas that are less visible to me, things like that—that keeps me feeling like I can be involved in things beyond my immediate life, which is super important too. I still love the “personal liberation” type of lyric writing the most—the reminder that you can live any kind of life you want to, despite what contemporary culture says about it. Live in the woods, do art for a living, write and travel full time, the idea that desk jobs and careers aren’t mandatory for growing older.

Your illustrations are fantastic in that, besides the artistic skill and aesthetic appeal, they largely pack a powerful punch of social justice and cultural critique—on topics as wide-ranging as overpopulation (the “Vasecretary” poster) and flaccid environmentalism (Contemporary Environmentalism at Work) to the nonsense that is the Paleo diet, along with more personal works. What inspires you to make art, and what idea(l)s and philosophies and issues fuel that work?

Oh man, art… I love making art, and I will always want to draw and paint stuff, but sometimes I honestly have no idea where this stuff comes from. It’s like, well, there are these issues in the world, and some of them are so ridiculous that I have to come up with some way to laugh a little about it. Not that I don’t take it seriously; but I really think that humor, and this “over the top” type of thing really helps people to think about things differently. The same way that satire is an effective way to get an idea across to a differing viewpoint…this is my sort of “visual satire,” as it were. A lot of friends of mine tell me they can see humor in even the most straightforwardly graphic stuff, like a bull goring someone; it’s SO over the top, you have to laugh. I like that reaction.

I do find that my best, and most pointed, work comes from when I have conversations with people I disagree with, and see things I get irritated by. I swear, all I have to do is search “hunting” online, and once I see all those pictures of hunters who have killed huge animals, I have to get that anger out somehow. So, typically, I draw.

What, for you, are the most pressing social issues of our day? How do you approach taking them on—in your artistic creative process and in your daily life?

It’s hard, as I think there are so many that are all intertwined, but overall, I find that the environment, like, the physical Earth itself, and everything human beings have done to it—that seems to be the most important to me. Social justice, class lines, and trying to eliminate capitalism in general—it all means a lot, but somehow I always end up back at the Earth. I can see that awful plastic garbage patch in the ocean in the back of my head. I honestly don’t “think” too much about how I can make art about any particular concept; most of them are just so obvious already in the world, that my brain is already responding to them just by being alive, hearing people talk about these things, seeing ignorance and misinformation spread… Making art is a way of dealing with social problems; they make for the best concepts, since everyone can relate on some level, since all these problems have some overlap. The best art, to me, has a purpose and a clear concept to it. You need something to say before you say it, you know?

Besides your artwork, you do a lot of bike-touring and have been known to go on the road with bands. Would you consider yourself a fairly nomadic person? What about this sort of lifestyle do you find fulfilling and enlightening?

I’ve been super lucky to befriend the right people (which happens when you’re as polite and talkative as I am) and have gotten to tour fairly frequently with some friends in bands, which has been a great way to reinforce the DIY network of people I am friends with all over the planet. My partner, Sara, gave the best description of me, when she called me a “charismatic introvert,” which seems pretty apt. That works into my nomadic disposition—I love getting to see different things, go on hikes in strange places, camp in insane spots; but I really love getting to return home someplace to avoid people for a little while, too. I joke I have a split personality thing happening, which isn’t true, but it’s an accurate way of looking at how I approach life. Travel, meet people, do exciting things, then, hole up, draw stuff, listen to audio books. I make the best of each of the seasons, really. Spring, summer, fall—outside. Winter, early spring—inside. I find the whole of this process very fulfilling, and inspiring.

The bike touring is just a more concentrated approach to getting crazy stories, and having fun out in the world. My bike is like a story generating machine, seriously.

Have you encountered any difficulties as a vegan on the road—such as trouble finding places to eat, run-ins with hostile people, etc.?

So far, nothing too bad—mostly someone offering me food, and then glaring in confusion when I’m like, “Oh, that’s really nice, but I actually don’t eat…” Yeah, that thing. Some guy in Alaska offered me moose burgers, to be cooked IN the parking lot of a Safeway, and I told him I just ate vegetables, and he said, “Oh, man, you one of them “healthies’, then huh?” I love that. There’s always the moment of getting to the only restaurant in some town, only to find that they use chicken stock in everything from the salad to the French fries, at which point, you just deal with it. I’ve eaten A LOT of bagels with peanut butter for dinner on bike tours.

Where are you going next, artistically and personally? And where do you feel the vegan movement NEEDS to be going next to sustain itself and make a real difference in the world?

Next, I’m physically going to ride across the country with my partner, Sara, and writing a giant zine about it. My previous zine efforts are being released as a book this coming June, so it’ll double as a book tour as well. The goal both during and after that is to get a bunch (about 15) paintings together for a show I’m having in November of this year, which means September and October, I’ll just be painting pretty much full time. Keeping in motion helps the ideas coming, so I’m not sure where my life is headed after that, though I’m sure I’ll have ideas in the next couple months.

As for the vegan movement, I’d love to see people becoming more interested in shopping at farmer’s markets, growing their own vegetables, and just using the resources we have available to use wisely. Even just growing herbs in your window sill, or setting up something to catch rainwater, is a move in the right direction. I want the vegan movement to CLEARLY be the movement that is actively interested in saving the world, rather than abstaining from something specific. My goal when I’m older is to live in a self-built (or with friends, realistically) structure, in the woods, with small, sustainable farms on all sides. I’d love to see more vegans getting excited about that idea.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me!

Totally my pleasure—thanks for asking such good questions, and being part of so many rad organizations.

Fifteen Years

It is often a difficult task to recall the exact details of a moment or period from our past. No matter how desperately we go in search of lost time, we seem to seek for shadows that disappear when we attempt to shine light on them.

Me with my childhood dog, Bear.
Me with my childhood dog, Bear.

