Tony Martins founder of Guerilla Magazine

tony profile
In pretty quick order it will become clear why Tony is an amazing person. He is articulate, creative and authentic. Tony has found within himself a way to express human experience in a profound and relatable way. He started the Guerilla Magazine in 2004 “a quarterly consideration of culture at ground level: the celebrated, the unknown, the historic, and the avant-garde”. There were many moments throughout the interview where I was conscious of the profundity of what he was saying. What makes Tony incredible, in my opinion, is not only what he has done with Guerilla Magazine, but what he has allowed himself to feel. All of us, in some way, run from difficult and uncomfortable emotions, we want to numb pain, but it takes courage to feel the full extent of the good and the bad. Without this willingness to feel there cannot be real art.

Did you start Guerilla Magazine on your own?
Not totally on my own. I am a collaborator. I don’t like doing anything on my own, but I also have high standards. It was definitely an indulgence of what I wanted to do in a magazine.

Was it financially viable to keep Guerilla Magazine going?
Generally speaking it is very difficult to keep a magazine going. It’s expensive. Print was much more expensive than the website. We came close to breaking even a lot of the times with advertising sales but never really got to the point where it was sustainable financially. I keep doing it. I saw it as a hobby and invested some of my own money to keep it going. For a while we had an ad sales rep and that was profitable. On some of the issues we made money.

When did you come to Ottawa?
I got to Ottawa in 2000. I had been a journalist but was getting more into marketing. The journalism bug for me is that I want to do in-depth stories. I enjoyed writing about artists more than any other topic.

Why do you enjoy writing about artists more than any other topic?
The psychological aspect. I am very creative myself and I am involved in different forms of art. Lately I am mostly a musician. I play guitar and write songs. I perform every once in a while. I perform as an alter ego Stoney Martins. A cowboy. A faux cowboy. The music is kind of faux country. You can really connect to somebody in a way that you cannot otherwise, someone that you don’t know, by talking about their art. Sometimes it is very personal content, what’s happened, what motivates them creatively. For me those topics are the most fertile ground to understanding human nature which is ultimately what I am trying to do by talking to artists. You see a lot of humanity by interviewing artists and you can understand the community really well by understanding the artists in the community. I was always very community centric as well. The magazine is called Ottawa culture at ground level which is kind of indication that I was interested in grass roots.

understanding human nature…is ultimately what I am trying to do by talking to artists

How would you describe Ottawa’s vibe?
It is a unique mix because the physical size is not that huge and the population is moderate, we are close to nature but because it is a capital there is this sophistication and national level infrastructure and there is stuff coming through town quite a bit. A town of this size would normally be less interesting.  Compared to Toronto, where I am from, where everything is a line up, everything is a traffic jam, there is just more immediacy to this place. Also for what I wanted to do with Guerilla, not that I choose Ottawa for that, there aren’t that many big egos to deal with. That is a big turn off for me. The most successful artists in Ottawa don’t have egos, they are easy to approach.

When I got here, I had already wanted to write feature stories about artists. I saw so many good candidates to be written about that were not being written about anywhere else. There was almost humility, modesty about it all which in one sense made it accessible and in another sense I was like this needs to be celebrated, examined and talked about beyond its own little circle so for all those reasons I wanted to do the magazine.

Guerilla Magazine is on hiatus?
I tell people it’s on hiatus but I don’t immediately know how that will ever change. It might become permanent hiatus. In March 2014 we did our 10 year anniversary, printed that edition and had a big event. I said from the beginning of all of that that it would be the end unless I could find a different business model to continue it. That would almost certainly necessitate a partner of some kind, a different type of entity instead of it being just me totally in control, totally responsible. I would need to find new energy a new way of doing it, maybe even legally or organizationally and I haven’t found that yet.

And you haven’t found the model yet?
There are all kinds of models but models take people to put them in place

What would you need to put it in place?
People, other than me, willing to do something. There are a lot of people willing to talk about it. I have no shortage of conversations with people who have advice or vague dreams or intentions. I had a lot of conversations where I knew this person wasn’t going to do it. When you look at it is it’s very easy to say that is kind of cool and I would like to be involved but then once I say to you are you willing to do: a, b, c, d, e, f every month for five years or whatever then they quickly lose interest.

