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The oral history of Crack Magazine

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For 10 years, we’ve helped artists share their stories.

To mark 100 issues, here we reflect on our own. Tracing our journey from a bedroom in Bristol to this milestone, staff members past and present reflect on the luck, grind and chaos that got us this far. Help us keep going, become a Crack Magazine Supporter today.

Jake Applebee (Co-founder and Executive Editor): It all began after the 2008 economic crash. Me and Tom were best mates from school, and after finishing university we came back to Bristol looking for work.

Thomas Frost (Co-founder and Executive Editor): I’d lost my job working for a PR company – a guy who had this wacky idea to rival Facebook. There wasn’t really any other work available because of the crash. It was quite a bleak time to be honest.

Jake Applebee: I was living with my dad, waiting tables in the evenings. I’d put together a magazine at uni so was fairly competent at getting something through to production and Tom’s a great writer, so we decided to make a magazine. It probably couldn’t have happened in any other city. We got together £200 of our own money for a demo print run, did some interviews and went round trying to sell advertising for a magazine that didn’t exist.

Thomas Frost: It was a case of wandering round with a hitlist, cold calling, trying to sell advertising on the spot. It was horrible. But luckily enough people bought into our vision. If you look at the advertisers in the first issue it’s a crazy hotchpotch of tattoo parlours, clothing stores, the odd club, a tearoom.

Jake Applebee: The first year we were in my bedroom, distributing it out of the back of my dad’s car. We worked maybe a few months in advance, and for the first two years we couldn’t pay ourselves as there wasn’t any money from the mag. Everything went back into increasing the print run or trying to grow.

Geraint Davies (former Editor): I went with my girlfriend to her university’s freshman fair, and at some point was handed a free paper. That night I read it front to back. I know this sounds corny but I said to my girlfriend, ‘I’m going to work for this magazine one day.’

When my six months of writing at a ‘lifestyle magazine’ were up, I dug out my collection of three Crack Magazines and sent them an email. Tom replied and offered me an unpaid internship. At that point it was me, Tom and Jake in a tiny little room at the top of a complex of offices in Bristol. They only had two chairs so I had to work on the sofa for the first few weeks.

Luke Sutton (Director): When I picked up the magazine I noticed how it fused DJ culture with guitar music, pop and other music I was really into, and felt no one was really doing that. I reached out inviting them to come to my club night, and a couple of months later I was up in that room selling advertising space in the magazine. Soon after I started we decided to go monthly and launch in London at the same time. Looking back, it was quite an ambitious move.

Geraint Davies: Other than looking enviously across at The Stool Pigeon, I think we felt fairly singular. We’d established a reputation from our scruffy Bristol roots, and I think people liked that – we had a voice and a clear visual aesthetic, and we were confident with our identity. No one else was throwing together the range of music we were, and it felt like we were making a magazine fans of new music would be compelled to pick up.

Jake Applebee: We had my dad’s phone number as our contact details in the editorial page in our first issue. I got a voicemail from this guy saying ‘Oh, it’s Geoff from Invada Records.’ He didn’t say he was Geoff Barrow from Portishead, he was just like, ‘I run Invada Records, wondered if you fancied having a coffee, to chat about music and stuff.’

Thomas Frost: The kind of artists we could get on the cover is off the back of our relationship with Geoff. When he offered us an exclusive Portishead interview for the cover we were just like, ‘Woah, we’re not turning that down.’

Jake Applebee: After that, we gave Grimes her first UK cover around the time we launched in London. We did the first UK cover for Jessie Ware, and we had DJ Harvey and Flying Lotus all in the space of about six months, so I think we were taking it a bit more seriously then.

Luke Sutton: After starting in London, we struck up a relationship with The Nest, a club in Dalston, and did monthly parties. I remember booking DJ EZ for a few hundred quid for this Crack Pure Garage night we did, complete with a ridiculous poster modeled on the original CD artwork. We had Spinn and Rashad play, Julio Bashmore did an all-night thing. Some really great artists played those parties.