What I can remember of my process of going vegan is that it was an intense, but short, period of reflection on the ethics of what I was eating. As someone who had cared about animals since my youngest days, it had always made sense to me that harming animals was wrong…though I still ate them. I finally realized that the consumption of any animal products, not just meat (I was vegetarian at the time), would or could produce unnecessary suffering. No living being wants to suffer; therefore, causing unnecessary suffering was indefensible.

I made the decision to go vegan on March 6th, 1999, shortly before my spring break as a college sophomore and a week before my twentieth birthday. Afterward, I missed yogurt for a few days, but otherwise there was no anguish or regret for me, nor has there ever been in the ensuing years.

College: Before veganism.
College: Before veganism.
LordBeliar
College: After veganism.

My thirty-fifth birthday is a week away. While the fact that I am in my mid-thirties is still a strange thing to process, that “birthday” seems fairly trivial in comparison to my fifteenth veganniversary. So forget about the birthday celebrations, please…I have never liked them anyway. It feels much more significant for me to commemorate the day I made a conscious choice to live my life, and to relate to the world, based on an ethical principle of ahimsa, or “non-harm.”

Please help me celebrate my fifteenth veganniversary! It is easy to do: just go vegan. Today.

If you need motivation and support, it can be helpful to watch something informative about veganism, such as Vegucated (available on Netflix), and find a good vegan food blog, such as Oh She Glows, and maybe pick up a cool vegan cookbook or two (from the plethora that have been published). You can even join a vegan community online or a vegan Meetup group in your area, or you can take a vegan challenge. You are also welcome to get in touch with me if you have questions or need some direct guidance. I am happy to do it. Whatever it takes for you, please help me celebrate a life that is not fueled by torture, suffering, and death.

It really is not as challenging as it might seem before you do it. One day very soon you will understand this, too. And just imagine what it will feel like, fifteen years from now, when you reflect back on the choice you made long ago to end your role in the system of suffering…

Today is a perfect day to start the journey.

Making the Connection: A Personal Story

christine egidio sheep

As a vegan advocate, it is always a question for me of what will finally get someone to wake up and realize that he or she can no longer exploit animals. For most people, their only interaction with farmed animals is at the end of the production process–as a hamburger, as ice cream, as leather boots…

Yet many people spend much or all of their lives in direct contact with farmed animals and somehow persist in the exploitation. We call some of them farmers.

It is almost an Earth-shattering moment when we see someone who raised animals for food transition to veganism. These rare few, farmers like Harold Brown or Howard Lyman who are also two vocal vegan advocates, made the connection, saw the animals in a new way, and stopped. They went vegan.

Christine Mariani Egidio is one such person. She lives in New Jersey and was well on her way (with her husband and sons) to making a life as an animal farmer. Her story of becoming vegan is a powerful and inspiring example of one person’s ability to put honesty and compassion over habit and personal tastes. She was kind enough to share that story with us…

In April of 2009, we purchased 32 acres and decided to get into breeding and selling meat sheep to help pay the mortgage and to provide income after we retire. We decided on Tunis sheep because they are very docile and easy keepers. I purchased three breeding ewes and a ram (Lasa Sanctuary now has two of my original breeding ewes, Lily and Roslyn. The third–Sofia–died along with her lambs during her second year with us.)

I am horrified to tell you my motto about our sheep breeding business. I would tell everyone, “They have a really great life, up until they no longer have one.” It makes me cringe now to type that. I wholeheartedly believed in the “humane slaughter” myth. And even worse, even though I soon learned that sheep all have individual personalities, are SMART, and definitely form bonds with one another, show joy, fear, friendship–every human emotion–I still did not make the connection. I have always been an animal lover, rescuing dogs, cats, horses–but I still did not make the connection that farm animals are no different in their desire and right to live.

We intentionally bred sheep for three years (the fourth year I was vegan and had separated my ram from the ewes, but he bred quite a few of them through the fence!). I lost Sofia during delivery and Roslyn’s daughter Cinnamon (Daisy Lu’s full sister) during labor. I also lost three lambs. All heartbreaking, many tears cried, but still I didn’t get it.

I’m married and have two sons in their twenties, both living at home. My husband, my younger son Derek, and I were all on the Primal Diet (similar to Paleo), so we were eating more meat than anything else. I always tried to buy organic, grass fed, and it was hard to find in our area and very expensive. So Derek got the idea that we should raise pigs, turkeys and chickens for meat (we already had hens for eggs). He was also an animal lover, so he said that in order to make sure that the animals were not mistreated during slaughter, and in order not to cause them stress hauling them from our place to the butcher, he would learn how to slaughter them himself. He felt that if he could do it very calmly and not be rough with the animals, they would not be afraid because they would know him–and that would make it okay. He told me he was going to watch YouTube videos on slaughter and then would find a local butcher to show him first-hand what to do.

I remember so clearly the day I came home from work and Derek said to me, “Mom, I’ve decided to become a vegan.” He is very athletic, and the only reason I could think of to become vegan was he thought it was healthier. So I asked him, “For your health?” And he told me, no, but that he had watched a video of pigs being “humanely” slaughtered by a person they knew, who was handling them gently and calmly, and the pigs were still panicking, trying to get away, and the other pigs in the pen knew what was going on and were screaming and trying to escape. And then he very simply said, “Mom, they don’t want to die.” Such a simple sentence, but so profound. Because that’s it in a nutshell. All of the arguments people have against veganism come down to that one fact…the animals don’t want to die.

I had never known anyone who was vegan–except one friend who had a son who became vegan and lost so much weight and looked terrible. Knowing what I know now, he probably was not eating properly, too lazy to make himself proper meals. I truly believed that humans NEED to consume meat/milk.