I wanted to see if I could make a living out of it but it never quite got there but it certainly had career benefits beyond itself because I became somewhat of a media presence myself. I was interviewed in the media quite a bit which led to opportunities to be on panels and speak. Now teaching is something that I want to do. I got chances to do guest lectures about the magazine at colleges and universities and that opened that door a little bit. The marketing side helped me stay in touch with the creative community of photographers, designers, other writers. I have been self-employed for many years as a freelance writer so there was always a lot of overlap between the magazine and my career, my livelihood, but it was never the livelihood. The website was actually more profitable because I ended up selling lots of advertising on it but never enough to say this is my job. In Ottawa it is very tough to be a creative oriented entrepreneur.

Why is Ottawa tough for creative entrepreneurs?
There is just not enough of a critical mass of people who would support it. There is a small group of people who would be extremely supportive but what they could support collectively would not necessarily make healthy revenue. Sounds pessimistic maybe but that’s my view. Ottawa is a great place for ideas, for creativity, for artistry but not for financial support of it all. Per capita comparative data on the kind of support that artist make whether it be through public grants or sales show that it’s very tough in this city compared to other cities like Calgary. I don’t mean just municipal programs I mean the community.

Why isn’t Ottawa supportive of its artistic community on a larger scale?
Ottawa is not necessarily a boring place but there are large numbers of people who are more interested in civil service, government administration and to a certain extent high tech.  A lot of what goes on in this town is public service and what kind of people do that – they are generally conservative, mild mannered professionals. It isn’t people who are looking for innovative artworks. Culture is pretty low on the list what people in Ottawa spend money on. Whereas if you went to Montreal the cultural spend will be a lot higher on the list. It’s just the fabric of the community. Now people complain about that a lot. I have never complained about that because it is impossible to do anything about and I don’t think I would want to do anything about it in some ways because it also has a lot of positives like nature. The nature makes Ottawa very cool and accessible and inclusive.

Guerilla was successful to the extent that it was able to capture the core which is a small core as compared to other cities. There is a smaller pool of cultural enthusiasts. I could sell advertising pretty well because advertisers knew I had the ear of the ‘culturally motivated consumers’ – that was my phrase when I was selling adds. People who are actually seeking the good stuff to spend their money on culturally. If you can capture that group there is some revenue there. They are also thankful to you for highlight the stories of what’s really good locally and will follow you. I wrote a column about this in Ottawa Magazine whereby we are a lot more interested in following rules than breaking them. Art and culture is usually more about breaking rules or at least threatening to break them [laughs]. We are the capital of Canada, we like things to be in control and predictable, we like big festivals, we don’t like spontaneity, I think these things have loosened up a little bit but generally that is the overall nature of the place. It’s improved a lot.

Is Ottawa changing?
Definitely, since 10 years ago, there is more confidence. Generally there is more entrepreneurship and the music scene particularly is becoming assertive about organizing itself. I used to be more aware of this inferiority complex Ottawa had as a city between Montreal and Toronto, two biggest cultural centres in Canada, making it easy for negative comparisons ‘ We will never be as cool as Montréal or as slick and corporate as Toronto’. That may be true but if that’s on your mind, you are automatically thinking about being defensive almost apologetic. I found a lot of people were bordering on being apologetic when promoting themselves. But that is kind of disappearing. The collective consciousness is becoming more confident through things like Guerilla Magazine. The main stream media is doing a better job profiling local stuff. I see this notion that Ottawa is inferior less and less and when I do it is really weak when it is proposed and I say that person is not really taking a good look.

[Ottawa’s] collective consciousness is becoming more confident through things like Guerilla Magazine.

Tell me about your alter ego Stoney Martins? 
I was always musical but I am not a trained musician. I always wanted to sing but I never had a drive or motivation to make music as art. I started getting more and more into country music, not new country but more traditional forms, people like Lyle Lovett, but that is actually considered pretty cool these days. There is also the new country music that is top 40 which is the opposite of cool but nonetheless. I was getting into country music, I bought a guitar, I started messing around, took some lessons, but I still wasn’t a musician. I wasn’t writing music. And then I went through the worst year of my life. It was almost like something out of a country song where I experienced real grief for the first time. My mother passed away, my marriage ended and even the dog I had raised left town. One of the first songs that I wrote was about these three things happening within 6 months of each other.

