Russ Rankin Can’t Unsee What He’s Seen
The lead singer of Good Riddance discusses his path to veganism.
Posted May 21, 2018
“What’s so sinister?
We’re only trying to do what we think is right
By the ones with the shortest sight”
From “Year of the Rat” by Good Riddance
Russ Rankin, perhaps best known as the lead singer of the punk rock band Good Riddance, grew up on a ranch like his father before him. From an early age, Rankin struggled to understand the relation between the sheep he played with and named and the food he ate.
“I grew up on 4 acres of land and we had sheep. We would come up with names for the sheep, my brother and I when we were little. But then a butcher would come every once in a while and there would be less sheep,” Rankin explained. “And then we’d be having lamb for dinner. I asked questions about it a couple of times and got shot down pretty quick – this was when I was really young."
“So, I just went along with it.”
Much of what Rankin observed in terms of treatment of the animals did not strike him as cruel or problematic. “My dad would go out and shear. The way that he did it, he would just stand over them and hold them between his legs and had a shearer that you would have at a barber shop and he would shear. They would struggle and try to get away but they didn’t appear to be in any discomfort,” he said. “They looked really funny afterwards because they had no hair but it would grow back. That part of it – my experience watching that didn’t seem cruel at all.”
But as Rankin realized that these same animals were being killed for food, he struggled to reconcile how his family treated their household pets as compared to their livestock. “We also had a dog and then later on we had cats. I’ve had cats pretty much my whole life and that was one of the biggest disconnects that fell away when I became vegan. I realized that it’s insane to think that if I went to somebody’s house and did some of the things to their family dog that are done to peaceful sentient animals in factory farms – I’d be arrested,” Rankin explained. “And what a double standard we have and what a complete disconnect between the suffering and abuse of animals purely based on whether they’re associated with food or friend.”
More, he started to learn that shaving an animal on a farm may be a different process than animals who are shaved en masse at factory farms. “I have seen undercover video of wool farms. It’s horrific to watch. So, I think it all depends on who’s doing it,” he said.
There were several influences that started Rankin down the path of veganism. “The first time I got the idea of being vegetarian was from a co-worker of mine in a coffee shop I used to work at. She was kind of like a hippy, like a reggae person and we were talking and she recommended that I read this book called Diet for a New America by John Robbins,” he said.
Rankin recalled the profound influence the book had on him. “Reading Diet for a New America was the big deal – it was just page after page of things that I didn’t know and that’s when I really realized that my generation and perhaps more than that had been lied to,” Rankin explained. “We were making really important decisions that affected the planet and our bodies and our spirit based on misinformation, based on lies propagated by the meat and dairy industry.”
Another influence was the music he was listening to – hardcore punk. “I was listening to lots of punk and hardcore music – this is in the late 1980s. And there was such a thing as straight edge which I was at the time. But back then, straight edge and animal rights, those two roads had not intersected yet,” he explained. “I was listening to bands like Youth of Today and the Cro-Mags. And after – through the ‘90s – almost every straight edge band I ever heard had at least one or two songs about animals.”
Kent McClard, who started Ebullition Records also opened Rankin’s eyes to animal rights issues. “There was a magazine at the time called No Answers which was put out by a guy named Kent McClard. I used to read that pretty regularly,” Rankin explained. “And there was a huge article in it one time about animal rights. This happened at the same time when I was reading about animal rights and veganism and why it’s a good idea so this stuff happened all at once. And I decided I wanted to be vegan but I wasn’t quite there yet.”
Gathering this information about the food industry led Rankin to question other information he’d received, such as the prominence of meat and dairy products on the “food pyramid.” “I realized that when I was in school in health class they talked about the food pyramid and that was nothing more than an advertising gimmick and it wasn’t really fact,” Rankin explained. “And I started reading about the waste of resources and the waste of water that goes into the production of meat and dairy, and you don’t realize the dire position our planet was in even then from an ecological standpoint.
“I just couldn’t in good conscience contribute to that.”
For a time, Rankin was vegetarian. “For 2 years I was on and off vegetarian. I was one of those guys who wanted to be vegetarian and then I would slip or I would get lazy and then I’d be vegetarian again for a while. And I got in a pretty good run, towards the summer of 1993, where I was vegetarian for quite a while,” he explained.
Going vegan was something Rankin had considered, as many of the bands he emulated espoused vegan ideals. “I was very influenced to get into animal rights by the bands, Youth of Today and Cro-Mags,” Rankin said. “But also the Hip Hop band called Consolidated. They are a very left political industrial Hip Hop band and they have very powerful thoughts about animal rights.”