I watched Derek for the next couple of weeks and asked him questions. I was haunted by what he said–that the animals don’t want to die. So I decided to give up meat. For about 3 months, I still drank cream in my morning coffee, ate cheese pizza, and didn’t read labels to see if they contained eggs or dairy. But then one day, I saw a post on Facebook about the dairy calves being dragged away from their mothers, and it suddenly CLICKED and I became fully vegan. It will be two years this February 24th.

We had 23 sheep at the time we stopped breeding, and most were re-homed to sanctuaries like Lasa Sanctuary and to vegan families. I still have seven now as my pets.

If you had asked me last week if I ever thought Donn (my husband) would become a vegan, or even a vegetarian, I would have adamantly said NO! He is a typical meat and potatoes guy, very picky, and limited in what he will eat. I would make delicious smelling vegan food, and he would comment on how good it looked and smelled, but would turn his nose up at it when I offered him some. He has been vegetarian for four days now, has stopped using cow’s milk in his many daily cups of coffee, and I truly believe that he will eventually go vegan.

**********

Thanks to Christine for sharing this story. It is heartening to know that change is possible, no matter what path a person may be on. Animals surely do not want to die, and we have no right to mete out death to them…just as we have no right to use them as means for our own ends.

Faced with these truths, the only defensible course is to go vegan.

Breakfast with The Honky Tonk Man: Interview with Natalie Slater of Bake and Destroy

Photo: Bake and Destroy
Photo: Bake and Destroy

My wife and I picked up a copy of the cookbook Bake and Destroy one dreadfully sunny day, and it caught my attention right away. Yes, the recipes were quirky and creative (and vegan obviously); and yes, the author had lots of tattoos. But thumbing through it, I found myself laughing–frequently–at the oddity of it all. And at the rightness of it all (for someone a little off and a little dark, such as myself).

Natalie Slater, who created the Bake and Destroy website back in 2006, pulls out all the stops in her vegan cooking, drawing on her main obsessions of heavy metal and punk/hardcore, professional wrestling, and B-movies. To browse her various manifestations via Bake and Destroy is to appreciate the funny side of darkness, be it the off-color, the odd, or the inappropriate.

After my interview with Samuel Hartman of Anagnorisis, I was eager to explore the idea of “vegans with an edge” more and to speak with Natalie about her metal-fueled path to veganism, her creative process, and her weaving together of all her favorite things in Bake and Destroy. And she was kind enough to oblige…

Photo: Sean Dorgan
Photo: Sean Dorgan

I understand that your path to veganism meandered first through the lands of metal and hardcore. Can you discuss how you became vegan, and when? How did music play a role in the transition?

I was in 4th or 5th grade when Headbanger’s Ball started airing on MTV. One night my uncle was babysitting us and he let me stay up and watch and I just became totally obsessed with thrash metal after that. All the New Kids on the Block posters in my room got replaced with pages from Metal Hammer. There was a little crew of “metal kids” that hung out at school, and once we hit high school we started going to see any live music we could–there wasn’t a big metal scene in the mid-90’s in Chicago, industrial had kind of taken over at that point, so we ended up at hardcore shows. Veganism was a big part of the hardcore scene then, and it was actually a guy named Tim Remis who plays in a band called Sweet Cobra who first got me to go vegan.

What does your music playlist look like today? I see homages to Cannibal Corpse (the Cannibal Corpse Crock Pot recipe for Shredded Humans is perfection) and invocations of Immortal, so you seem to stay up to date on death and black metal, among many other things. What do you listen to when baking and destroying in the kitchen? Do you have particular musical genres for particular cuisines, occasions, etc.?

I don’t think there are many surprises on my iPod. It’s all over the place but the one consistency is that I can’t stand pop music. You’ll find lots of Youth of Today, Mouthpiece, Chain of Strength, Darkthrone, Marduk, Immortal, Cannibal Corpse, The Cramps, Agnostic Front…

Your website, book, and social media channels have a distinctive punk/metal vibe—not in a “Today I’m wearing my Sex Pistols t-shirt” sort of way, where the punk is sprinkled on like funky sugar crystals, but suffused through everything as a mighty mouth-puckering flavor. How does this aspect of your personality and personal life influence your creativity when making new vegan recipes?

Ha! That’s a funny description, thank you. I rarely approach a new recipe from a traditional standpoint. That’s to say–I almost never start out with, “I’d like to make a recipe for peanut butter banana French toast.” I usually start out by daydreaming a goofy scenario–like, what would happen if the Honky Tonk Man had to crash at my house? What would I make for breakfast? Well, he’s an Elvis-impersonating pro-wrestler so I could probably do something with peanut butter and bananas. Maybe start with banana bread and dip it into peanut butter custard…

Along with that, how do you see the relationship between the hard-edged bad attitude of punk and metal and the “cruelty-free,” “compassionate” message of mainstream veganism? Do the two play well together in your head? Do you find any instances in which your musical tastes clash with the principles of veganism?

I’ve jokingly remarked in the past that veganism is very metal because it’s just another way to be disgusted with the human race. But I do think those of us who listen to punk and metal tend to question the world around us more than people who listen to more mainstream music. And when you listen to a song like “Shredded Humans,” to use an example from my cookbook, if you really think about why those lyrics are disturbing you can’t help but realize that’s what we do to animals every day. Butchered at Birth isn’t just a sick name for an album; it’s also what happens to male chicks every day thanks to the egg industry. They can’t lay eggs, so thousands of male baby chicks get shoved through a grinder while they’re still alive. Cows are impregnated by rape racks, their calves ripped from them and sent off to be slaughtered for veal, all so humans can drink the milk that was meant to feed those babies. Most people’s breakfast plate is the result of acts more brutal and horrific than any grindcore song ever written.