“We established a reputation from our scruffy Bristol roots”

From top left (clockwise):
Portishead, Issue 12 © Charles Emerson
MF Doom, Issue 39 © Elliott Kennedy
Slayer, Issue 55 © Elliott Kennedy
Jeff Mills, Issue 57 © Henry Gorse

Davy Reed (former Editor): After graduating from university in 2011, I was really keen to get on board. I had a bit of bad luck after uni – I’d been fired from this frozen yoghurt parlour on my first day of work, so was in this weird mood and decided to cold call at the office. I was like ‘Hi, I’d like to write for Crack Magazine’ and they buzzed me in. So it all started like that. A few years down the line in my first Editor’s letter I told this story and we started getting people at the door with their CVs. People were like, ‘Shit, it’s well easy to get a job at Crack, you just buzz on the door and they think it’s really cool.’

Jake Applebee: After Davy, Alfie [Allen, former Creative Director] joined. He had the time and attention I never had to really push the magazine forward visually, and that transformed us professionally. Alfie was a character around Bristol. I remember him coming to parties at The Nest and chewing our ears off about how we should give him a chance. We got him in for a month, he made a good impression and stayed there for a few years.

Alfie Allen (former Creative Director): Back then you would get asked to play out of position all the time doing various menial tasks whether they were design related or not but no-one cared – we all lived and breathed the mag and just blindly trusted that the magazine would succeed.

Anna Tehabsim (Editor): The magazine was our baby – everyone was dedicating themselves to it and it didn’t feel like a job. I was lucky to slip in when I did. I can’t imagine many other publications letting their intern write a cover story on The Knife, but that was the first big thing I did for the magazine. A lot of us were young when we joined. I was 21 when I started as an intern, and was 26 when I became Editor. To some extent we’ve all grown up together.

Davy Reed: Me and Alfie lived together and worked crazy late nights. One time I remember sending a mag to print and literally seeing the sun come up in the office, on a deadline. Or we’d be there ’til 11pm, then go home and sit in the kitchen talking about the mag ’til a ridiculous time in the morning. We invested so much.

When Geraint was the Editor, he set the tone for a long time. He keeps it real – a really honest, passionate music fan who’s super down to earth. At the time there was this image of journalism and media as this intimidating London hipster culture, but Crack wasn’t like that at all. I think people respected the fact it was a Bristol thing first before branching out.

Luke Sutton: One significant thing for me was Simple Things Festival in Bristol. In 2013 we got asked to help programme the line-up and offer our curatorial skills, and as I’d been booking all the Crack events at the time I worked on it as a booker. It was quite nice to be let loose on a bit of programming. I managed to get the team to let me book Nicolas Jaar at Colston Hall for a silly amount of money. Making that happen was one of my proudest moments.

Jake Applebee: It was a good opportunity for us to be the face of what Crack represents musically. To do a festival for 5,000 people coming from all over the country was definitely a huge step up for us. The year afterwards we invested in a pub in Bristol – The Christmas Steps – which became a hub for people associated with the magazine.

Davy Reed: I remember 2014 being a pivotal time. When Alfie joined, our photography put us above all the other free publications in terms of how polished, interesting and left-field it was.

Alfie Allen: I always wanted it to be a music magazine that looks like a fashion magazine. One of my first cover shoots was at a Slayer press day. They were confused because all the other magazines had guitar sponsorships for the cover but we didn’t want them to pose with a guitar. Instead, our photographer Elliot Kennedy got Tom Araya to scream in his face – it was so sick. Jeff Mills came round to my mum’s house for a shoot once. And can I add: I would love the photographer who stood me up for cover shots of Pixies on one of my first issues as Art Director to read this so he knows I have never forgiven him.

“The magazine was our baby”

From top left (clockwise):
Blood Orange, Issue 66 © Emmanuel Olunkwa
Björk, Issue 68 © Santiago Felipe
Fever Ray, Issue 85 © Ninja Hanna
Aphex Twin, Issue 94 © Weirdcore

Davy Reed: There are a few dream cover stars we’ve chiselled away at with persistent email requests. I think Tom had been trying to get Ricardo Villalobos on the cover for five years. MF Doom was one of those. We were told that Doom doesn’t really do press but that he’s recording an album in London. So me and Jake were on distribution in London, hanging around at this studio for ages. Doom came into the room not wearing the mask so there’s a couple of seconds where I wasn’t 100 percent sure who he was, but then you see the big belly and hear his voice. Getting out of that studio with photos and an interview in the bag was honestly one of the biggest buzzes of my life.

