a few words with with Malcolm Johnson - by Jennifer Dart
Q&A with Malcolm Johnson, who along with Jeremy Koreski are behind SBC Surf magazine, Canadaís first national surf publication. The magazine should be on newsstands by April 11 in B.C. and will be published twice yearly.
JD: What's your role in the new SBC Surf magazine and when will it come out?
MJ: Iím editing it, and itíll be out on the West Coast on April 11th, if not before then. There are a few early copies floating around, but thatís the main date for B.C. I think itíll be out in the East a bit earlier.
JD: Why is the time ripe for a Canadian surfing magazine?
MJ: I know SBC had been thinking about doing it for a few years, and it got to the point where they felt that there was enough support and enough quality content coming out of Canada to justify doing it. And for me, I think, it was the aspect of being able to work on a Canadian publication thatís designed to be relevant to the surf community here, not something thatís designed for consumption elsewhere. There are so many talented people in surfing in this country now Ė surfers and artists and writers Ė that it feels really good be able to do something that presents what they do in a professional and positive light. I think Mike Stupka and Alex MacWilliam do it really well with Drop Magazine, and the websites do it really well too; so weíre doing the same, but on a national level. I wasnít sure about it initially Ė Jeremy and I started talking to SBC about a year and a half ago Ė but the more we talked to them, the more we realized that they were really committed to doing it right, and to doing it in a respectful way and for the right reasons. That was an important thing to us. Thereís been so much growth in surfing here Ė some of it organic, and some of it as a consequence of shops and schools and media coverage Ė that we felt it would be really good to have something that would give surfers here a uniquely Canadian voice. So all along weíve been really committed to having it as democratic and balanced as possible, and hopefully itíll be even more so into the future. Itís going to be published twice a year, and I think people are going to be genuinely impressed by the level of photography and writing that we have. I want it to be a useful resource, and itís definitely a neat thing for people to be able to see whatís going on in different areas of the country. Canadaís so big that we have these isolated pockets of surfers that donít mix much.
JD: Who did you work with on the mag?
MJ: Well, it was myself and Jeremy Koreski, whoís the senior photographer. We collaborated on a lot of the decisions and editing. And neither of us had done any sort of editorial work before, so we got lots of guidance from Steve Jarrett, the publisher of SBC, and Matt Houghton, whoís the editorial director of SBC as well as the editor of Snowboard Canada. The designers were Jeff Middleton and Joe Andrus, who are really cool cats and really good at what they do. Those guys put in a lot of late nights in the last few weeks, and they deserve most of the credit for how good the magazine looks.
JD: Who are some surfers and others from B.C. who are featured or contributed?
MJ: There are tons of people featured, so itís hard to list. But some of the contributors from here were Peter Devries, Kate MacLennan, Dan Lewis, Derek Heidt, Ashley Hamilton, Jordy Hamilton, Jonny Jenkins, Stephen Mayor, Scott Serfas, Noah Cohen, Raph Bruhwiler, Asia Dryden, Bryson Robertson, Jack Tieleman, Brooke Finlayson, Clare Morrison and Chris Hodgetts. Working all the contributors was one of the best parts of the process for sure; there are some amazingly talented people in the surf community here, and all of them were a pleasure to work with. And one of the best things for me, as an editor, was being able to give people a chance to get their work out there, you know, give them a forum for their creativity. And in that list there are a bunch of people whoíve never been published before, so thatís a really cool feeling. But one of the things thatís frustrating as an editor, as I found out, was that you end up with all this stuff thatís amazing that you canít run because of page counts. There are things that are hard to let go of, and some of the contributors definitely took us by surprise. Noah was one of those; everyone looks at him as this sort of prototypical surf kid, but heís really smart and really funny, and the piece he gave us about the Beaverfish contest was really good.
JD: Who's your favourite up and coming surfer from Tofino (or Victoria or Nova Scotia)?
MJ: I canít call that. But all the groms now have incredible surfers, both guys and girls, to look up to. I get really stoked seeing kids in the water, because itís just such a healthy thing for them to be doing. And itís pretty humbling how fast they learn; those kids get better every single time they surf, which I donít think really happens when youíre in the second half of your 20s. But my favourite surfers overall are just the everyday people who are in it for the love. Guys who get up in the pitch black at 4:30 in the morning and drive two hours to be on it at first light. There are a few people who are totally unknown whose style I really like. And people who are just really stylish, functional surfers. Jeff Hasse. Mike Stupka. Adam Smallwood. A guy on the south Island who surfs twin fins really well, but I donít know that heíd want his name mentioned. Nico Manos from Halifax has really beautiful pointbreak style. And I like Ralphís style, how heíll sit way out back and wait, and then get one and just stand there and trim.