Photo: Bake and Destroy
Photo: Bake and Destroy

One thing that struck me when I picked up your book was how much fun it is to read, and your website is also hilarious. I have never seen such a deft handling of professional wrestling, loud music, B-movies, and vegan food, and with such positive and popular results. What does the response to you and your creation(s) say to you about veganism in popular culture? Would you say that your mélange of sub-cultures in Bake and Destroy reflect veganism’s place as a sub-culture, or do you see the vast variety of people and styles promoting veganism today as a sign of its growth and vitality?

Well jeeze, after I just got all dark and heavy with that last question I don’t sound like much fun but I’m glad that came across in the book! Vegan athletes and celebrities have definitely helped to make it more of a household word, and of course it didn’t hurt me that CM Punk wrote the forward of my book. What’s great, though, is that a lot of people who bought it just for that reason have reached out to me and told me that they’re making my recipes and really enjoying vegan food. It’s not just punks and weirdos anymore, I mean, I went to Veganmania in Chicago last year and there were whole families of totally “normal” people there–people are just figuring out that it’s fun and easy to eat plants.

You do impressive work to make vegan foods that could appear at grandma’s birthday party, a Sunday brunch with yuppie friends, or a greasy diner in a back alley. (I mean all this as a compliment.) For example, the first recipe in your book is for Banana Bread French Toast Cupcakes; flipping through the pages lands me on your Chicago-Style Sammich; and then I have to pause and chuckle at Spaghetti Cake with Grandma Sharon’s Hater-Proof Sauce. Whom did you envision as your primary audience or audiences when writing your book and developing your website (i.e., the “bad vegans” of your book’s subtitle)? And how does your current fan base reflect that early vision?

When I started my website I honestly only meant for my close friends and family to read it. I was a new mom, bored at home, watching tons of cooking shows on TV and spending my son’s nap time in the kitchen playing around. Once I realized people other than my friends were reading, I didn’t make any effort to change my tone or subject matter. It was a little more difficult convincing a publisher that there is an audience for a vegan cookbook with nods to wrestling, B-movies, heavy metal, etc., but thankfully they trusted me and my book has found its way into a lot of homes–including Elvira’s house! The Mistress of the Dark herself owns my book!

Photo: Bake and Destroy

Your book has a lot of helpful info and resources for vegan baking (and destroying), and your website also has a plant strong crash course and tons of other guidance for vegans cooking and for people cooking vegan (as well as the Joy of Cooking Humans!). How do you see yourself as an advocate for vegan living? Are you mostly interested in the food–creating it and helping people make it? Or are there other components of veganism as a lifestyle and ethical stance that you include as well? And is the food then a portal to that dark and compassionate realm?

I’m sure I’ve been accused of being a “vegan apologist” because of my laid-back approach, but I really think that by being patient and understanding I have reached more people and changed more diets than I would have had I taken a militant stance. It’s not as simple as “go vegan” for a lot of people. I try to give people options and resources that are simple and accessible. When I got interested in veganism there weren’t a ton of resources, I had to rely on other people to teach me and they weren’t always nice about it. The “vegan police” turned me off of the lifestyle much more than they encouraged me to learn more. So I make a conscious effort to not be a jerk about it. I do think vegan food is a “gateway” to making other compassionate choices–from opting for cruelty-free cosmetics to not wearing clothes and shoes made from animals.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me!

Guest Post on the Vegan Publishers Blog

bubba-the-ram

Since coming across a goat in Gaston County, North Carolina who was going to be auctioned off by the animal control service (rather than adopted out as happens with a dog or cat), my wife and I have been teaming up with some local vegans in order to rescue these victims of the farming industry and the state legislation and find them good homes.

One of the more famous farmed animals to go up for auction is Bubba the Ram, who made himself quite a celebrity in the Triangle region of North Carolina after running around Durham…and doing some property damage.

We have been raising funds for his rescue and will be attending the auction to get him. He has been secured a home in the Red Dog Farm Animal Rescue Network, and we plan to get him there.

Read more about Bubba, the rescue mission, and our plans to seek change in the state laws in my guest post on the Vegan Publishers blog: http://www.veganpublishers.com/a-rescue-mission-for-bubba-the-ram-justin-van-kleeck/.

I will post more about the rescue mission’s results after the auction.

“In My Own Light”: Samuel Hartman of Anagnorisis on Veganism and Black Metal

Photo: Starla Hale.
Photo: Starla Hale

By Justin Van Kleeck

Loud music has been a part of my life for over twenty years. I have been (metaphorically) praising Satan much, much longer than I have been praising seitan as a vegan. Over the years, since going vegan in 1999, death and black metal and veganism have been huge parts of my life, and integral components of my philosophy and activism in the world.<

All the while, I have noticed the dearth of people with similar interests, finding few metalheads who give the middle finger to animal exploitation…as well as few vegans who want to bang their heads. For example, I did a death/black metal radio show, “Voice of the Grave,” for four years in college, during which time I went vegan. Not only did I never meet another vegan while on the air or at shows, but I never even thought it relevant to discuss on the air.

So I always do a (grim and grumpy) happy dance whenever I discover a fellow vegan who loves it loud. Really, really loud. And dark, preferably black.

One remarkable vegan metalhead is Samuel Hartman, the keyboardist for the black metal band Anagnorisis in Louisville, Kentucky. Besides producing some intensely dark, anti-religious American black metal, Anagnorisis boasts TWO vegans (the other is singer Zachary Kerr). I discovered them through the omnipotent polypus that is Facebook, and their latest album, Beyond All Light, has quickly become one of my favorites. 

Learning about Samuel’s veganism and his efforts as a vegan advocate (thanks to a little Facebook stalking) made me curious to find out a little bit more about his world and his experiences as a passionate vegan…who also listens to and makes some serious black metal. Samuel was kind enough to answer some questions on veganism, black metal, touring, doing advocacy, and much more…

Photo: Kurt Strecker
Photo: Kurt Strecker

How long have you been vegan, and what motivated you to cut animal products out of your life?