We did that cover in 2014 and it was huge. Then FKA twigs had her album campaign and did Dazed, the Guardian and us. We also did our first stage at Field Day with Danny Brown headlining. Before then, I’d definitely seen the Crack logo beaming onto empty dancefloors a couple of times.

Anna Tehabsim: When Helena Hauff played her cover launch in Berlin in 2017, she smashed through hours of psych and punk records, Queens of the Stone Age, Funkadelic, and it was a nice reflection of what we’ve tried to build with our editorial approach. We’ve had fun clashing covers across the years; artists from different worlds who somehow have a shared sense of purpose. And it’s allowed us to be quite unpredictable. Because we’re small and independent we’ve been able to take risks. Like Fever Ray wearing a ball gag on her cover, I’m pretty sure we got complaints for obscenity.

Dean Blunt & GAIKA, Issue 71 © Joshua Gordon

Louise Brailey (Head of Digital): Fever Ray’s infamous ball gag earned us a 24-hour ban from Facebook, which was disconcerting. We eventually circumvented the censors by pixellating the image. Website traffic spiked after that.

Davy Reed: The cover I’m proudest of was Dean Blunt and GAIKA. Dean Blunt doesn’t really do any press. Our only contact was his booking agent, who said, ‘Just book a studio where we can smoke. I’m gunna record this on my phone and send it to you via WeTransfer, you guys transcribe it and I’ll run it past Dean just to make sure there’s no censorship.’ That was extremely nerve-wracking – waiting for Dean Blunt who allegedly had our cover story on his phone. Eventually I got the audio and it was the most amazing, strange, dark conversation ever. I can’t think of any other publication who would publish that cover story – to be dropping this really thought-provoking, risky cover story in cafés across the country.

Duncan Harrison (Creative Projects Manager): I think our recent Aphex Twin cover was the epitome of what makes Crack great. As soon as we knew he was going to do it we were thinking about the craziest stuff we could do. How can we make this as memorable, but also as accessible as possible? While we report on niche music and underground sounds this isn’t a niche pursuit – we want people to see what we do and enjoy it.

Anna Tehabsim: It’s been cute but it’s also messy as fuck. Obviously we’re professional but behind the scenes, under a lot of our biggest moments has been pure chaos. Oh, and the distribution…

Thomas Frost: Unfortunately for all the staff who distribute the magazine I attribute a good percentage of the mag’s success to the self distribution model.

Jake Applebee: We’d rock up in a white van in central London, drop magazines into stockists, then rub the ink off our fingers and try to quickly squeeze in a meeting halfway through.

Thomas Frost: Distribution is an evolving beast. The London distribution run has been refined…

Jake Applebee: …It’s a work of art.

Thomas Frost: When me and Alfie, or me and Duncan get in a van and do London it’s like poetry.

“Every month’s distribution is genuinely hellish”

Issue 59 distribution © Will Dohrn

Duncan Harrison: I remember Tom once saying that he’d shown our London route to a professional courier and they said the amount we try and do in a day was completely insane. Every month’s distribution is genuinely hellish, but we’re an independent magazine and I love telling people this is what we do. Every time I’m at the pub the night before I’m like, ‘Yeah, you know we actually do our own distribution, ’cause it saves us so much money and that’s how real we are!’ But then when I’m in the van and it’s 9pm and we’re in the Blackwall Tunnel I literally just want to buy a suit and get a proper job.

Luke Sutton: You could write a whole article on distribution stories, to be honest. I almost ran someone over in Covent Garden before, and basically had a panic attack behind the wheel because I thought I crushed his leg under tonnes of magazines. He was fine. I was not fine, but he was fine, which is all that matters really.

Duncan Harrison: There’s never been a moment where there was outside investment or a massive turning point. You just keep working, keep pushing. Distribution is definitely a handy metaphor for the perseverance that’s required.