It was a conversation with a fellow musician that finally turned him towards veganism. “In the summer of '93 my band was on tour. We were in Seattle and I was hanging out with this guy who I sort of knew who was straight edge,” Rankin recalled. “He was one of those really, really outspoken, in your face vegans. And I spent the afternoon with this guy and he basically broke down all of my reasons for why I wasn’t a full on vegan 24/7. I had no recourse; I had nothing to tell him as to why I wasn’t.
“So I was from that day.”
Upon becoming vegan, Rankin found that the level of acceptance he experienced was directly related to how involved that individual was in the punk rock and hardcore scene. In particular, while his veganism was embraced by members of his band, his family was not so understanding about his choice.
“The degree of push-back that I got was directly related to whichever person it was – their distance from punk and hard core. So I never got any grief from band-mates, from friends who I went to shows with because no one seemed to think twice about it,” Rankin recalled. “But I got push back from my family, like my mother; nothing crazy but just rolling the eyes, the exhausted sigh meaning that it was going to be extra work. Or I’d go out to dinner with her and before I’ve even ordered, she’s told the waiter it’s going to be impossible for him to help us because I’m a vegan – stuff like that. I think it comes from a place of just not being educated and not wanting to take the time."
“I don’t think it comes from ill will.”
The ethos of punk rock – to confront and question – lent itself well to Rankin’s perception of the meat and dairy industry. “The spirit of punk – at least the protest music that drew me to punk when I was younger – was largely rooted in questioning authority and questioning the concentration of wealth and power. There are few lobbies in the United States or the world in general that are more powerful than the meat and dairy lobbies – it’s concentrated wealth and power,” Rankin explained. “They have billions of dollars to keep people consuming and ravaging the planet.”
Rankin feels that animal rights are part of a bigger picture of how punk rock addresses the various social ills of the world. “Punk at its best questions that whole belief system –whether it’s the meat and dairy industry or whether its mass incarceration or violations of civil liberties – whether its institutional racism, homophobia, sexism – it’s just one of the things that punk wanted to peel back and expose,” Rankin said. “Secondly, I think that punk at its best has looked for ways to arrest or reverse the damage that we as humans do to the planet and to each other by asking questions about sexism and ecological sustainability and the value of laws that don’t make any sense.
“So I think it was inevitable that animal rights would be caught up in that.”
Rankin is still taken aback by how little some people in the “real world” think about these broader social issues as compared to the punk rock community. “Now I work in a regular job with a lot of people who aren’t even remotely thinking about animal rights. And it freaks me out because I spent most of my adult life in this little bubble of punk and hardcore where everybody seemed so much more aware of what’s going on and was seeking to increase their awareness and leave a smaller footprint on the planet and make the world better,” Rankin explained. “Even people that I’ve met at punk and hardcore shows who weren’t vegan – they never gave me a hard time, all of them knew why I was doing it and that was the end of that,” he said. “It wasn’t a strange thing. And now, I’m finding that people are like – they can’t believe I’m vegan and they don’t understand.”
Yet despite the social and economic forces that push people towards consuming animal products, Rankin is still optimistic that people can become vegan if they are committed. “It depends on how serious the person is about being vegan. The thing I hear the most is I could never do that,” Rankin described. “And I always tell them, yes you could – you’re just choosing not to today. But you definitely could. And I think that once a person makes the decision to go vegan, it’s probably a decision that didn’t happen in an instant, it probably happened over time and it happened after an accumulation of information that they couldn’t ignore. And then once that happens, a person is going to be compelled to take action.
“Because of what I know about what happens to animals and what the effect on our planet is, I’m going to be vegan. Because I can’t unsee the things I’ve seen. I can’t unlearn the things I’ve learned."
Ultimately, Rankin is pleased with the progress that he’s seen since he’s become vegan. And he likes to remind people of the role that punk and hardcore had in not turning a blind eye to these difficult issues back when few people were listening.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about how much it’s changed since I went vegan. And how this was pre Whole Foods, pre robust population of mom and pop health food stores. This was pre veggie burgers at fast food chains in lots of countries. This was pre soy milk at every Starbucks,” he recalled. “And so, I think that a lot of things have changed in the last 20 plus years and it’s become more accepted. And it’s become much much easier to be a vegan."
“And I think that punk and hardcore music deserves some of the credit for that.”