I’ve been vegan since 2006–it was actually my new year’s resolution that year – and it was originally motivated by health concerns. I had been hearing about the deleterious effects of red meat consumption, and I had several friends who were vegetarian/vegan that I quietly observed and who definitely had an influence. I went vegetarian for a few months and found it easier than I expected, following it up with full-on veganism soon after.

When did you get into black metal and other extreme metal genres?  And how long have you been playing it as a musician?

Many can relate to the trying times of high school: trying to fit in, worrying about self-image, all the cliques, dealing with serious relationships for the first time, etc. I was also sort of an outsider, and to “fit in” I made a conscious effort to get into metal, even though it’s the most “outsider” genre of them all! In reality, it was partly to impress some of the kids I thought were cool, to get in with them and show some edginess. A couple of those kids are still my friends to this day, and while the origin of our friendship was as cliquish as it comes, my love for metal was born and remained strong.

I found my way, like many kids in the early 2000s, through nu-metal, but because of clothing companies like Blue Grape who deftly included a Relapse Records sticker in their packages, I was able to seek out more “extreme” forms of music. I spent a significant period deeply obsessed with metalcore and stuff like Hatebreed/Throwdown, and then shifted towards black/death metal, which is where my interest really took root.

My interest in black metal started in college when I had a roommate who was able to get me past Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir and expose me to Tsjuder, Profanatica, Horna, and some of the more esoteric names in black metal. With the Internet, Lords of Chaos, and a desire to find “the most extreme” it was a clear path to Norwegian black metal and all its facets. As time went on and I learned more about its anti-Christian ideology, it seemed like a natural fit.

I’ve been playing black metal since 2007, when I joined Anagnorisis. A lot of people don’t know this, but I learned how to the play the piano exclusively to be in Anagnorisis. I had some computer background, which translated into synth programming, but as far as technical ability on the keyboard, that was largely self-taught. My musical background from high school was on the saxophone (alto) which I was very happy to bust out to use on Beyond All Light. Lots of weird notes and John Cage-esque parts!

I have always felt that my veganism ties in well with my interest in black metal–for instance, seeing the problem of humanity and in particular critiquing the human tendency to just follow traditions, social norms, and authority figures blindly. What interconnections do you see between your veganism and your interest in black metal? What about contrasts or conflicts? Do you feel the two interests and lifestyles coexist easily, or is there a war of inner angels and demons going on in your head?

I think it’s interesting to discuss veganism and black metal this day in age because of the popularity of the Vegan Black Metal Chef; do people really get what’s going on there? Do they realize he’s promoting a diet that’s in vast opposition (ideologically and practically) to most Western thinking, while using a style of music that has its history in murder, Satanism, and is largely anti-Christian? I suppose that’s rhetorical, because, no, they don’t. It’s mostly a “gimmick” and fun to watch–I don’t want to demean what he’s doing–but I don’t think people truly understand the value of something like that. It helped put those terms, veganism and black metal, in some mainstream press, and we continue to see veganism grow larger and larger with celebrity influence and health-conscious eaters. Still, I would agree that veganism largely stays as an outlier (a defiance of “social norms and traditions” as you say) in the world of health and food, much less philosophical thought.

As for a more direct relationship between veganism and black metal, I’m not sure that there is one, other than both have vast subcultures that often take pride in being “different.” Black metal has very little of a philanthropic element to it; in fact even writing that makes me chuckle as “misanthropic” is often the word used by every lyricist, band, or copywriter in relation to the genre itself! Veganism is wholly about philanthropy; helping humans be healthier, saving animals, assisting the world and its inhabitants.

Then, of course, there is the issue of pigs’ blood, animal parts, and other such non-vegan entities used by Gorgoroth, Watain, etc. We played with a band in Chicago on our last tour–Luciferum–who used pigs’ heads on stage. Was I offended? Not really–Chicago’s butcher shops are aplenty (The Jungle, anyone?) and the cruelty is not done by simply purchasing these items from them. Of course, the propagation of using animals – any part of them, for any means–as a means and not as in end in and of themselves is inherently speciesist, but that’s not an argument I’m going to get into with a band like that while on tour. There’s been a fair amount of press about Mayhem front-man Attila Cshiar’s thoughts regarding animal usage while he himself is vegetarian, if anyone is interested in researching that further.

I don’t see a conflict between the two ideologies–at least the ideology of black metal that Anagnorisis follows which is to be anti-religious and play aggressive music – and the ideology that animals are not ours to use for entertainment, food, or experimentation. Both are countercultures (in Midwestern America, anyway), both require a certain discipline to believe or follow, and both have deep cultural and historical roots. I’m loyal to both, and enjoy the intersections they have, while casting out any hypocrisy that may arise by choosing my own versions of each philosophy.

Have you experienced many difficulties as a vegan metal musician? For example, flack from other musicians or fans, problems finding grub while on tour, a sense of isolation as a minority within a minority?

Not really–in fact on the last two tour we had two different venues who provided us food, and both had excellent vegan options. For one of the shows pasta and breadsticks were provided with admission, and I had asked the promoter for a vegan option, so I’m pretty sure he just made everything vegan. That means about 150 metalheads ate vegan that night! Amazing stuff.

With Zachary (vocalist) being vegan I definitely don’t feel isolated, but even if I was the only vegan in the band, it wouldn’t be a big deal. I’ve done this long enough and found enough food choices all over the place, from gas stations to Denny’s to small towns, that I can eat and subsist almost anywhere. We usually hit up the good vegan restaurants on tour, and the other guys are pretty open to that sort of thing as long as the food is good. They’ve all become accustomed to our diets and are pretty accommodating, which shows how awesome they are as bandmates and friends.