Drag Queens / Berlin / Post-Drag © Vitali Gelwich
The divine queer secrets of Berlin’s post-drag sisterhood, Issue 88 © Vitali Gelwich
“A music magazine that looks like a fashion magazine”

Duncan Harrison: For a long time it felt like the online presence was purely there to promote the printed magazine but it doesn’t feel that way anymore. When Louise joined we found a voice and a rhythm that felt reflective of the print edition but distinct from it. Our online audience already know quite a lot about what they like so our job is to find interesting details and show them things they might not have seen yet. We’re the ‘wider reading’ department.

Louise Brailey: Crack is just non-stop in-jokes – there should be a whole glossary for the amount of in-joking that goes on. To come into a space where human connection and the old fashioned notion of ideas being exchanged is really exciting. That sums up Crack, this sense of alchemy. A sense of strange haphazard chance. People with different interests, different strengths – it just somehow works. And we’ve always been very careful to give our platform to voices and perspectives that other platforms maybe haven’t in the past, and it’s a point I’m quite proud of.

Anna Tehabsim: We’re passionate about making the magazine feel like it’s part of a wider conversation. If you look back at the magazine’s lifespan, politics has been in a downward spiral. So platforming the people trying to be a vibrant presence or voice or represent resistance in some way in this landscape is something we’ve always strived to do.

Davy Reed: Around 2016, with the EU referendum and Trump, there was a point where we were like, we don’t necessarily want to shove politics down people’s throats, but actually it’s really important – with the rise of intolerant attitudes – to try and fan the flames of a more compassionate culture. That has been the backdrop.

Anna Tehabsim: In the process of compiling the 100th issue, the landscape of the media industry has been really bleak. This year so far Buzzfeed laid off 250 staff, VICE laid off 200, people are losing their jobs elsewhere and more magazines are scrapping their print runs. It’s painful to watch the industry keep taking hits. It reminds us that we’re lucky to have been creating this print magazine in this landscape, and to make it work for 100 issues in whatever way we can.

Ade Udoma (Art Director): Crack Magazine’s power is that it very much feels like a family, it doesn’t feel corporate and we can express ourselves freely. The magazine has such an authentically independent story which is rare in these mass media times.

Michelle Helena Janssen (Art Director): For us it’s important to build on this post 100; covering more cultures and stories from around the world that deserve to be told in an honest, uncompromised way.

“Better than it has any business being”

Behind the scenes with Omar Souleyman, Issue 78 © Javier Castán

Jake Applebee: We’ve never had outside investment. Everything we did we invested back into the magazine, either by increasing wages, employing more staff or putting out new editions in different cities. So, we’ve always just done it as and when within our means, as we’ve grown. It’s a surreal feeling to be reaching 100 issues, launching our first edition in New York, and having one of my favourite ever artists on the cover. It feels too poetic to me, I can’t shake the feeling we’re living in an AI simulation.

Thomas Frost: We’re essentially a small independent publishing house now – we create all kinds of products for all kinds of clients. We were being told at the start that print was a dying art form, it was dead. But it’s always been the physical copy first for us.

Geraint Davies: When I left, I left what I knew was the best job anyone could ever have. I’ve been utterly in awe of what they’ve achieved since – they’re making the magazine I daydreamed about when I first got that intern job in the scruffy three-man office.

Duncan Harrison: The most impressive thing is that there’s still a printed magazine that goes out every month and we’re not all completely broke. What makes me think that Crack’s succeeded, cheesy as it sounds, is the team. Everyone is doing absolutely everything they can to make it as good as it can possibly be. For me, that’s the defining experience of working at Crack: work as hard as you possibly can for this thing to be better and bigger than it has any right being.

Louise Brailey: We’re closer to our work, somehow. It’s an edifying feeling to take a swing at something and pull it off. If we were a larger team that sense of ownership would probably be a little more diffuse, which would certainly lead to less stress, but it wouldn’t nearly be as much fun.

Interviews by Oli Warwick
Compiled by Anna Tehabsim and Graeme Bateman

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