JD: What's something people from B.C. don't know about surfing or surfers on the East Coast?
MJ: Itís gorgeous there. I think people from B.C., and this isnít just surfers but West Coasters in general, have a pretty deeply ingrained superiority complex. But there are parts of Canada that are just as compelling. And weíre really spoiled as surfers here; out East the dedication level is incredible. Neal Durling has a few good stories about that in his story in the magazine, and Lesley Choyce has some good words about it as well in his book that just came out. Surfing when the wind chill is -25 and thereís ice freezing in your beard is an entirely different level of commitment. Those guys are for real. Scott of the Antarctic kinda stuff. But just like here, though, itís hard to get good surf on the East Coast. The photos, in some ways, are deceptive. You canít just go there and score; you pretty much have to live there, you have to be looking at it every day. And itís definitely different from here culturally. Thereís a really deep sense of history on the East Coast. We went to the pier in Halifax where all the Canadian soldiers sailed off to Europe in the First and Second World Wars; it was this really bleak, windy November day, and there was a really heavy feeling there. All these 18-year-old Canadian kids that never came back. Things like that keep your perspective in check for sure.
JD: Where's the most unlikely place in Canada that you encountered a surf scene?
MJ: Montreal was a trip for sure. I was there last summer, not on a surf-related trip at all, but I was in northern Quebec for two weeks and then hung out in Montreal for a few days before I came back home. I went to one of the river waves on what ended up being a really stormy day; it was thundering not too far away, with bolt lightning coming out of these really threatening-looking black clouds, but the guys there didnít seem bothered at all, they were all out there anyway despite the potential for electrocution. It was a really cool vibe in Montreal. Really friendly, really stoked surfers. And the river is far more powerful than you expect. You look at the pictures and the standing waves look like pretty crumbly head-high waves at the beach, but itís not like that at all. Thereís a huge amount of water moving around, and everythingís backwards from the ocean; itís trying to pull you back and out of the wave instead of pushing you forward. Another unlikely place was this little town on the north shore of Superior the last time I drove out West. I think I told this story in the Westerly, but we stopped at a little cafť that had a painting of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. So you have this typical scene of a stormy lake and a ship in trouble, you know, the typical oil-paint angry seas, but one of the waves was an absolutely perfect A-frame. It was a really strange painting, thrift-store kinda art, like the Miguel Calderon paintings in the Royal Tenenbaums. But whoever did it was a surfer for sure. You wouldnít paint that kind of wave unless you were a surfer.
JD: Favourite recent surf travel destination?
MJ: Morocco was incredible. You see things there that are just stupefying. Some of the most beautiful waves Iíve ever seen in my life. A lot of strangeness as well, a lot of weird First World to Third World contrasts. Expensive cars with tinted windows blowing by men plowing their fields with mules. Nomadic goatherds and Moroccan pro surfers. Islamic women in full veils and girls tanning in bikinis on the rocks. Itís a crazy place, and the surf is incredible. Iím going back for sure.
JD: Whatís the craziest moment you had when you were in Morocco?
MJ: Thereís one day that I talk about in the magazine that was pretty nuts, and the thing I left out was that evening, before we left, we had to buy our way out of a walled market. We were the only white people there out of thousands of people, kinda like the Vancouver Flea Market but way, way gnarlier. Jer has some incredible photos from it that we unfortunately didnít have room to run. The kind of place where we couldíve just disappeared, I think, and nobody wouldíve said a word.
JD: What's your favourite photo that will appear in the first issue?
MJ: Wow. Thatís a tough call. The shot we used as the contents spread is one of my favourites, this orange-lit Todd McLean shot from the East Coast. Yazzy has a bunch of really beautiful ones, and one that David Puíu gave us from Nova Scotia that weíre running with an excerpt from Lesley Choyceís book. Thereís a full page shot of Raph thatís pretty stunning. Asia has a photo that I really like, and Jerís spread of Peter in the photo gallery is one of my favourites for sure. Itís so hard to say though; I think the most common response weíve had so far is how good the photography is. But Canada is just such a ridiculously beautiful place that itís not surprising how good the imagery is. The waves and the backdrops are incredible. But, again, you canít just go to the beach and take photos, because good conditions are so hard to get here. Those guys shoot hundreds of photos for one keeper. But still, photo editing was one of the hardest parts of putting the magazine together, because we had way too much to choose from.