As a side note, when Austin Lunn (ex-vocalist/guitarist, now does Panopticon) formed the band he was vegan, and over the years we’ve had several vegan members, so that part of Anagnorisis has always been there. Zachary and I are also both straight-edge, along with our guitarist Zak, which honestly presents weirder moments on tour than being vegan. Imagine a metal band showing up to a venue, and three of the dudes don’t drink–at all!–that can be pretty shocking for a lot of people.

You do a lot of vegan advocacy work around Louisville, and you are a vocal vegan advocate on social media as well. What inspires you to speak out as a vegan and to try to make a better world for animals?

Photo: Too Much Rock
Photo: Too Much Rock

The reasons why I’m vegan are three-fold and in my mind, pretty simple: it’s better for one’s health to eat primarily plants, ideally whole food, non-processed plants; it’s better for the animals, and 99% of the slaughter that occurs is cruel, tortuous and unnecessary; it’s better for the planet, and I want to sustain an earth for future generations (also, I plan to live to 150 via Transhumanism).

I became vegan through my own choices about diet, but also because of the subtle, non-judgmental influence of my vegan friends at the time, including Zachary whom I was hanging out with before I moved to Louisville. It’s my aim to inspire others in much the same way, but I don’t believe that living by example is the only way to do vegan outreach. Handing out pamphlets, doing demonstrations, protesting injustice, organizing vegan cook-outs and potlucks, writing letters and sharing on social media, petitions, and even direct action: it allmakes a difference.

Different people are moved by different means, and corporations are moved by profit. Looking at groups like the SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) and Igualidad Animal (in Spain) are prime examples that sometimes, to stop animal cruelty, more “extreme” measures have to be taken. The idea that direct action is so extreme is a farce, because we take direct action every day to stop the suffering of human life. Direct action regarding animals is simply labeled as terroristic because it breaks an arbitrary law created to protect economic profit.

I say all this not to encourage illegal action or to tell people to quietly eat their tofu scramble in the break room, but to emphasize that almost all advocacy is effective to someone, somewhere. The Blackfish documentary has done an amazing job as getting people fired up about the cruelty at SeaWorld. Mercy for Animals’ Tyson investigation gave huge exposure to that issue and factory farms in general. Many cities promote dog and cat rescue which (hopefully) discourage breeding and purchasing. These are all issues under the umbrella of veganism, and it’s important, at the right time, to link them all together. I believe, as the “abolitionist” crowd is fond of yelling, that it’s important to stay “on point” and promote veganism as the end, not “vegetarianism” or “veg-friendly” or whatever. That being said, we all move at different speeds and can work to reduce suffering in our own way. I’ll even quote an Anagnorisis lyric to wrap this up: “On my terms / In my own light.”

What about Anagnorisis? Do you see any influences of veganism on the music, lyrics, images and merchandise, etc.? The music is very dark and atmospheric, with symphonic elements and yet a seriously hard and heavy edge. I am interested to know what your feelings are about this (and the anti-religious message of the band) juxtaposed with one predominant image of veganism as being all warm and fuzzy and involving lots of hugging of animals…

There’s certainly a lot of animal hugging on tour; we all love dogs and were fortunate enough to stay with quite a few on the last round. As far as veganism influencing the merchandise or lyrics, there isn’t much of a connection. It’s not something we talk about on stage or give out in leaflets at the merch table (although we used to pass out Center for Inquiry and Freedom From Religion Foundation brochures, two groups that I wholeheartedly support). Anagnorisis has never been overly political, and message-wise we typically stick to the banner of godlessness.

That being said, we certainly promote freethought and rejection of dogma, which is often the basis for carnism and the tenets of animal consumption that pervade most omnivores. The idea of an “anagnorisis,” or a moment of discovery, can certainly apply to someone who begins to peer under the veil of animal exploitation in this country. A good documentary that exposes this imbalance is The Ghosts In Our Machine, which I highly recommend.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me about your perspective as a vegan in (and making) black metal. Stay brutal, and compassionate!

Thank you, Justin, for all you do for the animals, and for reaching out to me!

I welcome any fans who want to know more about veganism to reach out to me, or check out my blog at www.thenailthatsticksup.com Hail Seitan!

Samuel Hartman
@sam_metal

Feature Article at Our Hen House

After showing up on the Our Hen House podcast last month, I also managed to sneak in (okay, not really) a feature article on how growing up on food stamps has influenced my thinking and activism as a vegan. Check it out!

http://www.ourhenhouse.org/2013/10/from-welfare-to-well-being-how-growing-up-poor-shaped-my-vegan-activism/

Interview on Our Hen House’s Weekly Podcast

I had the privilege to meet Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan of Our Hen House during the most recent Vegan Night Out festivities. While they took local media by storm with a first, and then a second television news interview (one of which was a debate with the Virginia Farm Bureau), I had the chance to chat with them about various and sundry topics…and then to appear on their weekly podcast. Check it out:

http://www.ourhenhouse.org/2013/09/episode-194-the-cows-of-the-rich-eat-the-food-of-the-poor/

Review of On Their Own Terms by Lee Hall


It has been nearly 70 years since Donald Watson and others launched the Vegan Society, proclaiming to the world a radical idea: that humans had no right to use animals in any way, for any reason. Since then, many seminal thinkers and works have argued the case for animal rights. Peter Singer published Animal Liberation nearly 40 years ago, and we have for decades had available the works of theorists such as Tom Regan and Gary Francione. Through their work, and the work of countless “grassroots” activists of many forms, “animal rights” has become a term of general knowledge—though its connotations can vary drastically depending on the speaker and audience!

In recent years, and especially within recent months, people in the animal rights movement have begun to reflect publicly on the movement itself, assessing principles, practices, and future efforts. Of particular import in this reflection is the question of what kind of use of animals is acceptable…or is any use not acceptable at all?