You hear about this all the time art being a necessary form of recovery from these traumas. You suffer a great loss, you have to mourn that and express that and a lot of people do that through art. And my immediate and obvious way was to do that through music because I was getting into it anyway. Finally I had motivation to do it for real. I started writing songs. I had a bit of a knack for it and I took this approach of a phony cowboy. I dress up as a cowboy and my music sound little like country music and I wrote the music as if I was a grizzled cowboy crooner. I still perform that way.

tony on guitar

That was like in 2010-11 that I started doing this and there was this blend of comedy and real emotions. It was a theatrical alter ego. I am not a cowboy, I have never been out west for any period of time, I’m from Toronto, but in this day and age anyone can put on a hat and say they are a cowboy. So I had a really fertile period of song writing that was a good match between the hurting and broken-hearted cowboy, it was what I was really experiencing. I became Stoney Martins for real to practice the art of song writing and put out an album, basement recording, got a bunch of friends to help me, got a good reception, and I still play every now and then. I had a band for a while but it is a ton of work. Right now I play with another guy. I want to do it more but I just bought a house in Aylmer, it is a lot of commuting.

Do you have other music projects in mind?
I have a new project on the go, an album that will be called “Tour of Mexico”. The other element to the Stoney personality is that his mindset is still in the early days of the Wild West when everything was more natural, of course everything was being wiped out, but it’s before rampant manufacturing and civilization came and before the buffalo were wiped out in North America. Stoney is a song writer who wants to get back to the innocence of that time. The big allegory for this fall from innocence is what is happening in Mexico with the drug trade and the massive violence. I am kind of fascinated by that. I have written several songs about Mexico. It’s as if I am a cowboy looking back at an earlier period of Mexico that is more beautiful and wholesome. I wrote a song that is kind of a lullaby sung to the scores of Mexican musicians that have been killed by Mexican drug lords for being at a wrong place at a wrong time.

Stoney is lamenting all of this, the globalization movement. Mexico’s plight is representative of the global trade for drugs and there is so much money there combined with so much poverty it’s a perfect storm for violence factoring in Mexico’s love affair with outlaws. Lot of the Mexican traditional folklore is glorifying outlaws and a lot of the music that is popular right now glorifies narcos “narco corridos”; it has become part of their identity to celebrate these gangsters.

How do you feed the creative fire?
Lately it is this massive conflict in Mexico that has incredible duality. I am interested in it intellectually and I am also empathetic towards the people who get caught up in it and get killed. It matches my personal taste and desire. My measure of success or whether I think something is worthwhile is during the writing process if I don’t start to cry I probably don’t have anything good. I am looking for that kind of an emotion to draw me into the process. There is music that affects me emotionally more than any other art form and then there is the human story. Most of the time when I am writing a song that sticks around I get very emotional, sometimes I start to cry when I am putting the song together. Now that I know how to do that. I never knew how to do that before, how to go there before; I now know the ingredients to get to that point. It doesn’t always work.

during the writing process if I don’t start to cry I probably don’t have anything good

How did you learn to bring out the raw emotions in your song writing?
It was the toughest year of my life [laughs]. It’s a cliché but sometimes you have to go through hell to learn how to heal through art. If you don’t face hardship then the motivation might not be there. I look a lot of people that pay lip service and romanticize it. I always instinctively liked art and wanted to do it, wanted to interview you if you were an artists, but I never knew what it took to create, I had never been lucky enough to go through hell. To me that is the artistic process: willingness to be honest with ourselves, to explore the negatives just as much as anything else. In that sense there is a lot more fertile artistic content in their dark sides. I like art that scares me more than anything else. Going deep into the difficult stuff in your life there is an opportunity for growth, for artistic significance.

I always instinctively liked art and wanted to do it…but I never knew what it took to create, I had never been lucky enough to go through hell.

What’s next for you?
You mean after Guerilla Magazine? I don’t want it to be over but I guess realistically it is.  I am going to continue to write music and probably write a book about my dad’s musical career, more of a journalistic project. He is a very successful West Indian musician. He was born in Guyana. He was a musician his whole life, nominated for a Juno, he is highly regarded in Guyana. He had a band called The Tradewinds, mostly calypso, soca, reggae but he also wrote a lot of powerful ballads. He is now over 80 but his band has an incredible history that kind of mirrors my life – the band was born the same year I was in 1966. It has gone through all these changes and remarkable things and no one has really documented that. I thought of doing it 20 years ago when I was living in the Cayman Islands but it wasn’t the right time. Now I am really looking for something in-depth.

I also want to get more into teaching. It can be very creative and fulfilling. I am teaching a course at Algonquin “Creating Hype” which is not an artistic kind of creativity but it is an unusual one  – the ability to hype events with social PR and events marketing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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