Behind the scenes at Bearded

by Steve Watson in February 2009
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Thanks to everyone who’s been in touch to let me know what they think to Bearded. All positive comments so far, so it seems to have gone down well.

Yesterday I spoke to Bearded’s editor, Gareth Main, and asked him for a bit more background on the magazine. Our Q&A is posted below, intended as a sort of behind the scenes on making Bearded. I’m planning to do something like this for each new magazine I send out via Stack – is that a good idea? Should I be asking different questions? As always, any thoughts and suggestions very welcome.

Anyway, on with the questions…

One of the things that sets Bearded apart from other music magazines is the illustration – what first led you to use illustration so much, and how do you choose the illustrators?
The actual process of choosing the illustrators and commissioning them lies with the art director, so I’m not really the best person to ask about that. But the reason we started using illustration in the first place is because of the magazines I liked – magazines like Blowback, which had really nice, clean art direction. We want Bearded to be invigorating – we don’t want people to know what to expect. And in the end there are only so many photos of bands standing up against a wall that you can cope with, and that seems to be what every photographer does when they’re presented with an indie band – stand them up against a bit of wall.

So the idea for illustration came really from arts magazines – when I started I wanted to hand pick elements from magazines that I enjoyed back then, and put my own spin on it and put together sort of my perfect magazine. And now we’re attracting people like David Shrigley to do our illustrations for us, so we must be doing something right!

You mentioned Blowback, and you reference Spill in this issue’s editorial letter. What other magazines have led you towards Bearded?

A few really, but Blowback especially – that’s really the main inspiration. But Vice as well, because I did enjoy that alternative way of writing, which was, and I suppose still is quite exciting. But in general it was a lot of free magazines, which is where my inspiration came from originally. I really wanted to make a free magazine myself, which is quite strange because I’ve ended up making a paid-for Bearded, but I think that’s about me learning a few things and the industry changing and advertising obviously being harder to come by these days.

The thing about the free magazines, though, is that they always seemed to have their own ideas, they always seemed to be innovative. Because you’re not at the whims of what people expect, so you don’t need loads of markings on the cover, you don’t need to know what’s in the magazine just by looking at it, and all those sorts of things with free magazines you don’t really have to do. So there’s that aesthetic, and that idea of do what you want and make it look beautiful, and that appeals to me with Bearded. And of course we still want it to look totally different to everything else on the newsstand.

One thing that struck me as different is the coloured paper stock you use. I don’t think I’d seen that in your previous issues?
Yeah that was a new one for this issue. We’ve always had yellow paper for the record reviews, and that’s really because with music magazines I always go straight for the reviews, so I wanted to be able to see where the review pages were without even opening the magazine and that’s something you can do with the coloured paper. But then for this issue the designer said he wanted to experiment more with coloured paper so we’ve now got the blue for the live gigs, so they stand out even more than they did before – that’s where the idea came from, and people seem to have responded to it really well, which wasn’t something I was expecting particularly.

One of the things I wrote in the letter for the Stack delivery is that there’s a different character to the pages on the pink and blue paper at the start. It’s a bit more ‘zine-y’ – is that a deliberate thing?
Bit of both really. Bearded’s all about getting these good writers together and letting them write what they want to write, and almost forming a community with it. So yeah, the magazine does have that DIY aspect to it. I wanted to instil the idea that Bearded is put together with love – it’s not just something that’s made by a big publishing house – I want it to be lovingly put together and written invitingly, and I wanted it to be written by people who really care, so it’s not just another music magazine put together by a bunch of people who want to show off about how intelligent they are and how much more they know about music than you do. It is more about just talking about music. I always said I wanted it to be like two people sitting in a pub having a conversation about what bands they’re into – that’s what I want to get over with the magazine.

The independent ethos is obviously important to you, but there’s still quite a range within that. Animal Collective are pretty well known, but I’ve never heard of Pagan Wanderer Lu – how do you choose the bands that you cover in the magazine?
It’s entirely up to the writers. I wanted to have a wide range of artists in the magazine, so the way I do it is send out all the promos I get in, ask the writers what they’re interested in and start from there. So we get artists in the magazine that I’ve never heard of, artists whose music I don’t personally like, but they’re all people that the writers care about and really want to write about. It comes back to the idea of it being a magazine put together with love and care, and it means we get this great wide range of stuff in there. And that’s partly why we don’t have a rating system on the album reviews, because I don’t want it to be about saying whether something’s really good or really rubbish – I want the writers to be able to just write about what they’ve got in front of them.

Have you written anything in this issue?
I’ve written a couple of things, yeah. I wrote a short feature on Clearlake and did one of the album reviews, but to be honest I try to stay away from it these days. I much prefer getting other people to do the writing and then editing that down. I suppose I started out writing because I wanted write about all this stuff about people doing things that I can’t do, but still with me picking out the bits that weren’t right. You know, whether it’s writing about someone playing music much better than I ever could, or someone playing rugby league much better than I ever could, and I suppose these days I enjoy getting other people to do that bit, and then I edit the stuff they’ve said. I used to write a lot more – the first ever issue was pretty much entirely written by me, but now I let other people do that.

Up until this issue I was the editor but I hadn’t really called myself the editor. I was just listed there in the list of contributors in my alphabetical place, but lots of people have told me I’m stupid for doing that, and I put so much time and effort into it that I have to really say I’m the editor, so I do that now. But that’s really more so that when people want to find out about the magazine they know who they need to talk to, rather than staking my claim to a title. There are lots of other people who’ve worked very hard on this magazine and it’s really all about them.

Can you pick out a favourite feature?
A favourite feature? Erm, I do really like the design of the Asobi Seksu article – I think that looks great. But it’s difficult to pick one feature out of the rest. I really like the Animal Collective article, and then there’s the Pagan Wanderer Lu story – I think that’s really well written. But I’m not sure I can pick a favourite – they’re all great!

It’s interesting you said that your favourite design is the Asobi Seksu story, because it’s not illustrated.

Yeah – when I was going through the magazine with the designer the one thing I said is that it would have been good to have one other illustration, but I think it’s brilliant the way he’s used the photography for that story. It’s really lovely photography and he’s used it really well.

Was that photography provided for you or did you shoot it?
No – we don’t shoot any of our own photography, or at least very little of it. It’s a shame because I’d like to, and we get lots of offers from photographers saying that if we want any pictures taking we should just let them know, but I just don’t have time to commission it really – I don’t have time to set the shoot up and do all that, so we don’t tend to use it. We’re quite demanding of what we get from the labels though, so we make sure that we always end up with good stuff. But yeah, that’s something that we’d like to maybe do in the future.

So in the spirit of things you’d like to do, what do you see in this issue and think, ‘I’d really like to have done that differently’?
Well there are always little niggles, like little design niggles or something, but there’s nothing really that I don’t like. Of course it’s not perfect, and there are things that look different on the page to how they looked on screen, once they’ve been printed and cropped and bound into a magazine. And we used a different printer this time, and they seem to have slightly different ways of doing things, but I’m really really happy. It’s the new issue and the new issue is always my favourite. So to answer your question, I’m afraid I don’t really know.

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