This question has rippled through animal advocacy in all its forms, leading many to wonder if there are not two animal-focused movements (often being referred to as “abolitionist” and “welfarist,” depending on how the question is answered).

Lee Hall’s book On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth tackles this question head on, exploring the real message of animal rights theory and how it should be applied to animals. Through her training as a lawyer and an experienced advocate, Hall looks at the modern animal rights movement and finds some key instances in which it lacks consistency and, as a result, can be counterproductive to its own goals.

It is clear that Hall’s book is (at least primarily) addressed to other animal advocates and would-be advocates. This comes up throughout, be it in her concern to refine the usage of terms, to the proper (consistent) application of rights theory, to how to respond to various issues and campaigns, to workshops on “finding your animal rights theory” (262), to tips for creating effective vegan pamphlets.

Given her intended audience, it makes sense that she asks fundamental questions about how we, as advocates for animals, are working to end completely a millennia-old system of human domination. As Hall puts it, “The deepest and most comprehensive question for our social movement is why and how modern human society has developed through patterns of domination; and the greatest challenge we face is imagining humanity without the master role” (93).

To begin this process of re-imagination, Hall makes a key distinction between domesticated animals and “free-living” (wild) animals. She argues that “rights” are only truly applicable to the latter, because domesticated animals are inextricably tied to human control and dominion; without human interference (husbandry), these animals would not (and could not) even exist, so they can never be liberated from a system of domination (34). As a result, “animal rights” is meaningful as a term (and a movement) only insofar as autonomy is protected or augmented (191). That is, as she emphasizes repeatedly, the true pursuit of rights for free-living animals is granting them the right to be left alone.

In contrast, “Rights for purpose-bred animals would be, according to a sound theory of animal rights, a contradiction in terms” (105), and pushing for reforms of their conditions actually undermines the effort for true abolition from human enslavement. This is because husbandry reforms both perpetuate a system of domination and help corporations to continue getting public support for their commodification of animals for profit, by instilling the false idea that the animals are treated “humanely.”

Addressing, as she does, animal advocates, Hall picks out inconsistencies and theoretical shortcomings of both ends of the animal rights spectrum. On the one end, she criticizes people like Peter Singer who condone “humane” farming based on the idea that the animals do not suffer, since this is both unjust (continuing the use of animals as property) and unsustainable on large scales (because of expense and resource-usage) (62).

Meanwhile, abolitionists arguing for total animal liberation, according to Hall, often fail to recognize adequately the crucial distinction between free-living and domesticated animals, and so do not promote the rights of free-living animals over the abuses suffered by domesticated animals (83). As a result, in her estimation, they can end up drawing too much attention to abuses and conditions in which animals are used, not promoting the rights of free-living animals to be left alone as the best case for social reform.

To bring all of this theoretical discussion “down to Earth,” Hall weaves into her argument many recommendations for how to engage in consistent, effective advocacy for the rights of animals to live autonomously.

One important part of this effort is to combine animal rights with environmental laws. There is dire need for this twofold approach because humans have destroyed so much habitat, making it harder and harder for wild animals truly to live free. Ironically, Hall points out, domesticated animals are inextricably tied to this environmental devastation—be it through their need for pasture and feed, protection from predators, or for other resources (though, of course, the only blame lies squarely with the humans breeding, raising, and consuming them). Thus, the majority of our efforts should be in the promotion and protection of free-living animals and their habitats. These should be our ideals and the focus of legal reforms, Hall claims.

While pursuing rights for free-living animals, the proper response to the conditions of domesticated animals is not attempts at husbandry reforms or stopgap welfare regulations. Instead, advocates must promote a consistent vegan paradigm, which decreases (and ultimately would eliminate) the demand for domesticated animal products and so for animals who, in their very existence, are objects of exploitation. Instead of backing some new reform effort, then, advocates should put their energy into building the ranks of vegans—and building support networks that keep them vegan.

Lee Hall’s On Their Own Terms was a profoundly thought-provoking book for me, coming at a time in which I have wondered whether or not the time has passed for animal advocates of differing philosophies to have a truly meaningful conversation. Hall’s intellectual integrity, and her willingness to stick with her principles to their logical ends no matter how unpalatable to some human readers they may be, is refreshing to say the least—and desperately needed at this moment, when consistency in animal advocacy (and even veganism) cannot be taken for granted.

“Animal rights” for Hall is not so much a matter of laws and regulations, but of the right to be left alone on all levels. I agree with Hall completely on this, though I am not yet convinced that domesticated animals could not benefit from legal protections as part of a clear argument for abolition. Although they are inherently dependent beings, they are still individuals, and focusing too much on their dependency can obscure, to varying degrees, this fact, and the care and respect that we still owe them. I am not sure that the law would not be a useful tool in this aspect of a vegan campaign, though I understand how there is the risk of backfiring, as Hall argues.

The fact that I am asking myself these questions, and grappling with how my own advocacy may or may not further the movement for animal liberation, speaks to the efficacy of Hall’s argument. After all, Hall’s goal in On Their Own Terms is to make us do this sort of self-reflection as we seek to turn theory into practice, philosophy into activism. And her book is valuable for helping us to recognize that in a truly just world, animals would never need to come under the rule of human law in the first place. And that is what a vegan paradigm must aspire to…and never forget.

Image credit: Brent Rostad (own work), via Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons License.

Vegan for the Planet

Vegan For the Planet

Everyone knows that nature is in trouble, and humans are the main culprit. Since at least some of us recognize this truism, we so often hear messages about fighting climate change, followed by recommendations for pretty obvious lifestyle changes: drive less, use CFL bulbs, recycle, turn down our thermostats, buy local foods, and so on. While important, these common recommendations often miss something crucial. No matter what else you do, if you are still eating animal products, then you are having a big—and ultimately unnecessary—impact on the planet in a variety of ways.