JD: Will you be covering female surfers?
MJ: Absolutely. We ran a profile of the artist Sarah Young in this issue, and we had some really good contributions from female surfers. Thereíll be two major stories covering womenís surfing in the second issue. Girls and women are a big part of the community here, and we definitely want to represent everyone. And we want to be as relevant to everyone as we can. That was another balancing act putting the magazine together; the surf community is so diverse here that youíre trying to pull together stuff that will be relevant to everyone from kids in elementary school to retired guys whoíve been surfing for five decades. Hopefully we pulled it off.
JD: What do you hope this mag will do for surfing in Canada?
MJ: Well, before we worked on it I had a bunch of good conversations with people whose opinions I really respect. And one comment I got was that, because of the growth thatís happened in the last decade or so, surf culture here was becoming overwhelmed by the sort of global push of surf culture, and it was losing its unique identity within Canada. And thatís probably partly a result of the larger realities of the world Ė everythingís so interconnected, and people travel more, and thereís more international surf media available here, and the Internet as well has had a huge social effect. But I think that what we have in Canada is really valuable and really unique, so I really want the magazine to have a role in preserving the identity of Canadian surf culture. As our own thing, not as something thatís measured against the States or Australia. And I want it to be something, editorially, that promotes respect. Respect for the sea and the land, respect for other surfers, respect for the history and tradition of surfing here, respect for the rules and the codes of conduct of the lineup. As far as I can see growth is inevitable, and itíll continue as long as our economy stays healthy, so I want to do what I can to push the growth in a direction thatís positive, and in a direction thatís sustainable for the communities where people are surfing in Canada. Thatís the biggest thing for me. And to encourage people to think about whatís going on, as well as encouraging people to develop their talents, whether itís surfing or shooting or writing. But in the end, itís a surf magazine. So if people read it and enjoy it and find it inspiring, thatís all that matters. If kids cut out the pictures and tape them to the fridge, Iíll be happy.
JD: What do you have to say to naysayers (who might think this kind of exposure will be overkill...)?
MJ: I think Iíve learned that whatever you do, there will be people who have an opinion. And surfers especially are difficult to satisfy, because the sport becomes such an intensely personal thing. And thereís absolutely nothing wrong with that. But the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive Ė surprisingly so from a few people who I expected to be really critical and really skeptical. It comes down to the fact that surfers love surfing, and youíd have to be one the most negative, self-centered people on Earth to want absolutely nobody else to surf. And the vast majority of people simply arenít like that. Surfers, obviously, know how beautiful and captivating and just plain damn fun it is go surfing, and theyíre fine with other people doing it. The majority of frustrations that have boiled up have been when people have come out into the lineup without a sense of respect and without taking the time to learn about the community and the culture. And in that sense, I think the magazine can be a really positive force by communicating those things to people. The rules of the lineup, and that surfing isnít always a democracy. In another sense, the more people we have placing value on surfing in pristine areas, the more likely those areas are to be protected. And as surfers on the West Coast, keeping the coast as intact as possible is probably the best thing we can give to ourselves and to the world . But as far as naysaying and criticism goes, it keeps you on your toes, I guess. It keeps you aware of what youíre doing, which is certainly a good thing. Other than spots that had contests, weíre not naming any spots in Canada, and the photo captions are about as vague as youíll ever see in a surf magazine. Weíre not telling people where to go, and I think weíve done everything in a really balanced and respectful way. But I remember the surf writer Matt Warshaw, whoís certainly wiser and more accomplished than I am, saying something like ďif you write and you donít upset people now and then youíre probably not doing your job as well as you should be.Ē But itís important, I think, to keep everything in perspective, because at the end of the day itís just surfing. Itís just fun. And itís important to remember that weíre incredibly fortunate to be able to do what we do. Weíre not out there putting our lives on the line so that girls can go to school in Afghanistan. Weíre not working in a field hospital in Africa. Surfingís a beautiful thing, but itís a leisure activity, which makes it fairly minor in the grand scheme of things.
» Jennifer Dart lives in Tofino where she is always trying to improve my surfing and is a staff reporter for Westerly News