Notice I said vegan, not vegetarian. Besides continuing some of the most awful forms of animal exploitation through dairy and eggs, vegetarianism simply is not enough. Not even close. Dairy cows and egg-laying hens create plenty of environmental problems, besides their own serious ethical problems.

We know that transportation and inefficient buildings contribute massive amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. And, unless you watch too much Fox News, you also know that all those greenhouse gases are warming our planet and having many weird, worrisome, and ultimately destructive consequences. But animal agriculture is a huge player in the greenhouse-gas game as well.

A report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization from 2006 laid out some disturbing facts. The report, ominously titled Livestock’s Long Shadow, stated that livestock contributed 18% of total greenhouse gases, putting it above transportation as a net contributor. That 18% of total annual human-caused pollutants consisted of 9% of carbon dioxide, 37% of methane (which is about 20 times as potent as CO2), and 65% of nitrous oxide (which is 300 times as potent as CO2). So that 18% may look pretty benign…but when you break it down, it is kind of terrifying.

I know that these specific numbers can be controversial, so I will not dwell on them…or ask you to be convinced entirely by them. But let me give you a few very real examples of how animal agriculture affects animals, humans, and the planet.

The reasons for the urgency of going vegan to fight climate change are numerous but fall into a few general categories.

In factory farms, which are modern industrial farms with lots of animals generally in confined spaces, animals frequently suffer from respiratory infections and other illnesses due to the poor air quality. Not to mention that the human workers suffer along with them, with approximately 70% of factory-farm workers contracting acute bronchitis.

Just as animal agriculture breeds hot, toxic air, so too does it harm water quality—and quantity. Farmed animals account for as much as half of water used in the U.S., and the Environmental Protection Agency has reported that waste from factory farms pollutes more water sources than any other industries combined. The toxins from animal waste are in part responsible for the dead zone where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, just to name one example.

All those animals worsen the air, worsen and slurp up the water, and also “consume” vast amounts of land. The USDA says that farmed animals use up 80% of agricultural land in this country; worldwide, they take up 30% of the Earth’s surface and 33% of its farmable land. Equally alarming, millions of acres of rainforest are burned to open up pasture for livestock—seven football-fields worth of land every minute. So in order to raise more livestock, we cut down trees and strip away nutrient-dense soil, making the land virtually worthless in short order.

Those billions of animals also have to eat. And eat they do…but in alarming ways. See, in our modern industrial version of husbandry, we feed roughly 70% of the grains grown here (including corn, soy, wheat, and rice) to livestock. Listen to that number again: 70%. Of plant foods that could be eaten by humans. But humans can eat farmed animals, so no need to worry, right? Think again. Animals are horribly inefficient protein sources. For every pound of flesh or secretion, three to ten pounds of grain are fed to farmed animals. So we are practically throwing away tons and tons of perfectly nutritious food. We would do better just to eat the grains ourselves—and send the excess (which there would be lots of) to starving populations around the globe, who are also going to be the biggest losers in the climate-change game. I have heard that the current amount of food grown in the world could feed as many as 10 billion people, if not diverted to farm animals and if we were better about waste.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Sure, industrialized factory farming is bad. I get that. No problem. But I always buy grass-fed beef, and cage-free eggs, so all the animals who give me food are happy and healthy, not eco-terrors.” This sort of thinking is widespread today, especially with the rise of locavorism, the foodie movement, and prominent “humane” animal-farmers, like Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms to name the most famous.

Unfortunately, it is wrong. Yes, animals raised on small-scale family farms have different experiences than those raised in factory farms. But these“humanely raised” animals also still harm the environment in a variety of ways. Most significantly, those grass-fed cattle may be more “natural,” but they also produce around twice as much greenhouse gas as their grain-fed counterparts and require much more land. And just because an animal product is local does not make it better for the environment. Because the production of animal foods, not their transportation, consumes the most fossil fuels and creates the most greenhouse gases, you do better for the environment by going vegan than by eating a 100-mile (or less) diet. And, of course, these “happy” farmed animals still suffer from most of the same practices you find on factory farms.

The saddest part of all is that this comes down to human choice. We are not, whatever Dr. Atkins and Paula Deen and the time-travelers from the Paleolithic Era might have told you, required to eat meat or any other animal product. Not a one. Millions of years of evolution left us as omnivores, not obligate carnivores. We can live perfectly healthy, happy, active lives without ever consuming a single ounce of animal protein. People have been doing it for years. I have been vegan for over 14 years, and I am a newbie compared to some other prominent vegans, who did it before the movement became a trend and before you could find vegan-friendly foods in your local grocery store. You can choose what you eat. Yes, you can.

And if you really care about the Earth, you must. You can bike, you can recycle, you can light up your life with CFLs, but unless you go vegan you are not doing enough.

Not only is it about the statistics, and the data, and the science. Those are readily available and overwhelmingly damning of animal agriculture. But it is also about the vision and model that we who care about the planet want to set for our global society, and for our local community as well. I believe that we humans cannot be stewards or saviors, but instead must recognize our place with all the other creatures in the biosphere. We must recognize and celebrate our interconnections and interdependencies, not try to master nature with our technologies and our hubris. That, as our wisest myths and stories tell us, is always a recipe for disaster. And the Earth is showing it to us right now.

Suggested Reading

– Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow: http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM.
– Humane Society of the United States, Farm Animal Protection documents: http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/campaigns/factory_farming/.
– Farm Sanctuary, Factory Farming documents: http://farmsanctuary.org/issues/factoryfarming/.

– James E. McWilliams, “The Myth of Sustainable Meat”: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/13/opinion/the-myth-of-sustainable-meat.html?ref=opinion. (Also see his blog, http://eatingplantsdotorg.wordpress.com/.)